On April 2nd 2020, the Government announced changes to building regulations with the creation of a new national Building Safety Regulator, a role run completely by the Health and Safety Executive.
The new regulator will be at the heart of building safety reforms and its main function will be to oversee the design, construction and occupation of high-risk buildings; this includes high-rise but crucially also any building which is deemed ‘high risk’, a far wider classification. The new stringent regulatory regime will apply to all multi-occupied residential buildings of at least 18 metres in height, but more buildings will be added to the portfolio based on their evidence of risk as time passes.
Independent and impartial advice will be available to all from the Building Safety Regulator – landlords, building owners, the construction industry and residents.
The role of the new Building Regulator and fire safety
The remit for the new Building Regulator has already been announced and almost all of the listed responsibilities will have a bearing on fire safety:-
- Implanting and enforcing a more stringent regulatory regime for higher risk buildings
- Increasing the competency of those working on building safety
- Responsibility for all major regulatory decisions made at key points during construction, occupation and refurbishment of buildings
- Promotion and enforcing the rights of residents to receive information about the safety of their building
The Building Safety Regulator is a ‘hands-on’ role which will involve ongoing integration in the key aspects of building safety management with regular reviews and liaison with Building Safety Managers, a newly defined role which acts as the link between the residents of the building, management companies and the regulator.
The Government has also been working on other key legislative priorities during the COVID-19 pandemic and top amongst these has been fire safety within the residential block industry. Changes are coming prompted in no small part by Dame Hackitt’s review, “Building a Safer Future”, and the Grenfell Tower enquiry. These changes include:-
- Mandatory installation of sprinklers in all new high-rise blocks over 11 metres in height usually 4 storeys
- Consistent ‘wayfinding signage’ in high rise blocks for absolute clarity of evacuation in the event of a fire
- Commissioning a full technical review of Building Regulations Approved Document B (Fire Safety)
Another key element in the Government’s fire safety strategy is the Fire Safety Act 2021, which officially passed the parliamentary process on 29th April 2021. Its intention is to clarify parts of The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 and particularly the status of the ‘responsible person’. The ‘responsible person’ of a residential block of flats now has additional duties included in their scope of managing and reducing the risk of fire for:-
- The structure and external walls of the building, including cladding, balconies and windows
- Entrance doors to individual flats that open into common areas
There is now a legal requirement on the owners of residential buildings to inspect cladding, fire doors including the flat entrance doors and there are powers to hold them accountable if they are not compliant.
This Act builds on the first draft of recommendations which have come out of Phase One of The Grenfell Tower Inquiry and which has a number of key recommendations: –
- that building owners should regularly undertake inspections of the lifts with the results being fed through to the local fire and rescue services
- evacuation plans must be reviewed regularly to ensure they are fit for purpose and updated as required
- personal risk assessments and evacuation plans must be provided for every individual resident whose ability to evacuate may be compromised for any reason
- fire safety information and instructions must be provided to residents in a form that they can understand
- where the external walls of the building have unsafe cladding, individual flat entrance doors must comply with current safety standards.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping people safe and not taking their eye off the ball has still been a priority for the Government in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. In just the same way, fire safety has not been allowed to slip through the net, whilst the focus for building owners and landlords has been on COVID-19 and managing the unique issues for residents in lockdown.
Fire remains the major risk it always has been, and fire safety remains at the heart of measures implemented during lockdown, despite the distraction posed by other issues in this global pandemic. Regulators and safety bodies have been working hard to ensure fire regulations remain fit for purpose both during the lockdown and the period of time whilst it is being lifted and remains a level of disruption to the normal patterns of people’s daily lives.
Fire, health and safety requirements continue to be a legal requirement and the new changes proposed by the Government will ensure a big step up for resident safety in both new builds and existing multi-occupancy properties. Building Safety Managers will be expressly appointed, and their identity clearly displayed in a prominent location in communal parts of the building. The British Standards Institute (BSI) will implement a Strategy Group to advise on the creation of a suite of national standards that will define a common set of principles and language providing a defined framework for the new Building Safety Manager to operate within. There will be a live golden thread of communicable information relating to fire issues and structural safety controlled by the Building Safety Manager and overseen by the Building Safety Regulator.
The Building Safety Manager will be responsible for assessing and managing fire and structural safety risks. One of the specified tasks of the Building Safety Manager will be to produce and implement a Resident Engagement Strategy; the Government is keen to hear the voice of residents as part of this new regime and involve the occupants of buildings as key stakeholders in their own fire safety requirements with new legal accountability for their behaviour. There will be clear and prescribed channels of communication between all the different levels and agencies involving residents in the decisions made about the building they occupy. The new order envisages a collective, shared and transparent responsibility and accountability for fire safety.
Clearly keen to act swiftly on the lessons learned from the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the new protocol will provide a complete definition of the legal position and a clear line of open accountability. This provides reassurance to residents in both new builds and existing multi-occupancy properties with specific safety measures clearly laid out to protect the occupants of at-risk buildings from the threat of fire. Expect to see changes to the management of your block and proactive communication from the new Building Safety Manager. These are all designed to enhance safety and inspire residents with confidence that there are informed and up-to-date systems in place to protect them.