Meeting date: Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Local Government and Communities Committee 20 September 2017
Agenda: Building Regulations (Fire Safety), Subordinate Legislation, Homelessness
Building Regulations (Fire Safety)
Good morning and welcome to the 22nd meeting of the Local Government and Communities Committee in 2017. I remind everyone present to turn off their mobile phones. As meeting papers are provided in digital format for members, they may use tablets during the meeting—that is what we are doing if anyone sees us using our phones or tablets. We have a full house of committee members; no apologies have been received.
In agenda item 1 the committee will take evidence for the scrutiny of building regulations and fire safety in Scotland. I welcome John Wood, policy manager for the communities team at the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities; Michael Thain from the Association of Local Authority Chief Housing Officers; David Aitken and Alan McAulay from Local Authority Building Standards Scotland; and Raymond Barlow, assistant head of planning and building standards for Glasgow City Council. Thank you to everyone for coming.
There are a number of opening statements. I will take them in the order that has been provided to me.
As the committee will be aware, COSLA is a membership organisation that represents all 32 Scottish local authorities. We welcome the committee turning its attention to building standards and fire safety in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy. We would like to place on record our sympathy for every member of the community who was affected by the fire at Grenfell tower. At their meeting on 25 August, COSLA leaders asked me to convey that message to the committee.
COSLA’s focus in the weeks following the Grenfell tragedy has been on supporting the work undertaken by the Scottish Government, including the ministerial working group on building and fire safety, and by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to gather relevant information at a national level in support of the reassurance activity at a local level. We welcome the creation of the ministerial working group and have found the communicative approach of that group to be particularly helpful.
From what COSLA can understand, three key policy developments have occurred at a national level in Scotland over the summer. First, the ministerial working group has agreed to bring forward a consultation on the regulation of smoke and fire alarms in homes for social rent. Secondly, the ministerial working group has endorsed a fire safety campaign, which will be led by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and supported by a number of other organisations. Finally, the ministerial working group has undertaken a commitment to review relevant standards and regulations.
COSLA welcomes each of those developments. It has also been reassuring to learn, through the group’s information gathering exercise, that no council housing tower block has been covered with combustible cladding material of the sort that is suspected to have been used at Grenfell tower.
In their response, our members’ primary focus has been on reassuring the public, particularly the communities that live in high-rise domestic properties. Our understanding is that councils and the fire service have worked extremely well to reassure tenants and that their early and comprehensive response should be commended. COSLA believes that a holistic approach to fire prevention should be taken and that building standards form only part of that picture, albeit an important part.
For today’s evidence session, I hope that I can provide a helpful insight into some of the national conversations that have happened and on local authorities’ broad views on fire safety and domestic properties. Colleagues from LABSS and ALACHO will be able to provide a more comprehensive level of technical detail than I can. I hope that my contributions will be of value to the committee.
I am the chair of Local Authority Building Standards Scotland and, on behalf of colleagues in LABSS—as we are commonly known—I welcome the opportunity to attend the meeting with specific regard to building regulations and fire safety.
As I attended a previous committee meeting on the wider building standards system, members may be aware that LABSS represents the interests of all 32 local authority building standards services in Scotland. We hope that the specific skills, qualifications and experiences of those who represent LABSS today will assist the committee in its scrutiny of building regulations and fire safety. Acting solely in the public interest, we work closely with the Scottish Government’s building standards division on procedural and technical matters relating to Scotland’s building standards system. The primary aim is to ensure that the verification and enforcement are as effective as possible.
My day job is team leader of building standards in Dundee City Council; I am a chartered building standards surveyor. I am accompanied by Alan McAulay, who is team leader of building standards services in South Lanarkshire Council; he is a chartered surveyor and past chair of LABSS, and he has a fire engineering degree.
I did not provide a written submission to the committee; I was aware of the LABSS submission. I am also a past chair of LABSS—I was chair in 2014-15—and I welcome the opportunity to contribute today. I am the assistant head of planning and building standards at Glasgow City Council with more than 30 years’ experience in the building standards field. Like Alan McAulay, I am a chartered surveyor with a degree in fire risk engineering. We see much of that type of approach in Glasgow with the nature of its developments. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to today’s meeting.
Thank you for those opening statements. I will kick off before we move to fellow members. The good news—if there was any good news from the tragedy of Grenfell—is that it would appear, and I stress “appear”, that no high rise in Scotland has the combustible material or systems that were discovered at Grenfell and which led to that dreadful tragedy. I know that confirmation of that has been given by housing associations and local authorities to the Scottish Government. I ask for more information about how local authorities know that. My constituents will say that it is brilliant to have those reassurances, but how can it be stated with such certainty that those materials do not exist in the housing stock in your areas?
Would Raymond Barlow like to take that question, given the amount of high rise in Glasgow?
We recently completed our submission to the ministers and are waiting for further feedback. I am not sure whether the information that you have is fully up to date. I do not necessarily want to go into the detail of what I have given over.
Glasgow City Council responded previously about the social landlords in the city. Glasgow does not carry its own council housing any more, so our links are with the housing associations, the Wheatley Group in particular. Glasgow asked them to report back to us, and we responded initially on that; there were no properties reported in that tranche. That would have been based on the records of how they had reclad their buildings, most of which would have building warrants.
We have been completing the exercise for private flatted developments, but it has been very difficult, first, to ascertain which buildings fall into the category by meeting the height criteria and, secondly, once we have established that, to go to whatever records are available—initially, building warrant records—although we have had some feedback from factors following the ministers’ request. We have completed that exercise only recently. We have notified the ministers of some properties and we are awaiting further feedback.
Before I invite Mr Thain to speak, I will explore that a little bit further with you, Mr Barlow. Can we break it into two parts? Are you content that none of the combustible material or cladding such as was used on Grenfell tower exists in social rented housing in the city of Glasgow?
Yes. That is the information that we obtained from the social landlords themselves.
As I said, there was some difficulty in getting the information in the first place. We first had to establish which properties fell into the category of domestic flatted buildings above a certain height. Local authorities do not hold records of the heights of buildings, and we have many buildings in the city that are over 18m in height. A lot of them are commercial premises—offices and so on. We had to start from there.
That is why, when we went to the social landlords—our colleagues in our housing investment team have very good relationships with social landlords—we said to them, “You know your buildings better than we do. Could you look at what you have had done to your buildings and look at the building warrant records and so on?” The information that they fed back was relayed to the ministers a month or two back. I was on leave when the initial request came, and I know that the information was fed back quite quickly. That took care of that part. The social landlords, as the buildings’ owners, fed back the information on what alterations or improvements they have had done to their properties—for instance, recladding, whether that was with insulation with render over it or with some other form of cladding. They reported back and we passed that information on to the ministers.
Okay. That is the social housing. There are also hospitals, commercial office blocks and a variety of other buildings. Can you tell me a little bit about those? I will bring in the other witnesses in a second. I sense, from your initial answer, Mr Barlow, that some of the information that has been given to the Scottish Government highlights that there is more of this form of cladding on commercial properties than we initially thought.
