Y Pwyllgor Cydraddoldeb, Llywodraeth Leol a Chymunedau

Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee

25/02/2021

Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

Dawn Bowden AS
Delyth Jewell AS
John Griffiths AS Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor
Committee Chair
Laura Anne Jones AS
Mandy Jones AS

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Andrew Thomas Uwch-swyddog Rheoli Adeiladau, y Gweithgor Diogelwch Tân, Sefydliad Brenhinol y Syrfewyr Siartredig
Senior Building Control officer, Fire Safety working Group
Bob Mason Pennaeth Diogelwch Tân Busnes, Gwasanaeth Tân ac Achub Gogledd Cymru
Head of Business Fire Safety, North Wales Fire and Rescue Service
Jason Clarke Pennaeth Rheolaeth Risg, Warwick Estates
Head of Risk Management, Warwick Estates
Mark Snelling Pennaeth, Cynghorydd Diogelwch a Thân, ARMA
Health, Safety and Fire Advisor, ARMA
Nigel Glen Prif Weithredwr, y Gymdeithas Asiantaethau Rheoli Preswyl (ARMA)
Chief Exectuive Officer, ARMA
Owen Jayne Rheolwr Grŵp, Pennaeth Diogelwch Tân Busnes, Gwasanaeth Tân ac Achub De Cymru
Group Manager, Head of Business Fire Safety, South Wales Fire and Rescue Service
Paul Edwards Uwch Gyfarwyddwr Rhanbarthol, Cyngor Cenedlaethol Adeiladu Tai (NHBC)
Senior Regional Director, NHBC
Peter Richards Cadeirydd, Rheolaeth Adeiladu Awdurdodau Lleol (LABC) Cymru
Chair, Local Authority Building Control Cymru
Siôn Slaymaker Rheolwr Grŵp, Pennaeth Diogelwch Tân Busnes, Gwasanaeth Tân ac Achub Canolbarth a Gorllewin Cymru
Group Manager, Head of Business Fire Safety, Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service

Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol

Senedd Officials in Attendance

Catherine Hunt Ail Glerc
Second Clerk
Chloe Davies Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk
Jonathan Baxter Ymchwilydd
Researcher
Naomi Stocks Clerc
Clerk
Stephen Davies Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol
Legal Adviser

Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.

The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.

Cyfarfu'r pwyllgor drwy gynhadledd fideo.

Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 13:29.

The committee met by video-conference.

The meeting began at 13:29. 

1. Cyflwyniad, ymddiheuriadau, dirprwyon a datgan buddiannau
1. Introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest

[Inaudible.]—Communities Committee. Item 1 on our agenda today is introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest. In accordance with Standing Order 34.19, I have determined that the public are excluded from the committee's meeting in order to protect public health. In accordance with Standing Order 34.21, notice of this decision was included in the agenda for this meeting, published on Monday of this week. This meeting is however being broadcast live on Senedd.tv, with all participants joining via video-conference and a Record of Proceedings will be published as usual. Aside from the procedural adaptation relating to conducting proceedings remotely, all other Standing Order requirements remain in place. The meeting is bilingual, and simultaneous translation from Welsh to English is available.

Just to remind all participants that the microphones will be controlled centrally, so there's no need to turn them on or off individually. And when a participant is called to speak, the microphone will be turned on centrally. Are there any declarations of interest? No. We've one apology—. Sorry, Mandy.

13:30

Yes. The only declaration I can put is that I actually have the flat in Cardiff, which we're having problems with, with the rendering and covering. So, I thought I'd better mention that.

Okay. Thank you very much, Mandy.

We've had one apology today from Huw Irranca-Davies, with no substitution, and Delyth Jewell MS will be leaving the meeting after agenda item 2. If, for any reason, I drop out of this meeting, the committee has agreed that Dawn Bowden MS will temporarily chair while I seek to rejoin.

2. Ymchwiliad i ddiogelwch tân mewn tyrau o fflatiau yng Nghymru (Papur Gwyn Llywodraeth Cymru - Adeiladau Mwy Diogel yng Nghymru: Ymgynghoriad): sesiwn dystiolaeth 1
2. Inquiry into fire safety in high rise blocks in Wales (Welsh Government white paper - Safer Buildings in Wales: A Consultation): evidence session 1

Okay, then, item 2 on our agenda today is our inquiry into fire safety in high-rise blocks in Wales, including the Welsh Government's recent White Paper, 'Safer buildings in Wales: a consultation'.

Our first evidence session today, then, is with the fire and rescue services. And let me welcome Owen Jayne, group manager, head of business fire safety for South Wales Fire and Rescue Service, Siôn Slaymaker, group manager, head of business fire safety, Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service and Bob Mason, head of business fire safety, North Wales Fire and Rescue Service. Welcome to you all and thank you for coming along to give evidence to committee today. If it's okay with you, we'll move straight into questions, and I'll begin. First of all, then, in terms of the scope of the new building safety regime, to what extent do you agree that the scope of that new building safety regime is appropriate? Who would like to begin? Siôn.

Diolch. I think, yes, generally. This time last year, we responded to the building safety position statement, which was one of the precursors to the consultation document that came out, and as part of that building safety position statement, we suggested that the height threshold of 11m should be considered, as opposed to the 18m that was widely regarded at that time. So, it's very welcome to see that this proposal has gone, indeed, a step further than that, and now encompasses all buildings, regardless of height, albeit with the categorisation.

I'll say from the outset that I think that the proposals in front of us will probably form the basis for the most comprehensive building safety regime in the UK. I think that the fact now that we've brought in—or the proposals are considering bringing in—categorisation based on height and storey numbers, will avoid what we often see with gaming the system with the height based purely on metres or feet.

Okay. Well, thank you very much for that, Siôn. Obviously, if either Owen or Bob have anything to add or even to disagree, then please feel free to do so, but if not, we'll take it that you're content with that. Owen.

I totally agree with my colleague there. The one thing I would like to see clarification on is this opportunity to game from developers, because what we've seen in the past is developers will build a construction to 17.9m, and in the proposals, although it says 18m and above six floors, there's still that opportunity for gaming where they'll build it to 17.9m, six floors, and then they'll go into category 2 according to the description in the proposal. So, I would like to see the wording 'six floors and above', rather than '18m and above six floors', because above six floors would then be seven floors, and that allows a bit of gaming between category 1 and category 2.

13:35

Thanks very much for that, that's very useful.

Just building on the appropriateness of the new regime, then, and the two categories of buildings, I take it from what you said, Siôn, that you think that's appropriate and that the more onerous standards that will apply to buildings of 18m or taller are also appropriate. Is that your view?

That would certainly be the case. I think that bringing in the additional duties across the full range of buildings will make sure that those premises that are fewer than six storeys in height or your houses in multiple occupation will have additional responsibilities that will ultimately make those residents safer. So, specifically, the need to have written fire risk assessments and to make sure that those residents are engaged with.

Okay. Anything to add, Owen or Bob, to that or are you content? Yes, Owen.

Again, agreeing with my colleague. There are a number of buildings that don't come into scope at the moment within the building safety regime, and those are like hospitals, care homes and premises that fall under the specialised housing guide. I think, in south Wales, we'd like to see those brought into scope.

I see. I know that there's been a suggestion that single flats above commercial premises might be included. Is that something that you would support or that you've given some thought to?

Yes. That forms quite a bit of our work, to be honest, single flats above commercial shops, so it would be interesting to see those brought into scope as well, yes.

Only to add to what Owen has said there. Obviously, there are two regimes that would be in place then, but I'm sure that we can come up with a solution that would address that. As Owen has said, the commercial premises and the flats above them are a high-risk area for us, and one that we would really like to see this legislation address.

It was just to support the point of view put across by Owen and Bob there in terms of flats above commercial premises. They are a key focus or a key business area for us, unfortunately, in terms of our emergency response. And bearing in mind that this proposal has gone so much further into bringing buildings into scope, it would be good if we could go that final step and bring flats above commercial premises into scope as well.

Yes, okay. Thanks very much. We'll move on then to Laura Jones. Laura.

Thank you, Chair. Thank you, gentlemen. What impact might the scope of the proposals have on the resources of the fire and rescue services?

I'll start then. It's going to have a significant impact on our resources. It's bringing a lot of buildings into scope that we don't currently—they don't sit on our risk-based inspection programme. The fact that the gateway process that the Welsh Government have proposed—we're now involved in gateway 1 to 3—currently, we only sit in gateway 2 with building regs applications. So, it's going to increase our involvement right throughout the process, and quite rightly, we agree with it, but it's going to add to our resources.

Also, we could get drawn into an appeals process if we feel that the safety case or the planning doesn't actually meet our requirements, there's a possibility of us getting drawn into appeals processes, as we deem them not suitable.

And I think it's the unintended consequence, I suppose—that the auditing regime will change, where we'll have to take into account now balconies, the façades of buildings, external cladding. That doesn't currently sit within our audit regime, so audits will inevitably take longer and be more complex, and the algorithms that sit behind all our processes will have to be amended. So, that's just a number of things. I'm sure my colleagues will have more to add.

I think Owen's covered the majority of the points there that I had down. I think, in terms of the increase in resource utilisation, as well as our protection activities with business fire safety, some of the proposals in the document will undoubtedly unwelcomely affect our prevention activities, our traditional community safety activities, where residents and accountable persons will engage for general and fire safety advice. So that’s another consequence.

I think in terms of talking about resources, I suppose policy without resources is often quite difficult to implement, and I notice that, in the economic impact assessment, there’s a discussion there within the document about the additional resource requirements, and that relates to one or two full-time equivalent fire officers as part of that resource. I think for the regulatory element, which, no doubt, we’ll discuss a little later, that may be sufficient—yet to be determined—but I think there is whole host of resource implications within the proposal that wouldn’t be captured as part of that.

13:40

Yes, just further to add that I think that we need to take into account the desire from other bodies to have the fire safety knowledge that we have and the impact that that might have on our resources. We may find that staff are enticed away from us because of the requirements of the White Paper to improve fire safety knowledge in other areas. So that, again, could have a long-term impact on us.

Thank you. That’s quite an impact then.

What more should be done to address existing buildings with insufficient fire safety measures?

I’ll start on this one. Clearly, the White Paper does really cover off most of the areas that we would expect to see, and I think the only thing that we would possibly want to see is some more work in terms of joining up the residential premises with the existing regulatory reform Order. The White Paper identifies that there are challenges there between the two strands, and we’d like to see some commonality. There’s a lot of good practice within the White Paper that might be useful to carry over into the RRO.

Okay. Does anyone else want to comment on that, or is that—? Okay. Owen.

Yes, sorry, just to welcome the witness statement from Welsh Government about the funding for remediation work. We’re currently dealing with a number of buildings in south Wales that are going through this sort of remedial work, and it would be interesting to show there’s a clear mechanism for accessing those funds that they’ve made available, and urgently, I suppose, because a lot of them are going through it now. Yes, so, just a bit I wanted to add, really.

Siôn. I never know if I’m going to say it or you, John—sorry. [Laughter.]

