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Student Accommodation (Fire Safety)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 19th November 2019.

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Photo of Andy Wightman Andy Wightman Green

3. To ask the Scottish Government what fire safety checks it has undertaken on the building cladding used in private student accommodation, including whether it has been checked for high-pressure laminate cladding. (S5T-01895)

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

I am relieved that there was no loss of life in the events in Bolton at the weekend, and I acknowledge the work of all those who brought that fire under control.

In Scotland, student accommodation is classed as a “relevant premises” under the Fire (Scotland) Act 2005. That means that landlords, as duty holders, have responsibility for fire safety risk assessments.

In June this year, my officials wrote to a range of bodies, including the Scottish Funding Council, that represent colleges and universities, to raise awareness of the cladding tests that were being commissioned by the United Kingdom Government, and which might prove to be useful as part of such risk assessments.

Any significant fire in a residential building is, of course, a concern for us all. Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service has stated that its investigation into the Bolton fire will consider the role that external cladding played in development and spread of the fire. Once that information is available, we will review any findings as part of our on-going work on building and fire safety, and we will take any appropriate action that is necessary.

Photo of Andy Wightman Andy Wightman Green

As the minister said, the fire brigade operated in an exemplary fashion in bringing that fire under control, but it was an incredibly scary fire. Although the fire brigade made it clear that there was no aluminium composite material on the building in question, eyewitnesses who observed the fire said that it was

“crawling up the cladding like it was nothing”.

That exacerbates the fears of everyone who lives in such buildings.

The minister mentioned fire risk safety assessments. Are those assessments available to the residents of buildings that have been assessed?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

I cannot give an answer on that specific question at this moment, but I will write to Mr Wightman with a comprehensive response on what happens with assessments.

Photo of Andy Wightman Andy Wightman Green

That would be extremely helpful, because I have spoken to students and student bodies that are extremely concerned as a consequence of the events in Bolton.

The ministerial working group indicated that a database would be created to maintain safety-critical information for existing high-rise residential buildings. In the evidence that he gave to the Local Government and Communities Committee on 5 September 2018, the minister mentioned an “inventory”. Where are we with that inventory? What additional measures can the Scottish Government and its agencies put in place to reassure residents—students, in particular—that although fire is, of course, always a risk, building materials will never exacerbate that risk?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

Student bodies have written to the Government recently on that point, and I will co-operate with Ash Denham, who is the Minister for Community Safety, to ensure that they get answers to the questions that they have asked.

We have been completing work on the inventory of high-rise domestic buildings. It is being developed in order to provide a central source of information and an overview of the key aspects of high-rise domestic buildings, including all their fire-safety features. The inventory includes information on cladding types, including high-pressure laminate, which Mr Wightman mentioned.

This Government will continue to review all that. The ministerial working group continues to meet and has discussed many matters. As and when more information and analyses come to us, we will take the necessary steps to ensure that people are safe in buildings in Scotland.

The Presiding Officer:

Three members are waiting patiently to ask questions. If members ask very brief questions and receive similarly concise answers, we will get them all in.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

Can the minister offer any reassurance to my constituents who live in buildings with aluminium composite material cladding and who are, as well as being very worried, unable to sell them at the moment?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

I think that John Mason is talking about folks who have, on their buildings, cladding that is not made of aluminium composite material, but for whom, in the current situation, there are difficulties with regard to mortgage lending.

Last week, I answered a question from Jeremy Balfour on that issue. The Scottish Government is trying to seek solutions, but mortgage lending is reserved to the UK Government. I have written twice to the UK Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick, to try to get co-operation on the matter. I recognise that there is currently a general election in the offing, but there is still a day job to do.

My officials have also been in discussions with the UK finance industry and are having more meetings this week to try to reach a resolution, so that folks who are currently finding it difficult to buy and sell properties can be helped. I hope that the UK Government will respond to our request for help in finding a solution.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

What work has the Scottish Government done to assess whether local authorities have the staff and resources to ensure that enforcement action can be taken when residents have safety concerns, whether they are students or members of the general public?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

I am not aware of any difficulties that local authorities have had in responding to requests that the Government has made, among the multitude of requests since the tragedy at Grenfell Tower. I thank all the local authorities very much for their co-operation and for all that they have done in response to the numerous questions that we have asked in order to ensure that people in Scotland are safe. In particular, I thank them for their co-operation in putting together the inventory of high-rise buildings, which will be very helpful. We will, as a result of that, be required to ask fewer questions in the future, although the inventory will need to be updated regularly so that we know what is going on in respect of such buildings across the country.

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

In the light of Grenfell and the blaze in Bolton, does the minister agree with the Association of British Insurers that there must be a total ban on use of combustible materials on the outside of buildings?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

The Scottish Government has had an external independent panel of experts looking at that: we will continue to take that panel’s advice. The key is to do the right testing to ensure not only that the right cladding materials are used, but that the fire stopping that is required in buildings is put in place properly on every single occasion.

We will continue to review everything as we move forward, and to take the expert advice that is provided to us, because our job is to ensure that everyone in Scotland is safe in their buildings.