Written evidence submitted by the Fire Sector Federation [BSB 390]
The Fire Sector Federation is a not for profit non-government organisation established to act as a forum for the discussion of fire-related issues of interest to its membership and to evolve as a central source of information on all aspects relating to fire. It brings together representatives from over 50 stakeholder bodies that make up the UK fire sector incorporating a broad spectrum of opinion. It encourages horizontal integration to help reduce silo mentality in working practices by addressing both the built and natural environment, as well as fire and rescue service issues.
The intent of the Bill is welcome. We recognise that the details to this enabling legislation are important.
The current restricted scope and emphasis on new buildings is a starting point. This scope creates the risk that the vast majority of the UK building stock may take years to become subject to the controlling regulations. This prompts the Federation to question how accountabilities and governance, risk assessment and mitigation processes, quality control and procured specifications, competency and supervision, good practice standards and guidance, regulation and oversight will be implemented for most buildings and over what time scale.
The relationship between the recently clarified Fire Safety Order and this Bill remains a challenge. Alignment between construction and occupation are key. Equally important are the competency and culture of those within the system: builders, installers and enforcers. We must also ask exactly how will the standards and guidance, that underpin our system, keep pace with the fast-moving technology that is so prevalent, indeed celebrated, as innovation in the construction industry?
We believe that the Bill must capture an holistic view that fire safety has to be embedded into personal responsibility supported by the best guidance and competency that we can create. The Bill, in that regard, leaves much unsaid.
How well does the Bill, as drafted, meet the Government’s own policy intentions?
We welcome the Government’s endeavour to create a new system based upon policy intentions that focus initially, as outlined in the explanatory memorandum, upon buildings defined as higher-risk buildings with perhaps a further classification towards multi-occupied residential buildings.
This is only part of desired regulatory change. The definition of buildings “in scope” must be extended beyond this small but very important group based on risk. This commitment is essential if the acid test of preventing another building fire catastrophe is to be avoided.
We are already aware from the impact assessments related to changes in the Fire Safety Order that existing multi-occupied residential buildings account for nearly 1.7 million buildings and that some, built with modern construction techniques, are especially vulnerable to fire. Many of these buildings are outside of the scope defined by the regulation.
The Federation’s members are also concerned that whilst life safety rightly dominates the built environment system, there are other important interdependencies that cannot and must not be ignored. A success can be defined as a fire incident with no loss of life even if the building is completely destroyed by the fire. This is an important criterion but should not be the only metric. Recent “successful” events like these where substantial buildings have been lost are rightly questioned by the wider public when community, residential and economic assets are lost. Widening the regulatory focus is essential if this is to be changed. This would require extending the remit to include property protection within the Building Act 1984 and the Building Regulations 2010.
Does the draft Bill establish an appropriate scope for the new regulatory system?
Accepting the stated intention, as drafted the Bill offers sufficient detail over a first implementation phase of the defined higher-risk multi-occupied buildings. The Federation considers there is a danger of creating a two-tier system where change only happens to those buildings “in scope”.
A two-tier system might inhibit wider industry cultural change by simply stratifying attitudes and processes that really do require to be omnipresent across the construction sector. The Federation has always promoted fire as a holistic consideration in a building recognising the risk of fire exists and must be identified, removed, or mitigated against.
The limited scope means that most buildings will not be covered by the detailed items of the new regulatory system. The regulatory impact on “out of scope” buildings is unclear.
The Federation’s principles recognise that life safety rightly dominates the built environment fire safety controls, however there are other important interdependencies that cannot and must not be ignored. Fire events since the Grenfell Tower have highlighted that we can no longer term the complete loss of structures that are key residential, community or economic assets as a success. The government’s intent is therefore seen as limited in not taking into any new controls these genuine and impactful concerns, which, in our view, translate into property protection from fire and which adversely and directly influence a cornerstone of the national economy.
Widening the intended scope is essential if the legacy of loss from fire is to be abated. This would require not simply redrafting of guidance such as Approved Document B but a shift to place property protection from fire loss in proportionality to other building control with amendments to the Building Act 1984 and the Building Regulations 2010.
The regime must also seek to redress the cultural, procurement and competency weaknesses that exist. This raises concern that limiting the approach to in-scope buildings may miss the opportunity to improve the wider building industry and challenge perceptions like, regulations benchmark the highest rather than the minimum of standards, or the view that securing the lowest cost is good practice, when these may create circumstances that result in failure.
In this regard work undertaken by the Competency Steering Group, part of the Industry Response Group, shows that improvements in raising the overall standard of competent persons are possible with third party accreditation. Third Party assurance is a vital component in safety and should be mandated.
