14 January 2019
On 16 January 2019, the Assembly will hold a debate on the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee report: Fire Safety in High-Rise Buildings (private sector) (PDF, 612KB) .
The fire that engulfed Grenfell Tower in the early hours of 14 June 2017 cost seventy-two people their lives. The subsequent impact of the fire on the survivors, bereaved and wider community cannot be understated. It was the largest loss of life to fire in the United Kingdom since the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988. That a tragedy of this scale could happen in London shocked many and focused attention on other high-rise developments across the country; not just the safety of how we design, build and manage high-rise residential buildings, but also how we listen to and respect the views of the people who call a high-rise building home.
Soon after the fire, the Prime Minister announced there would be an independent public inquiry, and this is ongoing. The inquiry’s aim is to establish the facts and it will make recommendations as to the action needed to prevent a similar tragedy happening again. Additionally, Dame Judith Hackitt was appointed by the UK Government to undertake a review of building regulations and fire safety. Dame Judith’s final report was published in May 2018. The Welsh Government has also taken a wide range of action, including establishing a Fire Safety Advisory Group and subsequently a Building Safety Expert Group. The Welsh Government’s website provides a list of frequently asked questions relating to its actions following the fire.
Soon after the fire, the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee decided to carry out its own inquiry into high-rise fire safety in Wales. It took evidence from a range of stakeholders, with the initial focus being on social housing. The Committee was reassured that social landlords in Wales, the Fire and Rescue Services and the Welsh Government had immediately sought to provide assurances to residents and taken steps to make buildings safe. However, a number of issues of concern were highlighted to the Welsh Government, including the effectiveness of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (known as the Fire Safety Order) andthe skills and qualifications of people undertaking fire risk assessments.
The Committee followed-up this initial work in autumn 2018 with further oral evidence sessions where the focus was on private sector buildings. In its report, published in November 2018, the Committee made 14 recommendations. The Welsh Government response (PDF, 493KB) to the recommendations was published in January 2019. Eight were accepted in full, five in principle. One recommendation, to only allow local authority building control to act as the regulator of high-rise residential buildings, was rejected at this time.
The Committee called for agents managing high-rise residential buildings to be regulated. In accepting this recommendation, the Welsh Government highlighted wider work being undertaken on leasehold reform and plans to adopt the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) Service Charge Residential Management Code.
Recommendations relating to fire doors, and ensuring that the Fire and Rescue Services are involved in the early stages of the planning and building regulations processes were also accepted.
The Committee recommended that the Fire Safety Order should be replaced during the current Assembly term. This recommendation was accepted in principle by the Welsh Government and Julie James AM, the Minister for Housing and Local Government (who is now responsible for building safety matters), agreed that it needs to be “…radically reformed or replaced.” However, the Minister said this “…will require a significant piece, or pieces, of primary legislation. This will take time and careful consideration to ensure a new system for building safety is clear, joined-up, practicable and effective.” The Minister made it clear that this could mean this work may not be completed during the current Assembly term.
The Committee also addressed concerns about who would pay for any remedial work required in private sector blocks, such as replacing cladding or installing fire alarms. The Committee called for continued liaison with the UK Government to identify any common approaches that can be taken in relation to addressing concerns about the cost of remedial work and leaseholders being held liable. The Welsh Government accepted this recommendation and noted that replacement of Aluminium Composite Material cladding in Wales has been, and is being, funded by developers or building owners, rather than by individual leaseholders.
The Committee will continue to take a close interest in how its recommendations are taken forward and, given the enormous public interest in this issue, it seems likely there will be further debate in the Assembly on this issue throughout 2019. Article by Jonathan Baxter, National Assembly for Wales Research Service
Article by Jonathan Baxter, National Assembly for Wales Research Service