No—sorry. I perhaps misled you. We never reported back on commercial properties, because we were not asked to do so. We reported back only on domestic buildings over 18m in height.
Did I detect a slight nervousness in giving us that assurance? Where do you feel that this type of cladding and cladding system may exist in Glasgow?
The properties that we have reported back on in the past couple of weeks are private flats, not social rented housing. I apologise if I was not clear. The initial reporting was on the social landlord side of things, and that confirmed, from their information, that this type of cladding does not exist on any of the social rented housing. Our trawl and our research from then on was very much on private flatted developments, and we have managed to complete that research only in the past couple of weeks. I have passed that information over to the ministers via the building standards division.
So combustible cladding has been found on some private properties.
Yes. It is just not public information yet.
It is now public information, because you are telling us.
Absolutely. I am simply responding to the question and would prefer not to go into the detail of the properties, if you understand.
Okay. I will not push you on the details, but can I push you on the scale of the issue?
I am wary of that as well, simply because we have not released any figures to anyone about that. Because we got the request from the ministerial working group, we are providing the information to that group. As a council, we are responding to press inquiries and so on, too. We are supplying the information to the Scottish ministers and we will then see what they want to do with the information before we take the matter further.
Let us pretend that I am a journalist. Is it 30 properties in Glasgow that have this type of cladding? Is it more? Is it less?
At the moment, I would prefer not to say. We have not answered that question to others because we are respectful of the fact that the Scottish ministers have asked for that information. We will see what they want to do with the information.
I apologise to the other witnesses, but I must explore that point a bit further.
Has the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service been to see each property as a matter of priority?
No, because the process that we have been asked to follow is to notify Scottish ministers and that is what we have done.
Have you notified the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service?10:00
No. We are waiting to find out what the Scottish ministers wish to do. The ministerial working group will include the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service in its meetings.
I want to move on to let other witnesses comment, and I will leave this issue shortly. However, Glasgow City Council does not have a relationship only with the Scottish Government. It has direct lines of responsibility for building standards and a variety of other areas, irrespective of whether there is a ministerial working group.
Given that you have established this information, would it not be sensible to ask the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to carry out, for example, intrusive fire safety assessments of the properties?
The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is involved in the ministerial working group and goes to its meetings. Therefore the fire service at the highest national level in Scotland will be party to the information that we have provided. It can decide at that point, working in conjunction with the ministerial working group, what matters it wishes to take forward. We will happily work with the ministerial working group once it has decided what it wishes to do with the information provided.
My only reason for not pushing that point further is that there will be families who stay in the properties and it might be that the properties are absolutely safe.
There is a technical building standard that deals with how the whole system that is put together should become non-combustible—
Yes, BR 135.
Are the properties compliant with BR 135?
All the properties on which we provided information predate the current regulations.
Because of the sensitivities for the people who live in the properties, I am not going to pursue the point further. We may wish to come back to it.
May I ask a question?
Absolutely. There are a lot of questions that I would like to ask. I am conscious of taking a measured approach, but other committee members must be able to ask questions.
If there were not a ministerial working group on the subject at present, and Glasgow City Council found out the information, what would it do?
We would speak to the property factors to notify them.
In terms of legislative powers, there is not much that local authorities can do, other than notify people. We are cognisant of the risks to families and others, but we want to make sure that the information is controlled as well as possible so that people understand the context of the information that they are given.
The ministerial working group asked the factoring agents in Scotland to assist local authorities in researching the position. We got some assistance from factoring groups, but their information was limited. We would be giving information that we were made aware of to the owners of the buildings through the factors or other such bodies.
We need to know what the ministerial working group wishes to do with the information, as it is the group that asked local authorities for it. This is a national issue and it is best that the group decides what should be done. The group is in contact with factoring agents and others.
My concern, and it may be shared by colleagues, is that some tragedy occurs while a red-tape administrative line is being followed.
I do not see it as red tape. We are simply being respectful of what the information means. The properties predate the current standards.
We will continue with the questioning a bit further.
Where has the information come from?
We researched our building work records.
So it was a desktop exercise.
Yes, and as necessary we tried to speak to the developers of the time, or their agents and architects, some of whom are no longer in existence.
Have you been out to see any of the private flats?
Some of the flats have been looked at externally. If it was a cladding product that was in question, looking from the outside would not give much information. Google street view would provide the same information.
You said that the buildings predate current regulations. What age of buildings are we looking at?
They were built under consents that were applied for prior to 1 May 2005.
So some of them could be fairly modern.
Absolutely. Some of them were completed after 2005 with a consent that was applied for pre-2005. As you might be aware, a building warrant has a life of three years.
Having discovered that some private flats in Glasgow have cladding that is combustible, did you inform the owners of those flats?
No. I provided the information to the ministerial working group as requested, because it is a national issue. We would be no different from any council that was asked for and discovered that information.
Do you not think that Glasgow City Council has a responsibility to the citizens of Glasgow, rather than to a ministerial working group, given the information that you discovered?
Nationally we do, which is why I fed the information back through the ministerial working group, through the Government.
I apologise for ending this line of questioning.
I have one more question, convener.
Okay, ask the question, then I will make a suggestion to Mr Barlow, which will allow us to move on to ask the other witnesses some questions.
Has anyone discovered the same thing in private flats elsewhere in Scotland?
We certainly have not in Dundee. The ministerial working group will have collated all that information.
That is helpful. Mr McAulay and Mr Thain have been very patient, but I want to make a point to Mr Barlow before I let them come in. We are not content to leave this line of questioning and we will pursue it further by seeking information from the Scottish Government as soon as possible. I seek from Glasgow City Council as detailed a briefing as it can provide, as soon as humanly possible. We will maybe ask Glasgow City Council to come back to the committee in short order to answer further questions on this matter, if that is agreeable to Mr Barlow.
I will speak to our chief executive on the matter. I can come back. Bearing in mind the sensitivity of the information, I am fully cognisant of why you are asking these questions. I do not disagree with any of the opinions that you have expressed about the concerns that the matter raises—I do not detract from those. I would simply say that I have provided information to the Scottish Government and we wish to allow it to advise us what it wants to do with the information, because it is a national issue.
It is a national issue, but the council has a direct local responsibility irrespective of whether the national working group exists. People who are listening to this meeting or who read about it tomorrow in the newspapers will want to know whether their flat is affected, whether it is dangerous and what the risk is to their family. They will want those questions to be addressed speedily and effectively with a view to being reassured as quickly as humanly possible. The only reason why I am ending the line of questioning now is that we do not want to create unnecessary alarm—reassurances might be able to be given speedily, but we simply do not know that yet. I am also conscious that there are 32 local authorities in Scotland—there is not just Glasgow. We will move on to other lines of questioning, but we have to return to this matter. Mr Thain has been waiting patiently to come in.
I refer back to an earlier point about social housing. I am a chief housing officer with the Association of Local Authority Chief Housing Officers. I thought it would be helpful to give a wee bit of context about the response of local authorities and housing associations, with which we have a close relationship, from an organisational landlord point of view.
