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In a recent House of Lords debate on 14th December 2023, the focus was directly on the challenges and uncertainties surrounding fire safety, particularly in the context of the Building Safety Act. The primary objective of councils, ensuring safe and high-quality homes for all tenants, faces several hurdles as they contend with evolving technologies and regulatory frameworks.
The Local Government Association (LGA) expressed appreciation for the introduction of the Building Safety Act, aimed at preventing incidents similar to the Grenfell Tower tragedy. However, councils, particularly those owning building stocks, are still awaiting clarity on various aspects of the new regime, set to commence in April 2024.
One of the major concerns raised pertains to the prioritisation of around 12,000 higher-risk residential buildings over 18 metres in height. As councils await guidance on how the Building Safety Regulator (BSR) will review safety cases within its five-year programme, questions linger about the allocation of limited resources and the potential financial burden for implementing safety measures.
The ambiguity extends to the measures building owners must take to reassure the BSR about fire safety risks. The prospect of costly interventions, such as installing sprinkler systems and second staircases, poses financial challenges for councils, diverting funds from other critical programs, including social housing improvement.
Duplication of information submission to various regulators further burdens councils. As they navigate through the registration process under the Building Safety Act, councils find themselves supplying similar data to both the BSR and the Regulator of Social Housing, adding administrative complexities.
While additional resources have been allocated to building control teams and the fire service, concerns persist about the adequacy of staffing, given new registration and competency requirements for building control inspectors. The potential strain on resources may compromise councils' ability to fulfil wider responsibilities.
The financial burden on councils intensifies with the need for remediation works, estimated at £7.7 billion according to LGA research. Despite some government funding, the shortfall raises concerns about the sustainability of Housing Revenue Accounts (HRAs) and housing associations. The LGA emphasises the need for the construction industry to bear the costs of fixing fire safety defects.
The impact of cumulative pressures on HRAs is compounded by wider challenges, including decarbonisation costs and the social rent cap's financial deficit. The self-financing regime for social housing is deemed outdated, prompting a call for urgent review and the establishment of a long-term sustainable funding framework.
Amongst these challenges, the LGA advocates for a renewed focus on social housing construction to address the housing emergency. A six-point plan includes local housing deals, a council housebuilding delivery taskforce, continued access to preferential borrowing rates, Right to Buy reforms, increased grant levels, and certainty on future social rents.
Beyond housing concerns, the debate also highlighted fire risks associated with emerging technologies, such as lithium-ion batteries. The call for safety assessments, regulations for battery disposal, and a comprehensive fire safety system underscores the industry's commitment to addressing potential hazards.
Further, there is a concerning rise in fires at recycling plants due to disposable vapes. With over 700 fires attributed to batteries from discarded vapes, the LGA urges a ban on disposable vapes to alleviate the strain on recycling facilities and reduce the associated costs to local taxpayers.
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21 February 2024
20 February 2024