|Caroline Jones AM|
|Dawn Bowden AM|
|Jenny Rathbone AM||Yn dirprwyo ar ran Huw Irranca-Davies|
|Substitute for Huw Irranca-Davies|
|John Griffiths AM||Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor|
|Leanne Wood AM|
|Mark Isherwood AM|
|Clare Severn||Pennaeth y Rhaglen Diogelwch Adeiladau, Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Head of the Building Safety Programme, Welsh Government|
|Francois Samuel||Pennaeth Polisi Rheoliadau Adeiladu, Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Head of Building Regulations Policy, Welsh Government|
|Julie James AM||Y Gweinidog Tai a Llywodraeth Leol|
|Minister for Housing and Local Government|
|Steve Bryant||Cynghorydd Cynorthwyol Tân ac Achub, Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Assistant Fire and Rescue Advisor, Welsh Government|
|Steve Pomeroy||Pennaeth y Gangen Gwasanaethau Tân ac Achub, Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Head of Fire and Rescue Services Branch, Welsh Government|
|Stephen Davies||Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol|
|Yan Thomas||Dirprwy Glerc|
|1. Cyflwyniad, Ymddiheuriadau, Dirprwyon a Datgan Buddiannau||1. Introductions, Apologies, Substitutions and Declarations of Interest|
|2. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42(vi) i Benderfynu Gwahardd y Cyhoedd o Eitemau 3 a 6 Cyfarfod Heddiw||2. Motion under Standing Order 17.42(vi) to Resolve to Exclude the Public from Items 3 and 6 of Today's Meeting|
|4. Gwaith Dilynol ar Ddiogelwch Tân mewn Adeiladau Uchel Iawn: Sesiwn i Graffu ar Waith y Gweinidog||4. Fire Safety in High-rise Buildings Follow-up: Ministerial Scrutiny Session|
|5. Papurau i’w Nodi||5. Papers to Note|
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 12:33.
The meeting began at 12:33.
Welcome to this meeting of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee. Item 1 on our agenda today is introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest. We've received an apology from Huw Irranca-Davies, and he will be substituted by Jenny Rathbone, who will join us later on during the meeting. Are there any declarations of interest? No.
bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o eitemau 3 a 6 cyfarfod heddiw yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(vi).
that the committee resolves to exclude the public from items 3 and 6 of today's meeting in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(vi).
Cynigiwyd y cynnig.
Item 2, then, is a motion under Standing Order 17.42 to exclude the public from items 3 and 6 of today's meeting. Is committee content so to do?
Derbyniwyd y cynnig.
Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 12:34.
The public part of the meeting ended at 12:34.
Ailymgynullodd y pwyllgor yn gyhoeddus am 13:07.
The committee reconvened in public at 13:07.
Okay, then. We are back in public session for item 4 on our agenda today, which is fire safety in high-rise buildings and some follow-up ministerial scrutiny to previous work of this committee.
I would like to welcome Julie James, our Minister for Housing and Local Government. We have Clare Severn, head of the building safety programme; Francois Samuel, head of building regulations policy; Steve Bryant, assistant fire and rescue adviser; and Steve Pomeroy, head of fire and rescue services branch. Welcome to you all. Croeso.
Minister, perhaps I might begin, then, with an initial two questions. First of all: what action will be taken in Wales following the publication of the 'Grenfell Tower Inquiry: Phase 1 Report', and does Welsh Government intend to issue a formal response? Would you say that there are recommendations that are particularly relevant to Wales?
We're not thinking of issuing a formal response to the phase 1 report because the phase 1 report is, as I'm sure the committee is aware, around the specific events on the night of the fire and the actions of the London Fire Brigade, the Metropolitan Police and the other blue-light responders, and the findings are very directly relevant to the management of events on that night. When the second phase of the inquiry comes, which is around the governance arrangements and so on, we think there'll be a lot more in that for us. But, obviously, there are implications for our blue-light responders.
Can I just say, Chair, that much of the matters that the committee is likely to want to ask us about are highly technical? And I am not in any way going to pretend to be an expert about highly technical matters around fire regulation. So, I'm very happy to answer the policy issues, but I will be referring off to various officials who are better qualified than I to talk about some of the technical matters. So, in this instance, for example, if I ask Steve whether there's anything he wants to say about the recommendations for the responders.
There are an awful lot of recommendations for the fire service or for the London Fire Brigade in particular. Most of them, I would say, are of an operational nature. A lot of them are addressed specifically to LFB—London Fire Brigade.
That having been said, there's every possibility that what the inquiry has found to be an issue that the LFB needs to address could apply equally here. So, the last time that the Deputy Minister met our three chief officers, which was last month, she asked them for an assurance that this was all in hand or had already been dealt with, and they gave it. And our chief fire adviser, newly appointed, a man called Dan Stephens, will be following that up with the chiefs and offering them any support they need to address particular issues.
I know that a lot of what's in there for the service has already been addressed, and I know that, for instance, there's a recommendation in there about smoke hoods to help people evacuate in a smoke-filled environment. Those are currently under trial at all the fire stations in Cardiff and Newport. So there is work going on. I can't say more about the detail because it's in the hands of the service, but we recognise that this isn't just a London-specific report about a fire in London, there is learning there for the service too.
And I'm sure Hannah will be very happy to come back to the committee and update you on where that's got to at an appropriate point in time.
Okay, thanks. Steve, is there anything, then, that you might provide the committee with at this stage in terms of that work that you described and what's transported to Wales at this stage, as it were?
I think, if the Minister's content, we could certainly give you a breakdown of the recommendations that the inquiry has made and where we would stand on them at an initial stage. I can't promise you we'll get into the detail of where each of our three brigades are in implementing them, but we can give a broad sense of that.
Okay. I think that would be useful.
As you said, many of the recommendations from the Grenfell Tower inquiry are operational matters for the emergency services, but following on from the discussion we've just had, Minister, what role do you think there is for Welsh Government to work with the emergency services to address the specific recommendations and make sure, really, that if there were, God forbid, a major incident like Grenfell in Wales, we would be in the best place and best prepared to deal with it?
Hannah, who is the Deputy Minister, has the brief to liaise with the fire authorities and, as Steve has just said, they're developing the responses for them. We can do that. Some of the report's recommendations also deal with the law on fire safety, the duties of owners and landlords, and some of that we've already taken into account in our own expert panel review, so we will be coming forward with a series of recommendations based on that. But we are expecting phase 2 of the report to go into more detail about that. These were preliminary findings. So we'll certainly keep the committee updated on the work as it goes forward. And for any of the other recommendations being taken forward by other agencies, I'm sure the committee will take evidence from the agencies themselves. But we're happy to talk through the overview and reporting arrangements that we've got.
Might you provide us perhaps—or the Deputy Minister—with just a note on that role that Welsh Government has in terms of working with the emergency services on these issues, Minister?
Okay. We move on, then, to some questions on cladding, and Jenny Rathbone.
Thanks very much. You said in your statement on 22 October that of the 111 high-rise buildings identified in Wales with ACM cladding on them that had initially failed the screening test, all taken steps to remediate the problems. So, is it then true to say that, for all those high-rise buildings with this type of ACM cladding on them, it has now been eliminated, or are there still some private sector buildings?
My understanding is—and I'll ask Clare in a minute—that all the ACM issues, which are very specific issues, have been addressed in Wales. There was a fund in England because they had difficulties, but we had already addressed the issue at that point in time and that fund wasn't Barnettised because it came out of direct ministerial expenditure. So we didn't get a share of that. But, as it happened, we'd already worked with our building owners. Clare has the detail.
There are 15 high-rise buildings in Wales, three of which are social housing, and that ACM removal and replacement scheme has finished and they are all dealt with. The 12 that are in the private sector, which includes the student accommodation area, they all have either procured or started works. Some are still due to start works and, partly, that's because finding contractors who are appropriately insured to undertake the works means that it is taking a little bit longer, but they all have remediation plans in place, which either have commenced or are due to commence shortly, and none of those costs are being passed on to leaseholders where there are leaseholders in the building. They've all taken that on to fund themselves.