Even on the morning of the fire, when my colleagues and I switched on the news, we knew what effect it might have on our tenants and residents. There was a reasonably quick response, with housing officers deployed to tower blocks to reassure tenants and hear their concerns, given the huge amount of media coverage.
Our second organisational response was to review the landlord records and local authority housing records. I know from having spoken to my colleagues who are directors or chief executives of housing associations that, almost prior to any requests for information from the Scottish Government, exactly the same checking process was being carried out as details of the materials used emerged over the hours following the start of the fire.
The feedback that was given, probably within the week, to Scottish Government colleagues by local authority housing services and housing associations was provided through the checking of records. As the bodies that develop, build and maintain those houses, our records are probably more complete than would be the case under any regulatory system for building warrants.
That work concluded comprehensively that no social housing blocks or blocks owned by councils or housing associations used the same materials as were used in Grenfell tower. The work was done fairly quickly—it was a management and customer reassurance response. We were exercising our responsibility as landlords to ensure that our tenants are safe and feel safe.
I wanted to give a bit of context to the response of social housing landlords in the immediate hours and days after the tragedy.
I will make a general point in response to the initial question about how local authority verifiers establish whether aluminium composite material—ACM—panelling has been used. It is a case of working with our local housing and technical departments—with those who are responsible for the maintenance, upkeep and oversight of the buildings. We do that through researching our historical archives, which Mr Thain alluded to; Mr Barlow touched on that, too. Archive records related to building warrants, completion certificates and material specifications, and, in our council, housing and technical resources, have been made available to those who were initially responsible for responding to the ministerial demands. I think that that has been the general approach throughout the country.
To clarify the original point, as local authority verifiers, we are involved in assisting with the collation of that information. However, responsibility for the maintenance and upkeep of the buildings is outwith the verifier role. We provide information to allow those who are responsible within each council to submit the information required by Scottish ministers.
I will mop up this line of questioning with a question for Mr Wood. Are you confident that all 32 local authorities are content that the same type of combustible cladding was not used—or at least not in the social housing sector? Have the other 31 local authorities been interrogating the private sector? How many of them have said that such cladding has not been used in their areas?
I was just going to speak to the national picture that has been built up by the ministerial working group and through Scottish Government officials. In the 10 days to two weeks immediately after the fire, a number of requests went to local authorities—they were directed to chief executives and chief housing officers—for information on the construction types and number of high-rise properties above 18m in their areas, and on the type of cladding used. A separate questionnaire went out about cladding that had been installed using funding from Scottish Government’s home energy efficiency programmes for Scotland and area-based schemes. That information was collated by the Scottish Government, but we understand that what was fed back to COSLA and put on the ministerial working group’s web page is that confirmation came back that there was no cladding of the sort that was suspected to have been at fault at Grenfell tower on any of the houses that were surveyed.
In building up a national picture, it seemed as if there was quite a lot of bureaucracy within a short period of time, but it has been useful in allowing ministers, COSLA and local elected members to provide the reassurance that might be required from them.
I have a final question before I bring in other committee members to explore other lines of evidence. It is our understanding that the Scottish Government will create a national database of all high-rise properties across the country, whether they are social rented, private or whatever, and that that database will include information on the types of cladding used. Given what we have just heard from Mr Barlow, I assume that that would be a pretty positive and fairly essential step towards a better understanding of the state of Scotland’s current housing stock, be it social rented or otherwise. Would you all support that view, noting the obligations of local authorities to help keep that database fresh, updated and accurate?10:15
It would certainly be useful. I cannot speak to the challenges that there would be in getting the relevant information about private rented properties. However, I think that the information on social housing is there in council records at the moment, so accessing it would not be an onerous task and would serve a purpose.
Okay. Is there any other information that should be in that national database? I am conscious that in a few years’ time, something else could happen in relation to building standards. We would then have to scurry about, check building warrants and historical archives, and work out what material was or was not used in a building and what the construction type was. That is a laborious, long-drawn-out process. Is a compelling case being built for a much more accurate, detailed national database of high-rise properties in Scotland?
I would say that local authorities absolutely have a role in supporting the maintenance of and providing information for that database. To refer back to our earlier discussion, it is worth reflecting on the responsibility of owners, property managers and factors of private properties to know their buildings and giving them specific responsibility for making that information public on such a database. I do not know what the mechanism for achieving that would be, but the issue is worth reflecting on, given the earlier discussion about the challenges.
Some of these buildings go back to the 1990s or the 1980s or whenever—that particularly applies to high-rise buildings in urban areas. Many such buildings are in private ownership or managed by private property agents. It is worth reflecting on what responsibilities owners or their agents would have to update such a database.
Is it currently an offence for owners not to provide relevant information when it is requested by local authorities? You can contact the people in the private sector as much as you like, but getting back a good-quality, detailed response may be another matter. Do they have to respond to you?
In the context of the debate about the safety of these buildings, I think that, however a database is set up—whether that is done through a national agency or administered through local authorities, for example—the requirement for owners or property agents to provide information should be looked at as well.
In setting up a database of such properties for the purpose of making them safe, there are two things to consider at this stage: who owns those buildings, and which statutory body—whether it should be a central agency, a Scottish Government agency or local authorities themselves—will administer the database. Somewhere in the discussion, we need to consider requiring the owners and property managers of those buildings to provide information to whoever administers the database.
I do not want to add anything to that—I think that you have summed up my thoughts. If the witnesses have nothing to add on this section of questioning, we will move to a question from Elaine Smith.
Actually, something else that sprang to mind and which might need to be addressed is last week’s reports about fake fire-resistant glass being sold across the United Kingdom and Ireland.
I turn specifically to the challenges that have been mentioned. In their written submissions, COSLA and LABSS said that building standards should remain a local authority function. I want to explore that slightly more. Do the witnesses have any comment to make on the suggestion that local authority building standards departments might be underresourced and, if they are underresourced, how could that be tackled? To tie in with that, do the witnesses have a view on ring fencing the income from building standards fees, which would be used exclusively to provide building standards services? I ask COSLA to respond first, as it specifically said that
“building standards should remain a local authority function”.
That is correct. COSLA’s response contained that line. There is benefit from ensuring that there is no geographical overlap between the 32 building standards authorities and that there is a line of accountability directly to the local communities that those councils serve. That is our line and we stick to it. I am no expert in this, but I have heard reports about building standards changes south of the border that have led to a bit of confusion.
On the ring fencing of income from building standards fees, COSLA responded separately to the call for evidence before the summer. As a point of principle, we do not support the ring fencing of funding. When funds are gathered, the local authority should have discretion to use them as it sees fit.
To be honest, I do not have a view on your point about the resourcing of building standards departments. However, we always need to be mindful of the capacity that exists in councils and other public bodies to enforce regulations. After Grenfell, a lot of the focus in Scotland and in the ministerial working group has been on the existing regulatory framework. Although I cannot speak to exactly what the situation looks like on the ground at the moment, there is no point in having a regulatory framework if we do not have people to enforce it.
