On 2nd March 2022, the House of Lords debated amendments to the Building Safety Bill in Grand Committee. The Bishop of St Albans spoke in favour of a proportional approach to new safety regulations, balancing the need for remediation of risk with the potential effects on leaseholders:
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I will add a few extra words to this. I apologise to the Committee; I am struggling, as I think a number of us are, as there are so many Bills going through that we are bobbing in and out of various Bills. It is frustrating for us that we cannot necessarily sit and follow everything through, but I think this probing amendment touches on some really important issues for us.
Not surprisingly, after the absolute horror of Grenfell, we are rightly trying to think about how we offer maximum safety for everybody. But safety comes at a cost, as we are all aware. As we work on a Bill that we hope will do its job for many years, we need to take an objective view on some of these areas, particularly on what the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, said about proportionality.
If a balcony is made of wood, there is the possibility that it is flammable and there is a level of risk. However, we have to look at whether it is a risk just of the balcony or whether the balcony will spread fire around the entire building. I am not sure that is clear enough in the existing fire safety order. My fear is that we may now be so risk averse that we are not keeping a balanced view on things. Once a balcony which is part of the external wall systems is identified as a fire risk, it will necessarily require remediation, which is not covered by the Government’s generous grant scheme as it is non-cladding related, meaning that it will inevitably fall on to leaseholders.
One issue picked up on by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, is that there is a whole range of risks, of which balconies are one. Assessors should be forced to present a clear argument as to why balconies need removing as part of remedial works rather than there being a default approach which says that wooden balconies are an inherent fire risk without having necessarily to make that argument. It is worth our while pausing on this matter. As the Bill progresses, we need to look at proportionality on a number of levels, of which this is one illustration.
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Lord Khan of Burnley (Lab): My Lords, I shall briefly speak to Amendment 115A in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox. It is good to see her put it in—I think she is becoming an expert on tabling amendments now. As other noble Lords have said, including the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, this is an issue that needs clarifying in relation to subjectivity, objectivity and proportionality. Just to quote the words of the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, this amendment, if accepted, would alleviate the marginal and grey areas.
Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non Afl): We want to keep people safe all the time, but the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans made the important point that safety has a cost. Carrying on from our Committee meeting the other day, I was talking about a cost-benefit analysis and always thinking about balancing. If you want 100% safety, you would never leave the house. We also need a sense of proportionality towards fire, which is still very rare. People are not dying of fires in their thousands, in this country. I want to get the right balance.
Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con): My Lords, safety has a cost, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans reminded us. We have to decide where we should require money to be spent. I will talk a bit about the electrical safety and standards provisions and then come back to staircases.
The purpose of this probing amendment is to invite my noble friend, who is of course the Minister at the Department for Levelling Up, to update us and agree to undertake a review of the situation in 12 months’ time. The review proposed would focus on the tall buildings that are in scope, but the whole sector would benefit from a review that assesses the position of smaller buildings as well as the interests of the consumer rather than just the surveyor—in this case, the leaseholders and property owners affected. I add that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans asked me to say that he supports this amendment but had to be elsewhere. I very much hope that my noble friend will look sympathetically on this request, particularly given the helpful change of approach by the Secretary of State.