So, are all the ones where the ACM cladding has yet to be removed high-rise student accommodation?
No, not all of them.
No. Okay. Fine. So, these 12 buildings, there is still some ACM cladding on them, but clearly you have to wait for the appropriately qualified people to be able to do it.
Yes, but whilst there still is ACM cladding on those buildings, they have measures in place to ensure that building safety is heightened. So, for example, they may have waking watches; some have installed more up-to-date fire alarm systems. So, there are measures in place to ensure that safety features have been heightened while the works are undertaken, or waiting to be undertaken.
Okay. Thank you for that. Obviously, we recently had a fire in student accommodation in Bolton, where they were using high-pressure laminate cladding. So, is this high-pressure laminate cladding present on any of our high-rise buildings in Wales?
So, yes, actually, we'd already started to work on issues around other kinds of cladding. The committee will be obviously aware that we're aware that there are lots of other issues. It's not just the ACM cladding. So, there's been a whole programme in place around that. So, we issued an advice note back in August, setting out information on HPL testing being undertaken by the UK Government, and there is a whole series of issues—again, I'll ask Clare in a minute to talk to you about that. We don't have all the data. I won't talk across what Clare wants to tell you in more detail, but there are really complex issues around the juxtaposition of that cladding with insulation behind it, and whether the insulation itself is correctly installed, whether the insulation itself is flammable and all that sort of stuff. So, it's much more complex than just what the cladding is. So, I'll pass over to either Francois or Clare. I'm not too sure which of them is—
I think this one's for me, Minister.
Thank you. Yes, HPL cladding, we're still waiting for all the details of the construction of the Bolton fire, but it would appear that the HPL cladding was what's called a 'class D', a European classification. Those of you who have looked at the consultation that we're currently finalising on banning combustible materials, we talk about A1 and A2. So, this was not a C but a D. The Department for Communities and Local Government carried out one major test, what's called 'the 8414 test' of a full wall, and that was of a C [correction: B] classification HPL. This is compressed paper and wood with a glue binder. And that was with rock wool or mineral wool insulation, and that actually passed the test. Under our proposed ban of combustible materials for buildings over 18m, you wouldn't be able to put that on anymore. We're talking about A1 and A2. So, they did this one major test and they're undertaking some smaller tests.
They have to have a different approach to ACM, where they actually came up with a test that was actually focusing on the glue. DCLG have yet to publish further tests, but as the Minister has said, advice note 22 was produced in August—it was published here in Wales by the Welsh Government—which gave advice to people on the need to ascertain exactly what that product was, because HPL is a very wide definition, certainly in terms of performance; on the problems of product substitution, which typically happens on building projects, so what was specified isn't necessarily what was actually installed; and gave a whole host of advice. What that advice note said was that category C and D will not pass the 8414 test in the Government's view. Full-scale tests haven't been carried out. We only have one test result, as I say, of a category C with mineral wall, and anything other than mineral wall insulation, so some of the products that are based on isocyanurates and those, would not pass.
So, that's the current position. So, the advice has been about trying to establish what is actually on the building, what classification it is, and then taking appropriate action for remediation if that's deemed necessary.
Can I just bring Mark in, just on this very point, Jenny, before you go on?
Just for clarity, shortly after Grenfell Tower, I hosted an industry event here and, speaking to me afterwards, some structural engineers told me that their understanding was that, had the sealant been in place appropriately, it would have minimised the risk of the fire getting behind the cladding and doing what it did. So, in addition to the actual cladding itself, how important is it that, at inception, the fitting and sealant has also been ensured to be compliant?
Okay, I'm not sure what—. Sealant—. Do you mean the—? Are you talking about ACM—
—the binding between the two sheets—
[Inaudible.]—cladding that they were specifically talking about. But they said it's not just the cladding itself, but, if you don't close around the sides, then, no matter what you put in, it's going to get behind and burn.
And that's a valid criticism, because one criticism of the full-scale test—the 8414 wall test—is that it's perfect, and that's not what happens on site. There's a whole issue that we, and the other Governments, are going to have to deal with about quality assurance. And, as you say, if the sealant—and I think I know what you mean, between individual panels—if the gap is wider or it hasn't been properly installed, then, yes, fire could progress in a way that it wasn't intended to, yes.
We've got problems with those kinds of fire breaks not being installed in a number of buildings in Wales. I'm sure you're going to come on to some of the testing and so on, but it's quite clear that it's not only the material, it's the quality of the workmanship that can lead to these problems.
So, there are a number of issues to be addressed and that's why we've got the overall review into the whole of the building regulations arrangements and who has the duty to do which bit of it and what the inspection regime should look like and so on. It's way more complicated than just saying, 'This cladding isn't any good, and, therefore, if you've removed it, it's fine'. It's just nothing like as simple as that, which is why I've got a bevy of experts around me, because I don't think this is the sort of thing that you can learn from a briefing in two minutes. These are really complex issues and we need to be absolutely certain that we get it right.
What we want to make sure is that we don't put another regime in place that has loopholes in it that people can—you know, we still have the same problem; we think we've all done a good job, but we still have the same problem. So, we've absolutely got to get this right.
The other thing to say about the Bolton fire, and I do think it's worth saying this, because it's been emphasised to me by many of my officials—and it's this issue around whether people should evacuate or stay put. While the Bolton fire was awful and it's always awful for anyone to be in a fire—it's traumatising, you lose your possessions, et cetera; dreadful—one of the reasons that people were able to not be hurt was because the fire brigade, as I understand it, in Manchester, had looked at the building and its policies and decided on an evacuation strategy there. That has to be done individually. So, we do not want to be giving off the message that everybody should evacuate, that compartmentation—it's really hard to say—doesn't work. But what we are very keen to do is make sure we have the right advice in all of our buildings so that people are doing the right thing. I really think that's an important thing to say in a public committee, because people should be aware that they should find out what the best advice for their building is and make sure that they comply with it. Because there have been some things, as you know, said by people, which are not acceptable to be said. So, in that particular case, the Manchester fire brigade had put the right advice in place. The managing agent had responded well, the evacuation strategy worked and, fortunately, there was no loss of life as a result, devastating though it is—
Thanks for that, and we'll return to some of those matters later on. Jenny.
Okay. I just want to go back to Mr Samuel. So, these category C buildings with mineral wool on them—how many of them have we got in Wales and what is the proposed plan of action for getting these removed, given that they won't be obviously A1 or—?
So, in Wales, we are aware of 11 high-rise residential buildings with HPL on, of which five are student accommodation, one is in the social sector, and the remaining are in the private sector. What I should just note is that we don't have a full dataset as yet. It's the responsibility of the local authority to keep under review their stocks, so those are the ones that should have that up-to-date list. And, obviously, this is only those buildings that are seven stories and above. There are many other buildings, like, actually, the Cube, which are actually under 18 metres. We don't have the detail of what grade of HPL they are; we just know that those buildings have the generic HPL category and we've gone out reminding managing agents—the Minister has written out to managing agents reminding them—that actually they have a responsibility to make sure that, in effect, they know their buildings, what is on their building, what is in their building, do they know that they have the right checks in place, have they recently undertaken a fire-risk assessment. Where there are concerns, then, obviously, we would expect those who are responsible people under the law, under the FSO, to be taking any appropriate action. But it is for the responsible person to decide what that appropriate action is, in conjunction with the fire and rescue service to offer advice.
The other thing to say is that the Minister for Education has written out to all higher education institutions in Wales reminding them of their obligations and their need to make sure that they've got the right data and the right arrangements in place for each of those blocks as well. Chair, I'm not sure if the committee's had copies of that correspondence, but I'm sure we can supply it to you.
Okay. I think one of the issues here is one that I think you, Minister, mentioned, which is where people are substituting for what was in the spec—on site, they're making a decision a put in something different. So, it seems to me one of the huge challenges you and your officials have got is to establish exactly what is on any high-rise building, as opposed to what is supposed to have been put on. So, at what point are you in tracking that information down? Are these mainly private sector organisations co-operating with you?