We made what we feel is a very strong case for the reappointment of local authorities as sole verifiers in 2011 and again more recently, based on our independence. Local authority verifiers are experienced, skilled and qualified and provide services locally, according to the needs of their geographical areas. Local Authority Building Standards Scotland still stands by that.
It is fair to say that local authority building standards services have not been immune to the cuts that local authorities throughout the country have faced but that is not to say that that has affected the quality of the verification service that local authorities provide. It simply means that we need to prioritise better and use our resources where the risks are highest. That is happening in local authorities and each one is different.
Everyone in the local authority environment is always hopeful that fees will be ring fenced. On the back of the recent fees increase, we welcomed the more explicit expectation that the fees should be directly invested in the delivery of local authority services, in bringing on trainees and in bringing younger people into the service. That is our aim and drive in our authorities, although it is still a challenge in each one. However, some authorities are moving on from the challenges of previous years. Each authority is at a different stage, but there is significant recruitment in Glasgow City Council, the City of Edinburgh Council and in authorities around the central belt and in other parts of the country. More and new people are coming in, which means that we are turning the corner with regard to the challenges that we had with local authority cuts.
We are moving in a positive direction. One of Local Authority Building Standards Scotland’s key aims is to ensure that anybody who comes into the verification service is provided with the skills and support that allow them to be an effective verifier, have a good career and support verification in a local authority environment.
Mr McAulay, we know each other because I used to be a councillor in South Lanarkshire. You commented that everyone was providing a good service but that is not quite the case, is it? Some councils have been given permission to verify only for another year—I think that the City of Edinburgh Council is one of them—so I think that we can accept that they are all performing at different levels.
My question is about the desktop exercise on fire safety. Have all councils done that exercise, or have any gone further than that and gone out and tested stuff on the ground?
In Dundee City Council, the housing department led on that, and I cannot speak on behalf of the housing department. We have assisted where we have been able to, through the desktop exercise and by looking at archive records.
In addition to checking and verifying records, my local authority checked blocks on which maintenance was being done, and I know that other local authority housing departments have been going through similar processes. We have around 50 tower blocks, so maintenance is going on all the time. On blocks on which maintenance was being done, we took the opportunity to go and check that what was in our records as being on the buildings was what was on them. We also commissioned some work, which is under way at the moment, to do that check across all the blocks and give us further peace of mind. The checks that we have done verify what is on our records.
Alan McAulay mentioned the balancing of risks and priorities. Unless we took off every panel from every block and checked the insulation, we would never have 100 per cent certainty. However, the quality of the records and the processes by which projects are managed—particularly in the local authority/housing association sector, where clerks of works and project managers are used, and a lot of checking and verifying is done—should provide some reassurance. Landlords have taken opportunities to check the material that is on buildings. As I said, on blocks on which my authority was undertaking maintenance, we checked the material and verified that, on those blocks, our records were accurate. Some invasive follow-up checking has been going on.
Mr Wood, do you want to add anything?
I do not have much to add, other than to say that that is what we have heard, too. From speaking to COSLA members, I think that most of the work has been desktop-focused research. There has sometimes been a demand for intrusive inspections to be undertaken, but those requests have not often been granted—such inspections have been few and far between—partly because, if we were to open that door, when would we stop? In addition, there is a need for local authorities, in particular, and other social landlords to continue to reassure the communities that live in the tower blocks. In the immediate aftermath of Grenfell, we have tried to avoid people having to see scaffolding going up and walls being drilled into when that is not necessary.
I support what Mr Wood and Mr Thain have said. They have summarised the situation fairly well. From Glasgow City Council’s point of view, it has been predominantly a desktop exercise. Any of us would have difficulty in speaking on behalf of all the authorities, because there is such variation in the number of high-rise properties that we have. Glasgow City Council probably has the most, with the City of Edinburgh Council close behind. I think that, in most cases, it has been a desktop exercise that has been carried out.
Mr McAulay, do you want to come in?
No, thank you.
Jenny Gilruth has a supplementary to Graham Simpson’s line of questioning.
Good morning, panel. Mr Wood, you said that you think that most of your members carried out desktop exercises to assess what was going on. Does no central point of contact at COSLA have that evidence? As an organisation, did you survey your members as a matter of course?
We considered that, but we work extremely closely with the relevant Scottish Government department, which asked the right questions quickly. We did not think that it would be useful to carry out an identical survey, so we let the Government get on with the work. It has the contacts; if it had not held them, we would have provided them. We really appreciate the fact that the Government has kept an open line of communication with us about what the responses to its surveys have been.
So you did not act as a central point of contact to enable your members to feed into, for example, the ministerial working group. You allowed your members to do that themselves.
We did not do that on this occasion. We sometimes provide that function but, given the swiftness of the Scottish Government response, it was not necessary for us to do so.10:30
Does Mr Simpson want to follow that up?
Yes—my question is for COSLA or anyone else who wants to jump in. COSLA’s evidence said:
“building standards systems and regulations for high-rise domestic properties in Scotland mean the type of product used on Grenfell Tower should not be used in their cladding systems”.
However, such cladding has been found in new-build properties, such as a large development of student housing in Edinburgh. Your evidence is not entirely correct if people have found the product in certain types of properties, so I wonder how far the desktop exercise extends across Scotland. People have looked at student housing, but have they looked at commercial premises, such as hotels, that are over 18m? How far has the exercise gone?
I am happy to answer—again, I will speak from a Glasgow perspective. The request that we all responded to was purely about domestic buildings—for example, in relation to the verifier side of things for flats. I know that separate requests went to local authorities about, for example, their education premises, and I think that a separate request went to the health boards. We did not get a request about hotels, for example; we were not asked to look at such matters.
I will pick up on the student housing point. Quite often, although something is described as student housing, it might not be classed as a house or a dwelling for the purposes of the building regulations. A traditional hall of residence’s classification in the building regulations depends on how the architect wishes to approach the design. Some halls may be designed purely as a mainstream dwelling where the option has been taken to rent to students, but other properties are not designed like that, even though they are commonly called student housing.
You have confused me. Such properties are clearly dwellings.
No. For the purposes of the building regulations, they might not be. If someone wishes to design a property to be designated as a dwelling under the regulations, it must meet various criteria, from thermal performance to fire precautions and so on. People could be sleeping in a hotel, but we would know that it was not a dwelling.
Over the past 10 years, student residences have been in various formats, and the designers have used varying approaches when they have applied to us for building warrant consents. Some residences have followed a mainstream dwelling design, and others have been what we might call a hybrid that reflects the layout of a hotel. There might be a whole load of bedrooms, one after the other, which is perhaps no different from a hotel, but people commonly call such properties student residences. They are not dwellings for the purposes of the building regulations, so different regulations apply.
Gosh. So different regulations can apply—
Mr Simpson, I will let you back in to pursue the issue immediately after Mr McAulay has added something.
I seek to clarify the point. Additional and significant fire safety features are required in a hall of residence or a hotel to mitigate the risks of that building use. They might involve extensive alarm and detection; depending on the height of the building, there could be suppression systems; there could be built-in limited travel distances; and there could be compartmentation. There are therefore other features that work along with a suppression system, if that is required, to make sure that such buildings are safe for people who occupy them.
