Meeting date: Thursday, November 23, 2017
Meeting of the Parliament 23 November 2017
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Day of the Imprisoned Writer, Building Regulations (Fire Safety), Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Motion without Notice, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Day of the Imprisoned Writer
- Building Regulations (Fire Safety)
- Parliamentary Bureau Motion
- Motion without Notice
- Decision Time
Building Regulations (Fire Safety)
The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-08968, in the name of Bob Doris, on building regulations and fire safety in Scotland. I call Bob Doris to speak to and move the motion on behalf of the Local Government and Communities Committee.
In June this year, we all watched with horror as fire engulfed Grenfell tower. Our thoughts and sympathies were then, as they are now, with those affected by that tragic event. At that time, the Local Government and Communities Committee was conducting an inquiry into building regulations more widely. As a committee, we felt that we must broaden our work to include fire safety to ensure that any lessons from that terrible fire could be considered as part of our work.
Last week in the chamber, we heard from the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities, Angela Constance, about the progress that has been made by the ministerial working group on building and fire safety. We received confirmation that local authorities had reported that no public or private high-rise block was completely clad in aluminium composite material, except two high-rise buildings in Glasgow; in those cases, work is on-going to ensure that fire safety measures are upgraded and that a long-term solution is found.
I will focus my comments on two of the committee’s recommendations on fire safety before moving on to discuss the broader building regulations aspects of our inquiry.
The committee welcomes the quick and collegiate response to establish the ministerial working group. We do not propose to duplicate its work in any way, but we will provide constructive scrutiny of the minister and the rest of the group on the progress of their work.
We welcome the additional fire safety visits that were undertaken by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to reassure tenants and inform them about fire safety in their homes. We also welcome the fact that the ministerial working group has commissioned the compilation of a comprehensive inventory of domestic high-rise buildings, which will be completed by spring 2018. The inventory should provide a comprehensive picture of high-rise buildings across Scotland and will inform the working group’s deliberations. Our committee recommends that the inventory should be regularly updated. We consider that it will provide a valuable resource to respond quickly to any new or emerging building and safety requirements for high-rise buildings. As a living document, which perhaps holds additional key information, the inventory will provide a lasting legacy for fire safety. That system would be far preferable to the situation that we were in a few months ago when local authorities were involved in a time-consuming trawl through paper copies of old building warrants. I believe that history will show such processes to be time-consuming, antiquated and not in the best interests of fire safety.
The committee examined existing fire safety inspection regimes. We heard how housing associations commission regular fire safety assessments and how, following occupation, high-rise buildings are subject to quarterly inspections by the fire service. Indeed, we welcome the close working relationship between social landlords and the fire service.
The committee is sympathetic to a national standard fire assessment process, and I note that the Scottish Government is considering doing that. However, we are also sympathetic to that process operating within a system of unannounced fire safety inspections, and potentially in conjunction with the Fire Brigades Union’s idea of one-off intrusive inspections. Such an approach—this is not, in any way, a slight on the current systems—could further drive up the quality and consistency of a Scotland-wide fire safety regime. I look forward to the minister’s response to those suggestions.
The committee will continue to monitor the progress of the ministerial working group, and we look forward to taking evidence from the minister again next year.
As I noted, our work on wider aspects of building regulations was well under way when the Grenfell tragedy happened. In fact, our work on building regulations began in February when we heard, through correspondence in our post bags and in our surgeries, about the distress and helplessness that some homeowners felt when their new home turned out not to be as well built as they thought it should have been. For most of us, our home is the largest purchase that we will ever make. As a committee, we wanted to know why some people’s new homes had not been built as well as they wanted them to be.
Over the past 10 months, our inquiry widened to include the lessons from Cole’s “Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Construction of Edinburgh Schools”. I acknowledge the Education and Skills Committee’s work in its inquiry into school infrastructure.
In our report, we have set out our views so far and highlighted key questions for members to comment on in the chamber this afternoon. I am sure that members will also want to bring their own experiences to the debate. My committee colleagues and I Iook forward to hearing members’ thoughts.
We started our inquiry by looking at the verification process that buildings undergo when they are built or extended. In Scotland, anyone who wants to erect a new building or alter or extend an existing building requires permission from a verifier—that is, from the building standards department of the local authority in the area in which the work is to be done. Those officers can inspect the work in progress and, after completion, issue a compliance certificate if the construction has been carried out to their satisfaction and in accordance with the building warrant as far as can be ascertained from a visual inspection.
