House of Commons debate, Fire safety in retirement communities, 9 November 2021

We welcome the introduction of the Fire Safety Act and the Building Safety Bill and hope they will be an important step in the right direction. We are however concerned about some of the practicalities of the implementation of new fire safety legislation for both resident safety and local authorities.


Key messages

  • We welcome the introduction of the Fire Safety Act and the Building Safety Bill and hope they will be an important step in the right direction. We are however concerned about some of the practicalities of the implementation of new fire safety legislation for both resident safety and local authorities.
  • The LGA has been calling for councils and fire services to be given effective powers and meaningful sanctions to ensure residents are safe, and feel safe, in their homes, including in retirement communities.
  • A concern we raised in our written evidence to the Public Bill Committee for the Building Safety Bill is that the scope of the Bill is too narrow and that height (18 metres and above) is too crude a basis to determine risk.
  • Height is only one factor in determining risk. Others factors include the vulnerability of occupants, which in some cases may be heightened in retirement communities; the number of protected means of escape; the provision of fire alarms and automatic fire suppression systems; and the means of construction.
  • To ensure new legislation is successful in protecting lives, central government must ensure that local government is reimbursed for any additional costs arising out of the operational changes mandated by fire safety legislation.
  • The LGA shares concerns voiced by the London Fire Brigade around serious fire safety failures in some buildings housing those at heightened risk of the danger of fire. Namely, that some properties have inadequate or poorly maintained fire doors, there can be widespread confusion about fire evacuation strategies, and there is sometimes a lack of experience among those carrying our fire risk assessments.
  • The LGA also shares concerns raised by the National Fire Chief’s Council around changes that need to be made to non-worsening provisions of the Building Regulations. This is also an issue we raised in our submission to the Fire Safety Consultation. Where raising standards in all cases of refurbishment is not deliverable, it is critical that fire safety and access for those with disabilities is maintained at a high threshold when any change is made to an existing building.
  • The built environment contributes around 40 per cent of the UK’s total carbon footprint. Almost half of this is from energy used in buildings. As the Government seeks to decrease the impact of stored carbon in the built environment and move towards net zero, there is an opportunity to ensure that fire safety and reasonable life safety improvements are simultaneously addressed and considered.

Building Safety Bill

  • There are, however, concerns. While costs to leaseholders remain a significant issue, we are also concerned about some of the practicalities of the implementation of new fire safety legislation for both resident safety and local authorities.
  • The scope of the higher-risk regime is too narrow, and height is too crude a basis for it. A better approach would be:
    • For new buildings: The Gateways that will be created under the Bill’s amendments to the Building Act 1984 should apply to all major works. This should include buildings under 18 metres where the local authority remains the building control authority.
    • For existing buildings: Adapt the Building Prioritisation Tool that has been developed for the Fire Safety Act to identify the higher risk buildings.
  • The LGA shares the view of the London Fire Brigade that occupancy should be considered as a factor in determining the scope of the new building safety regime, as there will be buildings under 18 metres housing predominantly vulnerable residents which carry more risk.
  • To ensure new legislation is successful in protecting lives, central government must ensure that local government is reimbursed for any additional costs arising out of the operational changes mandated by fire safety legislation.

Fire Safety Act

  • We welcomed the introduction of the Fire Safety Bill (now Act) as an important step in the right direction.
  • Throughout the Bill’s parliamentary passage, the LGA worked with the Government and stakeholders to voice concerns around some of the practicalities of the Bill, how it aligns with the Building Safety Bill, and the costs it may impose on councils and other building owners.
  • The LGA continually made the case during the Bill’s passage that in order for the legislation to be successful in protecting lives, national government must ensure that local government is reimbursed for any additional costs arising out of the operational changes mandated.
  • We also made the case during the passage of this Bill, and in relation to the Building Safety Bill, that the chronic shortage of fire engineering and similar expertise in the UK needs to be addressed. The Government should set up degree, conversion, and apprenticeship schemes to address this shortfall, as without greater expert capacity the Fire Safety Bill may fail.
  • The LGA is still waiting to hear whether the additional costs to social landlords of meeting the new requirements will be funded by Government, if it is not then maintenance and construction budgets will be hit.

Sprinklers

  • The LGA welcomes the Government’s recognition of concerns around sprinkler provision. We await direct action to redress the inadequate sprinkler provision, especially in buildings housing vulnerable people.
  • We agree with the London Fire Brigade that sprinklers should be fitted in all new residential care homes and sheltered (specialised) accommodation, and existing residential care homes and sheltered (specialised) accommodation (retrofitting).
  • LGA-commissioned research by Savills estimated that the total costs to deliver compliance with the highest safety standards (including the installation of sprinklers and compartmentation across the entire Housing Revenue Account council housing stock) at £8.1 billion over a 10-year period, with most of the investment taking place in the first five years. It is important that this funded by central government.

Combustible materials

  • The ban on combustible materials on external walls announced by the government in 2018 applies to the high-rise buildings over 18 metres, as well as care homes and hospitals over 18 metres.
  • While the Government has consulted on further reducing the height threshold to 11 metres, occupancy is still not taken into account and the vast majority of sheltered housing, care homes and hospitals will be below the height thresholds and therefore unprotected by this legislation. Buildings where there is an evacuation strategy which relies on a delay (for example, stay put, phased or progressive horizontal evacuation) should be designed in such a way that fire spread on the exterior of the building should not compromise safety.

Contact

Jonah Munn, Public Affairs and Campaigns Adviser

[email protected]