A building may in effect be used as a dwelling, but additional measures in the building regulations seek to make sure that it is safe. Such buildings are considered to be non-domestic, which means that the regulations allow us to ask for additional fire safety features that would not necessarily be needed to the same extent in a true dwelling as we know it.
One point to highlight is that, if a building is a student residence of the type that is not a domestic building, it is a managed building and it does not have the stay in place and defend in place approach that applies to domestic high-rise properties. As a managed building, it has in place the different precautions that Alan McAulay highlighted.
Essentially, such properties are managed buildings, rather than the typical single-stair domestic high-rise buildings that have a defend in place approach, which might apply in a building like Grenfell tower.
Are you any less confused now, Mr Simpson?
The position is a bit clearer, but I am concerned, because people live in student residences most of the time, and I regard such buildings as dwellings. I expect halls of residence to be built to the highest standards and to have non-combustible cladding. That is what I would want if my son or daughter were living in such places. If different regulations apply, that is a concern, and the committee will need more information on that. It is a worry that we have found that student accommodation in Edinburgh does not meet the standards that we would expect. I will leave that point there.
I should say that, although we said that we would finish this part of the meeting at 11 o’clock, we will carry on until at least 11.20 to allow members to ask their questions.
Let us take cladding out of the equation for a moment, although I know that it seems almost impossible to do that. Are some fire safety standards for the managed student accommodation that we have been discussing higher than those for, say, dwellings? I want to focus on the fire safety standards and I do not want to get caught up in semantics, but are there higher fire safety requirements for large complexes of student accommodation—where there are 100 students in halls—that are classed not as dwellings but as managed accommodation, such that those buildings might be able to have such cladding, which we have found in Edinburgh? Are there higher fire safety standards than those that are required for domestic dwellings? I want some clarity on that.
Your question highlights the fundamental difference in the building regulations. Throughout the UK—not just in Scotland—domestic high-rise buildings and others that include sleeping accommodation take different approaches to fire safety. Domestic buildings have defend in place, while managed buildings have different features and precautions, such as a full-building early-warning alarm system that links into every bedroom and common area. A domestic building would not have such a system. In addition, there is building management and other aspects, such as sequence, travel distance and other matters that we deal with daily on a technical level. The precautions try to achieve the same end, which is to have a safe building, although there is a different way of approaching the same thing.
The committee has to wrestle with whether such cladding is ever acceptable on a building of a certain height, irrespective of whether it is a dwelling or not. That is the issue that we must consider.
I have questions on two separate topics. First, we have heard general evidence on the skills shortage in building standards. Elaine Smith talked about a lack of resources and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has told us about a chronic skills shortage, with very few higher education institutions offering a building control option. What do you consider to be the state of play with the building control profession, particularly in light of the fact that we have heard concerns about the need for more inspection of new-build property, yet the resources and skills seem to be declining?
As I said to the committee on an earlier occasion, it is vital to consider building standards holistically. We should not consider building standards services in isolation. You mentioned the RICS statistics and we should not lose sight of the fact that, industry-wide, there is a shortage of skills in construction. If we do not have the skilled tradespeople on the ground and if the numbers of people who go through colleges are dropping, that affects the pipeline. We need to skill up project managers. Everyone needs to have an awareness of building standards and an input into them in order to achieve compliance with them.
LABSS has worked closely with the construction sector. Recently, we had an event in Dundee with 150 delegates from across the industry. We scoped out what the perceived gaps were in the compliance agenda. We are producing a paper from that event that we will be happy to share with the committee, as it was mentioned previously that the committee wants to be more proactive about building regulations.
LABSS is engaging with Glasgow Caledonian University. We have had several meetings to look at what can be done to encourage greater numbers to go through the colleges and the universities in order to fill the gaps. Workforce planning is a big issue, although that is true across the public sector. There is an ageing profession, and we need to be sure that we are on top of it and have proactive approaches in place to address any shortfalls.
Generally speaking, building standards services are well placed. I do not think that the shortages that Mr Wightman described are at a critical stage, although I am not saying that there are no gaps. LABSS as a body is taking the lead from the Government on where we can share services and skills across the board. That is the type of thing that LABSS, as an organisation, is working on. We know that the issue is there and we are trying to deal with it.
Thanks—that is helpful.
Mr Wood wants to add something.
I endorse what was said about not focusing purely on building standards. As my colleague Dave Aitken said, across the public sector, there is a concern that a reducing workforce means that trainees coming into various professions have an impact on the capacity of those services and the skills that lie within them.
The anecdotal evidence is that less resource is available for general staff training on fire safety—for housing officers, building standards professionals and others. At some stage, the public sector has to recognise that and invest in a skilled-up workforce that can last into the future.
Seven months ago, I attended a meeting on behalf of LABSS that was organised by the Scottish Government but chaired by Homes for Scotland. It brought together representatives from across industry, such as planning and building standards officers, with representatives of universities and representatives of various industry bodies. The meeting was about bringing people through training across the industry, because it was recognised that if we are to deliver, for example, the social housing targets that we all have over the next number of years, we need the capacity to do that. All areas—not just local authorities—are being looked at to bring people through.
As a local authority, we have brought in some graduates over the past few years—we have been more fortunate than others. However, it is recognised across the industry that we need to staff up all the way through and bring through the next generation.
Does Mr Wightman want to pursue that?
Thanks, but I will leave that there—I am conscious of time.
A number of witnesses have stressed that building standards and building warrants are for new builds and, once a building has complied with them, it is over to the owner to maintain the building. The properties that Mr Barlow highlighted apparently meet building standards, because they were built prior to the upgrading of the fire standards in 2005. Is there any merit in having a better system for recording the upgrades and refurbishments that are done on older buildings?
At the City of Edinburgh Council recently, I was taken into a little room where I was shown banks and banks of index cards. They showed inspections that the council had done—for example, on all the tenements in Edinburgh up to about the mid-1980s. The council looked at everything, such as the roofs and the closes, and picked up any problems that might arise in relation to access; I presume that fire safety was part of that, too. However, there is no such regime and no obligation on building owners to have any kind of logbook that records maintenance. Given that a lot of our buildings are very old, that means that consumers who buy them do not have a clue what is in them or when the roof was last inspected, for example. I seek a broad indication of whether there is any merit in exploring that in the future.
I thank Mr McAulay for offering to respond to Mr Wightman’s question—everyone else was trying to avoid eye contact with me.10:45
For the verification role of building standards, the records on building work that we are required by legislation to keep go back only a number of years—maybe back to the late 1960s. They are detailed and will continue to be so in the future with electronic recording. The records for the relatively recent past are robust; we are their custodians and they are available for inspection by anybody.
We draw the line at the point of completion. It may be for others on the panel to provide advice on the level of information that is provided and available after the verification role ends. If there is refurbishment work, that may be warrantable, and we have the building warrant process to record the information that is to be held by the verifier: the level of work done, the materials used, the inspection processes undertaken and the certification that was given for the completion certificate to be issued.
