Clause 13 - Local Authorities and Fire and Rescue Authorities: Assistance Etc To Regulator

Building Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:15 pm on 16th September 2021.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

With this it will be convenient to consider clauses 14 to 16 stand part.

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

First, let me speak to clause 13, the first clause in this grouping. Dame Judith’s independent review recommended that the Health and Safety Executive, local authority building control, and fire and rescue authorities work together to deliver the new regulatory regime for high-rise residential buildings. This clause will support that independent review vision, enabling the Building Safety Regulator to secure support from local authorities and fire and rescue authorities when regulating high-rise residential and other in-scope buildings.

As shadow Building Safety Regulator, the Health and Safety Executive is developing an operational model in which key regulatory decisions on high-rise residential and other in-scope buildings are taken through a multidisciplinary team approach. Those teams will bring together the right specialists to take critical regulatory decisions on high-rise residential and other in-scope buildings, and will typically include staff from local authorities and fire and rescue services. That approach reflects the fact that fire and rescue services have expert fire protection teams, experienced in regulating fire safety issues through the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. Local authority building control teams contain crucial expertise in inspecting and enforcing against building regulations requirements under the Building Act 1984.

Taking that multidisciplinary team approach has three advantages. First, drawing on the expertise in local regulators will be more efficient and effective than a national regulator employing and training all inspectors nationally. Secondly, this approach will avoid the best inspectors in local authorities and in fire and rescue authorities moving to the national inspectorate. Retaining expertise at the local level is critical to ensuring that the full range of buildings are properly regulated locally. Thirdly, the teams will support co-operation and co-ordination. That is crucial when the Building Safety Regulator, local authorities and fire and rescue authorities are all likely to have legal responsibilities in relation to a high-rise residential building. Under its general powers in the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, the Building Safety Regulator will also be able to secure expertise from the private sector, where appropriate, to support the work of the multi-disciplinary team.

The clause sets out the process by which the Building Safety Regulator can secure support from local authorities and fire and rescue authorities, and gives local authorities and fire and rescue authorities the legal powers to provide support. The Government want support to be typically provided through co-operation and agreement. That approach respects the fact that local authorities and fire and rescue authorities are subject to local democratic accountability. The new regulator is also committed to a co-operative approach.

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

It is welcome that elements of local authority building control are being taken out of the competitive relationship in which they find themselves. I think that the head of building control who came to the Committee said that this is the only regulatory regime where there is competition between regulators—between the public and the private sector. Has the Minister done an impact assessment that shows that the fire authorities and local authority building control currently have the capacity to do the work that the Bill requires for buildings over 18 metres?

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

The hon. Lady will know that we have spent a considerable amount of public money as a result of our efforts to recruit more experts and more fire and risk assessors over the past 18 months. We have recruited, and are training, a considerable number of experts to ensure that the resources are sufficient for buildings over a certain height to be properly assessed and, therefore, to be effectively remediated. I am confident that we have done, and will continue to do, the work to support the sector.

The hon. Lady was also right to say that it is sensible that we develop a co-operative rather than a competitive approach. That is what we are trying to do, because it is crucial that when the Building Safety Regulator and local authorities work together they do so sensibly and coherently. As I said, the Government want that support to be typically provided through co-operation and agreement, and the new regulator is committed to a co-operative approach.

The Chief Inspector of Buildings chairs the joint regulators group, which brings together the Local Government Association, the National Fire Chiefs Council and local authority building control. Schedule 3 provides for legal duties for co-operation between the Building Safety Regulator and local authorities and fire and rescue services respectively.

In most cases, the Building Safety Regulator will request support under this clause, and local authorities and fire and rescue authorities will respond positively to such a request. Where an authority has a genuine reason not to provide support on a specific occasion, such as when it needs to focus on a serious public safety risk elsewhere, the Building Safety Regulator would seek to accommodate that.

However, it is essential that this new regulatory regime works to secure the safety of residents of high-rise residential buildings, so there must be a backstop enabling the Building Safety Regulator to get the support it needs if all attempts at persuasion are insufficient. Therefore, the clause includes a power to direct local authorities and fire and rescue authorities to provide support. The power to direct is intended to be used only as a last resort—I must stress that to the Committee—so there are significant safeguards to ensure that it is not used lightly.

