Scrutiny of the Building Safety Bill gets underway

Lawmakers returned to parliament to discuss the Building Safety Bill, with Sir Ken Knight telling the Committee that it is a ‘very robust Bill’ and a ‘generational change.’

The Building Safety Bill will be scrutinised in three sessions before parliament rises for the party conference season. The first meeting of the Bill Committee heard from Sir Ken Knight, former London Fire Commissioner and member of the expert panel advising the government on building fire safety.

He was joined by Dan Daly, an assistant commissioner with the London Fire Brigade who is currently heading up the National Fire Chiefs Council's building safety team.

Responding to a broad question about the Bill, Sir Ken said: “The challenge will be enhancing the capability and competence throughout the sector. It is lacking in all areas.”

Dan Daly said that the Bill has “a fairly narrow scope,” but it represented an opportunity to fix building safety issues “once and for all.”

On the matter of scope, one member of the committee asked:

“Is height the best measure of risk, and if so, is the threshold in the Bill appropriate?”

“Height is pretty arbitrary in risk,” said Sir Ken. “It’s right to have a point at least to start and the 18 metre threshold is a place to start.”  He added: “I wouldn’t want to presume from this is that high rise means high risk either.”

He went on to explain that the “first flush of buildings” that the Building Safety Regulator will consider includes over 12,000 buildings, and it will have “a significant capacity issue to deal with.” The Regulator may then, he said, move on from height to look at care homes, hospitals, and the like. “As a first tranche, I think the place [height] to start is right.”

Dan Daly disagreed with Sir Ken, saying that risk is about more than height, such as the people and what they do in buildings. He said he understood why height was chosen and conceded that it was a “proportionate place to start.”

The committee moved on to talk about attitudes to risk, and Sir Ken said risk assessors should be taking a risk-based, proportionate approach. Sir Ken expanded on this point:

“I think what we’ve seen with both lenders and insurers, moving that risk aversion to the point that people who are in their own homes feel unsafe and they are not, where people are feeling very anxious and finding the values of their flats very difficult. We do have to bring that pendulum back to a proportionate approach, not a binary ‘is it safe or not safe’ approach.”

The subject of fire safety remediation was raised by one Committee member who asked:

“Will the new regime stop leaseholders being fleeced by remediation costs, the EWS1 process, astronomical insurance costs, and waking watch?”

Sir Ken said that the EWS1 process had been misused and led to leaseholders incurring unnecessary costs. He went on to talk about the Fire Safety Act requiring the fire risk assessment to consider the external wall system, and how that will stop individual leaseholders having to commission individual surveys.

Dan Daly set out the NFCC’s position that leaseholders should not bear the costs of fire safety remediation. He said that the issue of remediation involved a wide range of organisations including lenders, insurers, developers, and others. “This is about getting a regime in place as quickly as we can that supports and holds them to account in the right way.”  

He urged lawmakers to consider giving the Building Safety Regulator the “teeth” to hold the construction industry to account and support culture change.

The Committee continued its scrutiny on 9 September, hearing from witnesses representing the Construction Industry Council and Royal Institute of British Architects, the Construction Products Council, BSi, National Housing Federation, LABC, the LGA, the UK Cladding Action Group, and two housing lawyers.

Further sessions of the Committee are scheduled for 14 and 16 September.