In contrast to what happens in England and Wales, where verification is undertaken by external organisations, including the National House Building Council, in Scotland the Minister for Local Government and Housing appoints local authorities as verifiers for their own geographical areas. During our inquiry, we heard many reasons for and against those two different approaches and the benefits that each could provide. Those who supported opening up verification to competition argued that that would drive up service levels and delays would be reduced. Some suggested that it would provide greater flexibility and the ability to respond to increasing demands. However, others argued that the overall level of the verification service provided by local authorities was good and that an impartial service was delivered that avoided any potential conflict of interest that might arise with private sector verifiers. We heard that the current Scottish approach provides a service that is accountable to elected members.
As a committee, we recognise that those who provide verification services in either the public sector or the private sector do so to a high professional standard. We also note that, although verification services are delivered by councils in Scotland, some councils use private verifiers when demand increases. From considering the evidence that was put to us, we are persuaded on balance that the benefits of impartiality, accountability and local knowledge that council verification provides outweigh any possible benefits that extending that to other organisations might bring. That said, we recognise that performance in some councils needs to improve.
In March 2017, the minister appointed 17 local authorities as verifiers for six years, as they had demonstrated strong performance. A further 12 councils whose performance was good but which had some weaknesses were appointed for three years. Overall, that means that 29 out of the 32 local authorities had good or strong performance. The three councils with poor performance—Glasgow City Council, the City of Edinburgh Council and Stirling Council—have been appointed for just one year, having been asked to address aspects of their poor performance.
We heard that delays in processing building warrant applications and uncertainties in outcomes were key performance issues that impacted on developers and on the overall attractiveness of Scotland for investment. The reasons that were cited for delays included increased workloads, budget cuts and loss of staff. Others highlighted the steps that had been taken to improve the service and performance management as having brought better customer focus to the local authority building standards system.
The Scottish Government asked Pye Tait Consulting to examine the performance of local authorities in their role as building standards verifiers. The report, which was published in March 2016, drew a number of conclusions, including the conclusion that
“Stakeholders are generally of the view that verifiers are doing a good job under difficult circumstances and recognise the resourcing difficulties that local authorities face. However, while some believe that speed and quality of service has improved since the introduction of the performance framework, concerns remain that the quality of service still varies between local authorities, meaning there is work to do in pursuit of national consistency.”
The committee agrees that greater consistency of service and performance across the system is required and that a highly motivated, skilled and well-resourced workforce is crucial to that. I invite the minister to set out how the Government is supporting the provisions of better workforce planning to address those concerns.
Another area that I want to comment on is accountability. In the course of our work there was considerable discussion about whether there should be a statutory scheme to redress faults in buildings after construction and who should be liable for these problems. We heard that the issue of subcontracting can lead to a blurring of the accountability lines when faults or issues arise. Others highlighted that it is the responsibility of house buyers to ensure that what they are paying for is delivered.
In considering the evidence before us, we recognised that accountability for the building process is the responsibility of every stakeholder in the construction process, from the builder to the council and the property buyer. Each has a role to play in ensuring that they meet the standards to ensure that the outcome is a safe, secure and good-quality building.
We recognise that principle in our recommendations regarding accountability. We recommend that, at the start of the building process, consideration be given to providing new-build house purchasers with more information and support. That could include clarity about what building standards do and how purchasers might reassure themselves about the quality of the build. I would welcome confirmation from the minister about whether the Scottish Government will consider that approach as part of its newly devolved consumer protection responsibilities.
We recommend that more standardised missives and contracts be considered, with a change from the form of words in the standard contract line that says that the builder will build a house to a form of words that says that the builder will build in accordance with regulations and to a reasonable standard.
We highlight the potential of an ombudsman to mediate in the case of disputes that might arise. Although the NHBC and others highlighted to us the beneficial role of the consumer code for home builders and its independent dispute resolution service, those aspects apply only to those home builders who register homes with the UK’s main home warranty bodies such as the NHBC. Our proposal for an ombudsman would offer mediation to everyone who was involved in a dispute. I would welcome comment from the minister on whether that proposal merits further consideration.
I am sure that my fellow committee members will want to highlight other issues in our report but I invite all members to contribute to our work. Do members think that there should be a statutory system of redress? How can building standards performance be improved?
This piece of work began with what we heard from our constituents, and I suspect that other members will have heard similar issues. This is everyone’s chance to put on the record what they think are the problems and the opportunities to improve the system.
