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Y Pwyllgor Cydraddoldeb, Llywodraeth Leol a Chymunedau

Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee

27/09/2018

Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

Bethan Sayed AM
David Melding AM
Gareth Bennett AM
Jenny Rathbone AM
John Griffiths AM Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor
Committee Chair

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Cassandra Zanelli Ymgynghorydd Mygedol Ffederasiwn Cymdeithasau Preswylwyr Preifat
Honorary Consultant to the Federation of Private Residents’ Associations
Christian Hadfield Rheolwr Grŵp—Adran Gweithrediadau, Bro Morgannwg a Phen-y-bont ar Ogwr, Gwasanaeth Tân ac Achub De Cymru
Group Manager—Operations Department, Vale of Glamorgan and Bridgend, South Wales Fire and Rescue Service
Dave Holland Pennaeth Gwasanaethau Rheoliadol a Rennir, Gwasanaethau Rheoliadol a Rennir, Pen-y-bont ar Ogwr, Caerdydd a Bro Morgannwg
Head of Shared Regulatory Services, Shared Regulatory Services, Bridgend, Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan
David Clark Cadeirydd, Mainstay Group Ltd
Chairman, Mainstay Group Ltd
David Hancock Rheolwr Grŵp—Pennaeth Diogelwch Tân Busnesau, Gwasanaeth Tân ac Achub Canolbarth a Gorllewin Cymru
Group Manager—Head of Business Fire Safety, Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service
Graham Bond Rheolwr Rheoli Adeiladau Dros Dro, Cynllunio, Trafnidiaeth a’r Amgylchedd, Cyngor Caerdydd
Acting Building Control Manager, Planning, Transport and Environment, Cardiff Council
Jason Clarke Pennaeth Rheoli Risg, Warwick Estates
Head of Risk Management, Warwick Estates
Jim McKirdle Swyddog Polisi Tai, Cymdeithas Llywodraeth Leol Cymru
Housing Policy Officer, Welsh Local Government Association
Julie Griffiths Rheolwr Eiddo ar gyfer Eiddo a Reolir yng Nghymru, Mainstay Group Ltd
Property Manager for Managed Properties in Wales, Mainstay Group Ltd
Kevin Roberts Uwch-reolwr Diogelwch Tân, Gwasanaeth Tân ac Achub Gogledd Cymru
Senior Fire Safety Manager, North Wales Fire and Rescue Service
Nigel Glen Prif Swyddog Gweithredol, Cymdeithas Asiantau Rheoli Preswyl
Chief Executive Officer, Association of Residential Managing Agents
Owen Jayne Rheolwr Grŵp, Gwasanaeth Tân ac Achub De Cymru
Group Manager, South Wales Fire and Rescue Service
Rachel Dobson Pennaeth Iechyd a Diogelwch, Mainstay Group Ltd
Head of Health and Safety, Mainstay Group Ltd

Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol

Senedd Officials in Attendance

Chloe Davies Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk
Jonathan Baxter Ymchwilydd
Researcher
Naomi Stocks Clerc
Clerk
Stephen Davies Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol
Legal Adviser

Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.

The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.

Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 09:04.

The meeting began at 09:04.

1. Cyflwyniad, Ymddiheuriadau, Dirprwyon a Datgan Buddiannau
1. Introductions, Apologies, Substitutions and Declarations of Interest

Okay, everyone. Welcome to this meeting of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee. The first item on our agenda today is introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest. We've received apologies from Jack Sargeant, Jayne Bryant and Siân Gwenllian. David Melding is substituting for Mark Isherwood. Are there any declarations of interest? No.  

2. Ymchwiliad i Ddiogelwch Tân mewn Tyrau o Fflatiau yng Nghymru (Sector Preifat): Sesiwn Dystiolaeth 1
2. Inquiry into Fire Safety in High-rise Blocks in Wales (Private Sector): Evidence Session 1

We will move on, then, to, item 2: the first session of our inquiry into fire safety in high-rise blocks in the private sector in Wales. I'd like to welcome Kevin Roberts, senior fire safety manager, North Wales Fire and Rescue Service; Christian Hadfield, operations department, Vale of Glamorgan and Bridgend, South Wales Fire and Rescue Service; Owen Jayne, group manager, South Wales Fire and Rescue Service; and David Hancock, group manager, head of business fire safety, Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service. Welcome to you all. Thanks for coming along to give evidence to the committee today.

Perhaps I might begin by asking the first question, which is: to what extent would you say the focus of fire and rescue services has changed since the terrible tragedy at Grenfell Tower?  

09:05

Well, I think, Chair, that since, as you say, the terrible tragedy at Grenfell Tower back in June 2017, all the fire rescue services across Wales looked very extensively at the high-rise residential building stock that they had, and certainly, talking from the mid and west Wales perspective, after we'd rapidly identified those buildings that fell within the height category that was affected at the time, we commenced on a programme auditing all those premises. Effectively, from my perspective, it didn't matter whether we'd audited the premises in May of 2017; it came back under our spotlight again and, therefore, received another audit. In some terms, I refer to it as a high-rise product recall type approach, where everything was addressed that fell within the height category.

We embarked upon an auditing process that lasted five and a half weeks, for us to complete the inspections of all the buildings that fell within that six floors or above category. Beyond that, operational crews conducted visits to each of the high-rise buildings within the area in conjunction with our water department to ensure that access was appropriate for fire appliances, that there hadn't been any local landscaping issues or changes in terms of traffic calming, et cetera, that might have prevented access to vehicles, but also to ensure that we had a water supply available in the event of that being needed, should an event occur at that location.

We've conducted a number of training exercises at a number of blocks to reinforce our understanding of the latest learning and guidance that's come out through the national operational guidance programme, and we've naturally been heavily focused on the National Fire Chiefs Council sitreps, which were issued initially on a daily basis and have now tailed off to a weekly basis, to ensure that we are providing information as requested in a timely and a complete manner.

Beyond that, we've reviewed our website so that, for residents in this type of building we're here to talk about, all the information that was available was openly available through our website as well for them.  

Yes, can I just add to that from the South Wales Fire and Rescue Service perspective? The numbers that we identified in the South Wales Fire and Rescue Service led to us establishing a high-rise training team. It was funded by the Welsh Government, and they've visited all the affected high-rise buildings and we've enhanced our training programmes in collaboration with west midlands and used their high-rise training blocks. So, we've enhanced our training for control staff, incident commanders and firefighters.

Okay. In terms of the aluminium composite material cladding systems in private high-rise blocks in Wales, are you confident that all such blocks have been identified and the cladding properly tested and any risk fully assessed?

In terms of the mid and west Wales portfolio of premises, in total we had 81 buildings, not all private sector. There were 81 building that met the height category of six floors or above, which roughly equates to the 18 metre height that was stated. Of those 81 premises, I think 69 fall within the private sector. Within that private sector, that includes blocks of flats and apartments, but it also includes student accommodation as well. As far as our analysis of those buildings were concerned, we didn't identify any ACM cladding on any of those premises. 

Certainly, from a south Wales perspective, the set-up of the high-rise team very much from the outset for us was about identifying buildings. So, we didn't just interrogate our own data sets; we used other data sets across the public sector to ensure that we had the right number of buildings and we're dealing the right number of building with ACM.

I think, since then, we're confident that the numbers we have currently, with the current testing of products and the failure of products—not to say that, should any more testing be carried out, there won't be more out there, but it really depends on the testing regime—we're confident in south Wales that we've got the numbers that we started off with.

09:10

You’re confident that you’ve identified any with that type of cladding and assessments have been made in terms of any risk.

Yes, Chair, from a north Wales perspective, we’ve got very limited high-rise residential buildings, certainly over those numbers. It was that small in number that we actually changed tack slightly and, rather than just looking at the buildings over six floors, we started looking at premises over five floors. We’ve visited and audited those premises. We don’t have any with ACM, although we do have one building that has been highlighted as having a combustible insulation on the external side of it. It’s not ACM; it’s been highlighted through a facade risk assessment, and it’s been put into the high-risk category by the person who undertook that risk assessment not because of the nature of the cladding on it, but purely because they didn’t have the detail of how it was constructed and therefore they weren’t able to actually state whether or not appropriate fire stopping had been put in at windows and doors and suchlike. So, purely for safety concerns, they’ve actually put that, and we are working with the private management company of that building to do it.

In terms of ACM in north Wales, we don’t have any that we’ve identified and we’ve looked at all our premises.

Yes, okay, thanks for that. I was going to come on to ask, actually, about other issues other than ACM cladding that have become apparent in private high-rise blocks in Wales, whether that’s non-ACM cladding or compartmentation or any other issues. Could you tell us what other issues have become apparent and what action you’ve taken?

I think it’s fair to share that, following the Western Mail article yesterday, it’s abundantly apparent that I have a building within my service area that, if you’re happy, we’ll refer to as ‘property No. 4’ for the purposes of this because of certain commercial confidences that we’ve been asked to sort of be observant of, if you’re happy with that.

Effectively, that property is a nine-storey building. Initially, back in June of last year, when we conducted our round of audits on these premises, we identified some issues relating to some ducts that run through the height of the building, and these were around compartmentation, fire stopping and the like. At the time, we issued an enforcement notice to rectify the issues that were identified. The management company implemented a number of interim measures, again to help mitigate any possible issues that might arise as a consequence of this deficiency. Contractors were appointed to remediate the areas in question, albeit there were some delays encountered by the contractors because of the incredibly wet weather we had prior to Christmas and then the amount of snow that we had post Christmas that affected the way in which they could apply various coatings to steelworks; it just wasn’t going to adhere to steelwork that was either very cold or very wet, so we encountered some delays within that.

We followed that enforcement notice through. As a consequence, whilst they were remedying the issues that were initially identified, they identified further issues within the building that wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise been seen, because they were within hidden voids and cavities that, to a fire safety inspector walking through a building—we don’t do invasive level 4 surveys of buildings; it’s not part of something that the fire and rescue service do. It was identified that there were further issues around compartmentation within the building and around the fire protection of structural steelwork as well. That came to our notice at roughly about the same time as the works to address the initial issues that were identified under that first enforcement notice came to a close. That enforcement notice was then withdrawn because the work to address those issues had been completed and a second, subsequent enforcement notice has now been issued and is still ongoing in relation to the works that weren’t previously identified back in June of last year.

