New Clause 24 - Review of Government support for building safety matters

Building Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 26th October 2021.

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“(1) The Secretary of State must conduct a review of Government support of building safety matters, including but not limited to an assessment of the adequacy of—

(a) the measures in this Act, and

(b) the Building Safety fund and its use.

(2) A report setting out the conclusions of the review as set out in subsection (1) must be laid before each House of Parliament no later than 3 months after the day on which this Act is passed.”—

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

It is fantastic to be able to say this: this final new clause—[Hon Members: “Hear, hear!”]—gives us an opportunity to look both at the Bill’s measures and at the support available for building safety, because it relates to the adequacy of the building safety fund. I want to concentrate primarily, and fairly briefly, on the use of funding with regard to management fees, agents and product managers, and on the role of managing agents and freeholders in agreeing funding contracts.

Recent Government statistics show that 600 buildings had remediation costs of £2.5 billion. I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify whether the Government’s building safety funding covers that total cost, or are parts of it not covered? The cost per building is about £4 million. Having been contacted by leaseholders across the country, I know that the fees charged by some managing agents and project managers are taking up to 14% of the total building remediation costs, as is the case with a building in Manchester. If the remediation costs of that building reach the £4 million mark, over half a million pounds will go to managing agents and project managers.

Back in June, my hon. Friend Lucy Powell, the shadow Housing Secretary, was told in response to a question that the Government were not tracking the management and administration fees that leaseholders were being charged for applications for grants from the building safety fund. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government have begun to look at the overall amount that agents are charging for applications to the building safety fund? Is the Department looking at the management and professional fees that are being charged for individual applications? With only £5.1 billion in the Government’s pot, we cannot afford for agents to charge the taxpayer and resident leaseholders more than is fair for their time and work.

Fees are even higher for the waking watch relief fund, with one agent charging over a third of the cost of installing a fire alarm. I have also recently been made aware of a case in which agents are threatening to charge leaseholders for the cost of the failed building safety application. A failed application, on top of the threat, also means that leaseholders face the cost of being issued with invoices to fix the mess in that particular building. There is clearly little impetus for professionals to adopt a true risk-based approach if fees are based on percentage rates of works required. The situation is only made worse with concerns over professional indemnity insurance, leading to risk-averse advice on remediation from fire engineer experts, as we have heard throughout this Committee.

As I have said in debates on a good few amendments up until now, a centralised and co-ordinated building assessment strategy would go a long way towards mitigating the wide range of fees levied and would help guarantee a consistent approach to managing the current pot of funds. I hereby move this last new clause.

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

Although the hon. Gentleman says that this is his last new clause, sadly it is not mine, but we are nearly there. I am grateful to the Committee for its indulgence, patience and good humour throughout the several sittings in which we have enjoyed one another’s company.

I will talk about the tracking of fees in response to some of the hon. Gentleman’s questions in a moment, but I assure him that his intentions are already being met in the Bill by clause 139, which we debated last Thursday. That clause provides for a widely framed review of the effectiveness of the building regulatory regime, which includes building safety. The review will form part of the programme of reviews conducted or commissioned by the Department, which includes a review considering whether architectural practices should also be regulated.

To clarify, during the debate on clause 135 it was mentioned that clause 138 deals with the regulation of architecture firms, but I ought to confirm that the Architects Registration Board regulates only individual architects, rather than practices. I was told to tell the Committee that and so, being a good Minister, I have.

Returning to clause 139, it provides the Secretary of State with the discretion to specify wider matters for the reviewer to consider. That could include an assessment of the performance of the building safety fund—the performance of the fee mechanism and how fees are charged and paid. The tracking of performance may be another area that the review could consider.

The three-month timescale indicated in the new clause is impractical. The transition plan, which was published alongside the Building Safety Bill, indicates that the majority of the provisions will not be enacted until 12 to 18 months after the Bill achieves Royal Assent. Therefore, a review after three months—when many of the Bill’s provisions will not have even begun or, if they have, will be very nascent—would be insufficient to assess the adequacy of those provisions. I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that practical challenge. Furthermore, we do not think that the short period of operation for those that will be in effect gives enough time to consider their effectiveness.

It is our position that five years is a reasonable period to allow for the establishment of the BSR, after which a reviewer will be able to consider an established regulatory system. If the hon. Gentleman has specific concerns about the building safety fund, I shall be happy to hear about them. We have always had a good relationship across the Chamber. I am conscious, as I am sure he will be, that there are many mechanisms that the House of Commons may use to achieve proper scrutiny of Ministers and arm’s length Government bodies and funds for which both are accountable. I look forward to that scrutiny and having a proper, timely review process to scrutinise and assess the way in which the building safety regime, including the building safety fund, is run over the longer term. With that explanation, I respectfully ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his new clause.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 3:45 pm, 26th October 2021

We all have a shared interest in ensuring that the maximum amount of funding provided by the taxpayers goes towards remediating buildings and making them safe. I will follow up on the Minister’s kind offer to look at buildings on a case-by-case basis. I have referred to one, but people have certainly expressed concerns about the management and project fees charged for other buildings. Based on that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.