The power to direct can be used only following a written request from the Building Safety Regulator. The authority must have the opportunity to give reasons why it should not be required to provide assistance, and the Building Safety Regulator must consider any reasons given by the authority not to provide support. Crucially, the Secretary of State has to give consent to any direction.

Finally, I want to reassure the Committee that we will turn to funding arrangements when we consider clause 15. The Government intend that local authorities and fire and rescue authorities will be properly funded for their work in supporting the Building Safety Regulator. Clause 13 is crucial to ensuring that the regulator can call on the expertise it needs to regulate high-rise residential and other in-scope buildings.

On clause 14, the Government intend that the Bill should enable the Building Safety Regulator to work closely with other regulatory experts, bringing together the right specialists to regulate high-rise residential and other in-scope buildings. We have just considered clause 13, and we may consider it a little more in a moment, with other members of the Committee contributing. As I have said, it enables the Building Safety Regulator to secure support from local authorities and fire and rescue services.

The Crown application of the new regime, as set out in clause 141, is, in summary, a more stringent regulatory regime in occupation for high-rise residential buildings and will apply to buildings owned or managed by the Crown, with appropriate modifications. Where the Building Safety Regulator is regulating high-rise residential buildings owned or managed by the Crown, it is appropriate that the Building Safety Regulator can call on the support of inspectors authorised to enforce the fire safety order specifically for these Crown premises. Therefore, clause 15 allows the Building Safety Regulator to request support from inspectors in the Crown premises fire safety inspectorate and to give those inspectors the appropriate legal powers to provide support. So, they are covered, too.

We expect those requested to support the work of the Building Safety Regulator to form part of a multidisciplinary team looking at crucial regulatory decisions, such as assessing the safety case for a high-rise residential building. The clause is intended to ensure that the Building Safety Regulator can bring together the right experts when regulating Crown premises, as opposed to other premises, and is an important addition to the Bill with regard to the work of the Building Safety Regulator and its regime of oversight of buildings owned or managed by the Crown, of which there are a lot.

Finally, I turn to clause 15. The Committee has just considered two clauses enabling the Building Safety Regulator to secure support from local authorities, fire and rescue authorities and the Crown premises fire safety inspectorate. Clause 15 includes several additional provisions to ensure that support provided to the Building Safety Regulator works smoothly and effectively. It is essential that the people supporting the Building Safety Regulator to make decisions about high-rise residential and other in-scope buildings are competent to advise and to inspect those buildings. Therefore, clause 15 places a duty on fire and rescue authorities and local authorities to use competent staff when supporting the regulator.

It is also important that local authorities and fire and rescue authorities are appropriately funded for the support they provide to the regulator, as I mentioned a short while ago. Clause 15 enables funding to be provided through grants from the Secretary of State. That may be the most appropriate way to fund building new capacity or specific systems.

Clause 15 also enables the Secretary of State to make regulations requiring the Building Safety Regulator to reimburse local authorities and fire and rescue authorities for the costs of supporting the regulator. The HSE, as shadow Building Safety Regulator, is already working with representatives of local authorities and fire and rescue authorities to develop a reimbursement system. Wherever possible, the Building Safety Regulator will charge fees to regulated parties for regulatory activities, including the costs of support from local authorities and fire and rescue authorities. The Building Safety Regulator will then be able to use this income, as well as some Government funding, to reimburse local authorities and fire and rescue authorities.

Finally, the clause contains a regulation-making power, enabling the Secretary of State to make further provisions around the provision of support—for instance, setting out the process in more detail or providing for specific competence standards. The Government’s preference and expectation is that these practical matters will be worked out by the Building Safety Regulator and the authorities that support it. The health and safety regulator is already doing a great deal of co-operative work through the joint regulators group to develop the new system. However, if it does prove necessary to provide greater legal clarity to ensure that the process for providing support works effectively, it is appropriate that the Secretary of State can make regulations for that.

Clause 15, in combination with clauses 13 and 14, enables effective regulation of high-rise residential and other in-scope buildings, and is an important aspect in making sure that the Building Safety Regulator is adequately and competently supported by local authorities, fire and rescue services and Crown premises fire safety inspectorate inspectors and that it is properly resourced.

I have again been a little premature in claiming that my remarks on clause 15 were the final set I intended to make in this group. I now feel an overwhelming desire to tell you about clause 16, Mr Davies. The Committee, too, will be overwhelmed to hear that, further to our consideration of clauses 13, 14 and 15, clause 16 enables the Building Safety Regulator to prepare guidance on how local authorities, fire and rescue authorities and Crown premises fire safety inspectorate inspectors should support the regulator when regulating high-rise residential and other in-scope buildings.