Thanks for that, David. I think a lot of concern has come about from some of these issues coming into the public arena through the papers provided to this committee for this evidence-taking session, and the phrase ‘large risk to life’ has obviously raised a lot of concerns. At this stage of the process of having identified problems, and work being identified as necessary, and some work having taken place, are you content at this stage that everything that needs to be done is being done to deal with these safety issues?

09:15

Yes. So, at the moment, if we'd felt that the risk to life was greater than it was perceived to be at the moment, then we would naturally have looked to issue a stronger form of notice, i.e. a prohibition notice. 

And that would involve those residents in the building leaving?

Yes, they would have done so. Yes.

Yes. So, naturally, by virtue of the fact that there are identified issues within the building, the building is therefore not as safe as it could be. But that's not to say that it's unsafe per se, bearing in mind that interim measures have been put in place by the company as well as, from the outset, they instigated a waking watch, which was entirely in line with the National Fire Chiefs Council's recommendations, and that was applicable to buildings that had combustible cladding installed on the exterior envelope. So, the same sort of thing was applied to this, even though it was a different situation because the building wasn't clad. So, there was the implementation of a waking watch, that waking watch has now being superseded by the installation of an enhanced fire alarm system that's more extensive than would have been normally required for a building of that type. That fire alarm system will now give an early warning of the presence of smoke, or fire, within the building, and that will initiate a general alarm, causing a simultaneous evacuation to be invoked.

I see. So, in short, you're content at this moment in time that everything that needs to be done either has been done or is being done, or will be done?

What is being done at the moment is entirely consistent with the NFCC advice that would be applicable to buildings with other similar but different issues, so, yes, I am. And at the moment, I'm sure you're aware from the media article yesterday, the managing company are in communication with the developers regarding the timescales for inception of work and the responsibility for taking on those works that will be required to remediate this.

In addition, as you're aware, it is a complicating factor in as much as the fire and rescue service only have responsibility for the common parts of these residential buildings, and naturally, where these issues have extended into the residential dwellings within the buildings, we have no jurisdiction beyond the front door, and we have no jurisdiction over any external cladding or anything that might affect the external envelope of the building either. And I think, certainly, that was explained to us through Welsh Government directions previously as well. So, there is a limitation on where we can go within the legislative framework under which we operate, and naturally, then, under the housing health and safety rating system that the local authority will apply, they need to look at it from their perspective beyond the front doors of the flats or the apartments.

In this particular instance, then, you would be working closely with the local authority on these issues for this particular block to make sure that those matters that are without your direct involvement are being dealt with by the local authority.

Yes. Once the issues that were identified came to light, we informed the city and county of Swansea of those issues, and it's now in the hands of their housing department to determine how they wish to proceed with that. But they have been made aware.

I just wanted to ask: I know you said that it didn't reach the—or trigger the prohibition notice, but in the evidence from Mainstay, they used the words 'with a large risk to life'. And I don't want to be alarmist, but if they are going to use that word, is it either inappropriate that they've used such a strong word or is it the case that they feel that it is a large risk to life and that the prohibition notice should really be enforced? Or that they need to potentially have thought the evidence through in how they projected that to the committee? Because sitting on here and not knowing what that risk to life is, and having just had the Grenfell disaster, it makes me feel quite uncomfortable. I hear your reassurances, but I guess it's just for me to understand fully that you're assured of that—that it doesn't need a prohibition notice. And when you say with regard to the invasive level 4 surveys, is that something that you think you should have responsibility over, therefore, because if you're identifying new issues by doing the more—I wouldn't say basic but less invasive surveys, and you don't have that control, is that something that you feel you should have? Because there could be other flats—again, not to try and be alarmist—that would, if you did put enforcement notices in, have those very same issues.

09:20

I think there are three questions within that question. [Laughter.]

If I answer the first one in terms of the level of enforcement action we've taken: when we go and audit premises, we do it using a risk rating system, for want of a better word. We put figures into that risk rating system that provide us with a score. Depending on the level of that score and by then applying an enforcement management model, it then indicates to us what is considered to be the appropriate level of enforcement action to take in the circumstances. The action we've taken in relation to this particular premises is entirely consistent with us applying those measures and looking at the enforcement management model to come out with what we've come out with.

So, you think that that is all in train, and if you keep it under the enforcement notice that you have it under now, these issues should be rectified accordingly.

Yes, I would certainly like to hope that the building will be addressed through work from contractors. Naturally, the work is extensive in nature and will take some time to resolve, and I don't think that there's any way that we can necessarily expedite that any faster. I know that, certainly, Mainstay are addressing the panel immediately after us and I think that, possibly, because they have a greater understanding of what negotiations are taking place between themselves and the developers regarding the remedial works that need to be done—. With all respect, if you wouldn't mind addressing that to them, they can give you a fuller answer than I possibly can, because I'm not privy to those detailed conversations that they're having behind closed doors, so to speak. And I wouldn't want to necessarily answer on their behalf when they'll have the opportunity—

On the surveys, I suppose, at the moment, as far as I'm aware—and I'll look to colleagues—there are no fire and rescue services in the UK who are currently doing those intrusive surveys. There will maybe be a limited degree done where it's appropriate, but we don't have the capability—

I know that, but would you think that it would be appropriate for you to have the capability to do that?

Certainly, I think we could look at that, but that, again, dare I say, comes down to a resourcing issue, because, naturally, there would be longer time spent within the building. And, again, the teams that we have within particularly my service—I am entirely confident in their ability to go and assess the buildings in the manner in which they're doing at the moment. To then put them in to a greater degree of more detailed fire engineering will naturally then require a greater degree of upskilling and training beyond what they have at the moment to do their job effectively and competently. And so there are implications to that. Ideally, yes, I would like to think that we could, but—and there are a couple of 'buts' around that as well.

If I could just support and respond to that. When you look at the legislative powers that we've currently got under the fire safety Order, that wouldn't give us the ability to actually do that. So, as well as the issues that David's actually raised with regard to upskilling our teams, in having the ability to actually do it, we'd need the powers to do that as well. When you look at the change in the legislation when we moved to the fire safety Order, originally we worked under the Fire Precautions Act 1971, plus a raft of other bits of legislation. And the fire safety Order, when it brought all that legislation together, it also shifted the way that we actually inspected and enforced. It was used to return to premises on a yearly or a two-yearly basis, depending on the risk, to carry out the inspection based on the plans and then it would, in fact, give a list of, 'This is what you need to do to put things right.' We moved away from that when we moved to the fire safety Order, because that was seen as too prescriptive by the commercial sector, and the change in legislation at the time moved us to a more—. We're in a process now where we go in, we give advice, we enforce where we need to enforce, where there is a safety risk critical to life, but it's more of a discussion: 'This is how we need to actually move forward', because it's put the onus back on to the owner or responsible person in the fact that it's now self-regulation. So, for us to do more invasive surveys and actually start taking things apart and having a proper look, yes, we would need that training, but we'd need the legislation and the support to be able to do that as well.

09:25

Okay, thanks very much. Are there any other issues you'd highlight other than the ones David had in terms of the private high-rise blocks and issues other than ACM cladding, such as other types of cladding or compartmentation? Are there any other issues you would highlight?

Yes, the enforcements we've issued—there've been a number of enforcements through the properties and they range, really, through poor workmanship and management, mainly, rather than poor design. And it's compartmentation, retrofitting of running cables, poorly fitting fire doors and things like that.

We've had enforcements where we've had issues on water supplies, which is quite critical, so we actually have served an enforcement on water supplies for a particular building, and that's currently in process at the moment.

And certainly up in north Wales, in the main, when we audit these buildings we see the same issues time and time again. It's either poorly fitting fire doors, it's damaged fire doors, damaged alarm systems, which, again, it's that recurring nature of—. Depending on the use of the building, the occupancy, you tend to get more issues in certain areas than you do in others. Working with both private landlords and local authorities and social housing providers, we actually support and get through that.

One of the other main issues is that there is a tendency out there for, whether they're leaseholders, owner-occupiers of flats or just residents of the flats—they like to change the front doors. So, the front doors, which are part of the fire-protected means of escape, then potentially aren't.

The main issue, as I highlighted earlier, up in north Wales is purely about one building where a core sample was taken from the facade by the managing company themselves to actually determine when they did the facade risk assessment, and it was inside the actual render that they actually found that this insulation was flammable. But the fact that it's encased in render would in effect protect that, but they put that as high risk, or deemed it as a risk, purely because they don't know the detail of fire stopping around windows. So, we're working with the management company to actually move forward on how that can be improved to an appropriate level.

I think that the fire-door issue for us is quite a challenge. When you look at the Order, our Order is the core of the building, when you talk about high-rise buildings, and then the housing Act beyond the front door. The Order we work within doesn't explicitly say that fire doors are contained within the Order, so, historically, when we've been dealing with fire doors, it can be quite a challenge, because you could be dealing with a freeholder or the actual managing company, and that's a really difficult one when you've got large numbers of fire doors that are non-compliant, say, for example. So it's a real challenge for us, certainly on the fire-door issue.

Just in terms of communicating and who's responsible for—

The responsibility can come down to a lease agreement or down to a contractual agreement, and to pick that apart in the first instance, before you even go any further, can be time-consuming. It's something traditionally we've been working very hard on for a number of years, since the Order's come through, and it tends to take time to get those through, especially when you've got a building with a large number of doors that don't meet current standards.

Sure. So, it could take quite a lot of time for the necessary work to be carried out.

It can, yes.

Okay, thanks very much. The final question from me before we move on to other members of the committee: do you believe that the advice that's coming forward from both Welsh and UK Governments on fire safety is clear enough, unambiguous enough? Could it be improved?

I was going to say, the advice we've been given from NFCC, Welsh Government and ministry of housing we've used to inform high-rise teams to go out and engage with the residents. We've seen no shortcomings in that information. It's been useful.

It's been very beneficial from the outset. You can probably tell that we work very closely in Wales as a fire and rescue service, and from the very outset at Grenfell. We were on the phone to each other to ensure that we were giving the right advice that high-rise living in Wales is safe, and public reassurance. I think that was our key message from the beginning.  

09:30

But equally, ensuring that the advice we're giving across the three fire and rescue services is consistent, so that you're not getting different advice in different areas, so we're actually delivering the same message. 

Yes. Okay, thanks very much. We move on, then, to Bethan Sayed. 

I think a lot of the enforcement questions have been asked; I just wanted to ask, really, just touching on the workmanship issue: I've read the evidence and a lot of it comes down to saying that it's how the building was made or constructed, rather than potentially poor management, that is the issue quite a lot. And I guess it's not a direct question that you can deal with because, obviously, it's about the council then allowing those buildings, or giving them the go ahead to be habitable if they know that there are problems with the design. But what is your experience? Is it do with that mostly, or is it to do also with the problems that you've identified with the leaseholders and the management companies?  