For me, I think it’s recognition that we do everything that we can for existing buildings within the scope of the legislation that we’ve got, and that’s the concurrent regulation that we’ve got between ourselves and local authorities through the housing Act. I think there are some areas of crossover that could probably be strengthened, but I think as part of the consultation proposals, I think the joint inspection team will give that added oversight for buildings with existing fire safety deficiencies. And certainly, the amendments to the Fire Safety Bill to bring your front doors, balconies and so on into scope, that will certainly assist us with making those buildings safer.

Okay, thank you. How will the proposals in the White Paper ensure that the fire and rescue service has the information it needs about individual buildings to respond to a major fire? And what impact can inadequate information about a building have in the case of a serious incident?

Yes, I suppose with the information that’s proposed, the golden thread, so that you’ve got information right from the construction phase to occupation, providing that that information is made available and it’s kept current—. And how we do that and how we share that is going to be interesting on the various platforms and formats we’ve got across the local authorities and fire service. But it’s key to us that we’ve got current information on how that building is going to react and confidence that the measures that should be in place are in place. And I suppose, if we’ve got the most up-to-date planning information, that could be put on a platform so that our initial crews have it. So it’s key to us, but how we maintain the currency of that information is going to be difficult. It's going to inform our site-specific risk information, it's going to inform our initial action plans for dealing with a fire at the property. So, it's key to us, but it's how we have that information shared and on what platform, really.

13:45

I suppose the basis of responding to any incident is that you make your tactical plan based on the information that's available at that time to aid decision making. So, with that question, where the information is lacking or where we didn't have it, it would simply provide less intelligence to make those tactical decisions at an incident. Having that extra range of information through the key data set and so on will undoubtedly aid our response to any major incident.

Can I also add that I think we need to be mindful of the numbers of buildings that we're talking about here? Certainly with category 1 buildings, I think the information that we're discussing here would be very, very useful and needs to be available. We may find it's very difficult to produce and to get the same level of information or a level of information that's suitable for firefighters with the wide range, or the large number, of category 2 buildings that are out there, and if we try and enforce that, it will again increase our work. It comes back to the resourcing issue that you asked about previously. It can be done, but it will need support from all of the regulatory bodies to achieve that goal.

Diolch. Can I ask you first, please, what involvement does the fire and rescue service have at the moment in the design and construction phase of high-rise residential buildings, and do you think the proposals in the White Paper, like the gateway stop points, go far enough—whoever wants to go first?

Currently, we are a consultee on the building control levels. That's equivalent to the gateway 2 as proposed. And we will often, unfortunately, only get consulted after the buildings are starting to come out of the ground, and this can cause us problems at gateway 1. There have been some changes to legislation proposed that will make us statutory consultees to planning applications, but, at the moment, we only get that notification should a planning agency think that there is a fire service requirement to do so. So, that's just on the cusp of changing slightly. But, at gateway 1, there's no proposal within the White Paper to add a detailed fire strategy, and I know that colleagues in England are looking at this, and coming up with a slightly more detailed submission than is proposed within the White Paper, where we're still talking largely about water supplies and access, which are things that we deal with currently through the planning process. So, there may be an opportunity there for us to start to engage with the designers at that point, and then stay engaged all the way through, which I think is certainly my experience; when a process works well is when the designers do engage you early on, and you stay engaged all the way through, and you understand what the problems are and you can work with them to come up with suitable solutions.

So, that's the situation of the moment. We have a little bit of input at gateway 1 and that will become slightly more going forward, and, at gateway 2, we are consultees but not statutory consultees, and that can sometimes cause problems with the information that we get and the timelines that we're working to.

Thanks, Bob. Does anyone want to add anything to that? You're both happy? So, turning to the occupation phase and specifically the proposals for buildings to have an accountable person, do you think that that meets the needs of your service, and do you think that will help with engagement and enforcement, or are there any concerns that you have? Owen.

I think the accountable person is going to make it easier. Historically with the buildings we've been dealing with, over the last number of years, it's been very difficult to pin down the responsible person under the Order. When you look at the complexities of lease, headleases, landowners, property developers, if the accountable person is registered and they have appropriate qualifications, it's going to make it easier for any enforcement activity or any discussions on whether we are going to assist the buildings in whatever capacity. If that accountable person is identified and registered, ultimately, it's going to make our job easier. We can spend an inordinate amount of time and legal involvement in trying to pin down responsible persons. 

13:50

Thank you. We may have lost Bob. I can't see Bob's screen anymore. Siôn, do you want to add anything? 

Really, just to reiterate what Owen said. The first piece of work that we've always got whenever we have to do any work with residential buildings or, indeed, any type of building, is to identify the responsible person. So, having a register, having a go-to and knowing who that person is will certainly help in terms of identifying that person at an early stage. 

Thanks, Siôn. Bob, I don't know if you lost some of that then, but were there any other comments you wanted to add in terms of whether having the accountable person is going to be helpful with engagement and enforcement? 

I think my colleagues covered it. The ability to identify a single individual that has responsibilities is crucial to any enforcement and improvements that we would want to make. I think there may be a little bit of finessing around how we identify that accountable person, but I think the principle is absolutely sound and one that we'd all endorse. 

Okay, thank you. Finally from me, the White Paper also makes some proposals about maintaining compartmentation during occupation, and it puts duties on the accountable person and residents. Is there anything else that you'd like to add, apart from what you've already said, about why you think the proposals would be necessary and if they're sufficient? If you feel this has already been covered, then don't worry. Siôn.

Compartmentation, I would argue, is one of the single most important features of fire safety design in a building. If you get the compartmentation right, if it minimises fire spread outside that compartment, it really does minimise the impact of a fire. As such, it's very welcome that it receives its due regard within the proposal. And it is sufficient, without doubt, and it's particularly prescriptive and that's in a very positive sense. I think that some areas may be difficult to regulate. Looking at the detail of it, it talks about the residents' responsibility to make sure, for example, that they don't breach compartmentation. I think, in specific instances like that, it may be difficult for somebody to know without the technical knowledge when they may have affected the compartmentation. For example, somebody putting a hole in a wall for a tv cable may inadvertently breach compartmentation without them having the specialist knowledge to recognise that they've done that. So, I think that the onus would need to be back on the accountable person to do those periodic compartmentation checks to make sure that they were compliant overall.  

Okay. Would anyone else like to add anything to that, or are you happy? No. Bob, did you? 

Just on that, I think the compartmentation Siôn touched on a little bit there would be dealt with through the fire risk assessment model, and, again, it comes back to what we were talking about in terms of supporting and resourcing the White Paper. One of the issues is very much about reducing fires and the causes of fires, and we know that, in most of these buildings, they're started by people. One way that the accountable person is going to be able to perfect that through their [Inaudible.] identify it within their risk assessment, and then I'm sure will come to the fire service for advice and help to support people to reduce the likelihood of them having fires. Again, as Siôn talked about earlier, this will have a big impact on our community safety departments and the work that they do. So, again, there's a resourcing issue. We wholeheartedly support the risk assessment process, particularly the issues around compartmentation, but that then leads on into other areas, particularly around resourcing for us.

Thanks, John. Just following on from that, from Bob's point there about risk assessments, I'm just wondering who you think should actually undertake risk assessments. You talked about the accountable person, but should this be somebody who's independent of the owner, the manager, the residents? Who do you think should do it?

13:55

It doesn't matter who does it, I don't think, if it's the management or an accountable person, provided they've got the necessary skills and qualifications. I think that's the point here. Only a suitably qualified person should do it. We've had a case in south Wales where we took a risk assessor to court and were successful because he didn't have the necessary skills and put the buildings he was employed to risk assess at great risk. It was the risk assessor we took to court on that occasion. So, I believe, provided they've got the necessary qualifications and skills, whether it's the management company or the accountable person, I don't think it's a problem, really. It's the skills, qualification and knowledge behind the person that is the important factor, I think.

Okay. What would be the level of skills, qualification and experience that would be needed?

Currently, anybody can do risk assessments and deem themselves competent, which we disagree with, obviously. I think there should be a governing body. There is one, as in the Institution of Fire Engineers—they've got a fire risk assessment register. There are not very many people on it at the moment, because it's voluntary basis. So, I think that a registration or a governing body, along the lines of the National Inspection Council for Electrical Installation Contracting for electricians or the Gas Safe Register, maybe would be—

Definitely a register and regulated, yes.

I can touch a little bit on competency, and it's across the whole of the industry, really. The White Paper touched on competency in certain areas, but it doesn't deal with it in any depth or any detail, and competency was one of the keystones of the Hackitt report and of your own building safety expert road map. So, I'm a little bit surprised that there wasn't a little bit more about competency within the document and how they would expect that to fall in. Obviously, you've identified it as an issue around the fire risk assessment. I think, just looking at that as a particular area, we have again this wide range of buildings, and we would love to see every risk assessment done by a competent person and somebody who was registered. Whether the industry can support that across the whole range, all the way down to some of the smaller category 2 buildings, there's a capacity issue, potentially, there, and again it comes back to the point I made earlier about possibly people coming and taking staff away from us because there's more money to be made providing risk assessments and so on and so forth. So, I guess these things are all tied in together, but, yes, very much in support of what Owen says in terms of there being some regulation and competency award so that we know that the people doing these risk assessments are qualified to do them.

That's fine. Keeping on the theme of regulation and registration, if you like, licensing in registration, do you think all residential managing agents should be subject to mandatory regulation, and, if so, what kind of minimum standard should they have to meet?

I'll come back on that, then. I guess the point here is that we want everybody who's working across the sector to be competent, and that, again, was a driving point from Dame Hackitt's report—that competency should be across everybody who's involved with these buildings. On the question about managing agents, I think we would agree, yes, there should be a level of competency there. I must admit, when I was made aware of managing agents as a particular area, I wasn't overly familiar with how Hackitt dealt with them. It appears there has been some work done in England about regulation of what they're calling 'property agents', but the management agents fall within that, and there was a paper produced in July 2019 by Lord Best and that suggests that property agents that are managing property should have a level 4 qualification, but it doesn't say in what. We would clearly like it to be within fire safety or estates management with a fire safety element to that. So, yes, the simple answer to your question is, 'Yes, they should be regulated', but what that regulation actually looks like the industry isn't very clear on. It's an area that Dame Hackitt didn't specify, particularly. I think it's something that we've picked up on in Wales as a potential problem.

14:00

Yes, I think the governance and integrity of managing agents should be registered and there should be some formal process. Residents need to have the confidence in the people that they're employing to manage their buildings—that they're doing it well. I'd maybe liken it to food standards, where you've got a rating system. So, the third party, then—the involvement of a managing agency—can be managed by the residents so they know they're getting a competent person. I don't know if it's possible—whether the food-standards part would fit—but I'd liken it to that.

No, not a lot more to add to that. I think Owen's touched on the Food Standards Agency there. I think in terms of registration and licensing, certainly something along the lines of the Rent Smart Wales scheme would be a useful model for utilisation with building safety managers.

I just want to touch a bit more on that regulation—what we've just been through. How would the new system be regulated and should there be a single regulator or multiple regulators? Should they operate locally, regionally or Wales-wide, or would you get some consistency with England joined in as well?