The committee will return to this work in the new year, when we will consider our final views and report and consider all the comments that we will hear this afternoon. I thank all those who have contributed to our work so far and who will contribute this afternoon.
That the Parliament notes the conclusions and recommendations in the Local Government and Communities Committee's 9th Report 2017 (Session 5), Building Regulations and Fire Safety in Scotland (SP Paper 213), and welcomes contributions from Members on the key issues and questions set out in that report.14:42
I am grateful for the opportunity to talk to members about building regulations and fire safety in Scotland, and I acknowledge the hard work of the Local Government and Communities Committee that led to the publication of its report on 30 October. I also thank the Education and Skills Committee for the work that it has done in the area. I welcome what the convener of the Local Government and Communities Committee has described as “constructive scrutiny”, which is extremely useful when we are dealing with such matters.
The report draws strongly on the recommendations of the Cole report, mirroring and supporting a number of issues that are raised in it as well as linking to the Education and Skills Committee’s report on school infrastructure. Importantly, following the tragic events at Grenfell tower in June, the committee widened its work to include fire safety in building regulations.
The committee’s report raises complex issues that require full consideration, and I will respond in detail to each of the recommendations and findings before the end of the year. In doing so, I will detail the progress that has been made by the ministerial working group on building and fire safety as well as the most up-to-date communications and information that have been shared on issues arising from the Grenfell tower public inquiry and the United Kingdom review of building standards.
Before I go further, I should say that the fire at Grenfell tower was a horrific tragedy in which 71 lives were lost. My thoughts and sympathies remain with the families and friends of everyone who was affected, and I commend the work of the emergency services on that day and beyond.
Last week, the cabinet secretary Angela Constance provided the Parliament with an update on the work of the ministerial working group on building and fire safety, which was set up immediately following the Grenfell tower fire. Members will know from that statement that the group has moved swiftly to take action. It has focused on three main areas: reassuring the public of the steps that we have taken to ensure that a tragedy like the Grenfell tower fire does not happen in Scotland; establishing the fire safety of high-rise domestic buildings; and moving quickly to improve fire safety and compliance in relation to building regulations. A key element of the group’s focus has been on a range of measures to enhance and strengthen building regulations enforcement and compliance as well as fire safety in regulations.
We have established two comprehensive expert groups to review building standards. The first group is reviewing fire safety in building standards and is chaired by Dr Paul Stollard. The group, which held its first meeting on 27 October, will ensure that the fire safety standards in building regulations are robust and clear, with the focus on high-rise domestic buildings and high-rise non-domestic buildings with sleeping accommodation. The full remit of the group is available on the Scottish Government’s website. The expert group will also adopt a flexible approach in order to be ready to respond to any relevant evidence that becomes available from the Grenfell tower public inquiry.
The second group is reviewing building standards compliance and enforcement and is chaired by Professor John Cole, the author of the “Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Construction of Edinburgh Schools”. It will examine the roles and responsibilities of everyone who is involved in all elements of construction from start to finish. The group will consider the actions that are needed before a building warrant is granted and a completion certificate is accepted as well as the role of certification in the construction journey.
The fact that chairs of such high calibre are leading those reviews, alongside a wealth of experts in their fields, demonstrates that we are determined to ensure that our regulations are among the most robust in the world.
The Local Government and Communities Committee’s report covers a number of other issues, which I will now address. Local authorities are appointed by the Scottish ministers as verifiers to carry out independent checks of building design and construction through granting building warrants and accepting completion certificates. In considering the most recent appointments earlier this year, I had concerns over the performance of some local authorities. Bob Doris highlighted that issue. I was particularly concerned about processing delays and customer engagement. I took account of that when appointments were made on the basis that performance must improve. I also introduced a new Scotland-wide operating framework and an updated performance framework under the appointment process to measure performance.
I appreciate the pressures that building standards services are under, and, in July, I increased building warrant-related fees, which had remained the same since 2005. That will give all local authorities a boost in income, although I stress that good performance is not always linked to high levels of income.
The building standards system is pre-emptive, with permission needed before work can start and new buildings can be occupied, meaning that excessive processing times can delay projects starting or continuing through different stages. The role of inspection throughout construction is key to getting completed buildings that are compliant with the building regulations, and that inspection is done primarily by the building owner or developer as the person who is responsible for the work. It includes using certifiers, clerks of work and others to reassure the building owner or developer that they have met their responsibilities before they ultimately sign off the project as compliant. It also includes inspection as part of any new build warranty or insurance.
