OVER 20 Conservative MPs have backed an amendment to the Fire Safety bill that ‘looks to ensure’ leaseholders are not ‘hit by extortionate bills’ for fire safety issues.

In December 2019, the government’s Queen’s Speech saw building safety and fire safety bills introduced, with both setting out to ‘learn the lessons’ from Grenfell. The Fire Safety Bill ‘hint[ed]’ at supporting the findings from the Grenfell inquiry’s first phase, including ‘main benefits’ such as providing residents with ‘reassurance’ on fire safety and making it clear that building owners and managers know they are ‘responsible for assessing the risks of external walls and fire doors’.

Main elements were to include a clarification that the scope of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 [FSO] ‘includes the external walls of the building, including cladding’ as well as ‘fire doors for domestic premises of multiple occupancy’. ‘Relevant enforcement powers’ to hold owners and managers ‘to account’ would be strengthened, while a ‘transitional periods’ for these roles, the responsible person and the fire and rescue services (FRSs) would ‘assist’ in placing infrastructure.

In January 2020, more details were released including the requirement for building owners to ‘fully consider and mitigate’ the risks of external wall systems and individual flat doors, as these changes would ‘make it easier to enforce’ where owners have not remediated combustible cladding ‘by complementing the powers under the Housing Act’.

The government is also set to work alongside local authorities and support ‘enforcement options’ where ‘there is no clear plan for remediation’, as building owners are ‘responsible for ensuring their buildings are safe’. In late March, the bill was officially introduced, and was said to amend the FSO to ‘clarify’ that the responsible person or dutyholder for multi occupant residential buildings ‘must manage and reduce’ the risk of a series of elements.

These include the structure and external walls of a building, including cladding, balconies and windows, and entrance doors to individual flats ‘that open into common parts’, with this clarification to ‘empower’ FRSs to take action ‘and hold building owners to account if they are not compliant’. It would also provide a ‘foundation’ for secondary legislation to ‘take forward’ the inquiry’s recommendations.

Those included the responsibilities of building owners and managers of high rise and multi occupant residential buildings, including ‘regular’ lift inspections and reporting results to FRSs; and ensuring evacuation plans ‘are reviewed and regularly updated’, as well as personal evacuation plans for residents ‘whose ability to evacuate may be compromised’.

Others include ensuring that fire safety instructions ‘are provided to residents in a form that they can reasonably be expected to understand’, and ensuring that individual flat entrance doors ‘where the external walls of the building have unsafe cladding’ comply with current standards. The bill will also give Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick the power to amend lists of qualifying premises that fall within the scope of the FSO ‘by way of secondary legislation’.

In May, the bill received its second reading in parliament, before St Albans MP Daisy Cooper later tabled amendments in July ‘to help protect leaseholders living in homes with dangerous cladding’. In September, the bill passed the first stage before becoming law, but Labour saw an amendment defeated that had aimed to ensure that the inquiry’s first phase recommendations were implemented.

The bill ‘cleared the Commons’, with Mr Brokenshire adding that reforms will be introduced in the ‘fastest possible time’, and that the bill ‘must be brought into law first before other changes can be made’. The amendment was defeated by 118 votes to 318, and Mr Brokenshire ‘insisted the government is taking action’, and that the amendment would ‘not hasten any more than what the government is intending and proposing’.

In November, Labour put the amendment forward in the House of Lords, and this was passed by 269 votes to 250, with two other amendments passed including banning leaseholders ‘from being forced to pay’ for fire safety remediation costs, and the creation of a public register for fire safety, ‘similar’ to the Energy Performance Certificate register for prospective property leaseholders, renters and owners.

Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Pinnock tabled both, and said: ‘Currently freeholders are passing on the remediation costs needed following the Grenfell tragedy, leaving many with the choice of either facing bankruptcy as they’re forced to pay huge fees, or selling their home for a lot less value due to the work needing to be done.

‘The vote today has seen not only the Liberal Democrats’ plans to ban these outrageous costs succeed, but so have the party’s plans to introduce a register to ensure homes receive a fire safety rating to introduce desperately needed accountability and transparency into the system.’

The bill will return to the House of Commons, and Inside Housing has now reported that a separate, Conservative amendment – the McPartland-Smith amendment – has been backed by over 20 government MPs. This amendment ‘looks to ensure leaseholders are not hit by extortionate bills to fix fire safety issues in their blocks’, with Stevenage MP Stephen McPartland and Southampton and Itchen MP Royston Smith behind it.

The two wrote to all government MPs late last year, imploring them to ‘take a stand’ and ‘press’ the government to take action to protect leaseholders from fire safety costs related to remediating combustible cladding. This followed the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee (HCLGC) calling attention to clauses in the draft Building Safety Bill that might allow leaseholders to be charged for fire safety works, which it called an ‘abdication of responsibility’.

The two MPs’ letter read: ‘The government has done its best, but it has been over three years and they are not tackling all the issues. There are lots of options and solutions to support the millions of leaseholders that are being left behind in our constituencies and we are working with the UK Cladding Action Group (UKCAG) to urge the government to support leaseholders.’

Mr McPartland added: ‘Leaseholders are the innocent parties in this nightmare and they should not have to pay. There are lots of possible solutions and the secretary of state has to sit down and work with us to end the cladding scandal. He needs to get out of his ivory tower, stop talking and start actually helping the millions of leaseholders being left behind.’

Mr Smith said in turn: ‘Of all the organisations and people who bear some responsibility, the ones who don’t are the innocent leaseholders. It was government legislation and regulation which allowed this to happen, so it falls on government to find the solution. Developers, funders, architects – whoever designed and built these blocks share the responsibility to find a solution, but it should not fall on those who carried out their due diligence (conveyancing) but have found themselves caught in this immoral trap. The government has tried. But they have not yet done enough.’

With this amendment to the Fire Safety Bill, Mr McPartland urged leaseholders to write to local MPs and ‘lobby them to support the bill’, with the hope that they will secure backing from ‘at least’ 40 government MPs.

He stated: ‘It is fantastic so many members of parliament are adding their names to the amendment in my name and Royston Smith MP. We are very clear that leaseholders should not have to pay historic fire safety costs. It is not fair and the government has to step in and help provide a safety net, so they are protected. Email your MP today and ask them to sign the amendment and join the campaign so leaseholders do not have to pay.’

The government’s response has been that Fire Safety Bill amendments are ‘the wrong mechanism for changes to history costs’, with the Building Safety Bill to ‘deal with this issue’. It added: ‘Our priority is to remove unsafe materials as quickly as possible, which is progressing well – backed by £1.6bn of funding.

We are considering options to fund future remediation, working with stakeholders, including leaseholders, and the finance industry, and we will set out further details in due course.’