I cannot answer about anything that is more routine for fire risk assessments or on-going maintenance schedules that apply to such buildings—perhaps other panellists can fill that gap.
Andy Wightman referred to the City of Edinburgh Council and index cards from the 1980s. To carry out that level of public sector-led inspection would be a very expensive task and quite resource intensive. It also probably raises the question of what would be done with that information when considering broadly the condition of buildings.
I return to my point that we need to reflect on individual property owners’ responsibilities. The social housing stock that is owned by local authorities and housing associations is subject to a regulatory regime that requires set standards to be met, such as the Scottish housing quality standard and environmental standards, as part of maintenance of, upkeep of and investment in existing stock.
In private sector-owned buildings—there is a further complication when properties are in common ownership—the responsibilities for owners are less onerous. If we are to look more broadly at how we inspect and how we look after the condition and safety of buildings that have already been built, we probably need to reflect on the responsibility of individual owners. Andy Wightman said that there is no requirement to keep logbooks. Can measures be put in place to raise awareness among building owners of the condition of property and require them to meet minimum standards for looking after buildings? It is worth exploring those options, while recognising our discussions about the challenges in resourcing local authority skills and the financial cost of taking on responsibility for knowledge and ownership. The 1980s were a different fiscal period for local government from now.
Thank you—that was useful. My question was targeted at whether there is merit in exploring the obligations that are placed on owners to maintain records within some kind of light-touch regulatory regime. I will leave it there.
I return to John Wood—I am not picking on him, honestly. I want to consider the role of COSLA and what it did in the week of Grenfell. COSLA’s written submission spoke about housing office managers going out to reassure tenants and said that there were
“an additional 900 home fire safety visits”
by the Fire and Rescue Service. At last week’s meeting, we heard from the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, which said in its submission:
“Housing associations ... made tenants aware that the Fire Service offered free advisory home visits.”
The visits are not compulsory. Have your members done likewise?
Yes, they will have done. I cannot speak for every member, but I know that in every local authority area there has been close work between the housing department and the Fire and Rescue Service’s local senior officer—the LSO is the single point of contact for an area. In most places, there has been communication at community planning level, and councils’ housing departments have made their tenants aware of the service that the Fire and Rescue Service provides.
It is probably safe to say that that will not cover absolutely everyone in every single apartment. A proposal that has emerged from conversations at national level, which has been endorsed by the ministerial working group, is that there should be a national fire safety campaign, led by the Fire and Rescue Service and supported by councils, which will provide basic but important information to tenants of high-rise apartments about how they should behave in the event of a fire, as well as advising them of the service that is available from the Fire and Rescue Service.
David Stewart told us at last week’s meeting that the fire service’s visits are focused on vulnerable people. Do your members target groups of individuals who might be more vulnerable?
Yes, they absolutely do. We use the relationships that exist between housing officers and health and social care workers, where possible, to ensure that we engage with the most vulnerable people and those who might not be able to find the information for themselves.
Earlier this week, I was at a meeting with officers to discuss the brief for the campaign that the Fire and Rescue Service will run. There is a clear focus on inequalities and ensuring that messages that public services deliver are targeted at the most vulnerable people, such as people who do not have English as their first language, elderly people and disabled people.
We also heard last week that some housing associations require a safety visit as a condition of the tenancy. Are you aware of local authorities that do likewise?
I am not, but I imagine that that is the case. A housing manager will probably be able to answer that question better than I can.
I appreciate that. I have one wee final question—I promise. On the final page of your submission you said:
“we are aware that a common problem is residents removing self-closer from fire doors or leaving fire doors open.”
We heard something similar from the SFHA last week. How widespread is that problem? Have you surveyed your members nationally on that?
We do not have quantitative evidence of the problem, but we cannot deny that the issue comes up a lot—it reminds us that whatever tried and tested system we have in place, human behaviour will often get in the way. Concierges and housing managers often have to deal with issues such as doors being held open or replaced without permission and objects being left in closes. We must always take account of human behaviour and human error.
I suppose that we could get you quantitative evidence, if you wanted it, but the issue is certainly something that we are all aware of and know needs to be addressed.
On the point about the relationship between local authorities, landlords and the fire service, in addition to promoting visits to individual tenants, the regime—certainly in my authority—involves a daily inspection of tower blocks by concierge services or housing officers, to identify immediate risks, such as broken door closers, rubbish or furniture on a landing or blocked bin chutes.
On a quarterly basis, the fire service comes in and does a block inspection, in a familiarisation visit for its teams, to check fire risers and ensure that the fire crews are familiar with the blocks. After Grenfell, we immediately did a joint inspection with the fire service of all our tower blocks—that happened in the four to six weeks after the fire. Following that, we have agreed to do a joint inspection of property as one of the fire service’s quarterly inspections, so once a year property teams, housing managers and the fire service will do a thorough inspection of the joint areas.
In addition, we are working closely with individual vulnerable tenants to ensure that we prioritise visits to those who are most vulnerable and in need of advice, although the information and advice are provided to all tenants. Some tenants can make arrangements to improve fire safety themselves, like any other resident, but we try to ensure that the most vulnerable and those who would have most difficulty with that are supported to do it.
I will finish by giving a wee bit of context. Shortly after the Grenfell fire, we conducted a review, with the fire service, of how often there are fires in our tower blocks. In my local authority area there are about 40 blocks and, on average, there is a fire each month. Over the period for which we have had those tower blocks, there have been probably 400 or 500 fires in them, which is broadly the same incidence of fire as we see in the non-tower block stock. In my local authority area, the fire safety measures that have been put in place—I am talking about the construction of local authority housing—have contained the fire and protected against its spread.
Some of the arrangements that are in place on the management side recognise the risk of fire, and there are pretty good, strong relationships with the fire service in most areas. Recognising the risks, the fire service prioritises the blocks and works with the owners—the local authorities—as well as the tenants.
I have a question for Mr Wood, first, and I will then ask a more general question about materials.
COSLA notes that there is no national standard fire risk assessment. It has been suggested that a group should be established to develop such a standard, especially for domestic high-rise buildings. How is that going to be progressed? You have noted that there is a gap in the process. How can that proposal be progressed?
The issue was raised by the Fire and Rescue Service and the Fire Brigades Union. I guess that the ministerial working group might be a catalyst for developing such a standard. If there was agreement across agencies that a standard assessment was required, the agencies could come together at a national level and discuss how to take it forward.
You believe that there would be a real benefit if that took place.
It would certainly help. It was identified over the summer as something that agencies would welcome. There would not be a one-size-fits-all assessment for every property but, if there were general principles on which fire safety assessments were undertaken and consistency in how they were dealt with, that would help professionals to undertake the assessments properly and make clear the next steps following those assessments—which, I suppose, is the most important aspect for people to be clear on.
Do the other members of the panel have views on that proposal?
It touches on some of our evidence relating to the consistency of understanding of design principles, from construction and the warrant assessment process to how the building is managed in practice. We are routinely asked about the design philosophy of a building and where the key areas are. However, the relationship tends to drift as the building becomes established and people move in and out, and improvements could be made through having a national standard for fire risk assessment. I think that that would be of benefit.