Local authorities are the people who should have that data; they should have it through the building control records, as I understand it. We don't keep a central database of that. It may be that in the future, when we put the new systems in place, we decide that we ought to do that, but we haven't hitherto done it. So, one of the big issues we've got is that we're talking here about high-rise buildings, over 80 metres and so on, but what about the people who live in six storey tower blocks and so on? So, one of the big issues for us is what are we doing—. I'm not sure that it is just a high-rise problem. If you're a vulnerable person and you live on the third storey of something, you're going to have a similar problem with evacuation.
So, I think one of the things we want to look really carefully at is whether this whole high-rise thing isn't a bit of a red herring, and actually we need to be looking at these kinds of procedures for everything. If you're in a care home and you're on the third floor, you're going to have just as many problems getting out, it seems to be—though I'm not expert; I'd look to the fire authorities for that. But one of the things I really want to get right when we put this new system in place is that we put a system in place that gets us the right data across all our buildings—I suspect all our buildings, not just high-rise—and also that that data is able to be used by all of the relevant authorities. So, that will be possibly us for policy information, but, much more importantly, local authorities and fire services for on the ground—you know, various processes on the ground.
Yes. That brings me to my final question in this section, which is—clearly, we have to deal with pre-existing buildings and whether they're fit for purpose, but you say in your paper that you're hoping to publish new regulations to ban combustible cladding before Christmas. Could you explain why it's taken until now to put a stop to this practice?
I'll get Francois to talk through the detail of that, because, again, it's really complex. Can I just say it's not going to be before Christmas now, because somebody seems to have called a general election, which has messed up some of our timescales, so it's likely to be just after Christmas, I think I'm right in saying, Francois, is it?
We're still hoping, Minister, for after the election, but before Christmas.
Okay, so maybe before Christmas, but only just. It's been delayed because of the election issues. But let me ask Francois to give you some of the details.
Yes. Okay, thank you. You asked why it's taken as long as it has. There are a couple of things that we have to deal with. Firstly, we needed to procure specialist expertise that we don't normally have on tap, particularly fire engineering expertise, and that took a number of months to do. It was a fairly protracted process. The next thing is we have a thing called the technical standards directive, an EU directive, which means, if Governments are proposing to make a change to standards, the EU wants to ensure that it's not impacting on competition, and that involves us in a three-month standstill period that we have to comply with. And those are the main reasons that we had a delay. But, as I've just mentioned, the plan would be to get the statutory instrument down to the Minister next week.
Okay. So, bearing in mind this three-month standstill, will that mean that there will be a further three-month delay once you've published this new regulation before it becomes part of the law?
That's—. We have to take it into account if we make substantive changes to the consultation version, which, subject to ministerial agreement, it doesn't look as if we're doing. So, we don't anticipate a further delay.
And, sorry, just to say, we're proposing a short transition, a two-month transition, so it will be coming into force—if the SI is laid in December, we'd expect early in the new year for the provisions to come into force.
Would you expect planning and regulatory services to be mindful of this new regulation and therefore not to pass any new building using this type of combustible material in any future planning applications then?
So, it's got to be—. Just to be clear on the process, I've got to agree that it should be laid. I can't see any reason why I wouldn't, but we've got to go through the process. It will be laid—. Well, it sounds to me as if we're still trying to do it before Christmas. It's subject to the negative procedure in the Assembly. So, it's got to pass through the Assembly and then it commences two months afterwards. So, there's a legal process to go through. I mean—
Yes. So, these are the problems that we have with the election. Unfortunately, the election, as you know, is being held just at the end of term. We have a number of things happening in the recess that we would not normally want to do in the recess, including the publishing of the budget. Probably—. I think it's better to do it quicker and do it in recess than wait to do it for another—. But, actually, if the committee has a vehement and swift view on that I'd be happy to take it into account.
My own particular view would be, assuming that I'm happy with the SI—and I don't want to prejudge that—that we would want to get it into place as fast as is humanly possible. It is subject to the negative procedure, though. So, obviously it has to go through the Assembly's processes as well, and then we're bringing it into force, we think—as fast as it's possible for the authorities to be able to react to it is what we've looked at, isn't it?
And, just to add, the industry has become sensitised since Grenfell to these sorts of specifications, and, when we talk to building control bodies, the clear impression is that people are steering clear of the materials that are under the microscope, if you want.
Thank you, Chair. Just a few questions around the building safety programme, and there have been some concerns that the pace of reform around this has probably not been quick enough, and I know, Minister, you've said yourself that you feel that the fire safety Order probably needs replacing, although you've made it quite clear the chances of us getting that done in this Assembly term is highly unlikely. But do you think that there's anything that can be done in the short term that doesn't require legislation that could improve the speed of reform? Is there anything within current powers, current regs, anything that could be done currently, that would speed that up?
Well, again, my understanding is that we could issue guidance but there's not a 'have regard' provision to the guidance. We can put guidance out, but people do not have to have regard to it. But we might think it's worth doing that anyway. We only had the subject matter of the fire safety Order devolved to us last year, just to be clear. So, we haven't had it for that long. I want to emphasise that we want to get it right as well. So, we want to go as fast as humanly possible, but also we don't want to find that we've done the wrong thing, because we haven't taken all the evidence into account and so on. So, it's a fine balance, isn't it, between trying to get it right, because obviously it wasn't got right in the past, and trying to go as fast as possible to get all the safeguards in place.
If we can get the work done and we are happy that, with all of its complexity, all the relationships, all the things around who is the duty holder, who has the responsibility for what and so on—if we could get it right and we thought that it was consensual in the Assembly, then we will certainly try to get it passed. But we're not at that point yet. So—
—I'm not ruling it out and we would certainly like to do it, but we do need to make sure that we get the process right and we don't set up yet another set of hurdles. So, I don't know if anybody else wants to comment on that. Clare, do you want to say something?
Just to mention the UK Government's legislation. So, the UK Government, obviously before the general election was called, were planning to bring forward legislation before Christmas—that's now been moved to the spring, subject to, obviously, whatever Government comes in. But we've been working closely with Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government colleagues to see if there are any bits of their legislation that we would want to see apply in Wales, where there is divergence in policy. Certainly, I think that we're being more ambitious in terms of the changes we want to make for the fire safety Order, and I think we're actually ahead of them in terms of changes to the fire safety Order, but perhaps we are behind them from the building control/local authority aspect of things. But it's getting the right blend of where it is appropriate and right to piggyback onto UK Government legislation where it works for us, and where we can actually take things forward.
Hackitt was very clear that any changes to the system should be coherent and go across the life cycle of the building. What I think we're seeing from MHCLG's work is that they're very much focused on it being built and then when you live in it, and we don't think that that's the appropriate way to go about reforming the system. There are too many breaks in the connections there, so I think it's right to make sure that it's across the whole system rather than piecemeal. But we are hopeful that we will be able to make some progress, if that's right for Wales, depending on when they bring forward their legislation.
So, just to give an example, and, Chair, I'd just like to say I'm very happy for the officials to give technical briefings to the committee if that's helpful. This is really complicated and goodness knows I've had a lot of briefings. It's a complex area. But just to give an example, the fire safety Order at the moment covers off—. Basically, it's intended for working buildings and not for residential buildings, so it doesn't say the right things about compartmentalisation and who's responsible for what and so on.
But we have big issues, and these are issues with buildings across Wales, where the construction company goes bankrupt or the management company goes bankrupt, or the insurance company passes it to somebody else and doesn't pass all the liabilities on, or whatever. So, we have to have a system that traces responsibility through that, in circumstances where the contractor's gone bankrupt or the insurance company has sold its assets to an insurance company in America, where the law is different, or whatever. So, it's immensely complex to try and keep the thread of who is responsible for this running all the way through all of the various scenarios.