It's both, really. If you're looking at a building from start to finish, it is all the things that were highlighted in the Dame Judith Hackitt review. With any building, you can start with a set of plans that get agreed through building control or an approved inspector, whichever route you're going, and at various points you will come across challenges that may not have been foreseen. So, in the build stage, builders will then work a way around to deal with that particular challenge, because when you look at a set of plans that an architect has drawn up, it's easy to draw it on a piece of paper, but in reality, implementing what's on paper into a building is totally different. So, what is maybe directed at the beginning is not necessarily what happens. 

If you then utilise construction workers who aren't as skilled as others because, I don't know, maybe they're cheaper and the workmanship isn't as good, then obviously it's going to start causing issues because where, as an example, fire stopping is required between where services actually go through the walls, if that's not done appropriately then, in effect, what you've done is you've broken any compartmentation between rooms. I've seen it on large builds throughout my career, where the services have gone through and it's supposed to have been filled with an intumescent-type foam or sealant. They've filled it all in and said, 'Yes, that's intumescent', but when you actually take it off and put a lighter to it, it goes up like a torch. So, when it comes down to the workmanship, unless it's actually monitored, bang on, all the way through and regulated to make sure that they are doing what's actually written on the paper, then it's a struggle for us. So, then, when we come to inspect and audit the premises once they're occupied, a lot of these things we can't see, we can't deal with. What we can see and deal with is poor workmanship—as an example, the fitting of fire doors. If they're not fitted correctly, they're not going to shut correctly.

But if there are things you can't see—again, coming back to that question earlier—who is seeing that, then, if you're not seeing it? That's what I'm worried about in terms of representing constituents. I know you're not specialists in prodding holes in walls and finding out, but, you know, if you're not doing it, then who is doing it? 

I think it comes down to—. If you look at the Dame Hackitt review and the competency, I think that competency's got to go right across the sector so you've got accredited fire risk assessors doing the level 4 risk assessments, who are doing the intrusive risk assessments, but accredited so they've got the right skills right down through to the carpenter who is fitting the fire doors, or retrofitting fire doors. The competency factor needs to go right across the sector, I think, and that's what's got to be looked at. 

If you consider a historic example of that, of a 1970s build, when it was built it would have been fit for purpose, and I think as time changes over decades, we live differently, so we have internet cables, we have central heating systems, ventilation systems, and they all take work to go through compartmentation walls. I think the important thing is, as you rightly say, it's about that fire stopping of compartmentation and assuring compartmentation is sound. And I think when you look at our Order, how it works with the housing Act, you can see how the challenges can come for the fire service. When we look at just the core of the building, it may be sound, but beyond the front door you don't know what the fire stopping looks like, and I think that's the biggest challenge we've had.  

Okay. Thanks very much, Bethan. Jenny, did you want to come in at this stage? 

Yes, I just wanted to ask—. I mean, I think you'd be a foolish developer who, since Grenfell, wasn't working very closely with the fire service and other professionals on making sure that these buildings are safe. I think I want to focus on those—the existing building pre June 2017. How often do you get to visit private sector high-rise buildings, and if you do, what access do you get to specific plans for evacuation in the case of a fire?

09:35

Even before Grenfell, since we moved to the fire safety Order in 2005, when we actually moved into that process and we moved away from prescriptive—. Under the 1971 Act, we had specific timescales where we'd go back. What it allowed us to do was to target our resources to what we determined was more high risk in the commercial sector. At the top of the tree for risk in the commercial sector, for us to actually go back, are residential premises—so, buildings and anything with sleeping accommodation, so your high-rise buildings with residential premises, hospitals and residential care. Those sorts of premises where people actually sleep, because that's where, if there's a fire, there is the greatest risk to life and to getting them out. So, we go back and audit them on a fairly regular basis—more so than we would now audit an office block, as an example, because an office block, obviously, is a lower risk—people are awake, people will leave the building. 

So, when it comes to residential buildings, we audit them quite regularly. It's slightly different from service to service, depending on the size of the service, the capacity, the budgets and how many people you've got to go out there. Equally, when auditing those premises, and in giving those premises a score, if they are well-managed by the management company, whether it's by a local authority or whether it's private, if they are well-managed and we are seeing year on year that they are well-managed and everything is as it should be, then that actually reduces the score. So, instead of going back year on year, it could be we'll go back in three years' time. But with the ones where there are issues, where they're either not being managed effectively by whoever's in charge of them, or where we're continually seeing damaged doors, damaged fire safety systems and fire alarm systems and things like that, that will put the score up and we will keep going back to keep on top of it.

When we look at things like the evacuation plan, when we go to these premises, the first thing that we ask for is the risk assessment for those premises. The risk assessment is usually provided to us in a file—

If it isn't, then we issue them with an enforcement notice because they should have a risk assessment. There are cases when, either they haven't got one or they don't know where it is. As soon as they turn around and say that they don't know where it is, then automatically, if they don't know where it is, they don't know what it means and what they're supposed to be doing with it. 

One of the other issues is that we then, on some occasions, get handed this great, huge portfolio of a risk assessment that's been done by this big, professional company. In some cases, some responsible owners, management companies, think that's their job done without realising that what it says in the risk assessment, they've got to implement. So, where we see that, that then starts raising concerns. It puts it at a higher risk and we start working with them to put the measures in place that are needed for those buildings.

So, what powers do you have to get entry, if you're denied entry because people don't want to be bothered to dig out this risk assessment and they haven't a clue what it says?

We do have powers of entry to get in under the fire safety Order to carry out inspections on residential premises, but it only applies to the means of escape in common areas. So, it doesn't apply to going past the threshold of the front door of each individual dwelling.

Okay, but clearly the most important aspect is the common areas and the means of escape.

So, are there any premises where, at the moment, you're having to push in order to get entry?

To get entry to carry out the audit, no, because landlords do work with us, because they have to because we've got the legal powers to do that, and we have the ability to enforce and then prosecute if need be if they don't. So, they do actually let us in to audit the premises. Where we struggle is in being able to provide 'safe and well' checks to people in dwellings within private high-rise buildings. We've got greater access to those who live in dwellings of high-rise buildings that are managed by local authority or social housing providers, and that's because the partnership arrangements that we've got are of a collaborative nature. So, that is a challenge for us.

09:40

Okay, but I think my main concern is private sector dwellings. I think local authorities are gripping this one. Private sector dwellings, a lot of student accommodation in Cardiff—I represent part of Cardiff—and, clearly, some students have been known to have too much to drink and, you know, things can get out of hand. So, in all those sorts of places where, clearly, there are sleeping residents, do you think that all the managing authorities have got clear risk assessments and live evacuation plans?

From north Wales's perspective, looking at the universities up in Wrexham and Bangor, yes, absolutely, and Bangor University have actually put a management system in place with regard to the student behaviours, because that's usually what sets the alarms off and starts all the other issues ongoing. They've managed their buildings effectively, they've managed them well, and actually the private landlords, in terms of universities, certainly work with us in that. I suppose my concern would be—. My greater concern would be the student accommodation in the private sector, not necessarily in high-rise buildings, but the private landlords who have just bought a house, decided to convert it into flats and things like that.

Well, I have a major concern about that, but, obviously, we're focusing at the moment on high-rise buildings. I think that's probably for another day. But, there are obviously quite a significant number in south Wales of privately owned, privately run student accommodation, where, obviously, it's a relationship between the individual student and the developer and the service operator. But you're confident, are you, Mr Jayne, that all these new premises that keep on going up are clearly learning the lessons from Grenfell?

Yes, I'm pleased to report that all the management of those buildings and the lessees are all working with us and have got their fire risk assessments. I'm not aware of any enforcements on the student accommodation block at the moment. We engage via freshers week and that for the student education, really. So, yes, I'm confident that they're all in place.

Okay, but your service gets access to all these premises.

Oh, yes, definitely. Yes.

Okay, Jenny. David, I know we've touched on fire safety Order, but are there other matters that you—?

I just want to establish what your assessment of the legislative framework is, because there are clear ambiguities, like, you know, your responsibility or otherwise over fire doors, which is disturbing—I think anyone would acknowledge that the law ought to be very clear in an area like that. But, as I understand it, the 2005 Order went away from a sort of annual assessment approach—obviously, that wasn't just what it did—and then there was the whole, as Mr Roberts outlined, there was follow-up based on risk to a system that had risk up front, it seems to me, so that there had to be an assessment regularly, but regular wasn't defined. But, obviously, if you are a high risk, it may be more often than once a year, and, presumably, once every 10 years is not regular, even if it is, on the face of it, a fairly safe building. So, is the framework deficient? And should we be going back to the—because most of you, I think, would have had your early careers in the old system; did the old system just work better? Was it a better way of trying to have this balance between, 'You need a regular assessment, but it doesn't necessarily have to be every year', but the real thing, whatever your system, is risk?

Absolutely. If you look at the old system, when it was the Fire Precautions Act 1971, and all the other various pieces of legislation—and, I think, if I can recall, they were around 60-odd pieces of legislation that are brought together under the fire safety Order—we moved from fire precautions, we then moved into the workplace regulations—1997 I think it was, wasn't it—and that was almost a move into risk-based inspections before going into the fire safety Order. In bringing it together in the way that it is now—and it is risk based and risk managed—there are still complications, as have been highlighted, such as the differences of whose responsibility it is between, under housing and under the fire safety Order.

There are also other areas that do cause challenges and do cause issues. If you look at when a building is actually being developed and built, or extended, it falls under the remit of building control, whether that's local authority building control officers, or whether that's approved inspectors. We advise on the means of escape for fire. However, means of escape for fire when it's being developed still sits under the Building Act 1984. So, although we can advise building officers and approved inspectors, we can only give them advice. We can't enforce what they then agree and sign off, which then goes into the challenge we've got with approved inspectors. We've got some very good approved inspectors out there who've come from local authority building control. However, the challenges that they face are that they're now providing building control work for a client who's paying them. So, for them to go back to that client and say, 'No, you've got to put this and this in before I sign it off', is quite difficult, I would suggest. So, when you look at those little elements—

09:45

There are conflicts of interest in the system, I understand that. I just want to nail this issue about should we just have a basic standard from which we work in terms of risk, beyond that of annual assessments, or is the current system, which is risk based, which means some buildings presumably are—? I don't know what a routine time is for a building that's had a good certification, whether it's then two or three years or what. How useful is a very prescriptive approach? An annual one is the classic approach, I suppose. 