Providing clear operational guidance will have three main advantages. First, it will support smooth and effective multi-agency working by setting clear expectations. Secondly, it will help local authorities, fire and rescue services, and the Crown premises fire safety inspectorate plan, including providing appropriate training to staff who may be called on to support the Building Safety Regulator. Thirdly, guidance will help to minimise the use of the power set out in clause 13 to direct local authorities and fire and rescue authorities. Direction of democratically accountable local bodies should be a last resort, after all other avenues for securing support have been exhausted.

Providing clear guidance should assist those supporting the Building Safety Regulator to understand what is likely to be required, minimising the chance of surprises and disagreements. Furthermore, the requirement on those authorities and inspectors to “have regard” to the guidance will encourage them to take the need to support the Building Safety Regulator seriously. That again minimises the chances of disagreements and reliance on direction.

Supporting the Building Safety Regulator does have implications for local authorities’ and fire and rescue services’ planning and resourcing requirements. It is appropriate that guidance that could affect local resourcing and planning can be issued only with the Secretary of State’s consent. Clause 16 makes simple provision for that safeguard.

To give an example of how clause 16 might work in practice, guidance could set out what types of competence, such as skills, knowledge, experience and behaviours, should be demonstrated by the local authority building control specialists when supporting the Building Safety Regulator’s work on any complex and higher-risk construction project, and in order to comply with the requirements on competence in clause 15. Clause 16 provides for important guidance that will support effective joint working between the Building Safety Regulator, fire and rescue authorities, local authorities and the Crown premises fire safety inspectorate.

I hope the Committee will agree that the four clauses in combination provide an important contribution to the way in which resourcing and expertise will be provided to the Building Safety Regulator, and I commend them to the Committee.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 4:30 pm, 16th September 2021

I thank the Minister for his thorough explanation of each of clauses 13, 14, 15 and 16. Importantly, witnesses welcomed the clauses—I refer to the Local Government Association, the Chief Fire Officers Association and the Fire Brigades Union.

Some concern was expressed about the potential for a two-tier system. It is right that the landscape for those classed as “at risk”—with the definition being for those in buildings 18 metres and above—is co-operative. The concern expressed in Committee, however, is that a competitive environment still exists for those in buildings below 18 metres—the choice-based system. I would like to hear the Minister’s comments on that.

The Bill also refers to the Secretary of State giving appropriate funds to local authorities or fire and rescue services—I think that is in clause 16, but I am sure the Minister will correct me if I am wrong. What assurances can he give to put that on a firm footing? As he said, it is vital to making the provisions work that local authorities, and indeed partners such as fire and rescue services, are adequately resourced to carry them out.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Weaver Vale for his support for these clauses and for pointing out the support that has been expressed for them by witnesses and other stakeholders. I think, again, that we can agree that these are important mechanisms of ensuring that the Building Safety Regulator is effectively resourced to do its work.

The hon. Gentleman asks about the consideration of buildings below 18 metres. He will know that the scope of the Bill is focused primarily on buildings that are taller than 18 metres or seven storeys and have more than two dwelling places. We have taken that decision based on advice and guidance, and because we want to focus our efforts and the efforts of the Building Safety Regulator on those buildings that are most at risk. That is not to say that in years to come the role and scope of the Building Safety Regulator cannot and will not change—I have outlined that in my previous remarks—but we are focused here on the safety from fire or structural risk of buildings primarily over that height and with those characteristics.

The hon. Gentleman also asks about resourcing. Resourcing is always a matter for the spending review and discussions between Departments and the Treasury. We want to make it clear that we believe one of the financing mechanisms for this important work is through Government grant—that is why I have said so to the Committee, and I will continue to say so through the course of the debate on the Bill—but we also want to make sure that the regulator is able to charge sensible fees to ensure that fire and rescue services and local government are able to obtain sensible remuneration for the efforts that they employ, working with the Building Safety Regulator.

We believe that these four clauses are important contributors to the role of a strong, efficient and effective Building Safety Regulator, calling on the services that it needs to do the work that we are setting out for it in the Bill. I commend the clauses to the committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 13 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 14 to 16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.