Those are the independent verification checks that are necessary before a completion certificate can be accepted by the local authority, and they must be risk based, consistent and designed to protect the public interest.
Those are the key areas in which the Cole report found deficiencies. Certificates were given when key structural components such as wall ties were missing, and buildings were sometimes open for two years or more without being given a certificate. What are the minister’s reflections on those two key observations in the Cole report?
Mr Johnson was there when I appeared before the Education and Skills Committee, and I repeat what I said then: we need to look at those issues very closely. I will come on to roles and responsibilities in a moment, because they are very important.
As the formal enforcement body, the local authority also has a separate legislative role. It is important that, when enforcement action is necessary, it is taken in a proactive manner to address non-compliance and work that has been done without permission. Our review group will consider building standards processes, inspection regimes and the roles and responsibilities of the building owner and the local authority as the verifier and enforcer.
A strong, compliance-driven building standards system requires all players to understand their roles and responsibilities and to meet them. The building owner, the industry and local authorities need to have to the right people with the necessary skills to play their part. I am aware of the challenges that the industry faces in attracting and retaining the right people with the appropriate competencies. That is why we are currently engaging with Construction Scotland and recently held an industry summit to explore how we can work together to ensure that those challenges are met.
I cannot emphasise strongly enough the importance of the lessons that have been learned following the Grenfell tower fire, and I am sure that that learning will continue. The ministerial group and the reviews that we have set up will be ready to respond to any further findings that emerge from the inquiries and reviews that are going on across the UK.
The Scottish ministers are not complacent on the importance of building regulations, compliance and enforcement. The pre-emptive nature of the system is one of its strengths, but it must work in partnership with the industry to deliver safe and compliant buildings. I hope that my brief overview of the current work of the ministerial working group and the setting up of the fire, compliance and enforcement review groups reassures the Parliament that the Scottish Government is committed to ensuring that buildings are safe. That means learning from recent events, responding to any evidence that emerges and taking the appropriate actions, as necessary.
I welcome the scrutiny of the Parliament and look forward to listening to this afternoon’s debate.14:52
Buying a new home is the biggest financial commitment that most of us will ever make. Whether someone’s new home is second hand or brand new, they want the process to be seamless and they do not want to find faults later on. While serving as a councillor before I became an MSP, I became aware through a number of cases that people’s rights when buying new homes are not what they should be and that the system of checking buildings’ standards and quality was—and still is—remiss, patchwork and sometimes shoddy.
I was called in to assist with people living on an estate where up to half the properties had had problems with their foundations. Some had managed to get help from the builders if they had claimed before the initial short guarantee ran out. Others were at the mercy of the warranty providers who then took over, and many of them were not happy with the service that they got.
When I got involved, the legal position was that the original builders—a major national firm—did not have to do anything, and the warranty providers, who were basically an insurance company, made their own call on whether to pay out on claims. I managed to get the builders round the table and to do the right thing. They agreed to fix the problems and offered a bespoke further guarantee on repaired foundations—the first time that had been done in the UK. Only one house on the estate has work outstanding.
However, that all came about despite the law and despite the system. I had a similar situation with blocks of flats in which the roofs had failed. Again, I managed to get the builders to act when they did not have to. Those experiences showed me two things: first, people buying new homes should have greater redress when things go wrong, and secondly, houses should never be built with such major faults—the checking system should be more thorough.
When I became an MSP and a member of the Local Government and Communities Committee, I suggested that that was an area that we could explore. It is fair to say that fellow committee members were sceptical, but they were won round to the importance of the issue as soon as we started to take evidence. The evidence that we heard from members of the public who had suffered under the system was particularly powerful. As we were conducting our inquiry, the report on the Edinburgh schools fiasco was published. It raised the same issues with building regulations and lack of scrutiny. Following Grenfell, our inquiry expanded to cover fire safety.
What of the two issues that I mentioned earlier? I will deal first with the rights of new home buyers. Consumer goods legislation gives consumers a range of remedies if goods are faulty—refund, repair and replacement—but new home buyers do not automatically have those rights. Any guarantees are not underwritten by law; they are offered voluntarily by developers to house buyers. That is the way that the developers like it. There is a voluntary code of practice—the key word is “voluntary”. As consumer law is reserved, the committee did not look at that, so I will raise the matter directly with Sajid Javid so that UK-wide solutions can be explored.
