Building Safety Bill update

Catherine Levin continues her monthly examination of developments with the Building Safety Bill.

The Building Safety Bill is now in the House of Lords. After its second reading on 2 February, it moved to the Grand Committee where peers considered amendments over four sessions that ran into early March.

There’s a lot of interest from peers in the Bill, with 32 speeches during its second reading, covering the whole spectrum of matters relating to building safety. This month, I want to concentrate on just one before I move on to review Michael Gove’s performance in front of the Levelling Up Select Committee on 21 February.

I’m interested in how the Bill helps people with disabilities. We learned from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry that 15 out of the 37 disabled residents who lived in Grenfell Tower died in the fire on 14 June 2017. That means that 40% of the disabled people who lived there died. This point was highlighted by former paralympic champion Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson who spoke in the second reading debate. She said she had been contacted by many disabled people who were concerned about building fire safety.

We know from earlier evidence to the inquiry that there were no personal emergency evacuation plans (PEEPs) drafted by the tenant management organisation for vulnerable residents that would have set out individual plans for means of escape from fire. Sir Martin Moore-Bick was so concerned about this that he made a specific recommendation in his Phase 1 report:

"That the owner and manager of every high-rise residential building be required by law to prepare personal emergency evacuation plans (PEEPs) for all residents whose ability to self-evacuate may be compromised (such as persons with reduced mobility or cognition)."

The government set out how it would achieve this in a consultation paper published in June last year. The consultation closed on 19 July and government’s response to it is still outstanding seven months later.

This England-only consultation contained proposals that require the person responsible for fire safety in a high rise building over 18 metres tall to discuss fire safety and evacuation needs with residents and use a new template to work out personalised escape plans. The PEEP would contain details about an individual’s needs, but there would be no compulsion for a resident to share sensitive personal data. The completed template would then be placed in a premises information box.

The debate in the Lords illuminated how much time disabled people think about accessing and exiting buildings. Baroness Grey-Thompson explained:

"They have to take account whether there is a fire lift or whether the lift gets turned off in an emergency. They have to think about evacuation procedures, such as whether it is safer to remain in their flat or to leave; whether there is a refuge or place of safety—they are quite different things—and whether to choose to use an evac chair or an evacuation sledge. That is a difficult choice, as the latter means, for me, giving up my only means of mobility. It is not stepping out of a pair of shoes."

While the results of the PEEPs consultation remain unknown, the government confirmed in January that it had awarded a £210,400 contract to CS Todd and Associates for work on the third tranche of fire safety order guidance which includes guidance for people with disabilities. Claddag, a campaign group for disabled residents living in high rise buildings took issue at the contract award. In a statement, the group said: "Given Mr Todd consistently advocates against evacuation plans for disabled people and was the only expert of four to do so in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, we do not feel it is right for him to have this influence and authority over the safety of disabled people."

Claddag is now seeking a judicial review on the procurement decision made by the Secretary of State. Interestingly this company was the only one to bid for the work, so if the review leads to the contract being terminated, it is not clear what other companies are in the market to do it.

The contract award came up in the debate on 2 February. Baroness Grey-Thompson referred to the 2011 publication Fire Safety in Purpose Built Flats, which was authored by the same consultants which said it was "usually unrealistic to expect landlords to put arrangements in place for disabled people to evacuate blocks of flats in the case of an emergency. The paragraphs where this term is used have been redacted pending the outcome of the PEEPs consultation, and the whole publication comes with a warning that it is no longer comprehensive and subject to a new revision in ‘early 2022."

She added: "Even if the word “unrealistic” has been misunderstood or poorly defined—because I recognise the complication of providing a plan in what can be difficult and changing circumstances—it feels as if disabled people are being told that they should not get in anyone else’s way and do not have a chance of evacuating the building."

During the debate on 21 February, Baroness Grey-Thompson said she was looking for more specific recognition that disabled people need greater support and protection than they currently have. She worried that if they were not specifically mentioned, they would be forgotten.