I suppose, in a way—. The Fire Precautions Act 1971 only identified a certain range of premises that would fall within its scope. Naturally, the fire safety Order has extended that scope quite considerably to all workplaces, as you're aware. When we were enforcing under the Fire Precautions Act, then, yes, it was an annual assessment of those premises that were identified. When we moved across to the fire safety Order—I mentioned earlier in the response to Bethan that we use a risk-scoring type matrix. It was developed by two individuals at Mott MacDonald in 2009, which took into account a number of factors. Depending on how you scored that building that would then depend or determine with what frequency you reinspected those premises. I think it's fair to say that, if we went back to a system, as in the Fire Precautions Act, where every premises that is now captured within the scope of the fire safety Order were to receive an annual inspection, we physically don't have the capacity to do that.

And that's the evidence I'm after. I think it's important that's on record. I'll move on, because I think we've established clarity on that point, and, unless one of the other witnesses disagrees, we can advance. 

If I understand this correctly—category 1 inspections, there was no fundamental review recommended in the Hackitt review about that, and the vast majority are category 1. Obviously, we're talking about issues of where there is ambiguity in terms of your legal responsibility over fire doors, for instance, but the type of inspection of the common areas in category 1 still seem to be the basis of what will be going on. Then, we move to the other categories, and particularly category 4. Now, presumably, category 4 was only feasible at the building stage or a major reconstruction phase—and, of course, the Grenfell thing seems to be completely in this category. So, do we need to work harder about how fire risk assessments fit into the building regulations system? Because it seems to be they've got to be done beyond category 1 level at a similar time. Do we have problems there about how that works?

And can I just get you to put on record, in your professional judgment, at the moment, for new builds and major adaptations, is category 4 being done correctly or not? Because we have heard some evidence that, when you go in and actually look beyond the fascia and look at the ducts for the new technology and all sorts of things, it's exposing some fundamental issues. So, where are we on the highest risk buildings—presumably the old ones that have been adapted—at category 4 level?

At the moment, within the current legislative structure that we have, our jurisdiction doesn't come into play, other than what we do in terms of responding to consultations that are sent to us when a building is being proposed, either through the building control officer or the approved inspector. We will make our observations on that and, as Kevin from north Wales said, we then feed that back to the building control officer or the approved inspector. They can choose to incorporate those observations or not. It is their discretion and ability to do that. We only really start to have an involvement with the way things are at the moment when the building becomes occupied after that initial consultation. Until the building is signed off and the completion certificate is issued, the building isn't under our control. It sits firmly with the approved inspector or the building control officer. 

09:50

I want to be measured here, and I realise the limits of what you can do and what your jurisdiction is. But, looking at the system, especially as it's been operating since Grenfell, and the sheer shock to the system, do you have more or less confidence that, down to category 4, we're in a better place? I am particularly thinking of renovation.

Certainly, I know that, within my service, as well as purely conducting the consultation desktop process when we receive plans, my staff who operate within my building regulations department will undertake pre-consultation meetings with developers to try to ensure that, before those plans arrive on our desk in their final form, if you want to call it that, or in a form in which they can be submitted, we've had an opportunity to provide our input into the design of the building at that stage. We complete our consultation, respond back to the approved inspector or the building control officer, and we do conduct a number, then, of post-consultation inspections. So, my officers will go to those buildings and walk around the buildings. But, again, going back to capacity, we don't physically have the ability to do that with every building and to do it on every day. 

And that desktop and then follow-up is done on refurbishment—major refurbishment—as well.

It's done on a basis of—. It's based on the judgment of the building regulations team officer within my employment. They decide what they need to do, post that desktop consultation, as to whether they actually need to go out to site and follow things through and see how that is progressing. 

This is helpful. Can I just return briefly to competency? The Hackitt review didn't say that there should be a definition of competency. Presumably, it should be just dealt with in the general process of law—i.e. some reasonable judgment of competency applies, but you don't need to actually define it. I sense you don't like that and that we should really look at that. Also, in competency, an assessment of possible conflict of interest is necessary. Where are you on that?  

Well, in south Wales, yes, we are interested in competency. We've upskilled all of our auditing officers, and we were in the process of doing that prior to Grenfell anyway. So, all our auditing officers are level 4 or 5 diplomas. We've carried out further risk-assessment training, so we can determine whether a risk assessment from an AI or a third-party risk assessor is suitable and sufficient. So, yes, we take it, within the fire services, really seriously.

If I can support that, when we're looking at competency from our own staff and the work that we have to do under our jurisdiction and our legislation, then we work to a standard where, our staff that are actually going out, they are competent to do. Where there is a challenge—. When you are looking at building control officers and approved inspectors, they are competent within their jurisdiction. Where there is an issue with competency that we're seeing is the people who potentially are undertaking the risk assessments. So, you have got a private firm who are developing a building or refurbishing a building. Somebody's providing them a risk assessment who may not necessarily have any previous skills or experience, and, certainly, there's no qualification or standards out there for a competency to be reached.

And does that happen frequently, or is it just alarming bad practice that you see very occasionally?

It's frequently, and it's not just necessarily with a specific management company or a specific local authority. It depends on who does that risk assessment. Because there is no set competency or qualification for it, pretty much anybody can—

This is a danger to public safety, it sounds to me. I mean, we can't dress this up. In your professional judgment, there are people out there undertaking fire risk assessments who are not competent.

Yes, and when we see and assess those, that's when our staff turn around and say, 'Hang on a minute. This isn't sufficient.' And we send it back. 

The South Wales Fire and Rescue Service actually took one to court, and was successful in prosecution last year.

09:55

Is that through the council, the fire risk assessments? Who does the fire risk assessments?  

It varies in each local authority. In some it's delegated to the health and safety manager. In some, it's done within building control. So, it depends.

My final question—it's a return to fire doors; it's a slightly different one. As I understand, all the testing so far of fire doors has found none of them reach a 30-minute category, and 15 minutes seems to be the one that, if I've understood this correctly—. The ones that have been most extensively tested, 15 minutes seems to be the upper limit. Now, we were all assuming we had a 30-minute thing. I know we've talked all about compartmentalisation and how the fire can get out in other areas and that, but how worried should we be about the standard of fire doors?

I think, certainly, yes, there should be some concerns, and I think it's fair to say that, based on the findings of the recent testing that's been conducted, and certainly that work continues. The National Fire Chiefs Council have been conducting an amount of testing on fire doors and found that, certainly, the ones that were installed within Grenfell, and other buildings within that particular estate, weren't up to the standard that we would expect.

I suppose, by process of extrapolation, given that we're now finding that there were thousands of these doors that were installed and manufactured, they are, undoubtedly, out there. The problem that now faces us is the means by which we can identify where the things have been installed and ensure that they get replaced. That is a considerable challenge at the moment.

Okay. Thanks very much. We've touched on building regulations, Jenny, but there are some matters that you'd like to explore.

Yes. I just wonder if we could revisit that slightly. Clearly, local authorities' building regulations departments have been hollowed out as a result of all the cuts to funding that all local authorities have had to deal with. So, I really want to explore your relationship with those much-reduced building regulations departments. How close is the relationship, and what can you jointly do to police the self-regulators?

I think, certainly from a south Wales perspective—and I think for the three of us—we've got a very strong relationship with our building control officers and we have done for many, many years. And when you talk about large projects, for example, large builds, then there is early consultation that happens quite frequently about the design of the building and, 'Should this get put on your table for consultation; what do you think?' And I think it's really important to enhance that and continue with that. But we've always had that strong relationship. So, I think, moving forward, more consultation at early stages, which is something that Dame Hackitt referred to—that early consultation I think is really important to be able to identify those key trip hazards, I guess, in a building at a very early stage.

Okay. Yes, that came out very clearly from our earlier inquiry as well. But, clearly, some good practitioners are doing that, but it's really what powers you have to intervene before it's too late. You know, the building's been sealed off, nobody can see what's actually been—.

That's the challenge, actually, because, when a building's being developed or extensively refurbished and it comes under building control, the powers sit with building control—we can just advise and give advice and give observations. And we do that based on our relationships with local authority building control. But the challenges are, again, when you're looking at approved inspectors, you may not actually see any plans until it's completed. And, by then, it's too late.

Okay. So, can you think of instances where work has been incorrectly signed off as complying with building controls? And what, if anything, can the fire service do? 

Well, what we can do after the fact is, once a building has been occupied, if the discrepancies or what fire-safety measures that are missing are apparent, and we can actually spot them in our audit, then what we can do then is issue an enforcement notice to the owner-occupier or the responsible person for that building to put them right. And there are occasions where we do that. 

Okay. So, would you say that, given the high profile of this issue, it is unlikely that any development of high-rise would not have quite a—? I mean, would you expect any high-rise building to be signed off by somebody who wasn't competent to do it, in terms of the building—?

10:00

I think, when it comes to building controls, there are regulations and qualifications and standards that they have to be—. So, whoever's signing that building off under the building control, will have the competency to do that. It's whether or not the fire risk assessment that supports that is suitable and sufficient, and the person who's done it—whether they're competent.

I think, in fairness, as well, to the building control officers, who, in my experience have all been very confident and very competent in what they're doing, relationships have always been very strong, but again, as you alluded to earlier, they have been affected by cuts. There's no other way of flowering that up, I'm afraid, really. They are running at a strength that is deemed appropriate by their local authority, but, naturally, as with all of us, we could naturally do with more personnel to do the work that we need to do. That's not saying that we're not doing the work to the best of our ability, but naturally, in areas where there are a large number of developments taking place, a very conscientious building control officer, or approved inspector in that case—because there are good and bad in both worlds—can't physically be on site all the time whilst the building is being constructed, and whilst, with the best will in the world, they will have specified that a piece of work within a building is done to a certain standard, they have no way at all of ensuring that 100 per cent of all the work that's being done will be done to the correct standard. That's really apparent; once the building is sealed and the ceilings are in place and it's out of sight, there's really no way of knowing what might have happened beyond that ceiling.

