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New Fire Safety bill proposed by UK Government

  • United Kingdom
  • Health and safety
  • Litigation and dispute management

02-07-2020

The heat is rising! Organisations are encouraged to review their fire safety standards in lights of the Government’s proposal to introduce a new Fire Safety Bill (FSB). This is likely to see an increase in enforcement and in the level of fines within this arena. Many will say the new FSB is overdue and is a welcomed addition to the new measures which are being introduced following the Grenfell Tower review. So what is the FSB and what does it mean for owners of multi-occupied residential buildings?

What is the FSB?

From 2005 the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (RRO) has provided direction on the minimum statutory fire safety standards in all non-domestic premises in England and Wales. At the beginning of this year the Government announced changes in this arena with the introduction of a new FSB. The primary aim of this new bill will seek to clarify the scope of the RRO.

For some commentators the FSB does not go as far as they wanted or expected in terms of addressing the safety issues highlighted by the Grenfell Tower tragedy. However, the FSB does lay down the foundation for future reform and is therefore at least a small step in the right direction.

What is the reason for the update?

Many of us will recall turning on the news or listening to the radio and hearing the tragic events unfold on 14 June 2017 at Grenfell Tower, where 72 individuals lost their lives and over 70 people were injured.

In April 2020, the government announced a range of measures aimed at improving building safety, which included extending the cladding ban in England and Wales to a wider range of buildings and materials and the passing of the FSB.

What are the main changes to the RRO?

1. Responsibilities of Duty Holders

The FSB proposes to change the scope of the RRO to clarify that the responsible person or duty holder for multi-occupied residential buildings must manage and reduce the risk of fire for:

  • the structure and external walls of the building, including cladding, balconies and windows; and
  • entrance doors to individual flats that open into common parts. If the current iteration of the FSB is enacted, duty holders will be responsible for fire doors, even if they are owned by the leaseholder.

2. Enforcement Action

The current enforcement powers of the fire and rescue services is limited to common parts of residential buildings such as entrance halls and landings. They do not have powers to enforce the RRO in individual homes or over the exterior of buildings. This clarification will empower fire and rescue services to take enforcement action and hold building owners to account if they are not compliant.

3. Future Scope

The FSB will provide a foundation for secondary legislation to take forward recommendations from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry phase one report, which stated that that building owners should be responsible for:

  • regularly reviewing and updating evacuation plans, (this includes personal plans for residents whose ability to evacuate may be compromised);
  • providing easy to understand fire safety instructions for residents; and
  • regular lift inspections and reporting.

The latter includes the reporting of results to the local fire and rescue services.

The FSB will enable future amendments to the RRO in order to change or clarify the types of premises falling within its scope.

What will organisations need to review in light of these changes to ensure their operations are compliant and the fire safety measures are up to date?

Government guidance recommends that owners of multi-occupied buildings, should carry out the following in anticipation of the FSB becoming law:

  • undertake a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment to take account of flat entrance doors, facades and all communal fire doors;
  • implement a suitable system of inspection and maintenance (in addition to that already in place) on doors, external walls and possibly windows if determined to be necessary; and
  • review and update (if necessary) the fire strategy and evacuation procedure on a periodic basis and communicate the same to tenants.

There will inevitably be further cost, resource and process implications for investigating buildings and implementing control measures to ensure compliance.

When will the FSB be introduced?

The bill could be passed as early as this year, though delays may occur as a result of the current pandemic.

Progress has been made and the FSB has been scrutinised line by line by the Public Bill Committee and has been reported to the House of Commons with no amendments. The FSB is now due to have its report stage and third reading on a date to be announced. Amendments can still be made to the FSB at this stage.

What other measures are being taken?

Alongside the FSB, a number of actions are being undertaken across the UK Government to improve building and fire safety including:

  • the creation of a new Building Safety Regulator (BSR);
  • updated guidance for building owners on building safety;
  • extending the ban on combustible cladding in England and Wales to include a wider range of buildings and materials;
  • the Introduction of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government's Building Safety Bill, which will provide clearer accountability and stronger duties on those responsible for high rise buildings;
  • £1 billion of grant funding to tackle unsafe cladding systems on high-rise residential buildings over 18 metres in both the private and social sectors. (Guidance on the scheme can be accessed here.);
  • the relaunch of the government's Fire Kills campaign; and
  • steps to ensure that remedial works to existing buildings are not delayed any further. The government has announced that it will “name and shame” building owners who have not started removing unsafe cladding from their buildings.

What will the BSR be responsible for?

The BSR will be responsible for:

  • overseeing the design and management of buildings, with a strong focus on ensuring the new regime for higher-risk buildings is enforced effectively and robustly; and
  • promoting the competence and organisational capability of professionals, tradespeople and building control professionals working on all buildings.

How will the BSR ensure compliance and building safety?

The BSR will be independent and will give expert advice to regulators, landlords, building owners, the construction and building design industry and residents.

To ensure safety and compliance, the BSR will:

  • establish a national register of buildings in its scope;
  • ensure that residents’ complaints about safety issues that have been escalated to the regulator are investigated and dealt with in a timely and effective manner;
  • produce advice for duty holders;
  • advise the government on changes to the Building Regulations and their accompanying Approved Documents; and
  • report on the performance of building control bodies.

What powers will the BSR have?

The BSR’s powers will include:

  • issuing informal advice;
  • issuing “stop”, “compliance” or “improvement” notices. Breaching any of these notices will be a criminal offence;
  • reviewing or revoking a Building Registration Certificate; and
  • the ability to prosecute duty holders, potentially leading to an unlimited fine.

Potential Consequences

It is a criminal offence if you fail to comply with the RRO. The fire and rescue service can serve an enforcement notice to secure compliance or a prohibition notice, to prohibit the use of the whole or part of the premises. It is also within their power to prosecute. Despite the Health and Safety Sentencing Guideline not applying to fire safety cases, fines in recent years have soared, due to the perceived risk and consequences of fire. For example, earlier this year APP Construction Limited were fined £450,000 for failing to provide an adequate number of fire escape routes and exits. In addition to financial repercussions, in 2020 it seems that the courts are willing to hand out suspended sentences for serious fire safety breaches. This has been demonstrated in the case of a Blackpool Hotel owner who has recently been handed a nine month suspended sentence for various fire safety failings, including a switched off fire alarm.

In 2019 the top ten Health and Safety fines were not fire related and were all in excess of £1m. Following the implementation of the FSB, fire safety fines could continue to increase and sanctions may become more severe. Three years on from Grenfell, we continue to see significant fire safety failings and as such perhaps it is necessary to move more in line with Health and Safety Sentencing Guidelines for fire safety offences.

While compliance with new fire safety measures will inevitably give rise to substantial costs for businesses in an already difficult time, the cost of non-compliance is likely to be far greater.

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To find out more please contact: Sarah Valentine, Charlotte Wood or Sharon Nath