With the return of Parliament from its summer recess, the Building Safety Bill has entered its Committee Stage in the Commons. This marks the latest phase of the government’s plans for far-reaching reform of building regulations. The plans – born of the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire – are likely to result in a significantly different operating environment for the construction industry; investors in the sector will need to pay close attention to the proposals, and the changes are also likely to present a number of opportunities in related sectors.
The fire at the 24-storey Grenfell Tower on 14 June 2017 claimed the lives of 72 people, with dozens more seriously injured. Combustible cladding surrounding the building was found to have exacerbated the disaster, allowing the flames to spread and engulf the tower. As a result, the principal focus of the government’s funding initiatives to date has been to ensure the removal of both aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding and other combustible non-ACM claddings from high-risk buildings. £5 billion has been allocated to cladding-removal schemes, including:
- At the Budget in March 2020, the government announced that it would provide £1 billion in 2020/21 – the Building Safety Fund – for the remediation of unsafe non-ACM cladding on residential buildings 18m tall and over, in both the private and social housing sectors.
- On 10 February 2021, the government announced a further £3.5 billion to fund the cost of replacing unsafe cladding for all leaseholders in residential buildings 18m tall or more in England.
Buildings under 18m tall but over 11m, with a lower safety risk, have access to protection from the costs of cladding removal via long-term, low-interest, government-backed financing arrangements, which will see no leaseholder pay more than £50 per month for cladding removal works. Leaseholder groups have voiced their opposition to leaseholders being liable for the removal of cladding and – while the government has not indicated it will change its approach – it remains under considerable political pressure to do so.
The Hackitt review found widespread shortcomings in current building regulation
The Grenfell Tower disaster has also precipitated a comprehensive review of fire safety and building regulations, led by former Chair of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Dame Judith Hackitt. The recommendations of that review have formed the basis for the legislation which the government subsequently introduced.
The Hackitt review published its final report in May 2018, having found a “system failure” in the current regulatory regime. The report found that:
- The roles and responsibilities of those procuring, designing, constructing and maintaining buildings were unclear;
- The current suite of regulations and guidance (in the form of Approved Documents) were ambiguous and inconsistent;
- The processes that drive compliance with building safety requirements were weak and complex, with poor record keeping and change control practices widespread;
- Competence across the system was inconsistent;
- The product testing, labelling and marketing regime was opaque and insufficient; and
- The concerns of residents often went unheard, even when safety issues were identified.
As a result, the review recommended a new, overhauled regulatory framework, designed to be simpler, provide stronger and clearer oversight of dutyholders, and provide more robust means for residents to raise safety concerns than under the previous system. The review recommended that initial focus of this new regime be on multi-occupancy higher-risk residential buildings (HRRBs) or 10 storeys or more, and would include specific safety measures for each of the design, construction, occupation and refurbishment phases of a building’s life.
The Fire Safety Act has been approved by Parliament, but is not yet in force
As part of its efforts to implement the Hackitt review’s recommendations, the government introduced the Fire Safety Bill – amending the existing Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 – in March 2020. The Bill passed into law on 29 April 2021 but is not yet in force.
The Act applies to all multi-occupancy residential buildings, regardless of their height, and introduces significant new obligations on those in control of multi-occupancy buildings. These “Responsible Persons” (RPs) will now have an obligation to “reduce” as well assess and manage fire risks, and risk assessments will now have to include the risks posed by the structure and external walls of the building, as well as by any individual doors opening on the common parts of the building. In seeking to make these new assessments, there may be increased demand from RPs from specialist fire-safety consultants. Businesses providing these services may represent an opportunity for investors.
The government has said that it will not enforce the Act until it has finalised comprehensive risk-based guidance to aid compliance. The considerable additional duties on RPSs will be accompanied by severe new penalties for non-compliance, with criminal prosecutions and unlimited fines possible in the most significant cases. RPs and investors in the space will therefore want to be very familiar with the guidance, which is likely to be published in the autumn.
The related Building Safety Bill is still before Parliament
The government published the Building Safety Bill in July 2021, having promised it in May’s Queen’s Speech. It will begin its Committee Stage in the Commons on 9 September 2021 and will likely pass into law in early 2023.
As in the case of the Fire Safety Act which it complements, the Building Safety Bill is set to introduce new obligations for the controllers of multi-occupancy builders, and provisions which will have a considerable impact on the sector. Chief among these provisions is the creation of a new regulator – the Building Safety Regulator – which will operate as a division of the HSE and have substantial enforcement and prosecutorial powers. This move represents a centralisation of oversight compared to the current regime, in which developers have been able to choose a local authority of an approved inspector for higher-risk buildings.
The Bill will introduce tougher sanctions for non-compliance. Directors or managers of companies responsible for high-rise residential blocks will be personally liable for safety failures, and the most serious cases will carry the potential for two-year prison sentences. Similarly, neglecting to register buildings with the new regulator, or failure to apply for a buildings assessment certificate when required could result in criminal actions.
Taking up a recommendation of the Hackitt review, the Bill will seek to introduce a “golden thread” of information and documentation sharing through new responsibilities to collaborate between all responsible parties from development to construction, to occupation, to refurbishment. Ensuring that the “golden thread” is comprehensive and robust is likely to require significant digital transformation and expansion activities; investors will want to pay close attention to specialist firms offering promising technologies in support of this goal, as these may present considerable growth opportunities.
The outlook for investors
The new regulations will entail significant changes for the building sector and, while the new regime is unlikely to come into force until next year at the earliest, investors will want to monitor the evolution of the government’s guidance over the next few months in order to ensure that portfolio or target companies remain fully compliant. The new regime also looks set to drive growth in related sectors – not least specialist safety consultants to meet new risk-assessment requirements and digital technologies to ensure reliable information sharing among responsible stakeholders. Investors should pay close attention to these areas to maximise their opportunities under a regime which, the government hopes, will ensure that the tragedies of 2017 are not repeated.