"We need to consider the needs of disabled people. I very much welcome a discussion with the Minister and the Bill team to think about how we can find the right wording, not just by sticking ‘and disabled people’ at every point in the Bill but by genuinely helping disabled people to make it better."

She reminded the Minister that the PEEPs consultation response had still not been published, and was unimpressed by the response to her written Parliamentary Question on the matter. She was told it would be available "shortly," only "once the views of all individuals and organisations who contributed have been carefully considered." She was right to be sceptical about what “shortly” means, as often it’s simply a polite way to kick the question into the long grass, but it remains important as it will inform the drafting of the Bill.

How to pay

The first meeting of the Grand Committee in the House of Lords coincided with Michael Gove’s appearance elsewhere in the Palace of Westminster in front of the Levelling Up Select Committee, answering questions about how to solve the building safety crisis. The meeting on 21 February saw the Secretary of State face tame questioning from its Chair, Clive Betts MP and Committee members from both sides of the House.

This is part of the Committee’s inquiry on building safety remediation and funding, where it is looking at the announcements previously made by Mr Gove and his department about forcing industry to pay to remove cladding and protect leaseholders from exorbitant costs.

Mr Betts asked Mr Gove if developers were enthusiastic about paying into this scheme. He said that while they might not be enthusiastic about sharing their profits, they had been working constructively with Gove’s officials and asking if the £4 billion identified as required by the government is "fair". "They have been constructive and pragmatic, but also cautious."

Part of that fairness is about whether it’s just UK based companies that will be caught by any funding scheme. The Committee Chair asked Mr Gove four times during the hearing whether foreign owners of buildings with fire safety defects would be compelled to pay, and eventually he said that he didn’t want to show too much of "his hand" in the negotiations on this point.

Mr Betts asked if insurance companies who provide warranties on buildings should also contribute to remediation costs. Mr Gove responded: "It’s a fair point but ultimately it’s for the developers, that’s where the buck stops." He confirmed that the government is not ruling anything out at this stage, but the reference to the developers was a strong theme throughout the hour-long meeting.

Committee member, Bob Blackman MP said that the product testing regime is not fit for purpose. Mr Gove said of construction products, that some of the most "egregious transgressors" are companies that are not based in the UK, referring to Grenfell cladding manufacturers Kingspan and Arconic. "There are just practical difficulties in pursuing them in the way we would want to."

Mr Blackman also asked why there was a distinction between cladding costs and other fire safety defect costs, observing: "In many cases, these dwarf the sums required to deal with cladding." It’s a process of triage and risk according to Mr Gove, which led him to go on and explain how "Florrie’s law" would be used to cap costs attributed to leaseholders where no other source of funding is available. He could not tell the committee how many people would be affected.

"I would rather that it was a big institution that bore the burden of having to do this work. They were prepared to take on the benefits of securing that freehold and what they assumed was guaranteed income. With those benefits come responsibilities."

Mr Gove is in curious territory by saying that leaseholders should not respond to freeholder demands to pay costs of remediation; he said they should tell them: "No, the government are going to legislate in order to ensure that you, the freeholder, or whoever else it might be, are responsible for paying."

Pressed on whether the £11.5 billion budget for the Affordable Homes Programme would be the stop gap for funding where developers fail to pay, Mr Gove said: "We will do everything we can to protect it." Mr Betts wasn’t convinced that it was a guarantee, and Mr Gove concurred, saying he would let the committee know if he had to "resile from this."

And as the rather flat question session ended, Mr Gove wouldn’t be drawn on what the balance would be between developers paying and product manufacturers contributing to the £4 billion pot. It’s clear that the developers, who are at the "apex of the responsibility tree" are his first port of call. The question is, will he be able to get them to pay?

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Catherine Levin is a Freelance Communications Consultant specialising in fire.