I think that in terms of regulation we have to look at the landscape in Wales and consider it against the model that England have put in with the single regulator headed up by the Health and Safety Executive. I think the amount of housing stock that we've got, and the number of buildings that come into scope, is far less, so the English model probably isn't appropriate for us in Wales.

I think that the multiple-regulator concurrent regulatory approach, by firming up existing legislation between local authorities and fire and rescue services, would be one that would work well in Wales and would build on the work that has already been ongoing in that area.

In terms of where they should operate—you know, locally, regionally or Wales-wide—I think that we already, as fire and rescue services, operate within our regions: north, south and mid and west Wales. We engage very effectively with the 22 local authorities that we work with. So, I think a sort of blend of that would be the approach that we would still need to take—that it's within fire service boundary areas but operating with different local authorities—because the focus and the priorities for different local authority areas will be very different, depending on whether they have category 1 buildings in their area or not. There'll be very few local authority areas that have a large density of category 1 buildings, whereas probably everybody will be interested in the smaller or lower buildings and the houses in multiple occupation.

I was just going to say that I think that a single regulator would appear to be most effective, but I think the multiple-regulator concurrent system, with, maybe, setting out more collaboration and better collaboration—a more formal approach to that—I think is the preferred option for us.

If you go to a single regulator, the skills are not going to be in that single regulator. They're going to be pulling on the existing skills of the existing regulators, so it's still going to have an impact across local authority building control and the fire and rescue service. So, I think the concurrent system works, but maybe tighten up on the collaboration aspect.

Okay, fantastic. I'd like to touch on residents. The White Paper proposes that residents who would need extra help to evacuate a building can provide their details to the fire and rescue service via the accountable person. Is this a satisfactory solution? What more could be done to help both the residents who need additional help and firefighters? 

Anybody? No, okay. I think the evacuation strategy is down to the type of building, obviously. If the fire service have to get involved in rescuing, then, obviously, the systems that should be in place—the compartmentation, the alarm system, the engineered solutions—have obviously failed to a point that we now have got to go in and carry out an evacuation. I know there's some, within the social care sector, you have PEPs—personal evacuation plans. I don't know if that's going to work in a residential setting because, obviously, even though you may have somebody on a certain floor that needs more assistance to evacuate or to escape, the information we have at that time—that person may be out, they may be on holiday. So, we could be committing people to that premises not knowing the up-to-date information. So, I think it's going to be difficult to look at rescue situations from our point of view. I think the evacuation—the buildings need to be built to the standard that they've stated on paper through planning to occupation phase. I think that's the crux of the matter here. They have to be built to standard.

14:05

Can I just pick up on that? Okay, so the flats where I've got a flat in Cardiff for work—your normal every-day concrete building, originally built god knows when. But concrete doesn't burn, full stop. Do you think the retrospective putting on there of cladding, with the air gap and everything, has exasperated this problem? One, it's to keep the flats warmer, but with that air gap, which acts as a chimney on the outside, surely Government must be responsible for retrospectively doing things like that to buildings. What are your thoughts on that?

I don't hold the Government responsible. I suppose building owners have to—. The building owners and construction. When Grenfell happened, the aluminium composite material was tested to a certain standard, and the tests were found wanting. So, I should imagine, when those buildings were built and the cladding was put on, maybe the information at that time wasn't as much as it is now. Grenfell has focused a lot of information on testing, the building standards, and the materials used. It's had an impact right across the built environment, really. So, it would be hard to comment on what was something that was put on a building 10, 15 or 20 years ago.

Certainly, the amendment to the fire safety order, which will bring the external envelope into scope—that will provide an avenue for accountable persons to have to demonstrate that the building is compliant and that it has the correct covering, and will provide an avenue then for the risk assessments to undertake destructive testing, if needs be, to look into that cladding and see exactly what material it's made of, how it's affixed to the building and so on.

Okay. Thank you, Mandy.

Right, thank you very much, Siôn, Bob and Owen. That brings us to the end of our questions for this particular session. You will be sent a transcript of this session to check for factual accuracy in the normal way. But thank you very much for giving evidence to committee today. Diolch.

Cynnig gweithdrefnol
Procedural motion

Cynnig:

bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o eitem 8 yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(vi).

Motion:

that the committee resolves to exclude the public from item 8 in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(vi).

Cynigiwyd y cynnig.

Motion moved.

Okay. This session has finished a little bit before we anticipated it would, so, if committee is content, I suggest that we deal with item 8 on our agenda today at this stage, which is discussion of the committee's legacy report, and that we do so in private under Standing Order 17.42, and resolve to exclude the public from the meeting for the committee's consideration of item 8. We would then go back into public session at 2:45 p.m. today for the next item. Is committee content to do so? Yes. Okay, we'll then move into private session to consider item 8.

Derbyniwyd y cynnig.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 14:09.

Motion agreed.

The public part of the meeting ended at 14:09.

14:45

Ailymgynullodd y pwyllgor yn gyhoeddus am 14:45.

The committee reconvened in public at 14:45.

3. Ymchwiliad i ddiogelwch tân mewn tyrau o fflatiau yng Nghymru (Papur Gwyn Llywodraeth Cymru - Adeiladau Mwy Diogel yng Nghymru: Ymgynghoriad): sesiwn dystiolaeth 2
3. Inquiry into fire safety in high rise blocks in Wales (Welsh Government white paper - Safer Buildings in Wales: A Consultation): evidence session 2

Item 3 on our agenda today, then, is our second evidence session in our inquiry into fire safety in high-rise blocks in Wales, and the Welsh Government's White Paper, 'Safer Buildings in Wales: A Consultation'. And I'm very pleased to welcome Paul Edwards, senior regional director of the National House Building Council, Peter Richards, chair of the Local Authority Building Control Cymru, and Andrew Thomas, senior building control officer, fire safety working group at the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors. So, welcome to you all and thank you for coming along to give evidence to the committee today.

Perhaps I might begin, then, with one or two initial questions before other members of the committee come in with their own questions. And, firstly, generally: what impact do you think the new building safety regime will have on building control bodies in Wales, particularly in terms of skills and staffing resources? Who would like to begin? Peter.

I think it's fair to say there'll be different degrees of impact across Wales and across our authorities, pretty much dictated by the locality of, obviously, the category 1 buildings that are in scope, probably more in our urban city authorities. So, in terms of impact, obviously we need to ensure that we have the resources, the necessary resources, and the competencies in those areas. And, with the new regime and with the introduction of the gateways and the potential for the stop notices and suchlike, undoubtedly that's going to generate additional workload. So, we will require those additional resources. I don't think we're talking about large numbers of category 1 buildings, but the regime itself will mean more check-in, more repeat checking of details, more consultation, liaison with the fire officer in particular. I'm also envisaging some impact from planning colleagues knocking on my door for some advice in terms of interpreting proposals to support their consultation, which will be required, with the fire officer.  So, in view of that, we obviously need to invest in training, upskilling staff, we'll need to invest in that competency development, which, to be fair, is something LABC, as you're probably aware, Chair, has been doing since the Grenfell tragedy.

There's no doubt we'll need to focus on succession planning of our staff, because we've suffered over years of austerity. Staff have retired, they haven't been replaced, we've lost a lot of staff to our competitors. So, that, I think, in the main for us, will be the focus: our staff, investing in our staff, the upskilling, the training, the competency. Probably, for me, that would be the biggest impact initially.

Yes, okay. Well, thank you for that, Peter. Do either Andy or Paul—? Paul.

Yes, and thanks for Mr Richard's comments there. I'd just like to say, as well, NHBC in general, we support many elements of the White Paper and feel that it will achieve what the Welsh Government's setting out to do.

The concern we do have is around the potential precluding of approved inspectors from the whole process, and it was really informative and interesting to hear, Mr Richards, about what the local authority is doing around resource with regard to upskilling, et cetera. And, from a point of view of the resource that would be required, obviously, it's very, very important that NHBC is included in that, because we do have that resource. And everything that Mr Richards was talking about, with regard to what the local authority is doing with their staff, that is already an ongoing process with the NHBC. Obviously, we have our major projects team that deals, on a daily basis, with category 1 buildings, and, you know, they do have a licence to practise, and they're constantly being upskilled and also assessed.

14:50

Yes, I'd agree with both my colleagues, and I would say that the new systems will create a lot more administration, which will need a lot more documentation and resourcing to control that and pass it on to the relevant parties of stakeholders. I think, in my document that I submitted to the committee, I've asked—perhaps it's time for an audit of what building control resources are available and perhaps fire services resources that are available as well, because they have commented that they will struggle with putting the resources into place to deal with the impending workload that will be created. So, yes, I think you need to know what's available and what can be achieved before we put a system in place, when the staff perhaps won't be able to deal with that. And that's probably when you get on to regional controls, but I think we need to know exactly what staff we have available. And this goes across the whole of the UK. The RICS represents about 1,500 building control staff, but we all deal with projects in different areas, in partnership schemes, and there is a shortfall; there's a lot more ageing staff, who aren't being replaced by new and younger staff. I have a nephew based in Cardiff and he's had to go to Bristol to get trained, so he's struggling to get the resources to become a competent person, and that is an issue for our industry.

Okay. Could I—? Just as a follow-up, there may well be a need, then, to recruit greater numbers and add to the human resource to make the new system work properly. In terms of expertise, at that high level of expertise, to implement the system properly, and, hopefully, ensure that adequate resources—human and otherwise—are put in place, do we have that level of expertise in Wales, do you think, at the moment, to implement a new system properly? Peter.

Yes. I'd like to say we have—I think we have. Touching again on what LABC has done since Grenfell in upskilling our staff to achieve those competency levels, again, you'll be aware of the level 6 and the fire safety validation, those increased competency levels. Obviously, that's going on nationally—England and Wales—but there are 30 officers in Wales that have currently achieved that level of accreditation, validation. So, I think we have got—. In terms of the category 1 buildings, I think we're adequately resourced, but, as colleagues have said and I've said myself, those people are not going to be around for long, they are probably our most senior officers, and they are leaving us at a fair rate. So, the concern for me is bringing that new stock in and upskilling and training that new stock, which, I think, we've lacked for many a year. So, that—. I think we need to focus—is that new blood, and bringing that new stock in.

Yes. Just touching again on our major projects model that we run—a centrally-based team in London, initially, but servicing all of the major cities across the UK—and talking specifically about Wales, yes, we have locally-based building control surveyors and building control inspectors as well. So, from a resource point of view, there's no problem there for NHBC as an approved inspector. And also, just thinking about own on in-house training services that we provide, we have different levels of building inspectors, depending on the complexity and the importance of the buildings that they inspect. So, we already run a system in that regard, and we have successful planning processes so that we're continually assessing and looking for what will be so we don't end up with an issue with regard to ageing building control surveyors who we'll be looking around then to replace. So, again, a system's already in place, plus the fact NHBC, as an improved inspector, is regulated as well and on the Construction Industry Council approved inspectors register. So, it's something we do have to do, obviously, to keep our licence.

Okay. Thanks, Paul. Andy, are you happy with that, you haven't got anything to add or—?

