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New government, new actions for fire safety?

Following the Conservative Party’s win in December’s General Election, it was confirmed in the Queen’s Speech that building safety was to be made a key policy priority for Parliament as it entered a new year and a new decade.

Well over two years on from the Grenfell Tower disaster, building fire safety – specifically around cladding – remains a highly emotive and poignant concern amongst the general public, particularly as it increasingly comes to light that many buildings across Britain are likely to be affected.

The Government’s latest briefing note expanding on those pledges will therefore be welcomed by those concerned. Implementation of the most urgent recommendations from phase one of the Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry is the Government’s initial step, with a draft Building Safety Bill to be put to Parliament very quickly and a response to Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s Inquiry report expected by the start of phase two of the Inquiry on 27 January.

At this stage, it is believed that key elements of the new Bill will include an implementation of the Hackitt review of building safety recommendations as well as a clearer assignment of responsibilities, accountability and duties for the safety of high rise buildings (through the design, construction and occupation process). Additionally, residents of such high rises are to be given a stronger voice to ensure their concerns are not ignored and that they can contribute to maintaining the safety of their buildings.

Drilling into the details, the new Bill is set to clarify that the scope of the Fire Safety Order includes the external walls of the building, including cladding, and fire doors for domestic premises of multiple occupancy, and make it easier to hold building owners and managers to account through the provision of new enforcement powers. Given the task at hand and the potentially high number of buildings concerned, property owners and managers will be allowed a transitional period to work with the Fire and Rescue Services to put new safety infrastructure in place.

More macro changes are also planned for the real estate sector to guarantee compliance through stronger enforcement and sanction measures. This will include the development of a stronger framework to provide national oversight of construction products and a new fire safety system for the entire built environment sector, with local enforcement agencies and national regulators working together to ensure that all buildings are kept safe (and continue to become safer).

Cladding and the social housing sector

In the wake of the fire at The Cube student accommodation block in Bolton last November, local MP Yasmin Qureshi called for the government to outlaw the use of unsafe cladding on tower blocks, noting that The Cube was covered in high-pressure laminate cladding (as opposed to the now banned aluminium composite cladding or “ACM”). Indeed, in spite of the new government’s pledges, real concerns remain as to whether fire safety will be tackled, particularly given that Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick may be in line for a reshuffle and it remains to be seen who exactly will be responsible for cladding and fire safety in this new government.

Whatever precise measures are put forward, the social housing sector – which for the time being remains in a position of uncertainty on such issues – will need to be specifically addressed. Recently Network Homes warned that its leaseholders are “on notice” for bills of up to £100,000 each to pay for the removal of non-ACM cladding and has asked the government step in to fund such remedial work to remove the liability from homeowners. As registered charities, housing associations may not be able to make blanket commitments to fund such works and pay costs for which leaseholders are legally liable.

Whilst it is clear that the government does have plans in place to improve fire safety, it is not certain whether this current momentum will last and the key question of how the removal of dangerous cladding will be funded remains unanswered. The government’s next mission is to find a financing mechanism that will allow for combustible cladding to be removed and that takes the burden off housing associations, residents and leaseholders. 

This article was originally published in 24housing.

This publication is intended for general guidance and represents our understanding of the relevant law and practice as at January 2020. Specific advice should be sought for specific cases. For more information see our terms & conditions.

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