Clause 30 - Higher-risk buildings etc

Building Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 21st September 2021.

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Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 2:00 pm, 21st September 2021

I beg to move amendment 17, in clause 30, page 22, line 2, at end insert—

“(4) The Welsh Ministers may by regulations define ‘building’ for the purposes of this section.

(5) The regulations may in particular provide that ‘building’ includes—

(a) any other structure or erection of any kind (whether temporary or permanent);

(b) any vehicle, vessel or other movable object of any kind, in such circumstances as may be specified.”

This amendment enables the Welsh Ministers to define “building” for the purposes of section 120I of the Building Act 1984 (inserted by this clause).

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments 36 and 37.

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

The amendments relate to Welsh Government Ministers. They provide the Welsh Ministers with the necessary flexibility to define “building” for the purposes of proposed new section 120I of the Building Act 1984, to be inserted by clause 30 of the Bill. This is the same power as the Secretary of State has for England in new section 120D(4)(a) and (5). New section 120I contains a power for the Welsh Ministers to define “higher-risk building”. The additional power for the Welsh Ministers to define “building”, provided for by amendment 17, will ensure that Welsh Ministers can add clarity to the definition of “higher-risk building” as required.

Amendment 36 makes the power for the Welsh Ministers to define “higher-risk building” subject to the affirmative action procedure, but the power to define “building” under new section 120I(4) will be subject to the negative procedure, which mirrors the position in England. Amendment 37 disapplies for the purposes of new section 120I the definition of “building” that exists in section 121 of the 1984 Act. Again, this mirrors the position in England as regards new section 120D.

As the Committee may have gathered, these are important, although technical, amendments to ensure that Welsh Ministers have the necessary power to provide a clear definition of the types of structures that can be captured by the definition of “higher-risk building” and therefore subject to the more stringent building control regime provided for by part 3 of the Bill, which will be reached in due course.

Amendment 17 agreed to.

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

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I said that the amendments are technical, and so they are, but as to the clause itself, it provides a definition for which buildings will be higher-risk buildings and therefore subject to the design and construction portion of the new, more stringent regulatory regime. It also provides for what must be done if a decision is taken to alter that definition in the future. For Wales, it provides the Welsh Ministers with the ability to define their own higher-risk buildings. To support the Committee’s scrutiny and, indeed, that of Parliament, we published, upon the Bill’s introduction, the draft Higher-Risk Buildings (Descriptions and Supplementary Provisions) Regulations. Dame Judith Hackitt’s independent review recommended implementing the new regulatory regime for buildings of at least 10 storeys. However, the views of stakeholders were gathered and they advocated expanding the scope still further. That is why we are defining the height threshold for a higher-risk building in England as at least 18 metres in height or at least seven storeys. We are being ambitious, providing the certainty that the markets require with our threshold approach while maintaining the focus on the taller buildings that the independent review advocated.

We agree with the pre-legislative scrutiny report about including more detail in the Bill, which is why we now define the height threshold of the regime within primary legislation and in the Bill. There may be incidents or emerging evidence in future that indicate that the definition of higher-risk building may need to be altered. Consequently, we included the power in section 120D(6), and its use would be subject to the affirmative procedure in Parliament so that a Committee of the House—or indeed the whole House—would be able to discuss, debate and vote on the matter. However, any change must be proportionate. It must not slip into risk aversion. That is why the checks and balances outlined by sections 120E and 120F are necessary. We must understand the costs as well as the benefits. This is why any decision of expansion must consider the expert advice or recommendations of the Building Safety Regulator.

Taken together, sections 120D to 120H provide for a proportionate approach to defining higher-risk buildings and to the design and construction portion of the new regulatory regime. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Again, we accept the provisions in the clause giving the Welsh Government the desired and important flexibility particularly for buildings that are at risk. Buildings at risk have caused considerable debate and the Minister has referred to the original recommendations by Dame Judith Hackitt. There has been lots of debate in the built environment and among key witnesses. I know that members of the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government have heard similar evidence advocating for a broader definition of what is at risk. Clearly, many residents and leaseholders are in buildings below 18 metres that are certainly at risk.

I referred earlier to the fire in a care home in Crewe, not far from my constituency in the north-west of England. It was a home for vulnerable people and was constructed out of interesting materials and the results were unfortunately all too plain to see. Thank the Lord, nobody lost their life, but they did lose their home and their possessions. They were definitely at risk. In Runcorn in the neighbouring constituency of my hon. Friend Derek Twigg, the Decks development has had a live application to the building safety fund. A number of buildings are 18 metres and above so they are in scope of the definition in the Bill, but some are below 18 metres and they are constructed with even more inflammable material. Again, they are very much at risk.

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon

It was Dame Judith Hackitt who initially suggested that the threshold be 30 metres. Does the hon, Gentleman agree that 18 metres or seven storeys is significantly more ambitious?

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Yes, but what I heard from the witnesses —the evidence is crystal clear—is that there are buildings, such as hospitals, that have vulnerable people. One thousand hospitals will not be within the scope of the Bill, because they are below 18 metres. According to the Department’s own figures, 13,200 care homes will not be classed as at risk under the current regulatory landscape.

The clause will provide that flexibility, which the Minister referred to. If there are thematic incidents, fires or failures related to building safety, the Secretary of State has the welcome flexibility of the regulator in the future. We certainly want the definition of risk on the record, as witnesses have requested throughout.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

I shall be brief, as I am conscious of the fact that we have already touched on the clause.