However, there are things that we could do in Scotland. I asked the Law Society of Scotland whether standardised missives would help. It agreed that they would, but a change in the law would be necessary to bring them about. Developers might resist that, but it would remove much of the uncertainty that presently arises from the bespoke nature of each builder’s sales contract, which deters many people from pursuing claims. The contract could set out how defects are to be handled, and money could be withheld for potential repairs. Provision could be made for dealing with disputes, which could be followed by referral to an ombudsman. Access to an ombudsman—which I think would have to be a new role—would be another layer of protection.
I turn to the system that allows buildings with major faults to be constructed, whether in the public or the private sector. Currently, building control officers risk assess sites to decide how often to inspect them. They do not inspect every stage of the building of every house; instead, they hide behind the woolly phrase “reasonable inquiry”. Someone who has bought a new home might think it “reasonable” to assume that it had been rigorously checked before a completion certificate was issued, but that is not so. The phrase “reasonable inquiry” can mean very little. A house buyer can have no confidence that their home has been checked for build quality at every stage; it probably has not been.
There is currently no way of guaranteeing that buildings are fit for purpose. A completion certificate is not a guarantee that the building has been constructed properly; it indicates merely that it has been constructed. Such certificates are not worth the paper that they are written on. It is absolutely essential that those who issue completion certificates carry out mandatory checks at key stages of building, as was highlighted by the Cole report.
Who should verify that work has been done properly? The evidence that we took on that was mixed but, in the end, we were not convinced that that work should go to the private sector. On balance, we felt that councils should continue to do the work, because they are impartial. Although Kevin Stewart renewed the licences of all councils, he gave the poorly performing Glasgow City Council, City of Edinburgh Council and Stirling Council only one year. It is my view that, if they have not upped their game by the end of that period, private firms should be considered.
The committee heard strong evidence that clerks of works would help to drive up quality. Kevin Stewart told the committee:
“In my opinion, having an experienced clerk of works might involve spending but will save a lot in the future.”—[Official Report, Local Government and Communities Committee, 27 September 2017; c 27.]
I agree with that.
Mr Simpson suggested that the private sector could be brought in in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Stirling after a year. That deviates from the committee’s recommendation. Would Mr Simpson consider the idea of bringing in other local authorities to the three councils in question? We do not have to have a private sector solution—another local authority could perform that role.
Of course. I was merely giving my view, which is that the use of private firms should be considered. However, the use of other councils should be considered, too.
We should aim for a system in which buildings are built to an acceptable standard and someone is responsible for ensuring that that happens, and in which buyers—be they individuals or whoever—have recourse if things go wrong. The proposals to have standardised missives, an ombudsman, mandatory inspections at key stages and clerks of works would go a long way towards redressing the balance, as would better consumer protection. I commend those proposals to the Parliament.15:00
I thank the Local Government and Communities Committee for its excellent report on building regulations and fire safety. Ensuring the safety of new buildings in Scotland requires strong and wide-ranging building regulations that are enforced without compromise. In that regard, I welcome the committee’s recommendation that the power of verification should not be extended beyond local authorities. Gifting that power to the private sector would open the door to potential conflicts of interest and unaccountability, as well as a loss of valuable local knowledge.
It is key that the verification process supports new building projects not only on paper but in practice. It is clear that delays in processing applications have had a significant impact on developers and they can also undermine confidence in Scotland as an attractive investment prospect. Sadly, such delays are a result of an age-old story with which we have become all too familiar. Cuts to local authorities have left staff burdened with increasingly heavier workloads, and having to spend more time on admin and less time visiting sites. For example, almost half of the respondents in Unison’s “Building stress” report stated that they had faced budget cuts in the past year, and another 20 per cent stated that the cuts had been severe.
The eventual losers are building residents and the general public. Of particular concern are reports that, because of delays, builders are going ahead without the proper consents, raising questions of how compliance can ever be verified. If delays are to be improved and safety guaranteed, the only solution is for local authorities to be adequately resourced. All other options are merely unsustainable sticking plasters.
David Stewart has just said that buildings are going ahead without consent. If any member has evidence of that, I want to know about it.
Following the terrible events of the Grenfell tower disaster, I commend the committee for taking the initiative to extend its inquiry to encompass the safety aspects of building regulations.
