Clause 4 - Duty to facilitate building safety: higher-risk buildings

Building Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 16th September 2021.

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Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 2:45 pm, 16th September 2021

I beg to move Government amendment 6, in clause 4, page 3, line 7, at end insert—

“(aa) owners of residential units in such buildings,”

This amendment provides that owners of residential units are “relevant persons” for the purposes of subsection (1) of the clause (duty to provide assistance etc).

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

With this it will be convenient to discuss clause stand part.

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I am grateful for this opportunity to discuss amendment 6, which is a minor and technical amendment that will ensure clause 4 works as intended.

Clause 4 places a duty on the Building Safety Regulator to assist and encourage those responsible for the safe construction and management of high-rise residential and other in scope buildings, as well as residents, to secure the safety of people in or around those buildings. The intention of clause 4 is to ensure that the Building Safety Regulator proactively engages with those with duties around the safety of high-rise residential and other buildings in scope, to encourage them to do the right thing.

The purpose of this amendment is to ensure the list of classes of “relevant persons” that the Building Safety Regulator should encourage is complete. The current list of “relevant persons” includes residents. However, the key duties on residents of high-rise residential buildings at clause 95 of the Bill also apply to owners of residential units, even if they are not resident at the time.

Amendment 6 adds owners of residential units to the list of “relevant persons”, bringing this clause into line with the approach to residents’ duties elsewhere in the Bill. The effect of this amendment is that the Building Safety Regulator will be under a duty to assist and encourage owners of residential units in higher-risk buildings to do the right thing, for example through guidance and communications.

I turn now to clause 4. At the heart of our proposals to transform the building safety environment is the implementation of a more stringent regulatory regime for high-rise residential and other in scope buildings. This new regime will be implemented and enforced by the Building Safety Regulator. The details of the new regulatory regime for high-rise residential and other in-scope buildings will be set out when the Committee deliberates over parts 3 and 4 of the Bill, so I will not detain the Committee on those matters now. These create powerful enforcement tools for the Building Safety Regulator to hold duty holders to account.

However, a good regulator does not rely on enforcing breaches in the law after they have occurred. A good regulator proactively supports and encourages those it regulates to comply. This principle is reflected in the regulator’s code, which highlights that:

“Regulators should provide advice and guidance that is focused on assisting those they regulate to understand and meet their responsibilities.”

To ensure that this best practice approach to regulation is taken by the Building Safety Regulator when regulating the safety of high-rise residential and other in scope buildings, clause 4 places a specific statutory duty on the Building Safety Regulator to take this approach.

Clause 4 places a duty on the Building Safety Regulator to assist and encourage those responsible for the safe construction and management of high-rise residential and other in scope buildings, as well as residents, to secure the safety of people in or around those buildings. It will require the regulator to take proactive steps to enhance the safety of people in high-rise residential and other in-scope buildings. The regulator could fulfil this duty by developing and publishing best-practice guidance, setting up information services to advise duty holders, or running workshops for those responsible for developing and managing such buildings. The regulator could also test materials aimed at residents of such buildings with a residents panel, to help ensure that its communications are well targeted, effective, digestible and understandable. The shadow Building Safety Regulator is already liaising closely with stakeholders and will be releasing a series of guidance documents over the next 18 months to help duty holders understand what is needed of them in order to meet their new duties.

Once the regime is in place, the Building Safety Regulator will encourage, but ultimately will be able to force, duty holders to do the right thing in a proportionate way. Requiring the regulator to take proactive steps to encourage the construction and management of safe high-rise residential and other in-scope buildings is a vital part of creating the culture change we need, to which Committee members have referred. I commend this short clause, and the short amendment to it, to the Committee.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities & Local Government) (Planning)

We do not have an issue with the amendment, because it seems logical to bring leaseholders within the scope of the clause so that it is consistent with other references to leaseholders elsewhere in the Bill, but I will take this opportunity to probe the definition of “resident”. The Minister talks about high-rise—another definition that we will talk about later—residential and other in-scope buildings. Who is a resident? I understand that resident leaseholders, assured shorthold tenants who are leaseholders, and social rent tenants are all obviously residents, but what about residential licensees in other forms of tenancy; guardians; students in student accommodation, particularly if that is their sole home; residents of care homes, for some of whom that is their only home; hotel guests; hospital patients; people renting holiday lets? Those are just the ones I can think of, off the top of my head. Is one a resident if one puts one’s head to sleep overnight in a building, or is there only a limited form of occupancy status in order to fall into scope of the Bill?