So, they're in a similar situation to us in as much as you can't watch, and it comes down, I think, really, very much to the things we mentioned earlier around the competency of the people who are doing the work, but also down to maybe the degree of supervision that's applied to those people who are doing the work. Certainly, I think, it's fair to say that the position of clerk of works isn't, possibly, as well staffed as it could have been previously and that's happened under previous regimes. We're now in a situation where contractors are appointed to go in and conduct a piece of work. The competence of those individuals to do that work—we can debate that all day, I think, really, but naturally there may be issues around that. And, again, I've seen instances where work has been done, where it hasn't been done correctly, and that's probably been down to a case of misunderstanding how the work was meant to have been done in the first instance. So, even though the guys may be entirely competent in doing what they're doing, they're doing it in the wrong way through lack of understanding of what was meant to be done, not because they're incompetent in doing it, if that makes sense.

Yes, I understand what you're saying. Well, that's down to effective supervision by the clerk of works.

Okay. So, obviously there are quite a few issues there, but it's not something that we can rectify by a minor change in the building regs. Is that right? Fine.

The Welsh Government's—

Can I just ask [Inaudible]? So, in terms of self-certification, then, rather than a clerk of the works inspecting and signing off, do you have concerns that there is a lot of self-certification in our system today?

A difficult one to answer, if I'm perfectly honest with you, Chair, in as much as what tends to happen on a building site through the construction phase, it's fair to say, we're not fully sighted on, and that would really be a question to be directed towards the building control officer or the approved inspector.

They will have a better take on that than, I think, we will, if I'm honest.

But it is the case that somebody constructing a building can appoint their own inspectors; they can actually avoid having any contact with the local authority on this matter.

Correct. It's a competitive market, at the end of the day.

Okay, thank you for that. As I'm sure you know, the Welsh Government has consulted on banning combustible cladding, and I just wondered what the view of the fire and rescue services is on this. Should we now push ahead with banning it?

Certainly, we've all submitted our responses to that consultation, and I think it's fair to say that, unanimously across this side of the table, we have all returned that to you. Without going into detail on every fine point of every question that was posed within that consultation, I think, in simple terms, yes.

10:05

Can I ask a supplementary on this? I've come across some evidence from the Scottish ministerial working group that their system was such that they never really went down this track of using these materials. I mean, is that something you've seen as well, or am I misinformed?

Scotland have run a different fire safety approach to the rest of the UK, and they've done that for a number of years. Certainly, I'm aware that, when I've attended courses in the Fire Service College that have been related to fire safety and there have been Scottish delegates on the course, they have been taken to another room to be taught on the Scottish approach to it as opposed to the England and Wales approach to fire safety because of those differences. I'm not aware of exactly what the differences are. Naturally, I have to concern myself with what I get to deal with, but I'm aware that there are differences, and, in terms of whether they choose not to use those products whatsoever, I don't know. I'm only aware of what we've got within our current building regs as applicable to England and Wales.

It's purely down to the legislation being different in Scotland. They have different powers and different abilities, although, when you look at the implementation of fire safety through guidance, the guidance is the same, because a fire's a fire and the construction of a building needs to be the same. But they've got different legislation, which gives them the ability to do different things.

Lastly, since Grenfell, obviously there's been a heightened awareness of the power of sprinklers in suppressing fires, and I just wondered how common the retrofitting of sprinkler systems in private sector high-rise buildings is in Wales. Is this something that some are doing, most are doing, or almost none are doing? 

Certainly in north Wales, in the private sector, no.

I'd say the same for south Wales. 

Likewise in mid and west. I've seen no evidence, since Grenfell, of the retrofitting of sprinklers taking place. 

Okay. Clearly it's a complicated process because you've already got people living in these dwellings, but is there anything that should be done legislatively to ensure that that's happening? I mean, how common is it for the private sector to install sprinkler systems? Obviously, the Act now requires them to, but the ones that got away weren't obliged to, and are we left with a quite serious headache?

With all private sector dwellings, it's an option, it's a choice, but it comes with a cost. When you're looking at private sector management of properties, it's a business. So, my view on that is that I've not seen any increase, even before Grenfell, when the legislation came in, in sprinklers retrofitted in any type of dwelling, apart from in three high-rise blocks that are local authority-owned up in north Wales that have had retrofitted sprinklers, but that was actually before. So, local authorities, yes; private sector, no.

Okay. So, are you aware of any retrofitting in private sector residential properties?

Just to confirm, then, that the practice—. I think, at the minute, if you've already had planning permission, then you're not captured by our change in law, but the culture hasn't changed either. So, developers who are not captured have not suddenly thought, 'Well, you know, post Grenfell, we better do this of our own volition even though it's not for us a legal requirement.'

We've not seen that. 

Something that we do do well, I think, on a consultation, is that we always mention in there that, as a goodwill gesture, you should consider sprinklers, but we've never had any take-up.

Thanks. There are a couple of questions dealing with the advice that's given to residents in high-rise blocks. Do you think the advice given to residents in the event of a fire is clear and appropriate? Has there been a shift away from 'stay put' to simultaneous evacuation on a permanent or temporary basis, and to what extent does this policy depend on the individual building?

In my experience, there is a variety of terms that mean roughly the same as ‘stay put’, albeit we know that changing the tone of that somewhat to say ‘stay as long as you feel it is safe to do so’ rather than a sort of carte blanche, ‘You must stay where you are at all costs’—. People naturally now have been informed that it doesn’t mean that you have to stay there whatever may happen; you have the discretion to leave if you’re not happy with what’s happening.

We haven’t necessarily seen a move towards a simultaneous evacuation approach in my part of the world. The only places where we’ve seen the change occur are where we’ve had issues identified within some of the buildings that I’ve alluded to and it’s been initiated as part of a temporary interim measure whilst those issues are being resolved as such. But, no, there’s been no change. It seems to be the fact that that approach—that general approach to ‘stay put’ or whatever phrase you wish to use in substitution for it—still exists.

10:10

Yes. I think, to enhance that, from a south Wales perspective, we have seen a shift as an interim measure for the simultaneous evacuation, based on the buildings we’re talking about with cladding systems—high-rise cladding. So, that was the NFCC guidance that we’ve introduced and we still have for those buildings, but we need to understand that that’s for an interim measure and once all the work has been carried out on that particular building, for our understanding, it will go back then to whatever the risk assessment comes out with. I think that’s the important thing to look at—what the risk assessor says for that building, what is appropriate for the occupants of that building as well.

To support that, in north Wales, certainly, there’s been a shift away from the ‘stay put’, as it was termed then, and more to the ‘safe to stay’. Just to support and I suppose answer the initial question you posed, it’s based on the risk of the building, the type of building, but it’s not just that; it’s based on the risk of the individuals within that building—any issues such as mobility issues and things like that. So, it’s not just the premises; it’s the persons inside as well.

Okay. There’s another question about that, but thanks. How do building managers and the fire and rescue services ensure that residents are adequately prepared to deal with a fire, and what more can be done? Are residents in the private sector taking advantage of home fire safety checks being offered by the fire and rescue services?

Within south Wales, the high-rise team that we set up have engaged with the residents management companies in the buildings with affected cladding. The information provided to the residents has been in line with NFCC and Welsh Government—. Sorry, I lost my track then—. The uptake in the home fire safety checks hasn’t been in the same sort of numbers as in the social sector, so there’s been limited uptake in the private sector.

In north Wales, the advice has been individual advice through the 'safe and well' check. When we’ve worked with social housing providers and local authorities, we’ve had support in actually getting in. And when we actually look at the high-rise buildings in that sector, we’ve been quite successful in delivering 'safe and well' checks to the majority of the residents in them. We previously delivered 'safe and well' checks to them, but we ran a number of events post Grenfell to actually make sure that, whilst we were auditing and assessing the buildings, we were actually giving that specific safety advice to individuals. The safety advice is based on where they are, their building and also their own needs. So, it’s not just about fire safety; it’s their specific needs.

Again, and it comes to the private sector landlords, we’ve offered that advice, but the take-up hasn’t been as forthcoming as it has in the social housing sector.

Right. Developing the point that you made earlier a couple of times, Kevin, about it depending on the residents as well, the committee heard that social landlords have taken steps to ensure that residents with disabilities who may need additional help have individual evacuation plans. Does this happen in the private sector? In the event of a fire, how would the fire and rescue service identify individuals in a building who would need help to evacuate?

I’ll take that in two parts. In the first part, if you look at the social sector, social housing, where the personal evacuation plans have actually been set up and given for individuals, that information is there and it’s put in what we call a fire box on the buildings. In that fire box, is a grab bag with extra hose and equipment that the crews need but also that information of who the individuals are who, should they need to evacuate, would need assistance from the fire and rescue service. When it comes to the private sector, again, it’s limited, in that we've offered the ability for this to happen but the take-up from it has not happened.

10:15

It is. I think it's fair to say that I've not been made aware—and I've enquired with colleagues within the community fire safety department who have had a far closer level of engagement with the individual residents themselves than my team have, who have mainly dealt with the managing teams within the buildings. Again, we've got very little evidence of personal emergency escape plans being prepared for people with impairments of whatever type, and I think it's also fair to say that whilst it may be advantageous to have these PEEPs and some indication of where there are people who have mobility issues or other issues that might impair their ability to escape, or where they may require additional assistance from the fire and rescue service, that is fine—. However, I think it's very difficult to then legislate for somebody who has had a motorcycle accident on their way home from work last night, have broken their leg and they're now in plaster and they can't make it down the stairs.

So, it's a case of how you keep that fresh and how you keep it up to date, because, certainly, we've had instances in other areas—and I'm not talking about high-rise buildings—where we've put information tagged onto buildings that would be available to crews through the computers within the cabs of the fire appliances to say that a person needs some assistance to be able to get out of a building should a fire occur, only to find that, when we get there, that person no longer resides at the address. And we've put firefighters at an enhanced level of risk to try and do something within a building when that person is no longer there, so it's difficult to maintain that register—not impossible, but difficult. So, whilst, yes, I'd like to see it, I don't know whether it would provide the perfect solution to that problem.

Yes, I just want to ask a question that I've had put to me from Electrical Safety First. They've been campaigning for more testing on products within the flats, because, of course, people will use recycled goods, they will have second-hand goods and people may not know that that's what's happening in the flat—they're using very unsafe electrical products. And I was just wondering how you get to grips with that and what you're trying to do to ensure that where that's happening, you're aware of it, and how people can be made more aware of what they're bringing into their homes should be as safe as they possibly can be.

It does happen through the home fire safety checks that our community fire safety departments undertake. However, the offer of a home fire safety check is given to all residents—it's up to them whether they wish to take advantage of that or not. We can't force it on an individual.