Obviously if we had an ideal circumstance in which the contractor did the right thing and they're still in business and the management agent does the right thing, that's great, but we've got to work it through where everything possible goes wrong and we've got the right system in place to pick that up. I can tell you now that the current system does not do any of those things, so we do need to get that right. So, I'm very happy for a technical briefing for the committee, but if any of my officials want to add anything to that, that's—
Well, thanks for the offer, Minister, and we'll be discussing the evidence later, and I'm sure we'll discuss the possibility of a technical briefing. Dawn.
It might be that a technical briefing would cover my next point. Clare, you already mentioned the development of building control and the new rules around that. Is that something that would likely help inform what we're doing around the fire safety Order? Is it something we could use to introduce changes in advance of that and so on?
I'll get Francois to explain building control.
Not in respect of the fire safety Order, but touching on issues that are relevant to the fire safety Order, and one of those is information that's provided to the fire and rescue service, and as part of a work stream that we've got at the moment, looking at changes that Ministers can make within current powers, because this is a 1984 piece of legislation that is widely accepted as being a bit long in the tooth. But we're looking to find a way of improving the information that is given to fire and rescue, and at the same time engaging fire and rescue more formally, or more practically rather, with development, so that fire and rescue's views are coming in at the right time. So, there's a connection between the work that we'll do on building regulations and the fire safety Order, but as Steve will no doubt say, the opportunity to amend the FSO is limited.
Yes, if could come in there, the fire safety Order is a strange piece of legislation in a lot of ways, one of which being the powers under which it was made have been repealed. So, the powers to amend it by Order have gone. That being so, we don't have the same opportunities as Francois has in the Building Act 1984 to amend regulations, if I can put it that way. What is more, it is, I would say, fundamentally the wrong piece of legislation for a block of flats. It's designed for a workplace. It goes on at length about storing dangerous chemicals; it says nothing about compartmentation. So, it's basically the wrong legislation, and we really need to step back from it and think, 'What should the law say in abstract about fire safety in a block of flats?' rather than tweaking what we have.
Where it's possible to issue guidance under the Order, where we think it would be helpful—notwithstanding what the Minister said, that there is no have-regard duty there—then, we'll do that. But the only permanent solution to this problem is a Bill, and I would think a fairly weighty Bill at that, whether that's before or after the election is not for me to say.
Yes. Yes, I think so. Just one final question, and that was really helpful, that final point, actually, because I'm not sure this is necessarily relevant to that. But we were talking about building control, and I know that this building development control, I know that this committee has previously raised concerns about the involvement of private inspectors in building control. How do you think the whole building safety programme might address that, Minister? Any idea?
We've got a design and construction work stream carrying on some work into this. This is hugely complicated. It's one of the things that the Hackitt report really criticised, the complexity of who reports back to whom and who has what duty put on them as a result of that report and so on. There's a whole complexity around the civil liability of inspectors, what it is you can rely on once the inspectors have done their job. So, it's not uncommon at all for building owners to say to us, 'But it had building control.' All that does is give you a spot check that at that point in time the things that the building inspector looked at on that day were okay in his view. It's not the assurance process that people might have thought it was or assumed it was. It's clearly not fit for purpose.
There's a whole issue around a local authority being the regulator and the inspector, but that's the case for approved inspectors as well, who are often both the regulator and the inspector. We clearly need a—. So, this is a personal view—I haven't had the work stream back yet—but to my mind it's clear that you need a differentiation between the regulator and the inspector. So, I would expect the work stream to address that point. Well, I know we've asked them to address that point. But at this point in time, I don't know what they're going to say, but clearly, we know it's a big issue.
The other thing to say is that for local authorities, of course, this is an area in which they've pared back their services, and there are whole issues around fee payments and all the rest of it, which also need to be addressed. But as a result of the austerity agenda, this isn't one of the things that local authorities have been emphasising, and that's clearly an issue in itself. This is a system that clearly needs to be properly resourced as well.
Well, one of the key issues that arose out of our original inquiry was where constructors are able to appoint their own inspectors. It's like me appointing somebody to mark my homework. So, I appreciate there are problems with building control departments in local authorities, but is there a way through to ensure that whoever is doing the inspection, whether they're in the private sector or the public sector, that they are appointed by building control rather than by the constructor?
This is the issue about the regulation. So, I take your point about private inspectors, and I share your view, but you might take the same view about a local authority that's both the regulator and the employer of the building control people. So, we need a different regime that, to my mind, separates out those two functions, but we'll await the work stream coming back. Francois.
Could I just say something about—? The Minister's mentioned the design and construction work stream, and the Minister charged us with looking at what could be done with existing powers that Ministers have in advance of any primary legislation. And as Steve's alluded to, there's going to be some formidable primary legislation required to resolve the whole of the system.
So, now, approved inspectors, the two routes to building control, local authority-approved inspectors, that's enshrined in the Building Act, in the primary legislation itself. What we're looking at as part of our work stream—and we've just convened a technical working group to start this work—is how we can make the approved inspector route of equivalent robustness to the local authority route, which is what we call the four-plans route. Because, currently, approved inspectors aren't subject to that. They provide a plan certificate if the client asks for one. Okay? It's not a requirement. So, one of the first things we've started to look at is, firstly, can we determine a category of building that has different procedures? And on the basis that we can determine a category of building, which would start, perhaps, at 18m, but we'd be flexible enough to expand as we learn. If we can have that category with a different set of procedures, can we make the approved inspector route the same? So, the same requirement to scrutinise the plans, the same things to sign off the work that they've done. And that's this initial phase, which we're calling phase 1, of our work on the design and construction stream. So it's accepting that the approved inspector is there for the time being, but how can we make it much more robust and give people confidence that the two routes are doing the same job?
Okay. And for my money, the most important thing is that whatever inspection takes place has to be done before the building is sealed, but I think that others may be going there.
There are a whole series—this is why it's fiendishly complex—of issues around what the inspector does, what exactly they're warrantying, what exactly it is that they're asked to do, as Francois was saying. They don't do the same thing. I very specifically asked the question of, 'What can we do now and what can't we, et cetera?' So, as you see, there is a set of different work streams. I fear the answer to 'What can we do now?' is 'Not all that much', but we want to do whatever it is we can do.
There will have to be a formidable piece of legislation to do this, but we absolutely have got to get it right. We can't be saying to ourselves, 'Well, look, my gut instinct is x, so let's do x', when actually that sets up a whole pile of other things that are issues. Who sets the standards for inspectors, whether they're in a council or not? Who says what the warranty provisions are? Who says what the civil liabilities arising out of that are? Who regulates it? Should companies be allowed to hire whoever they like? Is it a market or is it a regulatory system? There are a whole pile of fundamental issues here that the English authorities are also working on. But, as Clare said, we want to make sure we've got an end-to-end system in place here without these breaks in it. I'm not convinced that what's going on in England at the moment is doing that. We're a bit worried about it, but we obviously keep a weather eye on it. This is why I was offering a technical briefing, because it's fiendishly complicated.
Yes, well, as I said, we'll discuss that later, Minister.
Could I ask one follow-up question on the building safety programme and, indeed, on legislation? Well, maybe two quick questions, actually. In terms of getting the legislation right, getting the building safety programme right, Minister, how will you involve residents in making sure that we do maximise our chances of getting it right?
Yes, absolutely residents have to be involved. There are a whole series of issues around residents. First of all, having them have a say in how the building is managed is an issue in itself. So, there's a whole other piece of work around leasehold reform, management companies, managing agents. That's a whole other piece of work that we need to do to make sure that residents have a say over what they're doing. We also want to make sure that they have a say in what we're developing by way of policy. So, we're working with Community Housing Cymru, TPAS Cymru and others to identify models to engage residents' various associations all the way through. But we very much want to make sure that that resident voice is heard.
I can't remember if it's in your committee or another one, forgive me, but we're also encouraging the managing agents to go back out and remind people what all of the current arrangements are. So, I was making the point that, while I'm here in Cardiff, I live in a seven-storey block. I might have been given what the fire code was when I moved in, but I can't remember that and I certainly haven't been reminded of it since. I've now gone to the trouble of finding out for myself, but we think that all residents should be engaged and reminded of what the processes are very frequently, because if you live somewhere for a long time, you don't necessarily remember what you were told. So there are a whole range of issues around that, again, that we want to take account of, but we are working with various representative organisations to make sure we've got a voice in this.
