Clause 62 - Meaning of “higher-risk building” etc

Building Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 19th October 2021.

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Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 9:25 am, 19th October 2021

I beg to move amendment 12, in clause 62, page 81, line 37, at end insert—

“(aa) has characteristics relating to function, material used for construction or inaccessibility of emergency routes out of the building as must be defined by the Secretary of State in regulations which make it a high risk to its residents, or”

This amendment would require the Government to define high-risk buildings which are not at least 18 metres or 7 storeys high in regulations.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Labour, Bootle

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

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

It is a pleasure once again to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd, and to follow the Minister, whom I welcome to his place on the Front Bench. I concur with his comments on the tragic events surrounding Sir David Amess and on the loss of James Brokenshire, who served this House and, indeed, the Department well over the years.

The amendment seeks to broaden the definition of risk. During Committee stage, Members and Ministers have heard and reviewed evidence from many stakeholders, including the Construction Industry Council, which has argued that the current definition—which applies to buildings below 18 metres or with fewer than seven storeys—is not a sufficient definition of genuine risk. Indeed, the Fire Brigades Union argues in its written evidence, provided just a few days ago—I am sure that Members have had the opportunity to read it—that the scope is not broad enough.

For example, the fire at a residential care setting in Crewe not very long ago—we have referred to it throughout our deliberations—would not have been covered by the proposed definition because it was below 18 metres and had fewer than seven storeys. Yet the residents who called that building home were undoubtedly at a higher risk than many of us in this Committee Room.

The fire at the Cube student accommodation in Bolton, which has also been referred to throughout this Committee, would not have been covered by this definition, either. Yet in a relatively short period, a significant fire destroyed the building and—there but for the grace of God—nearly cost lives.

Although it is acknowledged that hospitals and care homes are covered by previous clauses, which have been debated, their focus is also on buildings below 18 metres or with fewer than seven storeys. The 18-metre threshold has caused considerable debate, as have comments made by officials in the now renamed Department. I am not at all confident that the Department itself believes that it is an appropriate figure. Indeed, the former Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick, said that relying

“on crude height limits…does not reflect the complexity” of the risk, as many Committee members will know. He concluded that height would need to

“sit alongside a broader range of risk factors”—[Official Report, 20 January 2020; Vol. 670, c. 24.]

Finally, given that buildings below the proposed threshold are no longer deemed to be at high risk, I find it rather perplexing that the Government would advertise for and recruit a civil servant on a salary of £77,000 to take charge of the new proposed loans regime to remediate building safety issues on buildings from 11 to 18 metres. If they are not at risk, they are not at risk.

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

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Dowd. I echo the comments made across the Committee about our departed colleagues Mr Brokenshire and Sir David Amess.

I rise to support amendment 12, which stands in my name and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale and the hon. Member for St Albans. I reinforce the point that risk to building safety should be defined by actual risk—as assessed by the many experts we have in this country and the systems that we use but should probably improve—and not by some arbitrary cut-off.

I will describe two examples. On building risk, my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale mentioned the risk of occupation, which should be covered but from which so many users and so many types of residential building are excluded—a point that I have covered in previous Committee sittings.

In my constituency, we have six 22-storey tower blocks called the Brentford Towers, which are council blocks with a mixture of tenants and leaseholders and were built more than 40 years ago. Not so long ago, a man died in a fire in his flat in one of those blocks. The fire did not spread. There was smoke damage in the communal hallway, which was shared by three other flats, and a lot of the smoke went out of his windows or through the smoke escape hatch on the stairwell.

The fire did not spread upwards, downwards or into the other flats on the man’s floor, because the building was designed with fire safety in mind and had not subsequently been messed around with. The fire doors were all shut and the smoke vent was open. That is what was supposed to happen: it was a tragic death, but sadly the man might have died in any kind of home-based fire. No one else was injured, no other flat was damaged and the cost to the community was minimal.

The other example is a block of flats that I have mentioned before, Richmond House in Worcester Park in south London. It had four storeys, I believe, with just over 30 flats. Once the fire took hold, it took 11 minutes for that building to burn down completely. By the grace of God, as my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale said, no one died, although some people had smoke injuries.

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

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. On a number of occasions during the passage of the Fire Safety Act 2021 and this Bill, we have heard from the Government that the number of fires has gone down, but does the hon. Member agree that it is important that we remember the evidence we have heard from a number of organisations that fires are now spreading a lot faster and that there is therefore a much greater danger when fires do break out?

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

The hon. Member is absolutely right: we need to look at the evidence from actual fires. Many of us have had examples in our own constituency; the one that I mentioned was not in mine, but there was a fire in a block of flats in my constituency as a result of flammable cladding that had not yet been removed. Luckily, the fire brigade got there in time, before serious damage, injury or death occurred.

I conclude by referring to so much high-quality, professional expertise that has submitted evidence to the Committee and said that the risks should be based on actual risk and not on an arbitrary cut-off by height or number of storeys.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I thank hon. Members for raising the important question of the definitions for high-risk building safety and safety in buildings of under 18 metres and a height of seven storeys. I am afraid the Government will not be able to accept the amendment.