From a personal perspective, in an ideal world, I would like to see it as part of the lease agreement that maybe a resident will make themselves available to have a home fire safety check. But at the moment, unless somebody allows us past the threshold, their home is their castle, it's entirely their right to decline that offer. To give you some statistical figures on our experience post Grenfell, looking at the buildings of the height category in which we're interested today, our community fire safety team knocked on the doors of 692 premises as part of their home fire safety check programme. They received 50 responses from—

Fifty—five zero responses from people who were interested in taking up the offer of a home fire safety check. That equates to a 7 per cent take-up.

To be quite honest with you, we tend to find that if we were to door-knock and leaflet-drop on a residential street in any suburb of any town or city within, particularly I'll talk about our area—a 7 per cent take-up is generally what we get. And even though people may come back to us and say, 'Yes, I'm quite happy to have a home fire safety check done. Here is my telephone number, give me a call to arrange when it's convenient to come and do it', we do, therefore, after that point, encounter problems with people either not answering the phone or saying, 'It's not convenient at the moment', or even coming back and saying, 'Yes, I did originally agree, but I don't think I want it now.' That is commonplace.

It's a cultural thing, really, and, again, we're doing all we can. We're leading the horses to water, but we don't have any legislative power to actually make them drink.

And I think you picked up on a really good point there about ownership or leasehold or a tenancy of a high-rise building. There's an important factor here that, when you take ownership of that flat or that tenancy, you understand how the building works. When we picked up on the high-rise group, not many people we were engaging with actually understood what their building was designed to do in the event of fire, and I think that's a really important factor. But I think there's an opportunity there, certainly when we have that conversation, where there's a handover of some description, of what you can and can't do in your flat, and if you take us back to the fire-door issue, I think that would potentially resolve that issue of people changing their front doors, because now it's in your lease, and you understand it's in your lease, that you can't do those things. So, I think there's probably a clear opportunity for that handover period when you take up occupancy.

10:20

And that could extend to the white goods and electrical equipment they're purchasing to put in those flats.

If I could just supplement some of the responses that have been given, Bethan, yes, it's a universal offer for the safety check, and, yes, it's an opportunity for us to get across the threshold and give advice. What I will say, though, is that it's about changing behaviours. We can give the advice and we can spot the issues, but, at the end of the day, a person will live how they want to live within their own home. When you look at a lot of the issues—. You talk about recycled goods—one of the biggest issues we see is things like phone chargers, batteries for laptops—

E-cigarettes. As soon as they replace them, where are they going to get a replacement for that charger? Are you going to go to Apple and pay however many hundreds of pounds it is for a charger, or are you going to get one on eBay for £15? And that's what happens. You're getting products globally that aren't necessarily at the standard we'd like them to be.

Okay. We'll have to draw the line under this evidence session at this stage. Thank you all very much for coming in to give evidence. You will be sent a transcript so you can check it for factual accuracy. Okay, thank you all very much.

We'll take a quick break and be back for 10.25 a.m.

Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 10:21 a 10:26.

The meeting adjourned between 10:21 and 10:26.

10:25
3. Ymchwiliad i Ddiogelwch Tân mewn Tyrau o Fflatiau yng Nghymru (Sector Preifat): Sesiwn Dystiolaeth 2
3. Inquiry into Fire Safety in High-rise Blocks in Wales (Private Sector): Evidence Session 2

Morning, everyone. Thanks very much for coming along to give evidence to the committee today. This is our second evidence session on this inquiry. I wonder if you might very briefly introduce yourselves please, starting with David. 

Thank you. Good morning. I'm David Clark. I'm co-chair and one of the owners of Mainstay Group Ltd. 

Morning. My name is Rachel Dobson, and I'm the head of health and safety and fire safety for Mainstay Group. 

Good morning. I'm Julie Griffiths. I'm one of the front-line property managers for Mainstay Group. 

I'm Jason Clarke from Warwick Estates, head of risk management. 

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Nigel Glen. I'm the chief executive of the Association of Residential Managing Agents. 

Thank you all very much. Okay, to get us under way, then, the first question is from Jenny Rathbone. 

Good morning. So, what practical steps have been taken by managing agents to address fire safety since the ones that were highlighted by the Grenfell fire, obviously, in relation to high-rise buildings, or residential buildings anyway?  

Okay. Shall I start? I can't speak for other managing agents but, straight away, Mainstay wrote to every single customer in our portfolio of managed properties, high-rise and low-rise, advising them of their existing fire regulations within their block, what they needed to do in the event of an alarm or an emergency, and just reassuring them that those protocols were in place and that fire risk assessments were carried out and were up to date. Additionally, we advised on precautions to take around the home, including smoke alarm advice, advice on fire doors—keeping them closed—and advice on debris in common parts. We also put a statement on our website, and that statement included frequently asked questions, and we ran a number of resident workshops, particularly in larger complex buildings, to allow people to ask questions and to understand how the fire risk process works and how it protects their safety. 

I couldn't answer that, but—. 

It didn't include it in the initial letter that we sent out. However, that is identified through fire risk assessments, though. 

We've carried out the same processes, really, on that. We send out annual fire safety letters anyway that include all the good advice that you need throughout the blocks, and we've followed the Government guidelines on what to do after that as well. So, we've covered quite a bit of those issues on that side. 

If I can talk about what the association did as the umbrella for about 300 agents through England and Wales, one of the first things we did was we set up a fire group for members within ARMA and also outside of ARMA, where they could meet, discuss best practice, swap ideas and so forth. It's also provided us with the opportunity to gather data, which we handed over to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, or the Department for Communities and Local Government as it was then, on the size and scope of the problem and the potential costs. 

We met with the Secretary of State to bring them up to date on what we saw as one of the fundamental problems in the private sector leasehold, which would be the funding, because, when we've had discussions with them, they were talking about the private sector in terms of hotels, which have balance sheets and they can borrow; whereas, in the leasehold sector, of course, it would be likely that leaseholders would have to end up paying, so we alerted that there would be an issue. It could take years for this to go through courts, during which time people would be living in, potentially, unsafe blocks.

Other things: we obviously engaged with the Hackitt review fully and we continue to do so on that. We formed a co-ordinated fire authority with Hampshire, who are now going through the guidance notes that we give out to all of our members and we also engaged with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on other issues such as—fire doors is one particular one that we see will be a problem going forward.

10:30

Okay. Clearly, there's a very complex relationship (a) with the occupants of your dwellings and their behaviour, and the relationship with the builders of the building, and the legal relationship between yourselves as managing agents and people who've built a building that may or may not be safe. So, would you say that the very nature of leasehold ownership, and the number of parties involved, makes addressing fire safety, with the benefit of the hindsight we now have, very complicated?

I think each particular type of ownership has its own particular, shall we say, peccadillos about it. I suppose the main problem that we encounter with leaseholders, of course, is that you're trying to—. Unlike where one person owns the building and can fund it, in leasehold, you are trying to get funds, and justify that, from everybody in that building. Just inherently, that process will take time and can create difficulties. I think that's the significant issue.

If I may add to that, we've debated this a lot and we don't believe that the leasehold system per se is inherently an issue in any form of multi-tenure, whatever form that takes. There will be different interests at different layers and there is no more complexity in leasehold other than that it's framed by significant legislation to protect leaseholders. So, I'm sure we'll get to talking about how consultation works. That is one of the things that would hold up working as quickly as perhaps we'd like, but that is probably a good thing in general terms. But I don't think any other form of tenure would have any fewer difficulties per se.

Well, I think if they were tenants rather than leaseholders, it would be pretty straightforward—it's a landlord's responsibility to maintain the property.

Yes. I suppose I'm thinking about ownership around other forms of—maybe commonhold or strata title; the same issues arise in those.

Okay. So, given that we are facing this situation of a bit of an impasse, with everybody wanting to pass the buck to somebody else, what now is the advice you think you should be getting from the Welsh Government or UK Government to resolve this issue? Otherwise, we're going to have years of people living in unsafe buildings.

That is something that I've been, frustratingly, discussing, now for, what, 15 months, with various elements of Government, which is something as extraordinary and unfortunate as this, where you have people such as leaseholders who are not to blame—they didn't know what they were buying into. Quite often, you might find the landlords didn't—they have bought it from somebody else. The developers might not have—they've hired contractors. So, the blame, or who's going to pay, is a difficult one. So, my issue with this is that I just feel very strongly that we should be talking about time, not money, because people are having to live in flats.

In ARMA, when we did our study, we were talking to over 5,700 families who can't sell, can't move, if they have to go for a job. It's placing these people under a lot of difficulty and they also have the additional worry of potential financial strain on them in coming years. So, the only way I could see forward for something like this would, I'm afraid, be some form of government intervention—either taking these properties into the public programme, where they could be prioritised, and then worrying about—. If you want, let the fights about who is liable rage on in the background. Let's get people safe first. I think that's how I would see it.

In your evidence, you're suggesting that the Government should pick up the tab for poor building work by the private sector. 

At least initially. If the Government wants to give that out in the form of long-term loans or whatever—we have the interesting question then of who should accept the loan, but I think, in order to unblock the remediation, we should find funding to do that. And we're not talking vast sums of money for leaseholders. Again, across ARMA, it was around about £52 million, including VAT. That's come down now, because some developers have stepped up. So, that figure is in flux. But that's the only way I can see it—apart from years and years of litigation.

10:35

Okay. So, as we're not talking vast sums of money, you said, therefore, why is it not possible to have some sort of levy on all private constructors? 

I believe that has been looked at. But, unfortunately—. At the moment, there has been a group working with the Secretary of State on industry to see if there are ways to do that. Proposals were put forward. I don’t know how much I’m allowed to talk about it, but, the last meeting that I was in, it was felt that, almost because time had passed on so far, a lot of the major developers had taken action themselves, so it would be unfair for them to be seen to have to double pay for their own works and then yet again to somebody else. I think that would have been something that could have worked immediately after Grenfell. That’s probably moved on a little bit since then.

Okay. Does anybody else want to come in on this? Because I'm going to move on.

No—[Inaudible.]

Okay. Just turning to the fire and rescue services, which we heard from earlier this morning, what practical assistance are you getting from them, and are you getting it speedily enough?

Well, we have a primary authority relationship with Lancashire, who also contact Cardiff—south Wales fire brigade—on a regular basis if there are issues that aren't quite clear. But they're on site quite regularly to help, and they've been helping since, basically, Grenfell happened. So, we haven't really any issues with the fire brigade; they've been very helpful, and understanding as well.