Summer. Next year.
We're familiar with the Government's attachment to seasons when it comes to time frames. [Laughter.]
That's reasonable. [Laughter.] I suppose part of this does depend on the UK Government's legislation, because depending on which parts, if any, we decide we want to buy into, then that would impact on what bits of legislation we're then proposing to take forward. So it will be, potentially, a bit of a jigsaw puzzle to put all of the different bits together, but equally it might be quite clear cut in that we decide that, actually, the UK Government legislation isn't appropriate and therefore our White Paper will be extremely expansive. But until we know the real detail, we can't really say, hence why I do like summer going up to November, Minister. I think that's entirely reasonable.
Diolch, Cadeirydd. Looking at block management agents, there's currently a lack of regulation on agents who carry a huge responsibility, actually. So, it is encouraging that the Government is proposing an accreditation scheme for managers and agents before legislation. So, what timescale are you aiming at to make the scheme mandatory?
So, we've got two separate sorts of work streams on this. We've got the leaseholder task and finish group, and I'm about to put out, probably a written statement now because of the timetable issues, around our initial response to the leasehold task and finish group. Again, we've got the legislation difficulties, and I'm afraid leaseholding is even more complex. So, we have a Law Commission report that we're looking forward to receiving in—well I think their terminology is 'early next year'. I'm not too sure what that means either—probably before July. I don't want to be cynical about it, but I don't want to make the committee believe we're going to have it in January. So, early next year is what we're being told. Until we've got the Law Commission response, it's very difficult for us to have a separate response.
This is an area of the devolution settlement that is incredibly complicated. So, we know that housing is devolved, but we know that property law is not devolved, and consumer protection law is not devolved, and this falls nicely between those stools. So, we don't currently have the power to do some of this stuff. So, we're in a conversation with the UK Government about what they're likely to do, and to see whether that's fit for purpose, and then to look at what the devolution settlement says about what we can do. For example, my current legal advice is that we can't abolish leasehold, because we can't change the law of property. However, we could change the way that leasehold operates in some circumstances in Wales, which we'd be looking to do, but, again, I'm afraid it's really complicated.
So, what we're going to be looking at is whether we can put voluntary arrangements in place for managing agents, and then reward those that adopt the voluntary codes by saying that various Government schemes can only be managed by people who are accredited to the code and so on. And that's sort of how we started Rent Smart Wales, actually. So, we'll go down a similar sort of path. But even our powers are complex in this area, and I've got a lot of legal advice about where the edge of the settlement is on this. So, I suppose a short answer would be that we are looking to see whether we can put a voluntary code in place, what that might look like, and what encouragement we might give people to join that, while we try and sort out with the UK Government where the devolutionary edge is, and what they're likely to do. So, sorry for that really complicated—.
So, one of the things, for example—
We would also like to put some obligations on estate agents and on solicitors, conveyancers, around what people are told about the management of their leasehold property, or the communal areas and so on, and it's not clear whether we can do that either. So, there are some really complicated issues here.
Okay. So, that said, what role does the Welsh Government currently have in communicating information to agents and managers, and what co-ordination is there with local authorities and fire and rescue services in disseminating this information?
So, again, there's no simple answer to that. We have a whole range of things that we do via Rent Smart Wales, via local authorities, via the Welsh Local Government Association, but it's not coherent. And what this process has done is it's made it obvious that it's not coherent. So, we'll have to reflect on whether there is a way of getting out that information to everyone. So, I can show you what we've sent out. What I don't have is any way of knowing that it's got to everyone. I'm happy to share with the committee all the things that we've sent out to people, but we don't have any data to say that every managing agent in Wales has received that.
Yes, looking at fire doors now: what assessment has been made of the impact of the Welsh Government's statutory guidance on the fire doors in flats for builders and owners, and have owners and managers found it helpful, and will the guidance be reviewed or updated in light of the Grenfell Tower inquiry relating to the fire doors, please?
So, my understanding is that the guidance we issued last year was just a restatement of what we'd already said, which is that front doors of flats must be self-closing, and they must be fire doors to preserve the compartmentation—I don't know why I have such problems saying that—compartmentation of the block. We haven't undertaken a formal assessment of the effectiveness of that, because it was a reissue of what was already there. And as I said earlier, unfortunately, there's no 'have regard to' provision in this guidance, so responsible persons are not legally required to have regard to it. So, it's there, but you can hear from my voice that my view is that it's not very effective. And so what we need to do is, in looking at the whole of this system, we need to put a system in place where the guidance is statutory guidance and there is a 'have regard to' duty on it. And to do that, we have to figure out who the duty holders are and then we go right back to the beginning, as Clare said, to get the whole system in place.
But one of the things that's quite clear is that the system at the moment doesn't do any of those things and we need to get a system in place that both identifies that you are the person responsible, and this is the guidance that you must have regard to in carrying out your duties. And we don't have any of that at the moment. So, we haven't done any assessment of the efficacy of the current guidance, but I suspect that the answer is that it isn't very effective.
So, are you having ongoing discussions with the UK Government officials regarding the safety fire doors? And is there any further testing planned, because earlier testing did identify issues with the glass-reinforced plastic composite fire doors? And I wondered if you could tell me what guarantee there is that these doors have been completely taken out and so on, because they are a huge risk.
Okay. So, there was a testing programme of GRP doors. There was a testing programme of timber fire doors, and that's what we traditionally, in the industry, understand a fire door to be made out of—timber. And all the tests of the timber fire doors passed, as we would have expected, the 30-mintue test. The GRP doors failed. Some failed after five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes. You can imagine that there's a whole host of small manufacturers that are making these GRP doors. So, the UK Government's been in discussion with the Association of Composite Door Manufacturers to come up with a remediation plan—something that was progressive and that dealt with the highest risks, because the industry cannot afford—the scale of what's being asked of it—for a wholesale replacement, just like that. So, prioritisation—. We haven't yet seen the results of that plan—that implementation plan. That is something that we constantly liaise on with Government up in London to see progress.
Welsh manufacturers that we've talked to have had their doors retested. One of the issues that came out was, in fact, the degree to which doors were actually being tested and they weren't using data from other tests. And manufacturers have had their doors successfully retested and have confirmed they've passed. So, that's progressing, but the big issue is the remediation programme for the existing doors.
I just want to add my own personal view here, because I'm very annoyed about it and I'd like to just say it publicly: so, we do have a situation in which many landlords simply don't understand this and they are replacing, particularly in the Victorian terraces in many of our cities, the wooden doors with fire doors, and that is the wrong thing to do. So, I just wanted to say that publicly, because I think there's a lot of misunderstanding about this. So, the timber doors have been much more successful than the new ones, and I just think there's a lot of misunderstanding about that out there in the sector. So, I wanted to say that publicly, Chair.
And presumably there's a—apart from you saying it publicly today, Minister—wider effort to get that information out there.
Yes, indeed there is, but I thought it was worth repeating in the committee.
Moving on to level 4 assessments, which are the most comprehensive for fire risk assessment, but also include a degree of destructive inspection, this committee's report in November last year recommended the Welsh Government explore the feasibility of ensuring invasive level 4 surveys for all high-rise residential buildings, and for the Welsh Government to provide fire and rescue services with the legislative powers to require level 4 invasive surveys.
In your response to this committee, you referred to a document that notes that this type of assessment will only be appropriate in limited circumstances. Given that level 4 assessments have identified hidden defects in buildings that had been assumed to be in compliance with building regulations, how will the building safety programme address these concerns?