The point on which I wish to comment, which was highlighted in the comments of the hon. Member for Amesbury, is the ability of the Secretary of State to liaise with the Building Safety Regulator, as provided in the clauses added to schedule 5 to the Building Act 1984. The key is the facility to recognise that circumstances change—specifications change, the industry changes. The clause gives the Department the flexibility holistically to utilise the Building Safety Regulator, ensuring that subsequent regulations reflect reality.

We have debated the 80 metres specification, but we heard during the evidence sessions that flexibility is necessary. There are many shades of grey in this space—it is not all black and white. The clause pretty much mandates the Secretary of State to have regard to the Building Safety Regulator’s advice and to take on board its recommendations. That is vital, because the way in which we have structured the BSR in the Bill thus far is for it to act not just as an enforcer but as an adviser too, and there will be individuals within the organisation who have the expertise and skill.

The clause provides the flexibility that we will need, and as we come to secondary legislation we will see how important that is going to be. As we build the legislative framework, it will be important that Ministers have the agility to take advice and react to the market. The market and the specifications now will not be the same in five years’ time or 10 years’ time. We must ensure that if things need to change we can act expeditiously. Clause 30 is the right clause. It provides that flexibility to my right hon. Friend the Minister and his officials and I therefore support it.

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West and the hon. Member for Weaver Vale for their contributions.

My hon. Friend for West Bromwich West is quite right: we heard from witnesses that it is important to have an objective set of criteria when defining risk. I appreciate that there are different shades of opinion. We heard from Sir Ken Knight and Dan Daly, who are experts in their fields, suggesting that an objective threshold would be a sensible mechanism for adjudicating risk.

We chose high-rise residential buildings of at least 80 metres after engagement with stakeholders and judged that the risk to multiple households is greater when fire spreads in residences of that height. We are following the recommendation of Dame Judith’s committee to focus on residential buildings. We have responded to the concerns of stakeholders. That is why, rather than set a threshold at 10 storeys, we chose to set it at above 18 metres or seven storeys. The reason that it is and/or is to make sure that we mitigate the risk of gaming just below 18 metres. Adding the seven-storeys requirement makes it much more difficult for a regime to be gamed.

We certainly heard evidence that properties and buildings that are below 18 metres are generally less at risk than those above that height. The BRE Group has said that, as have the National Fire Chiefs Council and Dame Judith in her independent report. That is not to say, however, that we are not mindful that changes cannot take place in future. That is why we have set in place in the clauses a mechanism by which the Building Safety Regulator will have a duty to keep the safety of persons in and around taller buildings constantly under review. Indeed, when we reach it, we will see that clause 139 requires an independent and periodic review of the effectiveness of the building regulatory regime. We have put in place measures that will allow for an expansion of the in-scope regime following advice and recommendations to the Secretary of State by the Building Safety Regulator after a three-part test. We think we have been proportionate and have also allowed in the Bill sufficient scope for appropriate expansion if and when experts deem it necessary.

Photo of Theo Clarke Theo Clarke Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact 2:15 pm, 21st September 2021

I agree with the Minister that 18 metres or seven storeys is a sensible starting point for the regime. I welcome that it is more ambitious than the 30 metres originally recommended by Dame Judith Hackitt. However, will he explain why he chose such a threshold, rather than a matrix of risks and specific factors?

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. I understand why some regard a matrix or a set of matrices to be a better mechanism to employ. The problem with a set of matrices is that they are subjective. It is possible that one assessor could rule that a building is in scope of the regime and another rule it or a similar building out of scope. That would create unnecessary confusion in the regime. It is much more sensible that we have an objective threshold that everyone understands, be they the experts on the gamekeeper’s side of the fence or those on the poacher’s side. Everyone understands what the rules are.

The hon. Members for Weaver Vale and for Brentford and Isleworth, who is no longer in her place, mentioned other potential buildings. I have explained how it is possible, through advice from the Building Safety Regulator, to expand the regime, but I simply reiterate my earlier point that some of those buildings, such as prisons, hotels and hostels, are subject to the Fire Safety Order. They tend to have multiple means of exit and signage appropriate to guests entering and leaving the building. They are governed by a different regime. The Ministry of Defence’s buildings have their own fire safety arrangements and the Crown has its own arrangements under the Building Act. Those provisions have not been introduced and enforced but, as this Bill goes through the House, we will consider whether the Building Act provisions that apply to Crown buildings should be put into force.

We are not blind to the fact that the regime can be refined and improved. As I say, that is one of the reasons why we want to use secondary legislation as a mechanism for delivering the Bill in the most effective way.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I seek some reassurance, on a point that was brought up by the Association of British Insurers and others throughout the Bill’s passage so far, and during pre-legislative scrutiny. With regard to those experts, can the Minister reassure us that there is a sufficient pool of people who not only will be trained and available but, importantly, will get professional indemnity insurance to assess the builders?

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I think I said in previous remarks that the multidisciplinary teams that the Building Safety Regulator will employ presently have many, if not most, of the skills and experience necessary to execute the roles in the new regime, so we do not anticipate that a significant amount of further training will be required. With respect to professional indemnity insurance, however, the hon. Gentleman will know that the Government have made it clear that, in the final resort, they will provide a backed scheme to ensure that proper professional indemnity for risk assurors is provided. I hope that gives him some certainty.

I will close by restating the key function of clause 30, which is to provide a definition for which buildings will be considered higher risk and, therefore, which buildings will be subject to the design and construction portion of our new and more stringent regulatory regime. Importantly, it also provides for what must be done if a decision is taken to alter that definition in the future—that very clear, staged process, which will ensure that proper tests, proper consultation and proper cost-benefit analysis are undertaken in order to deliver an expanded regime, if that is required. With that, I commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 30, as amended, accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 31 ordered to stand part of the Bill.