14:55

Just—. I currently work in a local authority. I was an approved inspector, so I've seen both sides of this field of building control, and, yes, I have to say I agree with Paul that the approved inspector bodies sometimes have greater resources. When I worked in Cardiff—when I was doing the Senedd, actually—my team was 14 staff, but I had 150 staff across the whole of Britain, with fire engineers, structural engineers and a good training plan within the company. So, it was a big enough company to deal with that. But I think my time in local authorities—it's a more difficult, complex area to get training, and there are smaller teams. Yes, there are some resources and some great staff that can deal with their projects, but I think there's a real mix of skills and competencies out there, and it's quite difficult to upgrade those skills.

Okay. Well, thank you, all three of you. One more question from me before I bring other committee members in: Welsh Government, in looking at competency levels and accountability in the building control sector, are proposing a unified professional and regulatory structure for building control. Is that something that you think is necessary and desirable—will it bring the beneficial change we want? Andy.

I think that's a good move. One of the criticisms between the two bodies of building control is that approved inspectors are regulated and monitored and they have to do a five-year programme of really checking their quality, their competency, and then they get reissued the licence, whereas, in local government, that isn't the case. So, I think a nationally consistent and professional approach to all of our competencies is a good move forward, and you will know exactly what you have, then, as a resource. So, I think that is a step forward.

Yes, I would agree, and it is something that NHBC supports—you know, the White Paper talking about greater accountability and oversight, and you bring in the facets of independence and impartiality as well. I think creating a single approval and regulatory authority would support and enhance all that.

I would just like to add, Chair, if I could—I agree with what my colleagues are saying, but I'm seeing the wider benefit of this accountability, this regulatory structure, across the range of professions and competencies. That'd bring so many benefits. My colleagues, I'm sure, will agree that, through the process of what we do, there's always that difficulty in establishing the person who is responsible and accountable. I think this will give us clarity, and is probably something that the profession has been calling for for a long, long time.

Okay. Well, thank you all very much. Okay, we'll turn to Laura Jones now. Laura.

I'd just like to talk about the scope of the new building safety regime, but, following on from something Andy just said, and the other gentleman, just to be clear, is the specific proposal to make local authority building control the sole regulator for category 1 buildings—six storeys and above—appropriate, and what concerns are there with this proposal? Andy.

Okay. Well, I think, to be honest, you need to establish on what basis that statement is being carried forward. Is it that you consider the approved inspector resource not competent—and there would be an argument against that—or—? You'd have to establish the reasoning behind that statement. I understand that you have more control over the local authority basis, and they are the enforcing agency, they can take the legal action to court, and they are the body that will effectively reinforce it, but there's no reason for having either body excluded on the basis of professional skill or competence, so, therefore, I would be just be concerned about why you've done that. If it's purely legal enforcement, that's a different situation. What happens currently is that the approved inspector simply hands the enforcement process back to the local authority to take to court, and that’s a system that has worked and is working. It could be better, but it is working at the moment. So, I just need to understand the basis of that system.

15:00

Yes, there does need to be an understanding of the basis of the system, but, from NHBC's point of view, that is a concern of the White Paper, to preclude the skill and expertise of NHBC. And just to reiterate, I'm obviously here today to give the views of NHBC, not the wider approved inspector industry. So, from our point of view, if we look at the volume of resource we could provide, but, more importantly, the expertise levels that we’ve got within the teams, and particularly the major projects team, which would be the team that covers the category 1 buildings, that would be a real concern for us, particularly as NHBC's core purpose is to improve the confidence in new build homes for home owners and policy holders. That would take away—strongly take away—the ability for that to happen, we feel. And 30 years' worth of experience—to preclude that I don't think would be a good move. So, that is our major concern about one of the White Paper's proposals.

Yes, obviously I don't want to cause a debate with my colleagues. I'm of a slightly different opinion, although I do respect the skills and competencies of my colleagues. But I think it is appropriate, for the very reason that Dame Judith touched on, and that's in terms of that you shouldn't be able to choose your regulator. After all, this is an enforcement role, and I don't know of any other area or profession where you would be able to choose your regulator. It should be impartial; there should be no conflict of interest. Although, again, as I say, I don't want to go to war with anybody. I don't agree with Andy. I'm sorry to say, Andy, I don't agree with the comment you made about the enforcement working and the handing back to the local authority to undertake an enforcement role, because, in my experience in Swansea, anyway, that has never happened. I’ve never had a case handed back to me to enforce from an approved inspector. I'm aware of lots of issues. I'm not going to go into that—it’s not appropriate now—but, yes, in the main, and to emphasise the point again, it's an enforcement role, it should be totally impartial, exactly as Dame Judith mentioned. You shouldn't be able to choose your regulator.

Okay, thank you. That's interesting. It's quite okay to not all share the same opinion.

Yes, it was just to add something. It wasn't—you know, I'm of the same feeling as Mr Richards; I don't want to become confrontational. It's just to add the additional angle in from NHBC as being a regulated insurer as well. So, it's in our best interests that we're as tough as possible as we can be with the builders on the buildings that we cover to ensure the highest standards, because, if I take off my technical head and start talking with my insurance head, it's a case of, if we don’t ensure that the builders build it in accordance with the building regulations, there's the potential then that that would come back on NHBC as an insurer to then have to pay out.

Thank you very much, Paul, for that. This is a slight—just a question I wanted to ask you all, just for my own interest really, following on from what the fire and rescue service said earlier in the evidence we’ve just received from them. We were talking about category 1 buildings, and they said it was very important that we didn’t say 18m or higher and that it should be talked about as six storeys and higher, because you’ll find people building to 17.9m to fall into the different category. What are your thoughts on that, please? Andy.

Okay, well I think that is a very important point. I think, actually, the 18m is becoming a bit of an indefensible position, because there’s no reason for it being 18m other than the report that was done by Dame Judith Hackitt on a single fire that happened to be over 18m. The consequences of risk happen at all levels, and I don’t see—. I agree with the fire service, I don’t see that everything starts at 18m, that we need to take this onerous situation where we have a whole separate legislating system that only occurs above this factor. I did a nursing home in Cardiff, for instance, that was just four storeys with 200 people in, and that is an extremely high-risk building, and it does need an additional fire risk case, and it needs additional standards. So, I don't think the 18m rule is a good rule, and I think the scope that you've started saying, of two dwellings or more, is a great position to start the process. I think you could make even the highest category a much more general term than the 18m six-storey rule, but I think you've started well at the level where buildings are not safe; they've got higher risks, and even a single flat above a shop, for instance, has got a different problem basis, and I think those need to be considered. I don't think we can just write these off as safe by being under 18m. So, I understand the political, financial and reality of the amount of buildings that will come into this category, that it is extremely high and it will cause massive resourcing problems at all levels—finance and staff—but I don't think we should just write that off because over 18m is the only thing we can deal with. So, I have quite strong opinions on that and I agree with the fire service.

15:05

Thank you. My follow-up question to what you've just said, and you've just touched on it: do you all think that the scope of the proposed new regime is appropriate, and in particular, should it include all multi-occupied buildings, include licensed houses in multiple occupation, and could the scope be wider in some respect? The fire service said, as you've just said, flats above commercial properties. What are your thoughts on that?

Yes, I agree. It should include care homes, it should include student accommodation and hospitals. I think there are lots. If this is a building safety Bill, it should deal with the safety of all buildings, and I don't think we can just pick one category and hope that if we deal with that, then that makes the problem go away. So, I think we need to have this bigger remit, and your two dwellings and increasing it at that level is the way forward.

I agree with what Andy has said, 100 per cent. There are a couple of things there for me. Obviously, when we're talking about category 1 buildings and what the fire brigade have said, I think we've only got 148 of that type of building in Wales, and the guesstimate of what we're likely to build on the early basis is probably about five or six buildings a year, so it's just the tip of the iceberg. And Andy is perfectly correct: we can have a six-storey building—and we have in this new regime—but then we can have a five-storey building where we're adopting a totally different approach. We can submit an application today and start tomorrow; we can build to a disapproved plan; I can submit a piece of paper and make my specification up as I go along on a daily basis. It doesn't make any sense. There's a much wider remit and I think we're missing a big opportunity here. Massive task, I know; massive resource implication, I know. We could phase it in, but I think we could roll this out a lot further to cover and capture your multistorey schools, your hospitals. Again, we could debate it all day: your sleeping-risk buildings, there are a multitude of buildings where we've got occupancy risks that we're not considering.

Thank you. That's really interesting, Peter. Thanks. Paul, did you want to say something?

Nothing too much more to add, but just to reaffirm that it's all about the risk factor. It's all about the risk factor, and then obviously the protection of the occupants at the end of the day, and if that is something that is brought in, obviously, you've seriously got to look at the resourcing element of it. And obviously, I think it would be very, very difficult to apply that without the involvement of approved inspectors.

Okay, thank you. In your written evidence, Paul, NHBC refers to the fact that they think that reforms to building control could result in homes being less safe for home owners. Why is that?

15:10

Again, it's all around the preclusion of the expertise. It's concerned around resource, for example. We've seen some figures about the reduction in resource levels for local authorities, and depending on other areas of the industry we get involved in, but it's going back to that competency being the most important thing, and adding to the competency that exists within local authority building control. This is not a—[Inaudible.]—kind of scenario, it's an all in it together and providing the levels from a resource point of view, but the expertise levels as well. We're talking just about category 1 buildings, where we'd be slightly concerned about the relevance of that experience and how often these buildings come through. It's something that NHBC major projects team are dealing with on a daily basis. So, it's really that concern about potentially being less safe from not having the adequate checks that they would need to have, if there's a resource issue around that and you preclude all the initial resource and expertise that NHBC can provide.

Okay, thank you. Anyone want to add anything? I think that's all then, Chair. Thanks. 

Thank you, Chair. I'd like to talk about design and construction, please. Does the White Paper adequately recognise the expertise and competence of private approved inspectors for building control purposes? And what opportunities might the new building safety regime present for joint working between LABC and approved inspectors? Peter.

If I get my opinion out of the way first, I think the proposals do recognise the private approved inspectors. Clearly, they have a role to play in the category 2 developments. In terms of the joint working, obviously I've got a biased opinion. My instinctive response is, no, there's no opportunity for joint working; I don't think it's appropriate. Would anybody consider working jointly with a competitor? Probably not, I don't think. Enforcers and regulators, at the end of the day, you cannot work with profit-making organisations if you're enforcing and regulating, I don't think. Building control professionals should be free, I think, to enforce the building regulations appropriately without the underlying need to make a profit. I do appreciate what my colleagues are probably about to say. [Laughter.]

Yes, I've got, obviously, a slightly different opinion having worked both sides. I agree with some of the points, but I would say that the system is set up that we work either/or, we either do one side or the other, and it has become a culture that we don't tread on each other's toes when we've decided who is doing the building control. I don't think there's any less of a standard; I think, obviously, one body can enforce and one body cannot enforce. That's a major difference and a major issue, but we could work together if the culture and the system were different, but it is a challenge and it's going to be a challenge. And, yes, one is set up as a regulatory system, one is set up as a profit-making company, and I totally accept that. We have a different culture in our business plans, but I don't think the professional standard is any different, I don't think the professional skills are any different, and I think that we could work together but the system stops that at the moment.