We recognise that the height and the use of a building are not the only factors that affect the level of risk found in each building. However, they are commonly used factors in determining the level of risk. We consider that other factors, including the materials used for construction, the presence of fire protection measures and the distance to emergency exits, could be used to define a high-risk building, but we concluded that it would be inappropriate to base the regime on factors like that because we were concerned that there would be unintended consequences. For example, when considering the materials used in construction, a large number of materials can be found in various quantities in various combinations. A material or product may be safe on one building owing to its placement, use and combination with other materials yet unsafe on another. Apart from particular circumstances such as the ban on combustible materials in and on external walls of certain buildings, a blanket approach to specific materials would therefore be inappropriate.

As for the accessibility of emergency routes, our assessment is that this would be a subjective factor. Different people may have different opinions about whether a building has sufficiently accessible emergency routes and therefore whether the building is or is not a high-risk building. This would not provide the clarity residents, industry and the regulator need.

We recognise that it is important that the risk of a fire occurring is low in any building. We must be proportionate in the application of the new regulatory regime.

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

The FBU and Leeds University have carried out recent research that for residents in buildings of 11 metres-plus the risk of fire is somewhat higher. The current scope of the Bill suggests that it captures about 13,000 buildings, but if the definition were broadened to buildings of 11 metres-plus, it would be about 100,000. There has been no effective risk assessment of the risk in individual buildings, and people who reside in them may have disabilities, for example. They would be at significantly higher risk. There are also care homes, hospitals, prisons and educational institutions, so more effective and concerted effort needs to be made by Government and Departments to assess risk properly.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

The stakeholders we have consulted—Dame Judith Hackitt, the National Fire Chiefs Council and the Building Research Establishment—all think we have taken a proportionate approach in setting the level at 18 metres. The hon. Gentleman has mentioned prisons, but we should not be distracted by other things. My understanding is that the fires that there have been in prisons in recent times have not involved a spread from the source location. Clearly, risk safety means that there is a limited amount of combustible materials in cells. I understand the point that he is making and we are sensitive to it. We do not in any way avoid the fact that the Bill might need to evolve at some point in the future. More risks may become apparent and we will talk again when we come to later clauses about how the Bill may develop to accommodate that.

The definition of high-risk building for the occupation regime that is outlined in part 7 was determined on the basis that the risk to multiple households is greater when fire spreads in buildings of at least 18 metres. That followed extensive consultation, including a stakeholder listening exercise following the publication of the independent review by Dame Judith Hackitt, stakeholder engagement and our public consultation on building a safer future. Therefore, we think the current definition is correct, proportionate and deliverable for the new regulator. The amendment intends to create a power that duplicates clause 62(5), which already contains a power to alter the definition of higher risk building.

Clause 144(3) states:

“Regulations may describe a building by reference to its height, size, design, use, purpose or any other characteristic.”

I confirm that this subsection allows regulations to be made to define higher-risk building use, using the characteristics included in the amendment, if the Government later consider it appropriate.

Photo of Marie Rimmer Marie Rimmer Opposition Whip (Commons) 9:45 am, 19th October 2021

What material factors would be considered appropriate to reconsider this situation? What would be necessary to re-examine or develop this further? Are the Government waiting for incidents to happen? Risk is supposed to be based on hazards and the likelihood of them materialising. Risk assessments are supposed to avoid materialisation, but that is not how the Bill is drafted.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I understand the passion with which the hon. Lady makes her case, but I simply do not accept that point. We have been highly proportionate. Dame Judith Hackitt is well respected in this field. We have taken her advice and that of the Building Research Establishment—experts in the field—into consideration. The Building Safety Regulator will be responsible, through the Health and Safety Executive, for monitoring ongoing situations and therefore will be well placed to make recommendations to the Secretary of State should new evidence come to light. We are alive to the issue, and the Bill responds to it.

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

The Minister speaks of waiting for evidence to come to light. My hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston asked whether we have to await an incident involving death or serious injury. Is that the definition of evidence? If not, what is?

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. We need to acknowledge how much the building safety sector has changed as a result of Grenfell Tower and of this Bill. People are more attuned to fire safety and the risks and are more engaged in the process of addressing it. I speak following my engagement with social housing providers. I know from the work that we are doing on the social housing White Paper that they are much more engaged. They are listening to their residents and working with them. We are providing an opportunity to ensure that residents’ voices are heard more in the future. With the resident engagement set out in the Bill we will be in a much better informed position to determine safety risks.

I assure Members that the safety of people in buildings under 18 metres high and under seven storeys is of no less importance to the Government. We have a wide programme to strengthen the fire safety regime that includes improving fire safety in all premises regulated by the fire safety order and introducing specific requirements to protect residents’ safety in multi-occupied residential buildings of any height.

I shall not go into the details of clause 134, which takes forward our proposals on fire safety reform, as it is due to be debated at a later sitting of the Committee. However, it is another step in the delivery of our reforms and the Committee will be aware that the Government intend to lay fire safety regulations specific to multi-occupied residential buildings this autumn.

In the light of the work that the Government are doing to protect residents’ safety in multi-occupied residential buildings under 18 metres in height and under seven storeys, and given how the power to amend the definition of higher-risk buildings in clause 62(5) works with clause 143(3), I urge Members to consider withdrawing the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 62 ordered to stand part of the Bill.