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A new dawn for building safety

Matt Kennedy reviews proposed changes to legislation on the construction and management of buildings in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire.

The Building Safety White Paper sets out a comprehensive menu of changes to how fire safety measures are undertaken, building safety is maintained and the accountability of individuals within organisations and to the wider public on matters of building safety are made clear. The shockwaves of Grenfell should rightly be timeless in their impact, and the legislation provides an opportunity to begin meaningfully re-building trust with tenants, residents and the wider public.

Despite the obvious and understandable focus on the ‘how’ related to making buildings safer from inception through to management there’s a welcome focus on publicly available information, accountability to tenants and the role of tenants as active participants in the building safety regime. There can be no doubting that the legislation could have a huge impact on how landlords across all tenures ensure the safety of their homes that fall within its remit. There are interesting questions that given the infancy of the legislation and the timing with the Senedd election go unanswered at this stage.

With the legislation capturing homes with two or more dwellings in the minimum set of measures and those 18m or higher, or at least six storeys, within the category linked to the more comprehensive set of measures it means organisations need to start thinking about planning for the changes the legislation could represent in practice now. For example, by beginning to collect together the information that could represent the data set needed as part of the golden thread (the living building safety history of buildings) for buildings where this may be lacking or some aspects missing.

For new builds, the legislation introduces a number of stop-gaps, where sufficient evidence will need to be provided before a developer can progress further. These will occur before planning is granted, before construction begins and before people occupy the homes. In theory this seems like a sound approach, given that the legislation clearly sets out expectations around who is accountable for this evidence at each stage, and in practice no developer will want delays that could have been avoided and therefore a focus on this aspect of the work should be forthcoming.

The role of tenants and residents play  in the safety regime is an area given a good amount of focus in the legislation. From understanding the implications of what measures could mitigate a refusal of access to someone’s home to check and certify safety measures through to tenants as active participants in ensuring the safety of homes. On the latter point, that seems really key given that tenants/residents will more often than not have considerable intelligence and insight around where they live and the people around them – insight which could and should help inform the approach to maintaining the safety of homes in partnership with the responsible person(s).

The question around regulation is an interesting one. The Welsh Government at this stage seem open to suggestions about how the regulatory function linked to the measures brought in by the legislation could work. Whether it’s undertaken by a current regulatory body, a new entity, or a combination of both remains to be seen. Given the scale of the changes and their cross-cutting nature, what is clear is that any regulatory function will need to be resourced by experts with knowledge across a range of functions – from the technical aspects of design and safety, through to what high quality tenant/resident engagement looks like in practice. This is clearly no small task and will be a vital element of the legislation to get right if the measures are to be as effective as possible in practice.

For providers of social housing, there’s the ever-present push to build homes at the cutting edge of sustainability that are fuel efficient and have minimal impact on the environment – as this legislation is scrutinised there will undoubtedly be questions to answer over how the regime is sufficiently funded and resourced to ensure organisations can continue to invest in the development (and retrofitting!) activities. Equally for private landlords where long-term investment, access to expertise and the cross-over with the licensing regime for Rent Smart Wales will be crucial elements to gain a greater grasp of as the legislation progresses.

And whilst it’s completely right that first and foremost the role of the legislation is in making buildings safe and providing people with both reassurance and a means to engage and remain informed there are also important questions to ask around how the work undertaken under the new regime will have an impact on local economies – boosting trade, training and employment.

Matt Kennedy is policy and public affairs manager at CIH Cymru

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