Obviously, I'm going to take a different view from Mr Richards. So, it would be case that if it precludes the use of approved inspectors, then I would say that it doesn't recognise and take account of the skills and expertise. And also, I'd just like to reiterate as well that NHBC is a non-profit distributing organisation, so it's not that we've got shareholders or we have to pay anything out to shareholders; it's a case of we do reuse any profits that we do make for the good of the industry and NHBC always would be open to any form of collaboration that would result in safer buildings in Wales. But to preclude us based on an argument as a 'profit-making organisation' I don't think is looking at the bigger picture and the core purpose of NHBC. I've already said it today about improving the quality and the confidence in new-build homes for new home owners.

15:15

Maybe you could all have a chat later together and see if you could all—. [Laughter.] Right, my next question is—. It's a start. To what extent is there currently effective collaboration between the various stakeholders—development, building control, planning, fire and rescue service, et cetera—involved in the design and the construction phase, and do the proposals in the White Paper do enough to promote joint working between all parties? We're back to joint working again. Okay, Andy.

I think we've got an excellent working relationship with the fire services, and that's across the board in both camps, and we work closely with them. The system is still set up that we don't tread on each other's toes and we work independently. We consult with the fire service. We don't necessarily liaise with them fully, so there's a different system in place on that. Planning: that's a problem because planning often gets resolved before we get involved as building control, so therefore there's a staggering of involvement of stakeholders that is difficult for us to deal with, because usually something like the design of the building is resolved before we even get to see it. So, we are not involved early stages, early enough to be instrumental in fire safety design, and that is one of the things, I think, that's changing with gateway 1 and making planners consult with fire services, but it's a limited involvement at that stage. We don't get involved until far too late, in my view. The other part of the stakeholder is the building owner, landlord. We have great difficulty in getting information out of their records for existing buildings, particularly. That's a major problem of the resource of information. We often have to work from scratch and just find out what the building is and deal with it as we see it, and that's not a good working relationship as a stakeholder. So, I think those are some of the areas where it could be improved.

Yes. I was just going to push you on that to see about retrospective stuff that's been put on.

Dealing with existing buildings is going to be a huge problem, in that there isn't any information on these buildings, or very limited, out-of-date information. No-one keeps them up to date, no-one checks things that are being replaced—things like fire doors, things like the fire safety systems, fire alarms. And, therefore, it's a very disjointed information process, in that we get called in, it might be a minor alteration, it could be a major alteration, and we don't know the history. There's no resource, there are no links with the tenancies and the landlords or building owners, and that becomes a huge problem for us as regulators and as inspectors to find out what we're dealing with. We just don't know sometimes, and it is a problem. If we can get the legacy buildings up to speed, that will be a huge increase in fire safety and a benefit to all building control.

Yes, I agree very much with what Andy has said. I think it's fair to say that in most cases there is excellent collaboration with relevant stakeholders, in particular the fire brigade—maybe some room for improvement here and there. Yes, again, to repeat what Andy said, when we tend to get to hear about these developments, it's too late. From a building control perspective and speaking on behalf of my fire service colleagues, we need to be involved at that early stage. We've tried to influence our planning colleagues to open that door for us as early as possible. It has happened in some places, but I don't think it'll last too long. We've had various initiatives where we've tried to have that early engagement—you know, the design team approach, where we'd sit around the table and we'd call in the relevant stakeholders like the fire brigade, highways, water and sewerage, all of that sort of thing. There are some good examples of that, but it's not enough. We really need to engage early so that we can, obviously—not design, because we can't design, but feed into that design process. It does streamline things when it comes to making applications. It streamlines that process and it saves a hell of a lot, then, when you actually get to site and all of the problems have been ironed out. So, for me, yes, it is offering that early engagement with planning. That is an improvement, it is a benefit, but I think we need, somehow, to look at how building control professionals get involved at that early stage as well, and have that early engagement.

15:20

What do you think about what Andy just said, when I said about the retrospective stuff that's been put on?

Again, it is very difficult. I can't remember the exact comment Andy made about the problems. I don't think it's a problem across the board. It's probably more so a problem in the private sector. I think public sector housing and high-rise is more strictly controlled. But it is difficult to get into these buildings to find out about these buildings. You see that every day since Grenfell. The snowball effect of Grenfell is that hares are running out there now with not just the six storeys and above but even the lower rise buildings with cladding. It's a bit of a nightmare out there now. Of course, everybody's getting a share of the criticism—who's responsible, who's accountable, who's fault it is. These proposals might clear things up for the future, and we'll have that responsibility and accountability, but it's an absolute nightmare dealing with these legacy issues from high-rise buildings.

I'll bring you in in a minute, Paul. I asked that question because I've got a flat in Cardiff that has got that cladding on and we've got that problem. It's been tested and nobody will take responsibility for it. The owners cannot sell those buildings.

Absolutely, yes. It's a nightmare. I do sympathise.

Thank you, Ms Jones. It was just to talk about the collaboration, really, and the model that NHBC runs. As a regulated insurer, we do have an obligation to get involved as early as possible. We run very stringent technical risk management processes. One of our desires is to get in as early as possible, based on years and years of claims experience, not just with fire but how and why things go wrong, and trying to get those designed out early on before a builder starts on site. So, that's one of the systems we run. Also, with the major project teams, we have a multidisciplinary team in relation to fire, with fire specialists. We have good collaboration with fire authorities as well for category 1 buildings, facade specialists, structural engineers and different types of surveyors as well. So, on collaboration of stakeholders, just thinking about NHBC's model, there is a lot of that that goes on as early as possible in the pre-construction phase.

Do you do anything with the retrospective or just the new constructions?

Probably a good point I should make is that the ultimate responsibility to build in accordance with the building regulations lies with the builder—fact. With regard to the retrospective, obviously, we have a Buildmark warranty policy, and if there's a valid claim against the terms and conditions of that policy, then, yes, we do get involved.

Sorry, I just have one more comment. I've got a little bit of two hats on with my RICS brief. There is a problem with the surveying, the sales and the certification—the EWS1 form. I know my colleagues are dealing with that and having problems. I've just approved a three-storey building covered in timber cladding, which complies with the building regulations, but they can't sell the flats in that building because of the surveys and the cladding requirements that are being brought up by the surveyors and the borrowers—that's another criteria. So, it's a melting pot out there, and I would say to the committee that we need to get the regulations right first and then we can say to the surveyors, 'It complies with the regulations', and then they will be happy taking on that risk, and the same for the lenders. So, I think there's a mix and a melting pot of getting the ideas in a row and getting them straight. Otherwise, we've got this conflict that is happening at the moment. 

15:25

Thanks, John. Hello, everyone, how are you? I just wanted to ask a couple of questions around the occupation phase and what you see as the role of building control in that. The White Paper has suggested that the skills and expertise that are available within building control could be used during this particular phase. What opportunities do you think there might be for building control professionals to contribute to building safety during that occupation phase? Peter.

Potentially, I think there's a lot that could be offered from building control. Our fire service colleagues are quite clear, I think—I don't think they'll deny this—that they know a lot about fire safety but probably not too much about structure. I hope I'm not being too disrespectful there towards colleagues in the fire brigade. Obviously, there's a lot of familiarity. If we've dealt with any particular building in question, we'll have a knowledge of the fire strategy and how it's meant to work, and the different component parts of the building. Obviously, we'll have the golden thread that's gone through the design and construction through to the occupation. We'll also have the specialist knowledge of the construction like compartmentation, means of escape, fire resistance—all of those fire-related issues that are key and critical. We're not clear yet, at this stage, what our involvement will be, but, again, it's another resource implication, I suppose, which we'll have to consider when the future becomes clearer.

Yes. Sorry, Andy and Paul, before I bring you in—you don't have any role in this at the moment, do you? 

Indirectly, we do. From a local authority perspective, we'd be called in by environmental health colleagues to give opinion. So, it does go on behind the scenes; there is involvement there. Obviously, there's no power, as such; as you know, it's all in the housing Act. Of course, our fire service colleagues might touch base from time to time. So, it's going on indirectly; there's no formal arrangement, as such. 

I think the big point is that we need a gateway, like it's being voiced at the moment, of saying, 'We cannot occupy until this date'. We would welcome that, as a building control profession, because we'd get lines in the sand then that will not be crossed, and we can enforce that. At the moment, we've just got a final certificate and there's no balance when it's occupied or not; it can be occupied before you get the building signed off, sometimes.

There's a complication in buildings that are partly occupied and we get to sign parts of the building off, but that's detail, you know; we can sort that out, I'm sure. Occupation is something that's missing from building regs in that term, but it's something that could be used as a stick, for want of a better word, to force the developer, the contractor and the building manager to get together to get the information in place before we put people at risk in that building.

So, I think it's a good step. I think it needs to be strong enough to be enforced, and I think that's obviously something that we need to use. It's a bit like Scotland; they've got a warrant that you can't start work until everything is in place. We don't have that in England and Wales, and that's another weakness. So, starting is one point and occupation is the second point, certainly. I think they are good lines in the sand, if that's the right term.

15:30

Nothing really further to add to what the two gentlemen have provided there. It's not really an area that NHBC operate in. I think it's a good opportunity for local authorities, but you do think about what affects would that have on the resources issue then as well.

I get that. All of this predicated on the fact that you've got the capacity to do everything, isn't it? I do take that. 

In terms of joint inspection teams, then, what opportunities do you think that presents to promote greater collaboration, and do you think there should be a role for the private sector in this as well? With the joint inspection teams I'm talking about now. Peter.

I'm going to be controversial again, I suppose.

I'll leave the controversial bit until last, then. There are varying degrees of interpretation of what this is, but my understanding is that it's replicating what they have in England to offer assistance to authorities to remedy defects in existing buildings. Is my understanding correct?

I'm aware that there's work going on behind the scenes to replicate what's being done in England. I've had a little bit of involvement in that. Obviously, the team, I think, lends itself perfectly to being the three critical areas of building control, the fire service and, of course, environmental health. As I touched on earlier, it is going on indirectly. Obviously, this would formalise that arrangement.

I'm not really convinced, in terms of discussions I've been involved with—. Obviously, we haven't got the scale of the issue in Wales that it is in England, in terms of the number of buildings that we've got. So, I don't think it's a case of having that permanently based team or permanently employed set of individuals. It probably lends itself better to maybe a secondment or a part-time arrangement, and perhaps on a virtual basis, if you know what I mean. Who employs them? Again, that's a matter for debate.

In terms of the controversial bit, again it's that enforcement role. For my approved inspector colleagues, it's that conflict again, isn't it? It is advising on potential enforcement at the end of day. The joint enforcement team will be advising the authorities to take enforcement, potentially, against—[Inaudible.]—owners and the like. They are profit making, so I don't see where the interest would be for them in that respect.

No, I don't think so. I don't think there's any money in it. [Laughter.]

Okay. All right. Thank you. Paul, did you want to come in on that?

Again, it's not about the money side of things, is it? It's about the level playing field to be able to provide the safest buildings we can. We do share our knowledge across the public and the private sectors. We do want to work across the sector and become involved in any new safety system, particularly in Wales, and we already are involved with similar initiatives in England as well. So, yes, I do see that there are opportunities to share knowledge and work collaboratively for the ultimate goal and for the good of everyone.