Knowledge of the design process, where a building’s fire safety features are and why they are there would also be an essential part of that. It could even simply highlight where the protected walls and floors are, where the fire safety features are contained, how often they should be maintained and so on. Some of that will be covered already, but joining up the verification and fire regulations assessment processes would, in general, be of advantage to the on-going level of fire safety in a building as it is used.11:00
We have already touched on materials, especially, with reference to the tragedy, those that are combustible. However, concerns have recently been raised with the committee about materials that, when originally tested, were thought to be non-combustible but which, after retesting, had their classification changed because they were found to ignite in a certain situation. How widespread is that issue, and if it is happening, how can we allay the community’s fears in that respect? With some materials, it was thought that the box had been ticked but, after retesting by the fire service and others, further evidence has emerged, suggesting that they have limited non-combustibility. Is that not a problem?
The simple answer to your question is that we will not know how widespread the problem is until we identify buildings containing materials that are supposedly compliant but which we then find are not.
As I understand it, the difficulty might arise from materials that had supposedly met the BR 135 criteria through what you might call a desktop exercise. For example, you might get a fire safety expert looking at a certain product and saying, “Well, I’ve seen a very similar product pass the building standards tests under BR 135 many times before.” That process has built up over the years, and aspects of the wording of BR 135 appear to allow it. That is possibly where the failures might be found, but I am not aware of any product that was actually tested under BR 135 criteria and British standards and which has since failed. That sort of thing might well come out, but I am not aware of any such materials at the moment.
In the tests that the fire service carries out, it will normally take a block of material, tape up the edge and apply a flame to the centre. However, when it has carried out some tests on the perimeter of a block, it has found certain materials becoming combustible. You are saying that the issue is the type of testing that was carried out in the past on certain products.
Last week, Dave Aitken and I attended a conference in Birmingham that was organised by our counterparts in England and Wales, and we heard various industry professionals, some of whom are involved in the testing side of things, talking about the robustness of British standard tests under BR 135. Those professionals think that it is just about as robust a test as you can get, but the difficulty with any testing regime—and this applies to all tests across building standards and various British standards—is that the test is carried out under laboratory or factory conditions with, for example, a standardised fuel load. The question, then, is whether the test covers all the detail of how things will be built on site.
The test is clearly robust; after all, you have to put quite a large fire under the material in the crib. It also compares well with international tests—it might even be more robust than them. However, does it provide a 100 per cent guarantee? I do not know.
I just want to mop up a couple of things before I go to Mr Gibson. [Interruption.] Mr Gibson does not want to ask anything, so we will go to Elaine Smith next—I am just giving her a wee warning.
Mr Stewart explored the issue of fire risk and safety assessments, and the four-a-year standard for high-rise properties. Before I ask my question, I make it clear that I am not saying that my social landlords in north Glasgow would do this; I have a very good relationship with them, and they seem to be incredibly proactive. However, if I as a landlord knew that the fire service was coming in a week on Tuesday, I would be getting my concierge to sort as quickly as possible the mattress that had been sitting at the fire escape on the fifth floor for the past three weeks, say, or the fire door that never quite fitted properly. The knowledge that we are going to be assessed, the expectation that goes with that and the planning and co-ordination that will go into that fire service assessment gives all of us the opportunity to step up to the mark and make things as smooth and compliant as possible.
The FBU, which wanted intrusive inspections, did not call for on-the-spot random assessments. It was happy with pre-notification. Is there a case for the fire service to pitch up occasionally at a building that is owned by the private sector or a social landlord, whether a council or housing association, and say, “We are the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. Show us your paperwork. We are doing the assessment now”? Would that be a reasonable way to keep everyone on their toes?
That is how we do things in my local authority area. The fire service turns up, does the familiarisation visit, does the inspection and lets us know what it thinks needs to be fixed so that we can follow that up. If anything, after Grenfell the discussion has been more about co-ordinating the visits. I take the point, however, that a snap inspection from the fire service is a way to keep owners and us on our toes 24 hours a day.
I am happy to have asked an ill-informed question and be told that what I want is already what happens. Is that the understanding of everyone on the panel?
Verification is a stage removed from that part of the process. There is some notification around the inspections that are undertaken by building standards, although not to the extent of information on the exact date. There are similarities with the way building standards inspections operate. When people know that we are coming, there can be some degree of preparedness. However, we have to ensure that those undertaking the management of the properties for the life of the building are appropriately skilled and trained to undertake their core duties, without considering who will be watching them at any particular time.
That is fine. I am not saying that every inspection should be random. The example that I gave to the FBU was the Care Inspectorate, which has planned social care inspections of care establishments. Every care establishment knows, however, that there is an outside chance that there might be an unannounced inspection at some point. It focuses the mind.
That said, in my area we are fortunate in the relationship that housing associations have with the fire service. I will not explore the matter further.
Throughout our inquiry, we have heard evidence that clerks of works are not used on building sites as much as they used to be. Do you have a view on the role of clerks of works in ensuring compliance with building standards in both public and private sector developments?
Related to that, do you think that public sector procurement could play a role in ensuring that new build and refurbished council and registered social landlord housing meet the building standards requirements?
The holistic approach is to be welcomed. All stakeholders who are involved in the construction process, including clerks of works, have an input. There is no magic bullet for the problem of any perceived compliance gap. A clerk of works would have a role to play, as would others.
If a clerk of works has a role to play, could it cause problems if there was no clerk of works? That might be the case in particular if there are a lot of small subcontractors involved once a building has been procured and is part of a big housing development.
As the convener pointed out, even the threat of a clerk of works being on site would be enough to keep workmen on their toes. The absence of one would clearly mean a chance that shortcuts would be taken.
The presence of a clerk of works on site is generally welcomed by the verifier, because it tends to lead to a better regime of inspection and checks. The role supports those who are procuring the building in their duty as the relevant person to ensure compliance with the building regulations. It is there to help them to discharge their responsibility.
In turn, it assists us when we undertake reasonable inquiry, because we know that, if there are three or four clerks of works inspecting various parts of the building in conjunction with our visits, there is a higher chance of compliance. As a verifier, we welcome clerks of works.
If, when we undertake an initial inspection after being notified of the commencement of work, we have concerns about such things as the set-up of the site or attention to health and safety legislation, alarm bells start to ring. In the absence of a clerk of works or a site foreman, or if there are concerns around the subcontractor’s quality of work, our risk assessment, through a regional inquiry, is upped and we pay more attention to that particular project.
On the other hand, when we are confident that a development is progressing well, we can step back to an extent, which allows us to use our resources in the most appropriate way.
I will push you a bit further, if I may, on the subject of public procurement, which I mentioned initially and on which you commented. If a council was procuring a company to build schools or a health board was procuring a company to build a hospital, would it be possible as part of the procurement process for them to insist on the presence of a clerk of works? Do councils insist on that?
With regard to our role and responsibility for verification, it would be for others to see whether the role of a clerk of works would allow them to get value for money during the procurement process. I cannot really comment further than what I said previously.