Okay. So, all the high-rise properties that you manage have been inspected.

Yes, they've been round.

And they've seen the risk assessment on building, advised if it's fit for purpose, and then you've implemented their advice.

Yes. All interim measures are in place on the buildings while it's decided who is going to be responsible.

Okay. So, interim measures, while you're deciding who's going to pay for what's needed. Is there anything further you think they can do while we face this impasse as to whose responsibility it is to rectify these situations?

Can I answer that? I think we've had particular success with fire authorities where we've managed to build a proper partnership relationship with them. And that means that we have the opportunity to provide them with details of how the management contract works and how the lease operates, and why that will create some barriers to getting things done as quickly as perhaps they would like. Where we've had that relationship, we've been able to work a plan up with them and work through that plan and get it done. Where it doesn't work is where an enforcement notice is simply served on the managing agent with an expectation that everything will be fixed in a month's time. That doesn't work, because we don't hold the money. We may be the responsible person, but we have to go and find a way of raising that money, or find somebody who is prepared to pay for the works. So, it's about relationships, it's about the use of a primary fire authority—and that's an important thing; I know that Jason's team as well have a primary fire authority—who give you that consultation advice and work with you, and can speak the language that needs to be spoken with fire authorities.

But, generally speaking, it's been a really good experience working with fire authorities. I don't know if you want to add to that, because you work with them, don't you?

Yes. Primary authority have helped us out immensely. We've had a partnership with them for the past three years. So, even pre-Grenfell, we had been working with them.

Initially, we will get informed by the actual enforcing authority themselves who are going out and meeting with them, and I'd concur with what David said, that we will form this relationship with them in terms of getting to the end result in a collaborative manner with them. Obviously, where something is a little bit more technical and there does need to be a liaison between an enforcing authority to another enforcing authority, that is where our primary authority partner really comes into their own and helps us out immensely.

Bethan, we've strayed into financial support territory. Do you want to come in at this stage?

I just want to ask something else first, because I asked the fire chiefs earlier. I just wanted to be consistent. Do you think that the relationship to Mainstay is as fruitful as what you described? Because I was a bit confused, because I asked about the property No. 4 that you don't want to name, and you've said it's 'a large risk to life', but the mid and west fire chief said that they would have put a prohibition notice had it been uninhabitable.

So, I'm just trying to understand why you've used those words, which, for me, as somebody reading that document, I would be quite alarmed by, and then the fire chiefs then are saying, 'Well, actually, we've got an enforcement notice in, but it's not a prohibition order.' So, is there something that they don't know, because they don't do the invasive surveys, that they should really be aware of, or is it the case that you've come to a different conclusion than they have?

10:40

It wasn't actually our conclusion. We appointed a surveyor to go in to conduct a passive—

We appointed a contractor to go in to conduct a passive and structural survey of the building and that was their conclusion. Off the back of that, we then submitted and co-ordinated with mid and west Wales in relation to that property, based on the findings of the survey that was produced.

Yes, but that doesn't answer the point as to you've used those words, 'a large risk to life', but they've told us that the prohibition notice would have been put in place had it been totally uninhabitable. But it seems to me that the words you've used are quite strong to what the actual action is at the moment. Do you know what I'm saying?

They weren't my words, though. This was part of the conclusion from the surveyor who was appointed to do it. So, the 'large risk to life' formed part of that survey, and, off the back of that, we then involved mid and west Wales—

The question is: do you think it's appropriate, what the enforcement action has been so far, or would the survey have recommended stronger action?

On the back of the survey, we immediately took mitigations, with the advice of our fire authority, and those mitigations included an immediate waking watch, and subsequently a category 1 alarm has been installed. So, those have mitigated any risk to life. That's gone away—

Right, okay. That's what I want to know. That's what I'm interested in.

That situation is not an ongoing situation; it was immediately dealt with and mitigated.

So, that risk to life is not there anymore because of the fact that that enforcement action is taking place.

There is no 'large risk to life'.

Yes. Sorry. And I apologise if there's been a misunderstanding in that respect. That's not our intention.

Because, for me, it's about the safety of the people. So, it's not about playing politics with people's lives. I just want to really understand—

Absolutely right, and we as managing agents would not allow that to happen.

Okay, fab, I'm glad we've had that on the record. Just in relation to finances, I've met with some of the residents of Prospect Place and I've felt the real frustrations and the worry that people have had in relation to any potential funding of work that needs to be done. I know Bellway has paid for some of the works, but then I guess there's going to be contention if there's any future funding obligations. We've heard about the levy, but what do you think would be the most reasonable and appropriate way to deal with this, given that you've got a mix of people in these places? You've got people on benefits, you've got people who potentially could afford some of the works, you've got a wide range of people living in these flats who may or may not be able to afford something. So, it's just trying to understand, really, what you think would be a proposal in the short term to try and alleviate the pressure on people who are taking over this immense challenge from a big company to run a management service that potentially they're not really trained to do. So, it was to try and find out what your views are, really, in that regard.

In relation to the two properties that we have, we're a bit further down the line and hoping to have an answer tomorrow actually, which has moved on quite a bit recently. So, we've had the NHBC out to carry out investigations, not just on the cladding but what is behind the cladding as well. Reports have been put together, but we haven't seen them yet, and there is a meeting tomorrow with Bellway and the directors of Prospect Place to push on where that's going to go from there. So, hopefully, some sort of funding or agreement may be made tomorrow. But, as we referred back to Nigel before, to get the work done something needs to be—. Some funding needs to be put forward. Otherwise, it's just going to drag on and drag on. Because if Bellway decide—

10:45

—or a cap on—. I mean, the other idea is a cap on service charges, so that the Welsh Government could potentially then pay for the work. What would you say to those? 

The funding is the better idea.

Yes. I'm afraid so.

Yes. I struggle with how a cap on services would really work, unless you're saying you're prepared to pay the overage, no questions asked. I don't think that's a likely outcome. Caps on service charges tend to cause additional complexities. We don't need any more additional complexities dealing with this. You know, understandably, there is anxiety when we find a problem that is costly to resolve. But, it is our responsibility to get it resolved and get it resolved equitably. It's the equitable part that means there is negotiation with various parties. It may be that the developer accepts some liability where they haven't done things right. It may be that the lease says that it's the residents' responsibility. We have to explore all of those things and make sure that the right people end up paying for it. That means it's not possible just to get these things fixed overnight, unless there is, at some stage, a pool of money into which people can dip and use legitimately while they have those discussions. And I do think that that's a sensible way forward.

We had evidence from RICS, who said that, in Australia there's a cladding rectification agreement scheme. So, there are low-interest loans available to leaseholders to carry out remedial work, and they are repaid through council rates over a minimum period of 10 years, and are transferrable to new owners if a property is sold in the interim period. Would something like that be something you think we should look at here in Wales?

I think anything like that because I come back to my original point: let's please get the work done and alleviate the stress on these people and the potential danger to them. So, any form of way to unblock this logjam would be something that should be looked at, and that is an interesting way forward as well.

Sorry, can I make just one point on service charges? I'm sorry if I'm insulting your intelligence on this, but it's just to remark that service charges are a zero-sum game. There's no profit in there. So, what happens is, the managing agent says, 'To run the development this year will cost £100,000,' and then, depending on what the lease says, any overage or underage is then either put into a reserve fund or returned, if it's an overage, to the leaseholders. So, unless there's a reserve fund, there's no fat in there. It's not a typical sort of company thing, where you think of a profit element that could perhaps be dipped into. So, if you capped this, you would say, 'Well, okay, instead of £100,000, it's £80,000.' What are the normal maintenance requirements of that building that you are going to have to stop doing? And that will presumably damage the building.

Although, to counter that, we've had quite a lot of debate in the Assembly recently about the fact that some people are being charged for things that, really, the council should be doing. So, potentially, therefore, they are being double charged. And then, you could say a cap would be proportionate because, you know, it wouldn't necessarily be down to you to do the work that would otherwise—. You know, it would be done in another way, is all I'm saying. 

There shouldn't be any form of double charging. That wouldn't be fair. If charges are felt to be excessive, then leaseholders do have the recourse to go through things such as the FTTP. You have section 19 for reasonableness of costs and so forth, so there are in-built protections there. But, capping service charges does have some interesting nuances to it. But, back to the point you were making, any form of funding that would unjam the logjam would be fantastic.

Can I just clear up on this finance issue? A lot of the buildings that now seem to be at a greater risk than was originally envisaged would have warranties. Is the issue with that that the builder says, 'Well, actually, we observed, as far as we can see, the building regulations. Therefore, there can't be a claim against us.' Is that the real issue they have in terms of limiting their liability?

Because if it's a deficiency, it's a deficiency, isn't it?

They're very much—. We're dealing with the one developer, so it's fairly simple. Their stance is that, at the time of build, it met regulations, so it's up to somebody else to prove that wrong.

Yes, and hence certain arguments you can then bring in about whether the state has an obligation of some kind anyway, given that it ultimately determines building regulations. I think it's fair to say that—. Sorry, did someone want to add to that? No. It's fair to say that the whole fire safety regime is, well, if not complicated, there are a number of players. And I just wondered whether you think, under the fire safety Order regulations, that each party understands what its responsibilities are and that that system works effectively.

10:50

Shall I open? As we've discussed, residential buildings have complex layers of ownership. The fire safety Order is a very complex document. I think, in our organisation, we certainly have a very deep knowledge or understanding and expertise of how the fire safety Order operates. But I wouldn't believe that was the case outside of our sector. So, if you ask a leaseholder or a developer, indeed, if they really understand how that operates, I suspect the answer would be 'no'. Rachel's dealt a lot with the fire safety Order, so, it would be best for me to defer to her.

Just confirming what David says about responsibilities under article 3 of a responsible person and also the duties under article 5. Like David said, we have that expert knowledge as a managing agent, so we understand what our responsibility is. We are a person with control of a premises. However, there is another responsibility with the owner, there is another responsibility with the employer. And I concur with David, in that it's probably not put out there to leaseholders, residents' management companies and freeholders that there is a duty under article 5 as well in terms of anybody who has a contract or a tenancy in place, that they also have a duty to maintain the building, to ensure that it's safe for them and for other occupants of the building. So, whilst we really understand it, I concur with David as to whether other parties really do understand their obligations under it. And I think there is a potential for more clarity surrounding this, so that people really understand.