Yes. I'm almost agreeing with both of my colleagues here—almost. I agree that regulatory panels should be completely council based, if you like, or government based, because that's the independence it needs and the resource it needs. Maybe it could draw in skills from approved inspectors to provide a report on what's wrong, but the body obviously has to have the power of law, and it has to have the resources of Government to function. And it's a completely different role; you're acting as a—in bringing in some consultants, like a structural engineer, or any other specialist, to give you advice on what's wrong, and that could use approved inspectors in a consultancy role. So, that's a completely independent process, and there can't be any conflict of interest, otherwise it wouldn't work, and I agree with that. I think it's a good thing to have an oversight body to be a regulator, and I think that's a step forward.

15:35

Okay. On that, then, on regulation generally, and how the new system might be regulated: what are your views on whether it should be a single regulator, multiple regulators, whether it should operate locally, regionally, Wales wide? And do you think there needs to be consistency with England, which, I think, probably was the point you were talking about a little bit earlier, Peter? So, what are your thoughts around that? Peter, yes.

Again, it's another one we could debate and you could ask five different people and get five different answers. For me, it's fair to say, I think, I do tend to agree with the scale of the issue in Wales. We don't need to replicate what's been done in England—I'll make that point again I made earlier. We definitely need a more robust system, and I think the proposals in the White Paper will give us the tools to achieve that.

Obviously, we've already discussed the investment in skills and the competency and succession planning, and all the resilience to deliver. So, I think, with improvement of the current system and the measures indicated in the proposal combined—again, my controversial bit—removing the choice of regulator, because I don't think that should be there, if we are regulating, perhaps with the added scrutiny of an overseeing board or panel, committee, call it what you want, and then that gives us our joint competence authority, like Dame Judith was suggesting. And in terms of delivery, we definitely need to consider regional working in Wales or, if not, an all-Wales approach. We have to consider that, I think, going forward.

Wales is probably small enough to be able to do that, isn't it?

We think there should be a single approval and regulatory organisation, and we do think it should be Wales wide, so that it oversees all governing control bodies, including local authority and approved inspectors. But, Peter, you touched on an unified competency framework as well, and I know that's something that we would be in agreement with as well, just to get that consistency and the oversight and the accountability as well.

Yes. I don't think having another tier making it a different level again will help clarity or quality, and I'm just concerned. I think England have got this wrong in putting it in the HSE, for instance; I don't think that's the right fit, and I don't think that'll help the systems in the fire service, the housing departments, the environmental health or the building control bodies in question. So, I think improve the systems you've got is the way forward and don't invent a new tier to hope that they are going to sort out the systems underneath it. I just think that's not going to give you the quality of improvement that you wish for, and I've got concerns over adding this other tier, because I don't think that actually adds anything. We need improvements where the work is being done now.

Okay. Thank you very much, Dawn. Well, that completes the questions from committee members, unless you have anything further you'd like to add to what you've already said on anything at all that's relevant.

No? Okay. Well, thank you, all, very much. Thank you, Peter, Paul and Andy for coming into committee today virtually to give evidence. It's very useful. Thank you very much indeed. We will send you a transcript of this session so you're able to check it for factual accuracy.

Good to meet you, Peter and Andy, too.

15:40

Yes, you too. Take care, all.

Okay. Committee will break for 15 minutes before our next evidence session.

Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 15:40 a 16:00.

The meeting adjourned between 15:40 and 16:00.

16:00
4. Ymchwiliad i ddiogelwch tân mewn tyrau o fflatiau yng Nghymru (Papur Gwyn Llywodraeth Cymru - Adeiladau Mwy Diogel yng Nghymru: Ymgynghoriad): sesiwn dystiolaeth 3
4. Inquiry into fire safety in high rise blocks in Wales (Welsh Government white paper - Safer Buildings in Wales: A Consultation): evidence session 3

We resume our committee meeting today, then, with item 4 and our third evidence session in our inquiry into fire safety in high-rise blocks in Wales and looking at the Welsh Government's White Paper 'Safer Buildings in Wales: A Consultation'. I'm very pleased to welcome Jason Clarke, head of risk management for Warwick Estates; Nigel Glen, chief executive officer of the Association of Residential Managing Agents; and Mark Snelling, health, safety and fire adviser to the association. Welcome to you all and thanks for coming along to give evidence today. We'll be very interested to hear the views of managing agents, and perhaps I might begin with a general question, really, before I bring in other committee members with further questions, and that is: to what extent do the proposals in the White Paper meet expectations? Are they radical enough and do they meet the specific needs of managing agents? Okay, who would like to—

I'll start on that one. As a managing agent, anything that tries to regulate what is going on before the building comes to us is really, really helpful. As we've said a couple of years ago in the same format, the problem we have a lot of the time is when buildings don't have the information that they should have, so the plans for the building, the fire strategies, all those sorts of things. So, putting something into place like this is really beneficial to us, especially when we're picking up buildings that are second or third hand, so five or six years after they've been built, and that information has disappeared. So, something like this is a really big benefit and helps us manage the property a lot better, a lot more efficiently.

Okay, thank you, Jason. Would either Nigel or Mark like to add anything?

Yes, thank you, Chair. If I can speak for ARMA, we welcome the proposals. Anything that improves building safety has to be a good thing. We are seeing from, unfortunately, the investigations that are carrying on into the current stock that the current system obviously is not fit for purpose, because we are finding faults all the way through, the scale and the scope of which we are still determining, and I'm happy to talk on that a little bit later. There are, obviously, as always, some comments we have and some nuances, but the general direction we certainly applaud.

Okay. Thanks for that, Nigel. Mark, you didn't want to add anything, did you?

Only briefly, in that certainly residents' responsibilities—it's clear what you're proposing in broad terms is right, but I think some of the proposals in the proposed English building safety Bill appear to go that slight bit further, which will allow—. One of the stated aims of switching from the fire safety Order to the building safety Bill is to deal with the risk of fire, which, of course, is within a flat, and I notice that the English Bill is very clear that residents' items of gas safety and electrical are included, and it's unclear whether your proposals include that, which would seem to be—and, certainly, rights of access is another very important thing for managing agents and responsible people or accountable people to be able to do what they need to do.

Thank you, Mark. Okay, we'll move on then to Laura. Laura Jones.

Thank you, Chair. Welcome, everybody. The White Paper proposes that the default position in the absence of anyone being nominated to the role—that the freeholder will be the accountable person during the occupation phase. What, if any, challenges might this present given the sometimes complex structures of leasehold buildings?

If I may answer that first, Chair—sorry, we have some feedback there. Laura, if I may call you that, thank you very much for that, you have rightly pointed out the problem with leasehold is it is complex. So, it's not hard to see that the freeholder could actually just be the person who owns the land and has no influence on the building, didn't even build it, it went to somebody else. Grosvenor Estate gets a 1,000-year lease, so why would they be the accountable person? And another issue could well be that somebody who has the ability to raise the funds and therefore do something about it, for example, a residents management company that doesn't want this responsibility, so they will be very happy to pass it by default by not stepping up to the plate to the freeholder, who actually has no means of recovering the costs that are suddenly being put on him or her. So, it's not perfect. One suggestion is the building owner but, again, RMCs and right-to-manage companies, et cetera, tripartite leases might make that more difficult. So, it needs more careful thought, if I may suggest that.  

16:05

Yes, I agree with you. The fire service said earlier it's very important that we get that sorted ASAP, really, because it's important for them to know the accountable person to do their role. Anyone else like to comment on that?

I agree with Nigel's comments. 

Okay. Thank you. Who should undertake fire risk assessments? Should it be someone independent of the building owner, manager or residents? 

I'm happy to go on that one again. My belief is it should be somebody independent, if only to give leaseholders reassurance that what's been done is correct, because if you have a firm, even a subsidiary of a firm, certifying its own system, that can never feel right. So, personally, I believe it should be an independent third party who does that. 

Yes, we do them internally, so as long as the people are competent and we have the set frameworks, and we follow the relevant documentation for risk assessments and things, as long as people are competent—. I do understand Nigel's point there about a possibility that there is conflict of interest maybe, but we almost work as a separate department in Warwick Estates. So, everything that the fire service would—. Everything we have is in line with what the fire service would pick up. We have prime authority with the fire service as well, so our reports are reviewed by them and we've also had them reviewed by the Health and Safety Executive, and they're happy with the reports that we produce. So, there'll be a few different avenues on that because some managing agents don't use an internal source, and some do.   

Okay. Just on the back of what you're saying there, Jason, what are your views on the qualifications and experience of people who undertake the fire risk assessments, and the competence—? 

What's happening within our company, we're looking at getting everybody to level 4 of fire safety, so a very similar qualification to what the fire risk inspector would have in the fire service. So, that's what we want to do through this year. It's competency based and experience based as well, but that is the sort of level that we'd be looking at—level 3 with good experience, and level 4 would be something where you're at the same level as the local fire officer. 

There needs to be some real clarity on what the competency standards are, which will probably tie in with some of the work that's coming out of the British Standards Institution at the minute, but it would be really good that we knew what 'good' looked like. 

Okay, thank you. The White Paper makes a number of proposals aimed at maintaining compartmentation throughout the occupation phase, placing duties on the accountable person and residents. Are these proposals sufficient, and what challenges would enforcing these provisions present to building managers?

I think a big problem is inside a flat. It's impossible—well, pretty much impossible—to actually know what somebody's doing. I've knocked down walls in my own flat when I was leasing it and could have breached compartmentalisation without realising it. So, I think that is a challenge. There could possibly be ways around that, These are not in the paper at the moment, but some potential solutions could be, if you're renting a flat out, like an energy performance certificate every three or five years, you have to have a fire risk assessment done inside the flat, and when you sell your flat, for example, because that would cycle the stock, again, you need a fire risk assessment done. So, there are ways around that.

That is critical, because, like it or not, you can have written in a lease that you must seek authority before making internal changes but people will ignore that, either because they're like I was, naive and didn't realise and hadn't read my lease, or people want to avoid having to pay a £200 licence fee to have somebody competent come and say, 'Well, what you're doing is correct'. It's not just an admin fee, it's actually to have somebody giving oversight. And I think that's going to be true of anything—leasehold, and, when commonhold comes, that has to be in there as well, because you are living in a community where your actions can affect other people around you.

16:10

Yes, absolutely, because that's not the case at the moment, is it? You have to have one done if you're renting a property, don't you, but not if you're selling a property? Is that right?

Yes. Well, I know Dame Judith Hackitt was saying that the managing agent should go inside everybody's flats when they're doing the fire risk assessments on the communal area, and I'm afraid we said that would mean the assessor would probably be living in the building all year, because you just won't be able to get access.

Thank you, Laura. One or two further questions from me on the scope of the new building safety regime. I'm just wondering, really, if you think the scope that's proposed is appropriate, and in particular whether it should include all multi-occupied buildings, including licensed houses in multiple occupation. Would you have any thoughts as to whether the proposed ambit might be further widened to include other properties? Who would like to begin?