It's tempting, isn't it, to say what we should do is put level 4 destructive testing into every building? But I think that's easy to say and very difficult to live with. You just have to understand that those tests involve removing walls and ceilings and floor coverings to look at voids behind them and so on. They are significantly disruptive. We're not talking about small holes in your wall here. So, these are not things that people can have done while they live in the house. There are also issues about disturbing asbestos, which would otherwise have been fine and so on. So, this is not a silver bullet to the issue. Where you have a void, then it's a good idea to undertake the testing, but this is not something that you can do to residential, occupied buildings with any ease.
What we want to do is make sure that we have all the right information together. So, in bringing the legislation forward, what we want to do is have a pack for each building, effectively, which tells you, 'This building was tested on this occasion, by these people, with this duty, and this is what it says about the building, these are the procedures in place, this is what the compartmentation looks like, the evacuation process et cetera.' We'd have to do that over some time, and we've talked about the complexity of putting that in place. But I think it's very tempting to say, 'Yes, of course we should do that to every building', without really understanding the full level of the disruption that that will bring. And I know there have been some households that have had it done because they've been worried, but there is a significant issue with doing that. I don't know which one of you wants to talk about that.
If I could, Minister. It has its place, it certainly does. Any form of destructive testing has its place if you think there's a problem. It's a bit like the difference between medicine and surgery. You'll only generally adopt the latter if there was reason to do so. I think, going back to what I said about the fire safety Order, because this is a means of conducting a risk assessment under that Order—going back to what I said earlier about that Order and about how it wasn't really designed for blocks of flats, one of the main features of it that reflects its non-design for blocks of flats is that it says nothing at all, not a word, about compartmentation—that critical feature of a block that keeps people safe, or should keep people safe, if there's a fire.
When we think about the shape of a White Paper and of legislation to replace the fire safety Order, it seems to me, at least, to be quite clear that that replacement legislation has to be very specific about compartmentation and about the critical nature of compartmentation in maintaining safety in a block of flats. There may be, as part of that, some scope to be clearer about the circumstances in which a responsible person ought to undertake destructive testing in order to satisfy themselves and their residents that that compartmentation is still there. But, again, we're coming to this business that we would need to legislate to provide for that. So, yes, there may be some mileage in this. Whether we want to go around taking down everyone's ceiling, I very much doubt, personally. But in the future, when we've legislation that's designed for a block of flats, you may well find something in there about that.
And just to add to the sort of human difficulty of this, everybody wants people to feel that they're safe in a block of flats, but also each flat is a person's home, so you can't be telling people that every x number of years they have to take all the ceilings out of their home, or whatever. So, we do have to find some methodologies that allow people to have peaceful enjoyment of their home whilst feeling safe. So, these are not simply things to do. And you can have some rules around what the outside door looks like and the outside window and the outside cladding, but what people do, then, inside their own home is also of importance, and we have to design some fit-for-purpose, non-intrusive, liveable-with systems that allow people to live in these dense high-rises in safety, whilst having peaceful enjoyment of their house. It's easy to say these things—it's very difficult to design a system that does both of these things simultaneously.
Would the fire and rescue service like a discretionary power to require these surveys?
Just to give you reassurance, in terms of fire and rescue services auditing high-rise buildings and other buildings, there is a method, a light-touch method, of looking at compartmentation without going through the destructive method. So, if issues are raised or there is concern around compartmentation, and it has a light-touch investigation, then that can be probed a little bit further. And where there's any doubt about the level of compartmentation, particularly in high-rise buildings, then national guidance will be implemented, with the potential of changing, for example, a stay-put procedure to a simultaneous evacuation. So, there are things that the fire and rescue service can do now under the current powers.
Okay. Well, moving on, it's currently left to the judgment of building owners and managers where to carry out these assessments. How do you respond to calls for a requirement to carry out the assessment in certain circumstances, such as when a flat becomes vacant?
Yes, so one of the things that we definitely need to look at is whether we can put a duty on the responsible person to do various things at various points in time. Just to be clear, as I understand it, the responsible person for the building—the landlord or management agent, therefore—is the person who has the responsibility to carry out that testing. They often get the fire authority to do it for them, but, just to be clear, it's not the local authority that's requiring that; it is the responsible person in the building. One of the things, Mark, we've got to look at is who has the duty to do that and what the responsibility should be at any point in time.
So, as Clare was saying earlier, you want to get the build phase right, and then we have to put the duties in place for what happens during the occupation phase of a building—so, I don't know, whether every time it's void that kind of testing be should taking place. That would be one of the things we'd look at. But many buildings will never have any voids in them, and so you've got to be able to have something that pertains when people are in continuous occupation of the building and you don't have the opportunity of a vacant apartment, and that's very much what we've asked the task and finish group to look at for us, because there is a whole pile of complexities around that.
So, yes, superficially it would seem sensible to do things when an apartment becomes void or vacant in a building for whatever reason, but many people will never have a void, and so what are we to do then? So, you have to have a system that, as I said, fits through these complex flows all the way through the occupation and indeed decommissioning of a building at the other end. So, Clare, do you want to add anything to that?
On the flip of that, almost, you've got a situation where, if a property regularly becomes vacant, are we suggesting it's every time, is it once every whatever period of time? If compartmentation is there, then, in effect, it shouldn't be breached unless something else happens. Therefore, you don't necessarily need to check that compartmentation is there regularly, because it should be, unless someone's gone in with a whacking great drill or whatever it is. And part of that then links into actually what roles and responsibilities are there on residents.
So, as part of the reforms to the FSO and Steve's comment about there being absolutely nothing about 'compartmentise'—I can't say the word either—then, actually, is there a role and responsibility for a resident not to go at their walls with drills? How do we look to the likes of Sky and Virgin Media when they're installing things not to drill through whatever it is? If you're having your bathroom re-done and someone doesn't put the Polyfilla round the—. All of these things are things that can impact and it's difficult to track that during the occupation phase. So, I suppose it's just to reiterate the Minister's point about being measured and that's a tricky line to draw.
And the other thing to say is we're concentrating on fire, because we had the tragedy of Grenfell. But fire is not the only thing that can happen to big buildings. We had that terrible collapse of that hotel in—. So, we have to make sure we have a system that covers off all of the things that can happen in high-rise buildings, not—. Obviously we want to cover off the fire stuff but we also want to make sure that it's fit for purpose and it stays up, for example. So, you also can't be having systems that drill through RSJs that the whole building is hanging off, or, you know, interfere with the roof, or cause flooding, or all kinds of other stuff. So, we have got to make sure this system works for all the eventualities that it's expected to cover off and that is not a simple thing to do.
Yes. Your paper notes that your officials are exploring the development of a fund for retrofitting sprinklers. And I recall, when this agenda began, the deputy fire chief in north Wales, after a year when fire deaths had risen, wished to data share so that they could better identify vulnerable people who might be most at risk. I and others successfully achieved—or intervened to help them achieve—that. They bought a series of sprinklers, which were then targeted at people identified jointly with health boards and so on, and fire deaths did fall, because they were targeting the most vulnerable people: the smokers who drank, released from hospital or what have you.
However, the legislation that came forward was focused on new build, although the Building Research Establishment's reports, the Welsh Government's and John Prescott and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's in the UK suggested that might not be the right approach to take. However, that's where we are. Last year—2018-19—fire deaths in Wales, having fallen the previous year to 15, went back up to 20. So, what consideration are you giving here to identifying those most at risk so that they are perhaps at the front of the queue for achieving this, whether they're owners or tenants, and identifying again those, in whatever type of property they might be, who have the indicators that put them into perhaps the red zone or however you may have defined it?
And, aligned to that, the Electrical Safety First campaign, where—1,900 electrical fires in Wales in the last five years, averaging over one a day—. Their call for a review of home safety visits and how the referral process to have the identified issues remedied successfully can be addressed, and particularly a project identified as part of home safety visits: funding vulnerable occupiers' electrical safety improvements through a fire safety fund that they would co-fund.
Yes. So, I'm very keen on exploring—in fact, officials are exploring for me how we might develop a loan to incentivise the fitting of sprinklers and how we might target that loan/grant in some circumstances. At the moment, we're focusing on high-rise, but, actually, as I said earlier, certainly that isn't the only issue and there is a whole series of issues around how we might do that.
