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Reaction to the Building Safety Bill

Chair of the RIBA Fire Safety Group, Jane Duncan, reacts to the Building Safety Bill and explains what this will mean for the industry going forward.

15 July 2021

As Chair of the RIBA’s Expert Advisory Group on Fire Safety, I have spent the last four years meeting with Ministers, MPs, civil servants, and the industry to discuss the desperate need for change, to support a better and safer regulatory system for buildings. The pace of reform has been frustratingly slow, despite the substantive public outrage around the failures that led to the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower just over four years ago, and the continued stress faced by leaseholders in blocks that are now facing substantial bills to make their homes safe.

Nobody said it was going to be easy, but we have at least seen some progress this month as Parliament begins debating the Building Safety Bill. This is a welcome step towards the long awaited reform of the Building Regulatory system. The primary aim of the bill is to regulate towards a culture change within the construction industry, putting life and fire safety at the forefront of the sector – but there remain questions as to whether the legislation in the current format would achieve this.

The bill makes some positive changes, outlining the functions of the new Building Safety Regulator, amending the Building Act 1984 and giving the Health and Safety Executive much needed power to improve Building Standards.

However, it is concerning that the scope of the new regulatory system has not been widened to apply to other categories of high risk buildings at any height – the types of building that can house some of society’s most vulnerable. The government urgently needs to set out a clear programme for building regulations reform for buildings such as schools, care homes, hospitals and student accommodation irrespective of their height.

Whilst the main focus of the bill is on ensuring safety in buildings yet to be constructed, and thus does not tackle the huge issues with the safety of existing buildings, the biggest change in the bill since the draft was published last year is the extension of the period of time leaseholders can lodge legal claims under the Defective Premises Act for defective work to 15 years. This has huge implications for architects.

Following Grenfell, PII premiums have increased as much as 300%, and many architects have found they are unable to unable to obtain PII cover for issues relating to fire safety. The retrospective nature of the proposed DPA changes, now covering works to existing homes, new homes and homes resulting from change of use, so 15 years’ worth of house alterations and extensions could be in the frame, and likely to affect premiums. The complexity and risk of disputes could increase, and the increased liability that will fall on architects will add a further level of uncertainty to the critical professional indemnity insurance issue.

For architects, there also arises a question of how the new building safety regulations can practically apply to design and build procurement arrangements, and whether the market will provide insurance to the new duty holders. This is an issue which the RIBA will be putting to government for answers.

There is further core issue that will directly affect the business of architecture – the widening of ARB’s power to regulate architects. The bill will provide the regulator with the powers to look at how architects’ skills and competence are monitored throughout their careers. This is a substantial issue which the RIBA is discussing directly with policymakers.

Over the rest of the year, MPs and Peers will be grappling with these challenging issues as they scrutinise the bill. Our call to them now is the same as it ever was – drive up responsibility and quality, expect competence and expertise from the construction sector, regulate out the bad actors, and ensure that future home owners will be able to sleep soundly in their safe homes.

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