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2021: A year of significant change for building safety?

Public Affairs Executive Tanisha Dadar shares an update on the regulatory changes expected this year, and the RIBA's work to create a safer built environment.

25 February 2021

2021 marks four years since the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower that claimed 72 lives. It shouldn’t take a horror of that scale, or any scale, to prompt change, but that seems to be what has occurred here. As well as the anniversary, 2021 will mark the beginning of long overdue regulatory reform, where we expect to see some of the biggest changes to building safety laws for over 40 years.

Since long before the fire at Grenfell, the RIBA has been lobbying for a stronger regulatory system and tougher Building Regulations to ensure the safety of the public. While we have seen small (but significant) changes made since Grenfell, we expect the greatest changes to occur as a result of the Fire Safety Bill and Building Safety Bill, which will both pass through Parliament this year.

In this article we update on developments and look at what we expect to see over the next twelve months.

Building Safety Bill

In the aftermath of the fire at Grenfell Tower, the government commissioned Dame Judith Hackitt to lead an independent review of building regulations and fire safety. Dame Judith put forward a number of recommendations for a safer regulatory system that would challenge the competence of professionals within the built environment, enable a “golden thread” of information from design stages through to occupancy, and provide residents a louder voice in the decision making process. The Building Safety Bill aims to implement these recommendations through legislation and will be formally introduced in the House of Commons later this year.

In June 2020, aware that the government was due to publish detail on the Bill, we hosted an online event with the Association of British Insurers, the Chartered Institute of Building, the National Fire Chiefs Council and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. The event discussed and emphasised industry priorities for a new system. Read a summary of the event, which welcomed an opening speech from Clive Betts MP, Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee (HCLG).

One month later (in July 2020), the government published a draft version of the Bill, which was then subject to public scrutiny through an inquiry held by the HCLG Select Committee. In addition to submitting a written response, RIBA’s Executive Director for Professional Services Adrian Dobson took part in an oral evidence session with Committee MPs. Following this, the Committee published a report which currently awaits a response from government. The report emphasised a number of our key recommendations including the extension of what is defined as a ‘higher risk building’, and demonstrated support for the RIBA’s suggested 11 metre height threshold.

The draft Bill also highlighted the government’s intentions to use the Bill as an opportunity to amend the Architects Act 1997. Accompanied by a consultation, the proposed amendments surrounded two key areas: mandatory competency requirements for architects and the future of recognition of international qualifications. To provide architects with the opportunity to express concerns and support for the proposals, the RIBA hosted a series of virtual roundtables with members across the country alongside senior civil servants from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. We also launched a survey to collate feedback from the wider profession to help shape our response to the government consultation. Take a look at our survey findings and response to the government consultation.

We will continue to update members as the Bill progresses through Parliament. Find out more about our work on the Building Safety Bill so far.

Fire Safety Bill

The Fire Safety Bill was introduced in the House of Commons on 19 March 2020. The Bill, which lies with the Home Office, sets out amendments to the Fire Safety Order 2005.

Though much less detailed than the Building Safety Bill, the Fire Safety Bill is expected to result in greater clarity over responsibility for fire safety in buildings containing more than one home, which could have a significant impact on architects.

The RIBA was invited to give evidence to MPs on the Fire Safety Bill Committee in June 2020. In October, the RIBA also submitted a written response to a fire safety consultation launched by the Home Office.

The Bill is currently in the ping-pong stage of the parliamentary legislative process, which refers to the to and fro of amendments put forward and debated between the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

What’s been achieved so far?

By responding to government consultations, presenting evidence to parliamentary committees and hosting meetings and briefings with Ministers and MPs, the RIBA continues to call on the government to introduce strong baseline fire safety measures so that people can feel safe in their own homes. This includes restricting the use of combustible materials and the introduction of mandatory requirements for sprinkler systems. Several changes have been made over the past year to answer these calls.

Combustible materials

The RIBA has been clear that a restriction of the use of combustible materials is vital to ensure that buildings are safe and fit for the future. Following a 2018 government consultation and pressure from the RIBA and others from across the built environment, the government implemented a ban on the use of combustible materials on the external walls of new buildings over 18 metres containing flats, as well as new hospitals, residential care premises, dormitories in boarding schools and student accommodation.

In May 2020, the RIBA responded to a consultation by the Ministry for Housing which sought views on extending the existing restrictions on the use of combustible materials. In our response, we called for the restriction to be extended to include hotels, hostels and boarding houses, and all buildings where a catastrophic event could cause multiple fatalities. To reduce unnecessary complications, we also called for the restriction to apply to key materials in external walls only. We expect an update from government on this consultation soon.

Though additional financial measures were recently announced by the government to help leaseholders across the country that have been affected by the national cladding crisis, the RIBA is very aware that this is simply not enough. The Chancellor is expected to deliver the Budget on 3 March. Before this, the RIBA submitted a representation which called on HM Treasury for additional funding to urgently remediate these homes, to ensure the safety of leaseholders that have unfortunately been affected by this crisis.

Sprinklers

We have also stressed that the government cannot solely focus on banning the use of combustible materials. It must go further by introducing additional measures such as mandatory requirements for sprinkler systems in new and converted residential buildings – a point emphasised in our response to the consultation on sprinklers in November 2019.

The Housing Secretary’s announcement in April 2020 which declared “the biggest changes to building safety in a generation” was therefore welcomed by the RIBA. This announcement included confirmation that an amendment would be made to technical guidance Approved Document B for the requirement of mandatory sprinkler systems in all new high-rise blocks of flats over 11 metres.

What next?

To ensure that RIBA Chartered Architects are at the forefront of driving the cultural change needed to ensure buildings are safe for future generations, the RIBA will be introducing mandatory competency requirements in relation to health and life safety (including fire safety) from 2022 as part of a new RIBA Education and Professional Development Framework.

We are also developing a Risk Management Guide, intended as a template for RIBA Chartered Practices to use to document a project’s design decisions in relation to fire safety. Further information on this will be shared later this year.

To keep updated with the RIBA’s lobbying activity on policy areas including building regulations and fire safety, sign up to the RIBA's weekly Political Update newsletter by emailing
public.affairs@riba.org.

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