I will start, I suppose. With the buildings that are within the scope—I was having a chat with Nigel before—most of the categories would be fair to be set up. The issue is with the smaller sites, because for maybe two units—we get a lot of flats or buildings that have just two units—the cost of meeting the regulations would be much more stringent on those than it would be on somebody who lived in a block with 100 other people. So, maybe it's a little bit too much in some areas, but, again, it could be maybe separated into two storeys and a small amount of units and then up to 9m, and then over 9m up to 18m, and 18m and over. It's a difficult one to pinpoint, really, because there are so many different types of buildings and which buildings fall into—. You might have something that's got a lot of units but might not be too high, but because of the way it's worked out it will fall into the more stringent categories.

Yes, Jason and I were having a chat about this beforehand, because the two categories, to me, of—. It's always nice not to have too complex a situation, so 18m and above, I think everybody agrees with that, but then everything below 18m—. I don't know the size—. I don't think anybody does know the size and the shape of the market—you know, how many of these leaseholds are actually one-up, one-down conversions of a maisonette, because then is it proportionate to require an annual fire risk assessment for what is effectively a stairway and a light bulb? From a health and safety point of view, that's good, but from a proportionality and cost point of view, that's tricky. One hates to say, 'Could you add more categories?', but instead of number of dwellings, which, for example, is one of the options—option B—which was five and above, which has a certain sense, should you do height? So, frankly, one storey, do we need it at all, because, and I'm not being flippant, you just have to get out of the closest door or window? Two storeys, slightly different, but again maybe just a very light touch there, again because you can escape fairly easily. Three storeys up to six, then yes, much more—probably what we're seeing now in the lower category, category 2. And then category 1 of the six storeys and above. So, perhaps something just so that we're not using a sledgehammer to crack a nut and putting a lot of costly administration on the Government, the regulator, and these smaller landlords as well. I'll leave Mark to talk about other things such as residents' homes and so forth. 

I'm not sure how to follow on with that one. My major concern was those lower categories. I'm not sure what I can add to that.

No. Okay, Mark, that's fine. Thanks. Okay, we'll move on, then, to Mandy Jones.

I'd like to talk about registration and licensing. Should all residential property managing agents be subject to mandatory regulation, and what minimum standards should managing agents have to meet, and how effective are the current voluntary schemes?

May I leap in there, because that one's dear to my heart? I regulate, on a voluntary basis, the market in England and Wales, and I don't think that is right, because all it means is somebody has to leave ARMA and I send them a letter afterwards, and that's about it. So, we have been very keen for years for proper regulation. And the reason for that is not to be heavy handed, but if you think about it, the managing agent is looking after people's health and safety, fire and financial. ARMA members alone—I have 330 firms—hold £1.5 billion of other people's money. I'll use myself as an example. I set my managing agency up in a back bedroom and was handed nearly £0.5 million of somebody else's money on day one. I hope I was a good guy—at least I took the trouble to go and talk to a lawyer for a day or two, et cetera. But, otherwise, all you need to do is print a business card, and that just can't be right in this modern day and age. So, I'm very keen that managing agents are licensed.

There is, of course, Lord Best's regulation of property agents proposal, which has been sitting on the UK Government's books now for nearly two years. That seems to make sense, to bring that forward. Also, on general licensing, I think it should protect all leaseholders, not just those who engage a professional managing agent. But I do believe in choice and, again, proportionality: one up, one down—do you really need a licence to operate? I would argue probably not. But once you get above a certain size—let's say 10 units; that's what the Law Commission use—I think there should be a choice there. You can self-manage if you want, but you then need to go to a regulator to get a licence to operate, and you have to be a fit and proper person, you have to have client money protection, if that's in place, you have to have proper professional indemnity insurance, et cetera, et cetera. Or, you hire somebody else who has that, and then that relieves you of that obligation. That's my soap box, if I may, but I'm very pro regulation because I just don't feel it's right at the moment.

16:15

I've just come off training ARMA members on health and safety, and I was last week dealing with fire safety. One of the things that I've been passionate about ever since I've been working with ARMA, and we are looking at it within ARMA, is the accreditation of managing agents for health, safety and fire compliance, because I think that will drive a lot of the change that's required to bring everybody up to the required standard. I believe you're aware of the Building Safety Alliance that's looking at the accreditation or certification of managing agents, and part of the underlying remit of that is to look at whether we can bring in some changes through that to the industry. It's something that I think is absolutely essential to change the playing field, and whatever we can do to achieve it, I think we have to.

The only other thing to add to that is I think it is something that is needed, and it levels the playing field as well. We take part in acquisitions where we buy smaller companies who don't want to be regulated and have had enough, getting through all of the work that you have to do there. A lot gets missed when people aren't regulated, so I think it's something that certainly needs to be in place.

I'll come on to regulation now. How do you think the new system should be regulated? Should there be a single regulator or multiple regulators, and should they operate locally, regionally, Wales wide or with some consistency with England?

If I may, again, kick this off, to try and keep cost down and avoid confusion, then the simpler you can make it the better. So, ideally, a single pan-border regulator, because otherwise you're going to have managing agents trying to figure out what the English regulator means by something or the Welsh regulator means by something. Unless they're absolutely in sync, that can only mean additional time and cost, and if they're absolutely in sync, then they may as well be the same affair. It's something that we do need because, even now, we're finding different fire services have very different interpretations. We are bouncing one off against the other, saying, 'This one says that, this one says that—which one do we follow?' So, I'd like a very simple system. I think it would probably be more cost-effective to have a single pan-border one, if that's possible.

ARMA have joined in, quite deliberately, a co-ordinated primary authority partnership with Hampshire fire and rescue, with just the specific intent to level the playing field to make it easier for managing agents to be clear about what they need to do to comply, and that's that desperate need of, 'We need to know what the benchmark is and what we need to do. We're not trying to cut corners, we're not trying to be difficult, we just want to know what we need to do.'

16:20

Just something simple and consistent, really; I think that's what it needs to be. Consistency is the key. So, as Nigel said, it does differ from fire service to fire service, and we have our own primary authority that helps you be consistent, but, yes, the key for us is consistency.

Thanks, John. So, I just want to ask you some questions about how the White Paper deals with residents, really. And it does talk about—the White Paper talks about—two-way communication between the accountable person and residents, and it needs to be effective. That suggests that it's not very effective now, so I'd welcome your thoughts on that and how effective you think the two-way communication is now, and what you think should be in the White Paper to improve that.

If I may start—and I think Jason has a practical application, because I haven't run a managing agent for a few years now—the problem is that the relationship at the moment, for the managing agent, is an agent for the landlord and the landlord has a contractual relationship with the leaseholder. So, managing agents, we deal with the leaseholder. In large blocks, it's not unusual to find 50 per cent of the flats are, if you like, buy-to-lets, and we have no idea who the resident is. In fact, the landlord may actively try and hide that he or she is subletting; they don't want to buy a subletting licence or, frankly, don't want the Inland Revenue to know that they are getting income. So, that is a challenge. We've joined the residents' voice group, along with the housing associations, to try and overcome that, because it is a strategy. But that is always going to be a challenge, because, frankly, we are usually the last person to even know that a flat has sold. You normally only find out because you send out a service charge demand and somebody says, 'You idiot, I have sold that.'

I think—. The only person who actually knows who's in the flat is the owner of that flat. So, the onus has to be on that person to either tell the fire brigade, for example, if there's somebody vulnerable, or the managing agent. Because we've tried all sorts of things like, if there's a concierge, you have to ask the concierge to let you know that somebody's sold or some strange person's moved in. And concierges don't like that; they feel like a snitch. But it's really, really difficult, and I think this is going to be one of the hardest parts.

More general communication, something like, if you remember, 'Clunk Click'—you know, telling people, 'Don't have barbecues on wooden balconies; it just doesn't make sense. Don't drill holes through walls. Don't put your catflap in your front door.' People—. Unless you actually just point these out in a friendly way, why would you think of them? You need that constant drip of, 'Ah, yes, that's wrong, I shouldn't do that', because that's where fires generally start in the flats. So, it is absolutely key, and it is going to be a challenge. And we will do what we can. It has to be done, but it's going to be difficult.

We're providing the communications. We put out—on an annual basis, we send a fire safety letter to leaseholders and residents, with the sorts of things that Nigel was just mentioning there. But the onus is on them to come back to us and tell us who is in the flat, and that is, again, the difficult part. We have plenty of communication lines, e-mails, and we have a live chat, which has been really popular since we put that in place last year. That's manned more or less 24 hours a day, and then, obviously, phone calls and property managers and details within the building of who manages that. So, we're trying our best to get that information out for people. We're doing the fire risk assessments, we're trying to get that information. The fire service have requested it, but it is so difficult and you're depending on somebody wanting to give you that information.

So, can you just write to the occupier, whoever that is, or do you have to communicate with named people, so that you know—? The only reason I say this is because, again, post Grenfell, I remember having a conversation with the landlord of a block of flats in my constituency, and they were saying that, if they were leaseholders within the flat, they couldn't get any information from them. They didn't know, for instance, if they were people who were relying on oxygen, so had oxygen tanks in the flat, and things like that. So, you know, that could become a fire risk. So, if you just contacted the occupiers, that wouldn't work?

16:25

We do. The fire safety letter does go to the residents as well, so it doesn't just go to the leaseholder and the address that they've got for the leaseholder. Because if you send the fire safety letter and the leaseholder is in Spain—

So, it benefits us to send that. Obviously, the more official documents have to go to the actual leaseholder.

You try and communicate with the people in the building. In some buildings, in the bigger ones, we have websites with the information on as well, and internal communications. So, yes. But it is really difficult to get that information, and we need it. And with the new fire safety Bill that's coming out, we're going to have that information stored somewhere, and it's just how are we going to get that, because people, as Nigel said, tend not to want to give you that information.

Yes. And because—. Sorry, Mark, I don't know whether you want to add anything to that, but I'm just reflecting on the fact that the White Paper proposes, doesn't it, that residents who need extra help to evacuate a building have to provide their details to the fire and rescue service. So, you come back to that point, don't you: how do you even know who's there and get the information in the first place? So, I think what I'm looking for is, if that's what the White Paper—. Maybe this is a job for Government—you're not in Government, you're not writing the White Paper and writing the legislation—but it would be useful to know, I suppose, what you think should be in the White Paper that would help to be able to do this. Because it's never good putting something in a piece of legislation if it's not practically possible to do it, is it?

That's why I was saying that, rather than saying that the accountable person has to do that, or the managing agent, the designated person—because we just won't be able to do it in practical terms—the flat owner is really the only person who will ever know who is in that flat, and so that must be where the responsibility lies to inform the fire brigade, et cetera et cetera. Tons of problems there, of course, because you say, 'I have somebody who's disabled in my flat' and they might be out. I always worry that they're out when the fire's on and the fire brigade rushes in desperately trying to find this person. You won't be able to keep it up to date and concurrent. But, to me, that is really—. The only person who actually can say who is in the flat is the landlord.

So, some kind of targeting of the owner, then, in terms of legal requirements to do so certain things, to just provide details of who the occupant of the accommodation is and so on. A bit like—. We heard from a previous panel about having some kind of regulation akin to Rent Smart Wales or something, where you have to register as a landlord. So, something along those lines, perhaps; I don't know.