But one of the issues with this is—. And the other thing is, it depends on the tenure. So, we can do some things in social housing, because we can do that through the registered social landlords, and so on, councils, that we can't do in private sector housing. There's a big issue about building owners stepping up to the plate here and taking some responsibility, although I'm happy to develop—well, we're working on developing some loans in other to be able to facilitate that if there's a capital issue.
I'm going to get the fire service to comment on the fire safety thing, as I'm certainly no expert in any of that.
Thank you, Minister. Just to give you an example of how the work on high-rise premises allowed fire and rescue services to focus their preventative work, because, as you're aware, there are only enforcement powers available to fire services for the common area. For flats, et cetera, there's no power of entry, but we can go in and carry out home fire safety checks. Now, that's allowed us to reduce the risk in these premises by identifying people at risk, putting in place mitigating measures, and part of that is the provision, in addition to a potential recommendation for installing a mains sprinkler system, of portable misting units. I was recently talking to an officer from South Wales FRS who told me about how they identified a smoker in a high-rise premises and they provided that individual with a misting unit and fire-resistant bedding, all to reduce the risk.
So, I think part of the outcome of the tragic circumstances in Grenfell is that it's allowed the fire and rescue services to continue to concentrate on the preventative agenda, as well as the enforcement of the fire safety Order where necessary.
If I could just add to that, the misting systems that Steve's describing, yes, they're actually installed across Wales for people at the very highest need, and Mr Isherwood, you outlined somebody who smokes, who uses oxygen, who's maybe just come out of hospital, these kinds of risks, where, absent of any measures, you're very, very likely to suffer a fire. A mister unit in the corner of the room is, effectively, a mini sprinkler, and it will contain the fire; it will put it out.
Also, on the home safety checks and electrical risks, we are in discussion with Electrical Safety First. The Deputy Minister met them a couple of weeks ago. All home safety checks already cover electrical safety in terms of overloading of sockets and this kind of thing. There may be scope to develop that, although we have to bear in mind, of course, that firefighters aren't qualified to run the rule over someone's electrical installation; the best they can do is to identify a possible problem and suggest the resident gets expert help with that.
Can I just say—just because of Mark giving those statistics there, because I don't want people to be unnecessarily alarmed in Wales—the number of accidental fires in homes in Wales is at an all-time low and has been falling faster here than elsewhere in Britain? I do want to pay tribute to the fire services, who have been doing a lot of work in terms of home safety visits and so on in order to do that, and to encourage, via the committee, as well as via other methods, Chair, people to take up the home fire safety checks, because, obviously, we can't enforce them, but we're very keen that, where at all possible, people are encouraged to get the fire service to come and do that check, and to ask all AMs, if it comes up in their case load, to recommend to any constituent that they're helping that they contact the fire service—or the AM's office can do it for them—to have such a check. Because we do want people to feel reassured that such things work and that there are mitigation measures that can be put in place. So, I'm not disputing Mark's figures, but I did want to just say that those kinds of fires, accidental fires in homes, are at an all-time low in Wales. That's not to be complacent, but it's also not to get people to be unduly alarmed about the incidence of fire.
Okay. Well, we've got a broader context there, but we've got a final few questions, Minister, on leasehold issues. Leanne Wood.
Thank you. What involvement has the Welsh Government had with the dispute at the Celestia development in Cardiff Bay?
So, we've had a lot of meetings with representatives of the building, with the local fire and rescue service and the local authority. There is an appeal in process against the enforcement notices served by the fire service, so I'm afraid my advice is that I shouldn't comment further on it while the appeal is progressing. But we have been in contact with them and I—
I haven't personally been there yet, but I have been asked by local Assembly Members to meet with the residents, and I've said 'yes' to that. But, while the appeal is ongoing, we're just waiting for the outcome.
I have been asked and I have agreed to meet with the residents, but we're just waiting for the outcome of the appeal.
Okay. Can you tell us what tools you've got at your disposal to ensure that developers not only meet their legal obligations but also their ethical and moral obligations to leaseholders who relied on assurances that their homes met the legal standards?
Yes. So, the answer to that is 'not very many', I'm afraid. We've been putting a lot of pressure on the UK Government to change the law with regard to this; it's not devolved to us. As I said earlier, in response to another question, we're exploring what we can do, where we can, with some of the voluntary codes and so on, but we don't have that many powers is the truth of it, and it's fiercely complex.
We have been reiterating, and I'll reiterate it again, that there's clearly a moral duty on a constructor/developer who's made a profit on a building to bring it up to the right standard, and that people who bought those properties in good faith, in a market, should be protected from what's effectively a consumer protection issue: they've bought a product that's not fit for purpose. Now, consumer protection is not devolved to us—I wish it was—but we encourage developers and contractors to listen to residents and to step up to that plate. I've had a meeting with a number of big developers in Wales, and I've made that point vehemently to them, and a couple of them have begun the process of remedying the defects, I'm sure as a result of the voices of their residents and customers, and also, at least in some small part, of the pressure that we've been putting on them.
The other thing is that we—. I don't yet know whether we'll be able to continue the Help to Buy programme because we don't yet know what the UK Government budget looks like. But, assuming the UK Government budget allows us to continue the programme, then I will be looking to put more onerous duties on people who take advantage of Welsh Government money, in order to make sure that the homes that they've built are to the right standard. So, I think there is more we can do in terms of using our money as leverage to get that. But we don't have the specific powers that I'd like to have in terms of consumer protection to be able to do that.
Well, surely you should tell them that you're never going to use them again and that you're going to ensure that their reputation is completely trashed unless they work with the residents on this.
I'm sure, Leanne, that you weren't in the room, but you seem to have summed it up very nicely, the conversation between myself and them.
Can you tell us what discussions have taken place with the UK Government regarding the commencement of section 38 of the Building Act 1984 and what impact that might have on leaseholders in Wales?
So, I haven't had any discussions, but officials have been in discussion about it for some considerable time.
This is an example: Clare talked about having to work with the UK Government, because there might be aspects of their law that will appeal to us. Section 38 of the Building Act is an uncommenced provision. Welsh Ministers don't have the powers to commence it. And what section 38 is about is providing a civil liability route for failure to comply with the building regulations—so, in terms of a purchaser, a homeowner, a right of action, if you want.
Now, there's a major review going on in London of the Building Act. I've got—. Members of my team are involved in that, because the base legislation, the 1984 Act, is the same in Wales and England. So, we are involved in the work they're doing for England, which will allow us to say, 'That's an aspect of the English work that actually might usefully apply to England and Wales'.
So, have we asked them to commence section 38, because we can't do it ourselves?
No, we haven't. It's one of about 15 topics that are currently being discussed. So—
That's right. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government consulted in their response to the Hackitt report, and asked people's views on that. And my team are involved in the working groups now that are looking at those consultation responses about improving the 1984 Act.
So, this is something that could happen in the future then, this commencement of section 38.
Yes. It's one of the topics that's under discussion.
It's caught up—if I could just add to that though—with this whole issue about who is the duty holder, and who should carry the can, if you like. So, it's not quite as straightforward as saying, for example, that the building control inspector is responsible for breaches in building control, because building control inspections are spot checks. So, just to use the analogy that was used for me when it was explained: if you drill something into my hand here and you find nothing, that doesn't mean there's no defect here. So, it's a spot check. So, it's about whether, if you pass the spot check, but then the building is found to be non-compliant afterwards—whose problem is that? So, it's not quite as simple as—
Well, it all falls on the resident at the moment, doesn't it, and that's the problem?
Well, that's clearly the wrong outcome. But also, neither is, I don't think, the right outcome necessarily transferring it to the building control inspector, who would not necessarily have been on site for the entire build and able to inspect every single moment of the build. So, this is yet another of those complex issues around who holds the legal duty to ensure compliance. So, I think it's more complex than just being able to enforce the civil liability.