Will the Bill provide for a robust – and realistic – system of accountability for those responsible for building safety?
Ensuring that those responsible for making decisions on fire safety design, products and works are held accountable is essential to ensure that the system does not degrade over time. Appropriate, independent monitoring and enforcement is required. The proposals address these issues for buildings “in scope” but much will depend on how the system is set up, managed and resourced. For buildings “out of scope” our reading of the Bill means that this accountability is less clear. For all buildings the accountabilities should be clear.
Will the Bill provide strong mechanisms to ensure residents are listened to when they have concerns about their building’s safety?
The Federation’s members generally have limited direct engagement with residents other than when contracted to work in occupied residential premises and in those cases, engagement is often constrained by the client-contractor relationship. No opinion is offered other than to acknowledge the mechanisms appear to have been well considered.
Is the Government right to propose a new Building Safety Charge? Does the bill introduce sufficient protections to ensure that leaseholders do not face excessive charges and that their funds are properly managed?
It is known that there has been considerable concern amongst leaseholders in the private sector residential housing sector after the introduction of the cladding ban, the consolidated guidance on external walls and the property valuators’ external wall survey form which effectively seized the property market. The Federation has no great insight into whether these proposals will either improve or adversely impact, through hidden consequences, the current situation.
Does the Bill improve the product testing regime in a way that will command the full confidence of the sector?
The structure around regulating construction products is welcome. The Federation through its members is already heavily engaged in many product test areas such as those related to automatic fire protection, smoke ventilation, doors, glazing and passive fire protection, etc. as well as having a long history of managing test facilities and assuring performance reliability and credibility for construction and fire safety products.
The Federation believes that large-scale system testing is a reliable, independently certified source of information that can provide an easily identifiable benchmark of fire performance for Responsible Persons Fire Authorities and Building Control.
Proposals that bring these assurance processes alongside other essential matters, like product tracking and traceability to secure safe product substitution within construction systems, are judged as prerequisites if construction activities are to meet the approved specifications that underpin the design safety strategies of buildings and allow safe alterations and modification for occupied premises.
This is especially so in the construction sector, which is recognised as dynamic and innovative, where third party assurance offers a safeguard to clients and users that the building they are investing in or occupying is built of quality materials that will perform within criteria judged as relevant and appropriate to the task.
Is it right that the new Building Safety Regulator be established under the Health and Safety Executive, and how should it be funded?
We believe the first question is irrelevant as it has already been decided. It is however important that the Building Safety Regulator, whether HSE or any other body, correctly recognises the complexity of managing the multitude of relationships and legal controls that affect new and legacy buildings, not simply those initially “in scope”, given the subsequent wide remit of the construction industry.
The notion that the regulatory system is there only to prevent catastrophe is contrary to our holistic view and the appointment of the HSE as the Regulator somewhat reinforces that perception. We must recognise that most construction activity is in legacy properties which requires a regulatory system not reliant upon self-compliance and prosecution after failure.
The above concern highlights the importance of the link between Regulator and Enforcer. Building Control and Fire Authorities fulfil the substantive role of the latter and that relationship is already subject to considerable financial pressure, which has seen declines in staff who are able to inspect, give advice and assist designers, contractors, clients, residents, etc. This funding needs to be addressed and maintained over time.
Responsibility for fire safety in all stages of a building’s life must be understood, delineated and correctly attributed between the differing stakeholders. Expanding enforcement guidance would also assist in this regard.
Given that the HSE will ultimately operate as its own auditor, two questions need to be addressed. Will this provide sufficient oversight of its own performance as Regulator? Will the existing mechanism be adequate to manage the interests involved in building control and the wider construction sector?
Does the Bill present an opportunity to address other building safety issues, such as requirements for sprinkler systems?
Through the application of safety cases and an explicit review for building certification, the application of safety measures like automatic fire sprinklers will have to be competently reviewed and assessed. This means that for buildings “in scope” the provision of sprinklers will have to be addressed. For those outside of the scope this will fall to the existing Fire Safety Order and enforcement. This is largely “self-regulation” and will remain unchanged.
The Bill alone needs to be coupled with extensive updates to existing Building Regulation Guidance to ensure that all buildings are designed and constructed to be resilient to fire so they will be safer for occupants and better able to survive fire events. Guidance linked to enforcement is a key feature in this control process and the past few years have shown that within existing controls effective action can happen, such as that on ACM and non-ACM cladding.
 National Social Housing Fire Strategy Group