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

I will be brief, because I think this clause and the amendment to it are relatively straightforward. The hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth makes an interesting point. I will explain my understanding of how that will work—forgive my ignorance if I get this wrong. For some of the scenarios that she highlighted, such as student accommodation and holiday lets, I imagine that a structure will be in place so that someone above that will manage the building that falls in scope of the clause, but we would also hope that within that there would be a responsible landlord, whoever that might be, who has that relationship and can articulate those messages. I do not disagree with her scepticism about those groups engaging in the way that we would expect them to.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

Absolutely, and the hon. Lady made a really interesting point that allows us to think about how that would operate. We talk quite abstractly about things, and the clause in particular sounds very nice, but when we consider the detail of its operational function, we realise that a lot of people caught by the provision will have someone above them in the ownership chain. How can we ensure that those obligations are met?

Broadly speaking, I agree with the clause. It is absolutely right to ensure proactive engagement between the regulator and the relevant persons. As my right hon. Friend the Minister touched on in his contribution, the regulator should not be there just to slam down when things go wrong; it should be proactive in ensuring that things are done correctly in the first place. I will listen very intently to his response to the hon. Lady’s interesting points. From an operational perspective, it is important to remember that there will be people between those relevant persons, and that the regulator, as it carries out its engagement practices under the clause, will encourage best practice from those people as well.

Photo of Daisy Cooper Daisy Cooper Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.

I always welcome the idea of regulators having proactive powers, and it is good to see that the regulator can provide proactive assistance and encouragement, but how can a regulator provide assistance and encouragement to absent freeholders? That point was raised by the National Housing Federation in evidence. An idea that I mooted then was that it might be possible for a regulator to favour pursuing remediation if a freeholder repeatedly fails to respond to requests. Has the Minister reflected on that suggestion, and does he think that the clause, as it stands, would give the regulator enough powers to deal with the situation of absent freeholders in particular?

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I am grateful to hon. Members for their contributions. With respect to the question from the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth, we have been careful to define in-scope buildings. In-scope buildings are those over 18 metres or seven storeys that contain two or more dwelling places. Other in-scope buildings include, for example, care homes and hospitals that meet the criteria. We have also been careful to draft the clause in such a way that we are confident that student accommodation, for example, as well as the other examples that she gave, are properly covered.

On the suggestion from the hon. Member for St Albans, I am clear that we want the regulator to have the responsibility to encourage, to nudge and to cajole, but ultimately, as I said in my remarks, to enforce good and best practice. I will certainly consider both what she said and the oral evidence from witnesses, but I will certainly not make any commitments until we have thought through how those things can work effectively and what the possible unintended consequences may be. We want the Building Safety Regulator to have a clear and proportionate role that does not have unintended and unforeseen negative consequences for residents. That is quite a broad definition of “residents”, as the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth outlined.

I thank the Committee for its consideration of the clause. In summary, I remind the Committee that the clause places a duty on the regulator to assist and encourage those responsible for the safe construction and management of high-rise residential and other in-scope buildings, as well as residents, to secure the safety of people in or around those buildings. That duty is a vital part of creating the cultural change that we need and that we will see. Amendment 6 is a minor and technical amendment that corrects an omission in the list of “relevant persons” so that we have a fuller and more complete list. I hope that, having heard those final remarks, the Committee will agree both to our technical amendment and to the clause.

Government amendment 6 agreed to.

Clause 4, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.