And the model that was proposed by Hackitt was what's called the 'construction design management regulations'. They're operated by the Health and Safety Executive as being a model where responsibilities are very clearly defined. And Dame Judith happened to be the chair of the Health and Safety Executive, but that's the model that's being looked at, that we're looking at in Wales, and England are looking at, and also the other administrations, as a clearly defined set of responsibilities. Dame Judith said that you can delegate tasks, but you can't delegate responsibility, and her view of the building control system was that responsibility was clouded.
And the current system enables developers to make a massive profit and walk away and leave the liability with the people who've brought the properties, and that's just totally unacceptable, isn't it? We can't carry on like that.
It completely is, but there are consumer protection issues there as well. For any other product—and this is the most expensive thing these people will buy—if you can show that it's defective, then, in almost all other circumstances, you would have a remedy against the manufactures, and why on earth doesn't that pertain in house building, or building building, if you like? So, I totally agree, Leanne, and one of the issues we've been talking about—we're in a middle of an election, aren't we—but one of the things we'd like to see is a clarification of the edge of the devolution settlement here, because, frankly, if I've got to have a massive, thick legal document telling me exactly where or when, that is not as clear as it ought to be for the people of Wales about who is responsible for doing what in this area. So, amongst the things I'd be looking for from whoever the incoming UK Government is is a much clearer view of who is responsible for what in this system, right up to Government level, because that's not clear either, and that's just unsatisfactory.
Okay. I'm afraid we have very limited time left. The final two questions from me, Minister, if I may, are on person emergency evacuation plans and evacuation. What steps have been taken since the fire at Grenfell Tower to promote the use of those emergency evacuation plans in private sector developments?
So, again, we agree that it's very important to promote the use of personal emergency evacuation plans in the private sector, and this is something that the programme is looking at in great detail for the occupation phase of the new system. So, we very much want the new reforms in Wales to have a strong emphasis on that kind of resident engagement. So, it's very much in the area I talked about earlier, Chair, where we regularly remind people of their responsibility to develop the right kind of plan for evacuation, stay put and so on, but I'll pass over to Clare, if she wants to say anything else about it.
Yes. I suppose this is a tricky one, particularly in the private sector. As it currently stands, a PEEP, in effect, is self-selecting. And you may be made aware of the fact that you can take one up as you move into a building. You move into a building at 30, you're still there at 80, you may not be as mobile at 80 as you are at 30, you've forgotten about your PEEP et cetera, so I suppose that covers off the long-term condition or change, but if you break your leg, and you are immobile for the next four to six weeks, then how does a PEEP deal with that? And I suppose that's where it's around how you work with your residents, how you engage your residents, how you treat a high-rise residential building, in effect, as a small village, because you want that kind of local knowledge that Bob in 21 has broken his leg, so does the concierge need to do anything in a formal or an informal way? And I think where we want to put roles and responsibilities on, in effect, the managing agent, during the occupation stage, to have that live discussion with their residents to ensure that they are offering PEEPs and reminding people that they can choose to have one, but without requiring them to, because it is something that you might not want to have undertaken, but equally, you might—so it's that fluidness of it, I think.
Yes, thank you, Minister. PEEPs are a good example of how fire and rescue services gather what's called site-specific risk information. So, you used the example of a high-rise building. Even though PEEPs aren't mandatory in the legislation, fire and rescue services with their interaction with the responsible persons are encouraging these to be taken up. Even if they're not taken up, they allow the fire and rescue services to gather that risk information and store it on our database [correction: risk information that is provided to them and store it on their database], so should there be an incident at those premises, that information is immediately available to both the control room operator, the first crew turning up, and the incident commander. So, it's improving our awareness of individuals at risk in those types of premises.
Okay, thanks for that. One final question from me on the same issue, really, and that's the recommendation, again following from Grenfell Tower, that national guidelines be developed by UK Government in terms of evacuation and evacuation plans. Is that something that Welsh Government is content to be taking forward in terms of those UK guidelines or does Welsh Government intend to produce its own?
So, I think, again it's a very personal view, it's important that we don't have a knee-jerk reaction to a specific instance and change something that actually puts more people at risk. And Governments are not in the best position to do that; the fire and rescue services are in the best position to do that. So, there's a UK National Fire Chiefs Council, and they put out national operational guidance, and I personally think that that would be the best place to do this.
And just to reiterate what I said at the beginning: the best way to keep people safe in any multiple occupation building is to put the fire out at source as fast as possible and to have everybody else stay where they are, but to be able to shift from that to evacuate at high speed and in controlled circumstances. What you do not want is people trying to get out of a building as the fire service is trying to get in. So, you can, with the best of intentions, perhaps, give entirely the wrong advice and cause absolute chaos.
So, my own view is that Governments should understand the limitations of their knowledge and that the National Fire Chiefs Council are much more likely to be in a position to give us the right advice. And my understanding, my briefing from my officials, is that all new and converted blocks of flats have long been constructed with compartmentation—I have a terrible problem saying that—in place, and that's because it is quite clearly easier and better to put that fire out where it is, quickly and efficiently, than it is to evacuate large numbers of people in poor weather conditions, with bad visibility, panicked, and with all kinds of infirmities and all the rest of it. But I'll hand over to my fire service colleagues to add anything else to that.
Thank you, Minister. You're absolutely right. The National Fire Chiefs Council is there to provide national operational guidance, which fire and rescue services across England and Wales adhere to. After Grenfell, they put out temporary guidance in terms of moving from stay put to simultaneous evacuation, pending the correction of any fire safety faults. They've also written to UK Government as well to ask for further research into the issues associated with evacuating a high-rise building that has a stay-put policy in place. So, it's absolutely correct that the National Fire Chiefs Council are best placed to deal with that on a UK-wide basis initially.
Okay, thanks very much for that. So, just to be clear, Minister, if UK Government, then, does go ahead and develops national guidelines, would you want to look at them and then decide your policy, or are you saying that, at this stage, you're content with matters, as have been described?
No, of course we'd want to look at anything that comes out of a review, but I'm saying that we would want to make sure that the fire services were correctly involved in that and that we weren't making policy for policy's sake, if you like. But I'm very keen, just to sum up, if you like, that we get a new system in place that is fit for purpose and that doesn't have a similar inquiry to this happening in eight years' time when we've had another tragedy because we've put a system in place as a reaction to something and didn't cover off all of the issues.
It's important to make sure that people are safe in the interim, of course, but it's also important to put a fit-for-purpose system in place that puts responsibility where responsibility lies and doesn't put residents in the invidious position they're currently in where they either have to pay with their own savings or equity, or whatever it is, to put something right and somebody walks away with their pockets full of cash. That, quite clearly, is not a fit-for-purpose system and we really do need to put that right.
I just want to say one last thing about the inspectorate regime. I'm very pleased to hear the committee's views, and once you've taken a lot of evidence I propose to feed that into our task and finish group. So, in responding, I will probably be saying that we are expecting that group to come back to us with evidence, and we are looking to put out a White Paper. I would be very pleased to come back and discuss the White Paper with the committee, to see what consensus there is, to see whether there is any legislation we could get through in the last months of this Assembly.
It is overall unlikely that we would get all the legislation through, given that we've only got 16 months left of this Assembly electoral term, but there may be things that we can do consensually in the interim that will improve the system. So, I would be very happy to discuss that with the committee as the evidence comes forward from the Law Commission and from our own task and finish groups.
Okay, Minister. That's very useful. I'm sure committee will want to consider that very carefully. Okay, thank you very much. Thank you and thanks to your officials for coming along today to give evidence. You will be sent a transcript to check for factual accuracy. Diolch yn fawr.
The next item we have is item 5: papers to note. We have two papers to note, papers 1 and 2. Paper 1 is the Welsh Government's response to the committee's report on empty properties, and, of course, we had the debate in Plenary yesterday. And paper 2 is correspondence from the Minister for Housing and Local Government responding to our request for further information on rough-sleeping in Wales. Are Members content to note both? Thank you very much.
We will, then, in accordance with the motion we passed earlier, return to private session.
Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 14:32.
The public part of the meeting ended at 14:32.