Yes. But, as I say, unfortunately, that has to be where it falls, on the landlord, because that's the only person.

Of course, yes. I understand. I understand, yes.

Mark, was there anything you wanted to add to that?

No, I entirely agree. It's the use of—. Certainly, in the English legislation, it's using the wording of a statutory duty to consult with 'a resident', where there is a no clear definition of what a—. Well, there's a clear definition of what a resident is, but how you demonstrate you discharge against somebody you have no idea, and could be many, many people within one flat—. Do you need to communicate with every single one of them? So, it's getting away from the term 'resident' and—.

Yes, because it's just—. It's that thing of, you know, what more can the legislation do to help both residents and firefighters in the event of an evacuation, like knowing who's there, I guess, isn't it? It's that thing that we haven't quite cracked yet.

But can I just ask you what, if any, proposals in the White Paper are likely to add to the costs of managers and agents? Jason, that might be something that you've got a view on, do you think?

I think it's all down to where the accountable person comes in, and, with the building safety Bill, they're putting in the safety manager role within the companies, and the competencies that they've got to have are quite high level. So, the costs from a managing agent point of view would be how do we manage that person, how do we get that person in, how do we train, upskill, people to that level, how many buildings can they then look after? And then, obviously, that determines what the cost is to the leaseholder. All of these items that are coming through do seem to be or will be borne by the leaseholders. So, there's—. Whatever cost we incur—naturally, you're going to pass that cost on—

16:30

Management fees will go up, and then—

Because I'm sure you know that lots of us as MSs have postbags full of complaints about the management fees and sorts of—[Inaudible.] You're aware of all of that, yes? [Laughter.]

Definitely. But, yes, it is—. It's worried us: where does the cost come—

—who is going to actually pay for that? A lot of people have said, 'Well, it should be down to the building owner and responsible person.' You can sort of understand that at the start, while the building is being built, but, on existing buildings, if you get this enforced on existing buildings, then you've got a lot more work to do, because you've got to find—. The original equipment manuals are probably going to have to be rewritten, because we haven't got them, plans for the buildings, fire strategies and—[Interruption.]—thousands of pounds. Again, that cost is going to go to the leaseholder, it won't be borne by the managing agent, so—

But it could be borne by the owner, couldn't it? If you own—. I was just thinking—again, I'm thinking out loud, but, if you own your own house and you want to make some changes or you need to make changes in your house, you have to pay for it, don't you?

It doesn't—. At the end, that all then lies with what the lease says. So, with a lot of the cladding issues, the Government have said, 'Yes, it should be the freeholder or the building owner who pays', but they have parts within the lease where they can actually charge that back to the leaseholder. So, they may pay that cost upfront—

—and charge it back. So, again, everything gets bowled to the leaseholder, when everybody's intention is that it doesn't. I don't know whether—. I think Nigel might know a little bit more about tripartite leases and things, and where they sit with other managing agents who deal with new builds and are actually part of the lease there. That might be slightly different, but we don't have any like that within the estates, so—.

So, new build is not as problematic as retro, is it, really? That's really—

As long as it's checked properly—and the regulations will be—because we've got buildings where we hadn't managed it originally, but you can track it back to that the actual building wasn't done right. The fireproofing wasn't done right or the insulation isn't there when it should be there, and the firebreaks are missing, but, in the drawings, it says they're there. So, that part has got to be heavily regulated, and then the existing stock is more of the problematic issue now, because you can obviously introduce building control more to the new builds than you can on anything that is existing, even three, four, five years old, so—.

Yes. You're absolutely spot on that there are two things we have to look at here—the new builds and then the legacy stock—and in those categories you've got a couple of costs. One is a fixed cost and then there'll be operating costs, the ongoing costs. So, as Jason pointed out, we have all this legacy stock. It is a tiny, tiny percentage where you have the OEM manuals, everything. So, you're going to have to get those. That would cost you, probably, on a 50-unit block £35,000. Lots of blocks, you could say, 'Well, should the building owner pay for that?' and there's an argument to and fro on that. Sometimes, though, in many cases, the building's owners are the leaseholders themselves, they've enfranchised, so, that doesn't solve that problem.

When you're looking at operating costs—. There was a study done as part of the building safety Bill that estimated that the building safety manager—who doesn't exist at the moment; this is a whole new role—they'll cost between £6,500 and £11,000 per block. Personally, we find that optimistic, because what the current scenario is of the building safety manager is they'll be doing a lot of the administration, so that's one potential way that should be looked at. Do you really want a £60,000 or £70,000 or £80,000 expert having a conversation about a bicycle in the common area? That's not really a good use of time, but currently that's exactly what the building safety manager has to do.

Another thing that is to be thought of: a lot of the legislation is looking, quite rightly, for responsibility and accountability. Where you have leaseholder-managed blocks like RTMs and RMCs, it's hard to see how that will not make those directors run for the hills. I wouldn't do it—not if I'm going to end up in jail, frankly. So, what do you do there? And a potential way around that is you have a new class, a professional director with the right level of professional indemnity insurance who can do this, but that's cost again. But otherwise you risk having blocks that have no, if you like, management at the top level, the director level, nobody to say to the managing agent, 'Yes, paint this wall yellow.' So, that is another layer of cost. So, the costs, I think, are going to be significant. 

Going down to the lower end, I mentioned at the beginning, 'How far do you want to go?' Looking at a fire risk assessment, just a type 1, which is a guy with an iPad going in to look at that staircase and light bulb every year, that's £250. So, that's why I was coming back to whether we really want to legislate that far down. So, there are significant costs, potentially, coming in here and they shouldn't be underestimated. And I know leaseholder groups are saying, frankly, 'We hear what you're saying about safety, nobody wants another Grenfell, but we're not going to pay those levels of costs. That's just untenable.'

16:35

There are a number of levels of things here. One, again looking back to the current English proposals, is the building safety manager as an individual, a nominated individual; are they a doer or, as the name suggests, a manager, because the costs are significantly different between those two things? And if you want them to be a doer, which is what is suggested, to consult with the residents, then that introduces two sets of management within one building, where the managing agent will need a whole lot of information about who the resident is, but so will the building safety manager. So, are they both going to do it? And there should be no assumption that a managing agent will automatically want to take on this role. And if you talk about, as I said, the English model, where you have a building manager organisation, you will still need for the leasehold element of managing a building a managing agent. So, you then have two sets of organisations and they're proposing two sets of cost recovery. All of this adds layer upon layer of complexity and cost, when actually what you really want is a really good regulated managing agent, if you want a managing agent at all, and a really competent individual within that organisation to make sure that there are systems in place to do it. That's lean and least cost. And I do think that making it overly bureaucratic just adds layer upon layer of cost and duplication.

There are many efficiencies that we think could be put in here. If I go back to Mandy, when we were talking about regulation and licensing, at the moment how it's seen is the managing agent says, 'I want to drill a hole in the outside wall to put up a Sky dish', and I would have to go to the building safety manager and say, 'Are you okay with me doing this? I have this contractor called Sky. Are you okay with me using those? When Sky has come and done that drilling, can you please come and inspect that you like the way that Sky has done that?' So, there are three levels already that we've got into. It would be more sensible, when we're talking about licensing, to have the building manager being accredited, but also contractors accredited, and there is work going on on that. So, as long as the managing agent says, 'Building safety manager, just to let you know, Sky, registered number 12345, is coming in to drill a hole', tick, because they're accredited. It's like the old Kitemark, whereas the current way is very, very weighty with tons of two-way communications and everybody trying to prove who they are. So, a card-carrying member of Sky turns up, that's fine. So, there are ways around this that will achieve the same goal.

Okay. That's useful, thank you very much. Thank you. Thanks, John.

Okay, thank you, Dawn. Okay, well I think that brings us to the end of questions from committee members, but if there's anything any of you would like to add before we conclude this session at this stage, that would be absolutely fine, on any of these matters, anything related. 

Just related, as we said, it touches on the cladding, but something that is going to come out of all of this, looking at how buildings have been built, is going to be significant costs for leaseholders. It's very unlikely there's any way around that. You then get into the interesting question of, well, whose fault actually was it that the buildings were built this way, rather than who should be picking up the bill just because they happen to live there.

And on a related matter, mandating a golden thread for over 18m suggests you don't need that information on buildings below that, but I know that, increasingly, competent risk assessors are saying, 'I can't assess your building without the right information, no matter what size it is.' And I concur with that view, and so to suggest it isn't needed, perhaps not regulatory, or to suggest it might not be needed when, actually, it is needed, whether it's required legally or not.

16:40

Okay, Mark, thanks for that. Just on that question, I think you know, obviously, that hanging over all of this—all of the proposed solutions and improvements to these issues around fire risk in these particular buildings—is that question of who is going to end up footing the bill, really. It's a massive question that is going to have to be wrestled with and decided at some stage, obviously. Is there anything else that you might add on that front, what you think ought to happen or what some of the risks are?

I think a big thing is we don't know how big the problem is. I've got data from about 400 blocks, and the costs for these non-cladding costs are comparable to the cladding costs, so you're talking tens of thousands of pounds per person. But I don't know if we've found the only 40 in the country that have got the problem or, actually, it's nearly every building. So, there is work to be done on that, and we are going to suggest to Parliament that they fund a cross-sector, cross-border—. It doesn't matter if it's housing associations or private, let's figure out what's been built. I think there's work to be done on that. Sorry, it's straying off a little bit, but I think this is going to be something that's going to really, really hit your people, your constituents, and it's coming very quickly, I suspect.

Okay, Nigel, thanks very much. Okay, thanks to all three of you for coming to give evidence virtually to the committee today. Nigel, Jason and Mark, thank you very much. You will be sent a transcript to check for factual accuracy in due course. Thank you very much. Diolch yn fawr.

5. Papurau i’w nodi
5. Paper(s) to note

Okay. The next item on our agenda today is papers to note. We have—. What do we have? We have paper 8, which is a letter from the Chair of the Petitions Committee in relation to fire safety in high-rise buildings, which is very topical for us now. Paper 9 is a report from the Bevan Foundation on poverty in the winter that we've just gone through in relation to COVID. Paper 10 is a report from the British Red Cross, again in relation to the impact of COVID, called 'The longest year', and paper 11 is a letter from the Minister for Housing and Local Government in relation to the impact of COVID on rough-sleeping. Is committee content to note those papers? Yes, okay. Thank you very much.

6. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42(vi) i benderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod ac o’r cyfarfod ar 4 Mawrth 2021
6. Motion under Standing Order 17.42(vi) to resolve to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting and from the meeting on 4 March 2021

Cynnig:

bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod ac o'r cyfarfod ar 4 Mawrth 2021 yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(vi).

Motion:

that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting and from the meeting on 4 March 2021 in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(vi).

Cynigiwyd y cynnig.

Motion moved.

Item 6, then, is a motion under Standing Order 17.42 to resolve to exclude the public from the remainder of this meeting and from the meeting on 4 March. Is committee content so to do? Okay, thank you very much. We will move to private session.

Derbyniwyd y cynnig.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 16:43.

Motion agreed.

The public part of the meeting ended at 16:43.