I do not know whether councils can insist on that through the procurement process, as I am no contractual expert, but I can relate some of the experience of Glasgow City Council. We put our own council clerk of works on a lot of our school projects, even though the schools were being built by other bodies, and that proved to be very effective for the council, because, when we went back to look at aspects of the schools’ construction in relation to the issues with schools in Edinburgh and so on, we did not find the same issues. It was acknowledged that some areas were not perfect—no building is perfect—but we certainly did not find the areas of concern that were found in some Edinburgh schools, and we were confident that that was because of the regime that we had put in place with our own council clerk of works.
I have one final question, convener, but it is not on that issue.
Andy Wightman might have a supplementary question on the clerk of works issue. I will come back to him in a second.
I want to double-check something first. The witnesses said that they do not know the answer to the question on procurement. With regard to local authority building standards, can a local authority insist that it will issue a relevant building warrant and comply with the verification process—irrespective of whether it is a public or private sector project and of whether procurement is involved—only if there is a clerk of works present, given the risks on the site?
Would such a power be desirable?
Anything that could assist us in our role in achieving compliance should be explored.
I know that I have plucked this point out of the air, but if someone is building an extension to their property and they know the architect and so on, they might think that the risks are lower and they might do only one site visit. However, if a council is building a 250-unit development and it does not have a clerk of works on site—it might have an insurance indemnifier on site who does various other things, but that is not a clerk of works—would it be reasonable for it to have the power to say, “We expect, for risk management purposes, that there will be a clerk of works”?
There is currently a good bit of guidance from the Scottish Government that tells developers what their responsibilities are before they sign the completion certificate for a project. The guidance makes it clear that they must have in place appropriate contractual arrangements to ensure that, when they sign the certificate to say that the building complies with the building warrant and building regulations, they do so on the basis that someone has given them enough information.
LABSS—I am speaking on behalf of LABSS here—has found that that aspect has never been firmed up in legislation. The guidance tells people about their responsibilities but there is no legislative way for us to enforce those. If the relevant person, as they are known, signs the certificate, we have no mechanism for questioning the processes that they carried out before they signed the certificate to enable us to allow occupation of the building.
That is helpful. Andy Wightman has a supplementary question. After that, we will come back to Elaine Smith for the final question of the session.
I do not have a supplementary question, convener—it is another question entirely.
Okay. I will take Elaine Smith’s question now and will let you finish off, Mr Wightman.11:15
My question ties in with what Mr Barlow just said. We have heard calls for the introduction of new building standards enforcement powers. I am interested to know whether you would support that and what powers you might want to see introduced.
It is difficult to say what powers could be introduced—I genuinely do not know—but I think that we have to ask what system the developer has gone through and what checks and balances have been put in place to ensure that the contractor that they have employed has employed the right subcontractors and the right qualified persons. At the moment, I could work as a joiner on a site without having any qualifications for that job. Unfortunately, the problems start at that level in the industry. That has always been the case in the UK—it is not unknown to us all. That is not to say that contractors do not have to try to have quality systems in place, but there are those who do not try.
It is a big issue but, for us, any legislation would have to be about whether we had to be informed about, for example, whether a contractor had qualified staff, whether steel erectors had put up the correct size and weight of steel and whether fire-stopping provisions were in place. Would there be certification for each stage of the process for a particular building that would then be collected and given to us to demonstrate that the developer had at least signed something off at each relevant part of the process? That would not be self-certification and just a contractual matter for developers but would provide an assurance that contractual measures were in place that ensured compliance with building regulations.
I have a brief point. It has been raised in evidence to us that private owners, particularly in mixed-tenure blocks, have been removing fire doors and replacing them with doors that do not comply with the fire regulations. Can you confirm whether people have a legal right to do that? Given the number of mixed-tenure blocks that there are, is that potentially a concern?
What Mr Wightman says is the case. There is certainly an issue with fire safety and, more widely, with the enforcement of standards among owner-occupiers in mixed-tenure properties. The issue is coming to the fore at the moment in conversations about energy efficiency. There are a number of areas in which the lack of means of enforcement for privately owned apartments in a multi-tenure block can be an obstacle to the enforcement of standards, whether for fire safety or energy efficiency.
A number of alterations can be made in high-rise buildings that do not require a building warrant. Those generally involve repairs and require like-for-like replacements. If someone replaced a fire door with a non-fire-rated door, that would not be a like-for-like replacement and would therefore be an issue. That is not an uncommon occurrence, not through any malicious intent but because somebody is trying to upgrade their property and make it look better but is not aware of the consequences of that.
When my local authority is made aware of such situations—I am sure that this approach is shared nationally—we tend to work with the owner-occupiers and those who are responsible for the upkeep of the building to make them aware of the performance standards that the fire door should meet. Our council provides financial support in the form of a grant to carry out the replacement work, and we provide the labour for the work. We work with the owner to remove the door that might not be compliant and ensure that the replacement door is a fire door that complies with all the relevant regulations. We use our knowledge and education as opposed to using strict enforcement powers.
We have had a good success rate because of that, and the numbers in South Lanarkshire are very low because of that engagement. We also work closely with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. There is a bit of a grey area in that we know that uPVC fire doors are now available on the market that are not as easily identifiable as a compliant or non-compliant door, which means that we need to get the manufacturer’s information and test data. We have the knowledge to establish that and we work with the owner-occupier to ensure that the door achieves the appropriate level of fire safety.
Once the building has been completed and has met all the legal requirements, is the owner under a continuing legal obligation to maintain a fire door where a fire door was originally specified?
You have said that it is an issue.
Yes, and that touches on the challenges around some of the existing enforcement powers. The owner is allowed to carry out repairs and alter aspects of the building, like for like, without a building warrant—a fire door is an example of that.
If those are permissive powers and someone used them outwith the circumstance in which they are allowed to be used, would that constitute a breach?
Yes, because it would not be an exempt alteration. The legislation is challenging for us because the unauthorised alteration could result in a section 27 notice but such a notice asks for the submission of a building warrant, which is not needed in that situation. In that respect it is a catch-22 situation. We have to use our knowledge and communication skills and engage with the person to ensure that the door is replaced. That can be tricky, because although there is legislation in respect of dangerous buildings—it is one of the most powerful aspects of the Building (Scotland) Act 2003—the fact that a door does not reach not the appropriate level of fire safety does not necessarily make the building an immediate danger such that it would trigger the dangerous buildings provisions.
That was a helpful line of questioning, Mr Wightman.
Mr Barlow, thank you for the information that you gave us at the start of the meeting. You will appreciate that the committee was concerned to hear that there are private properties in Glasgow that have combustible cladding of the type that was used on Grenfell tower. You have said that you are not able to give us additional information today, but it would be helpful if Glasgow City Council were to give us the maximum amount of information possible. We want to scrutinise the situation in Glasgow robustly and help to provide reassurances to the people who live in those flats. We are keen to do that in a measured way.
It has been an informative evidence session and I thank everyone for taking the time to come to the committee.