BUILT ENVIRONMENT JOURNAL

Wales plans to reform building safety

The Welsh government is consulting on proposals to improve the safety regime for multi-occupancy dwellings to prevent a tragedy like the Grenfell Tower fire from occurring again

Author:

  • Claire Severn

16 March 2021

On 12 January, the Welsh government published the white paper Safer buildings in Wales for consultation. This sets out proposals for a new building safety regime, including reforms to the way we design, build, manage and live in multi-occupancy properties. It also aims to ensure the problems highlighted by the Hackitt Review are not replicated in the future. The consultation closes on 12 April.

Scope of the proposals

We know that fire-related fatalities in Wales vary according to property type, being much more likely in residential than in non-residential premises; the risk of casualties in a fire in a multi-occupancy dwelling is more than ten times greater than in an office, for instance. The Grenfell Tower tragedy demonstrated that where a fire occurs in high-rise flats, the results can be devastating.

The proposals that the Welsh government's building safety programme has put forward in the white paper attempt to reduce both the likelihood and impact of fire. Our building safety regime will cover all multi-occupancy residential buildings, not just high-rises.

The safety measures imposed will differ depending on building category. The white paper proposes two categories, but it is our intention that the legislation would allow these to be amended to respond to emerging evidence on building safety and risk.
  • Category 1: This includes buildings of 18m or more in height or more than six storeys, and containing two or more dwellings. These buildings will be subject to the most onerous safety requirements.
  • Category 2: This includes buildings with two or more dwellings that are less than 18m in height. These will still be subject to numerous building safety requirements.

"Fire-related fatalities in Wales vary according to property type, being much more likely in residential than in non-residential premises"

Reforming the regime

The building control systems of England and Wales are largely similar, both being based on the Building Act 1984. Because there are fewer high-risk multi-occupancy dwellings and lower levels of development in Wales than in England, the issues identified in the Hackitt Review are not on the same scale; nevertheless, the same fundamental criticisms can be levelled.

Following publication of the UK government's draft Building safety bill, the Welsh government has been working with Westminster to consider how the parts of this legislation related to design and construction could be applied in the principality.

This would allow Wales to introduce improvements to the building control system earlier than if it had to prepare primary legislation of its own to implement the same changes. Much of the detail of the new regulatory regime will be addressed through Welsh secondary legislation, which will be the subject of public consultation and go through the Senedd process.

Some of the changes are intended to apply specifically to category 1 buildings; others are improvements to the building control system more generally. An important difference between the proposed implementation of the reforms in England and Wales is that, in the latter, these additional duties will be discharged by extending functions for local authorities and giving new responsibilities to Welsh ministers, a reflection of the different context and lower levels of historic stock and new build activity.

The specific design and construction reforms being considered in the white paper include the following.
  • Conflicts of interest where developers choose their own provider for building control services will be addressed by removing this choice. For category 1 buildings, the building control body will be the local authority; where there are capacity issues the authority could subcontract this work to an approved inspector. To avoid a similar conflict, Welsh ministers would have to designate an alternative local authority where an authority would be the building control body for its own category 1 developments.
  • Welsh ministers will have powers to establish requirements for a golden thread of information about the design, construction and maintenance of category 1 buildings, as proposed in the Hackitt Review. We firmly believe there are benefits in adopting an approach consistent with that proposed for England in a number of key areas, including data requirements, format and the technology used in creating and maintaining the golden thread.
  • A construction, design and management-based approach should be adopted, with five dutyholders during the design and construction phase: client; principal designer; principal contractor; designer; and contractor. Enabling powers in the bill will allow the key responsibilities for each of these roles to be set. Welsh legislation will put in place dutyholder roles for the occupation phase.
  • The three gateway points proposed by the Hackitt Review – namely planning, pre-construction and construction or handover – are to be overseen by the local authority building control, which will also have improved intervention powers and the ability to issue compliance and stop notices. The principal contractor will be made responsible for the creation of a fire and emergency plan, and a change control process to help ensure that what is designed is what gets built.
  • We recently consulted on introducing a requirement for developers to conduct mandatory consultation with the fire and rescue service as part of the planning process at gateway 1. At gateway 3, a critical handover activity under the proposals would be the collation of the golden thread of as-built information.
Other additional functions being proposed for Welsh ministers include:
  • the registration and regulation of the building control profession in Wales
  • the regulation and oversight of approved inspectors
  • setting and managing operational standards for public- and private-sector building control bodies.

Legal overhaul

The UK Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (FSO) was designed largely for workplaces. As a result, it does not work well in a residential context because it does not address typical fire safety issues in a residential setting. It can also be complex for landlords to understand and apply effectively.

The white paper proposes a radical overhaul of fire safety law in multi-occupancy residential buildings. Although we propose retaining an approach based on the consideration and assessment of risk in each premises, it would work in a completely different way because it would directly set out fire safety outcomes and risks that are typical in a residential block.

We propose four fire safety outcomes that should be pursued.
  • Fire prevention: The risk of fire breaking out in the building should be as low as possible.
  • Fire protection: If a fire does break out, it should be contained where it originates
  • Escape: All people who are in immediate danger from fire should be able to leave the premises swiftly and safely.
  • Firefighting: Any fire that does break out should be extinguished as quickly and safely as possible.

We have set out risk elements for each of these outcomes: for instance, the risk of doors and windows failing to resist the spread of fire is covered by fire protection. We will also set out in guidance some typical mitigation measures that can be taken against these risks. The dutyholder during occupation, the accountable person, will assess the extent to which their building achieves these outcomes, and identify and mitigate the risks.

We will also professionalise the process of conducting a fire risk assessment, which will have to be undertaken by a qualified person at least once a year, and must be permanently recorded and made available on request to residents and regulators.

Furthermore, we are proposing to make it an offence for any person – including a resident or a contractor – to knowingly and significantly breach compartmentation. Sound compartmentation is critical to fire safety in multi-occupancy buildings, yet the FSO makes no mention of it, and it can be hard for accountable persons to verify breaches in flats as part of a fire risk assessment.

We have also been working closely with the Home Office on its Fire Safety Bill. This addresses fundamental problems with the way the FSO applies to residential buildings: the amendments will extend the order's coverage to the external walls and all parts of the internal structure, including fire doors. We will work with the Home Office and the National Fire Chiefs Council on guidance for responsible persons about the bill.

We are considering improvements to the safety features of all properties in Wales, and whether we should require all domestic residential properties to have:
  • one smoke alarm installed in the room most frequently used for general daytime living purposes
  • one smoke alarm in every circulation space on each storey, such as hallways and landings
  • one heat alarm installed in every kitchen
  • all these alarms to be mains-powered and interlinked
  • a carbon monoxide alarm where appropriate.

Further reforms

There are further proposals in the white paper that will significantly improve building safety. These include creating clear responsibilities for dutyholders, development of a registration and licensing system for dutyholders to support better accountability and competence requirements, and a strengthened regulatory system with robust sanctions to ensure compliance.

There are also important proposals that aim to strengthen the rights of residents and highlight how they can promote building safety in their own homes.

The Welsh minister for housing and local government recognises that effective reform is a collective endeavour. The expertise from our partners across the housing sector is key to finding the right approach for Wales.

buildingsafety@gov.wales

Related competencies include: Fire safety

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