As we approach the end of 2019, we take stock of key developments and look at what we can expect in 2020 in terms of building safety.

Public Inquiry and building regulations

The most recent publication has been the report of the Public Inquiry into the fire at Grenfell. The comprehensive report had not been expected to consider the building regulations which will be the focus of the second phase of the Inquiry. However, Sir Moore Bick concluded that there was compelling evidence that the external walls failed to comply with the relevant functional requirement of the Building Regulations (B4) to prevent the external spread of fire since the presence of the ACM panels actively promoted the spread of the fire.

2020 sees the start of phase 2 of the Public Inquiry. With at least 200,000 documents to review, the particular focus will be on the decision-making that led to the refurbishment with the ACM cladding and a review of the “regime for testing materials intended for use in external walls and [whether] the regulations governing their use were, and are, adequate to identify and control the potential dangers”. In addition to the effectiveness of tests, the Inquiry will consider the adequacy of the building regulations themselves, and the quality of the available official guidance and non-statutory guidance available, and the manner in which materials are certified and marketed for use on high-rise buildings.

The Inquiry will also examine whether the description of a high-rise building of one that is over 18 metres in England and Wales should be changed, for example, to adopt the position in Scotland where regulation relating to high-rise buildings now applies to buildings over 11 metres. This is relevant to the consultation on the requirements for sprinklers in high rise buildings, which is discussed below.

Inquiry Recommendations

The Inquiry made a number of recommendations concerning building safety with the suggestion that owners and managers of high-rise residential buildings should start to implement these recommendations now and not wait until legislation requires them to do so. In particular, owners and managers of high-rise residential buildings should:

  • provide to the fire and rescue service information on the design of the external walls, and details of materials used, and up to date floor plans both in paper and electronic form
  • carry out regular inspections of any lifts that are designed to be used by fire-fighters; and test the mechanisms that enable fire-fighters to take control of those lifts
  • develop and keep under review evacuation plans for existing and future premises and discuss these with the fire and rescue service, and make sure they are available in the premises. Personal emergency evacuation plans should be produced for residents with reduce mobility or cognition
  • ensure that all high-rise buildings have floors and lobbies have visible floor numbers, and
  • inspect all fire doors to ensure compliance with applicable standards; and carry out checks every 3 months to ensure self-closing devices are working. This would apply to all residential building blocks. For high rise residential buildings owners and managers should also upgrade fire doors to individual flats in line with modern standards.

New building safety legislation?

The Consultation into the proposals to take forward the new system of building regulation set out by Dame Judith Hackitt closed over the summer, and the government outlined that legislation would be introduced to implement new building safety standards. Building safety will remain one of the key issues to be addressed whatever the make-up of the new government, but clearly it will now not be until after the election that we will see any real indication of when this new regulatory framework might be in place, and whether the new regime may extend beyond high-rise residential buildings to other buildings.

Technical Review of Approved Document B

The ban on combustible materials on the external walls of new buildings over 18 metres, and the consequent changes to Approved Document B, are only the start on any amendment to Approved Document B.

The Government published an analysis of responses in September 2019 to their call for Evidence regarding Approved Document B. These responses reflected a clear consensus for change, and the need for the Approved Document B to be more readily understandable and more frequently reviewed. Further research will be required before change is implemented, but there was support from some respondents for the ban on combustible materials to apply to all buildings regardless of height and for the reduction of the trigger height at which residential buildings would require added protection, such as sprinkler systems or additional means of escape. These responses prompted the government to issue its consultation on sprinklers.

Sprinklers

The government's consultation on proposals to reduce the trigger height for sprinkler provision in new high-rise residential buildings has just closed. The current requirement in Approved Document B is that new blocks of flats more than 30 metres above the ground should be fitted with a sprinkler system. The government's preference is to reduce the trigger height to 18 metres which would be consistent with the ban on combustible materials introduced in December 2018, although the other option would be to reduce the height to 11 metres. Retrofitting of sprinklers in existing buildings would require further consideration. Unsurprisingly, in view of the election, there is no indication on when any changes will be announced or implemented.

Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (RRFSO)

Responsibility for fire safety for all buildings that fall within the scope of the RRFSO, which includes the shared areas of properties where several households live, falls to the Responsible Person, who could be an employer or a person in control of the premises. The Government's consultation on this key piece of legislation closed at the end of July 2019, and responses will inform the need for any changes. As with the reform of the building safety regulatory system, there is no indication of when we may expect the next step in the process.

Summary

Building safety remains high on the agenda and will do so through-out 2020. Significant change for multi-occupied high-rise residential buildings is on the horizon although there is still no certainty as to when this may be expected.