And just to give an example, Rachel told me earlier that we have an individual resident who is the cause of the fire risk, because he puts in his antique furniture that he collects and stores it in the common areas. We've done everything in our powers to get him to remove it, but he keeps bringing more in and putting it in, and saying, 'Well, it's my business. I need to be doing it.' In conjunction with the fire authority, we persuaded the fire authority in that case not to serve an enforcement notice on us as the managing agent, but to look very carefully at whether they could serve that notice on the individual.

And this is part of the problem as managing agents—serving enforcement notices directly on us without considering the wider way in which we operate and the other parties involved in making things happen is not the easiest way of reaching a solution. It's about partnerships. And, actually, the regulations do allow for that to happen. They're very clear that 'responsible person' is a flexible term that can be moved around parties.

So, do you think that—? The Hackitt review looked at this and said you very much need a whole-system approach to manage risk and an approach that looks at the building over its lifecycle as well. And it recommended a joint competent authority model. Now, it has said that it needs to be examined because of how that would operate, but are you sympathetic to that type of approach?

You've been involved more than I have with the Hackitt review, directly, Rachel.

Yes. I'm fully supportive of that because it's very much a silo-thinking approach at the moment, where you've got three individual parties that have an involvement in a building. However, the Health and Safety Executive will predominantly look at worker safety on a build, whereas now, it's having a thinking of the actual building safety itself. And whilst there is an involvement from each of those three parties, it's not very conjoined. So, I do think that the JCA is a really good way forward to really raise the standards within the industry, especially at development.

Yes, definitely. Historically, from Warwick Estates' point of view, we haven't taken on many new builds. A lot of it has been where managing agents have looked after those buildings beforehand. So, the golden thread situation that's mentioned in the Hackitt report is something that we'd love to have, because a lot of the time we get the building and we don't have any of the documents that we should have to help manage the building more effectively really. So, yes, we would.

10:55

And, likewise, ARMA is very supportive. We put a lot of input into the Hackitt report and we continue to do so. I've got a four-hour session tomorrow on working group 8 on the building safety manager.

Thank you for that. I think that's helpful. That gives us some very clear evidence. Can I just talk about the fire risk assessments? We have a different approach to the one before 2001, or certainly 2005, which focuses more on risk rather than annual inspections, and then depending on the inspection, some sort of assessment of risk, presumably. But, at the minute, 'regular' is not defined. How do you think that type of system is working? Post Grenfell, should we revisit it, or would you still prefer to have this system where key concepts like 'regular' are not defined, but you, as responsible agents, have to assess risk and act on it? So, you may have to inspect more than once a year, presumably, if you have a particular problem. How do you think that system is working now?

At Warwick Estates, our policy, internally, is if there's a building that does have communal areas, we would advise the clients to have the risk assessment, as a minimum, once a year. So, the regular thing doesn't help us, because obviously we've got to budget for that with the client.

Yes, there is, yes.

—where people say, 'Well, we've been clear for the last three years; we can skip a year or two'?

Yes, there is. Since Grenfell, obviously a few people have bought into it a little bit more, but there are still people out there who don't believe, because you can't provide that exact wording, that it has to be done annually, or two-yearly, or whatever else, because it does say 'regular'. It tends to get them out of—. That's their argument, in effect, not to have it, but we do push that they do do that.

I concur fully with Jason. You have two of the larger managing agents here—it's a very fragmented industry—and larger managing agents often take this responsibility in-house. That is a better way, in my opinion, of keeping control of it. It's certainly easier for directors to sleep in bed at night if they know they have control of that, and particularly the timings. We insist that it's done annually. You're not offered a choice; it has to be done annually. And as Jason said, that's been easier post Grenfell, as you can imagine. Where we have used external contractors—and we've had to this year, because this year has been exceptionally busy—we have done full due diligence on them. One of the reasons that we took it in-house, many years ago, is that we weren't satisfied with the timings, getting documentation through quickly. It's the same as with handovers—getting the documentation is always the problem in management. We carry out full due diligence, we check they have the proper qualifications and that they're fit for purpose, I suppose. Certainly, my preference is to keep that in-house, but there are 500 managing agents out there who do rely on external suppliers. I can't comment on whether they do it well or not, but certainly, when we take handover, we have the same experience as Warwick Estates have, that that documentation is often missing or incomplete. So, there are improvements that could be made in the way that this information is kept.

This comes down to competency, in terms of—. I don't know if you use your own assessors—.

We do internal. For anything that would be external, we have a contractor accreditation scheme. Basically, they have to send in all their information, insurances, qualifications, training—everything.

Would it be useful for competency to be defined? At the moment, it's not. Should we—

It is to some extent.

The Fire Risk Assessment Competency Council criteria offer some real indication of what is expected of a fire risk assessor, so that is what we use as our basis, as our framework, for appointing competent people to do risk assessments, as well as the associated qualifications within fire safety as well.

I accept that it would be no defence in law if you appointed someone who's incompetent, but, of course, that is probably going to be revealed after some tragedy, whereas if you're upfront in your definitions, then, you know, you presumably would limit vastly the number of people who could present themselves as appropriate people to undertake risk assessments.

I think one of the key things you've just said—I think it was Mr Clark—is that, as large companies, it's in your interests to have very rigorous systems. But it is a fragmented sector and we have heard that there is some very poor practice with incompetent people out there issuing assessments, and I think you've just mentioned you occasionally see that through taking on new contracts and paperwork not being complete and that sort of thing. How general do you think this problem is? Should we be concentrating on competency so that it raises the bar for those who would not necessarily do what you will do from professional diligence?

11:00

I think it would be useful if Nigel made a comment around regulation of the industry. At the moment, barriers to entry are too low and I think that has an impact, potentially, on safety. I don't know if you want to comment on regulation.

Of course. To give you an idea of the fragmentation of the industry, ARMA has, as members, about 300 managing agents. So, that's roughly half in England and Wales. Of those, 80 per cent have fewer than 4,000 units. So, when people think of managing agents, they think of the Mainstays and the Warwicks, whereas the vast proportion have maybe 20 staff, or it's a single owner, maybe a family owned business—that's the reality of what managing agents actually are. What we are pushing the Government for—and we have been for decades—is for regulation. There is a chance that that will come through in leasehold reform because we feel that it is an area that it is too easy to set up. I use myself as an example there: I set myself up in a back bedroom and I was handed over £350,000 of somebody else's money—that can't be right—without any checks whatsoever. So, we are strong advocates for regulation; we do hope that comes in.

I think, as part of the primary authority with the fire brigades as well—they do regular checks on the risk assessments that we carry out. So, they'd look at the risk assessments and make sure that they are fit for purpose as well. So, we have that little bit more of an extra guide, so to speak, whereas an agent would take it in-house or have somebody outside—they don't necessarily have that extra guidance on risk assessments being done correctly.

I just wanted to ask a question on this. Mainstay said you make people do it within a year, the fire assessments—

It's not an area of debate, it's a fixed time.

Yes, so is that in the lease, then? Is that written into the lease? How do people know that they have to do it yearly? 

Generally, leases will provide for any risk activities.

Because what we were hearing from the fire authorities earlier was that they thought that it should be an obligation of a lease to say that fire risk assessments should happen. You're suggesting that you do that, but are you aware that that happens across the board?

It should do—

I think what you said is that you don't take the account unless they will have an annual assessment. Is that right?

Sorry, I didn't follow—

To take the building—[Inaudible.]—as a management—?

We would not operate as a managing agent for anybody who was not prepared to have an annual fire risk and a periodic general risk assessment, although I think that's probably more likely to be two years.

But, unfortunately, that's not the case across the sector. So many agents are so small, losing one property could be significant—it could actually put them under. So, if the client says, 'I do not want this', it is their say.

We have started putting that into the management agreement we provide as well. So, leases will refer to it, but possibly not refer directly to it, depending on the lease, but within the management agreement that we sign with the client now. That's changed since Grenfell as well. So, it's in there that it has to be done.

The properties that we manage throughout our portfolio—the risk assessment is done annually but these properties are visited by me and my colleagues at least every six weeks and more frequently if we need to. So, they're not just inspected annually on a risk assessment and then left to their own devices until the next assessment is carried out. When we are looking at a property, we complete survey reports on them each time we do them and we will look at the fire doors and look in the risers and complete all the inspections—similar, but not as in-depth, to that of the risk assessment.

11:05

Then the final area—. Thank you for that. We’ve heard from the fire and emergency services that the understanding that residents have, often, of their building—you know, as a building—and managing risk can be quite poor. I think Mr Clark mentioned examples like people might run businesses that require the stacking of furniture outside—you know, the stuff of life. Those sorts of practices, obviously, potentially, cause general risk, not just to the individual. Do you think more work needs to be done so that residents of shared accommodation, particularly high-rise, have an understanding of how the risk is managed, and if it’s compromised, what the consequences are.

Yes, absolutely. It is a feature of leasehold that leaseholders tend not to know what they’ve actually bought. There are anecdotes of people saying, ‘I don’t need to pay a service charge because I’ve bought my flat’, and you have to explain, ‘No, there are communal areas and so forth.’ It is a weakness in the system, I think, that, when people buy a flat—. Personally, I think, at point-of-sale, when they first walk into an estate agent, they should be told, ‘This is a leasehold; do you understand what that means? There will be commitments to pay ground rents. There will be commitments to pay service charges. In the case of this particular flat, it is this much—.’ Rather than, usually, they get that maybe two days before completion, by which time it’s far too late. People don’t understand their responsibilities. I didn’t when I bought mine. People will change the front door to the flat, the fire door—put a cat flap in it or something—without realising the impact that has on the compartmentalisation. They’ll have a barbecue on the balcony. People are human beings. We are, again, looking in the working group at how we help leaseholders—not just leaseholders, obviously; ‘occupants’ would be a better thing to say, because the leaseholder might be living somewhere else. How do we help these people to understand that simple things, like drilling a hole to put a Sky tv dish in—that cable has just breached compartmentalisation. People just aren’t aware of these things, and it’s not easy to do that.

And would this extend to—? Sometimes this kickback from residents in a privately owned condominium-type situation where they’ll not particularly want major risk to be identified and remediated very quickly because it might have an immediate effect on property values—or is that something that you don’t come across?

I haven’t had that reported by members. I feel that people put their safety first. People will worry about whether cleaning is done twice a week instead of once a week but safety is a different kettle of fish.

It’s certainly been our experience that leaseholders can be extremely vocal when it comes to anything they perceive as a building defect.

So, it’s generally that, with good information, they act rationally when they realise there’s a—