Fire safety has been a significant issue in Scotland, even prior to Grenfell, so I wish to focus on that. Over the past decades, the number of domestic fires has been decreasing across the UK. However, Scotland has consistently had the highest rate of fire outbreaks compared to the other UK nations. In 2015-16, there were almost 46 per cent more fires per million people in Scotland than there were in England and Wales. Indeed, during that period, one was more likely to die in a dwelling house fire in Scotland than anywhere else in the UK. That is not to take away from the invaluable work of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, which operates under incredibly difficult circumstances. Its efforts in assessing Scottish buildings and reassuring residents following the Grenfell tower fire should especially be praised. However, budget cuts to the service are again a worrying trend.
When addressing issues of fire safety, it is crucial that we stay relevant to the situation in Scotland. The reviews of the local government committee and of the ministerial working group have focused particularly on fire safety in high-rise buildings. Although that is understandable in light of the circumstances at Grenfell tower, I encourage them to go further. If we look at the evidence, we see that in 2016-17, only 4 per cent of domestic fires were in flats of 10 storeys or more. On the other hand, the effects of fire are not felt equally throughout Scottish society. The risk of fire is much higher in areas of socioeconomic deprivation. That is evident even in my home city of Inverness. Regrettably, Scotland’s higher rate of fire death and injury is disproportionately carried by our most vulnerable populations.
With that in mind, I turn to a solution that has the potential impact of bringing about long-lasting change. Fire suppression systems, often referred to as sprinkler systems, are a proven method of preventing the spread of fires and saving lives. For example, despite Scotland’s high frequency of fire, there have never been multiple fire deaths where a working sprinkler system has been installed. That is why, as members will know, I will introduce a member’s bill that will require installation of fire suppression systems in all new social housing.
Many fears around the use of sprinklers are unfounded urban myths. Contrary to what we might see on television, whole properties are not drenched in streams of water at the appearance of a single spark. Rather, heat-sensitive sprinkler heads operate individually to contain a fire. The sophisticated technology actually limits the damage that is caused by the initial fire and the measures that are taken to fully extinguish it. Studies suggest that, as well as being effective, sprinkler systems are reliable. The most recent research from England concluded that sprinklers operated as expected in 94 per cent of all cases. For those reasons, a 2015 cost benefit analysis that was commissioned by the Scottish Government accepted that
“The evidence indicates that most of these deaths and injuries and much of the damage would have been prevented had the properties concerned been fitted with sprinklers.”
There have been improvements to Scotland’s existing approach to sprinkler systems, in relation to sheltered housing, for example. As members will know, in 2016, following a successful member’s bill in the National Assembly for Wales, all new homes in Wales are being fitted with sprinkler systems. However, despite the life-saving potential of such systems, Scottish building regulations require fire suppression systems only in high-rise buildings built since 2005. The result is a postcode lottery, with older high-rise buildings and other domestic dwelling types not covered.
Across Scotland, some local authorities have embraced the use of sprinklers beyond the existing requirements. The trailblazing councils in Angus, Fife and Dundee have adopted policies of fitting sprinklers into new social housing. Their developments stand as shining examples of the housing that I want to see across Scotland.
I thank the committee and the clerks for their excellent work. I flag up the point that the UK Labour Party is calling for all social housing tower blocks to be retrofitted with sprinklers, and I encourage the committee to scrutinise the deliberations of the ministerial working group on the subject. It is crucial that we support the use of sprinklers in social housing. Lowering our high fire statistics in the future requires action now. Our response to Grenfell should not be a mere knee-jerk reaction; it should be carefully considered and have a real impact. It is time to invest in sprinkler technology and in the safety of all Scottish social housing well into the future. As Walter Scott said, all that we need is
“The will to do, the soul to dare.”15:07
I thank the Local Government and Communities Committee for its excellent report. The speeches in the debate have been excellent as well. I am not a member of the committee but, as has been mentioned, every MSP has to deal with the issues in the report. In my area, issues to do with building control, self-certification, inspections and verifiers come up constantly. I cannot disagree with anything that I have heard in the debate.
I will touch on two issues. One is on building control and the committee’s report, and the other is to do with the tragedy at Grenfell. Thankfully, there has not been a tragedy in my constituency, but there are two buildings that have cladding issues. I want to get some clarification and to set out my thoughts on the report, and on what we can do to protect people who buy a house and to bring them justice.
As has been said, a house is the largest purchase that people will ever make, but it is a minefield for people who are trying to get repairs done or to get justice at all. The honourable gentleman in the Tories mentioned the supply of goods to consumers. He is absolutely right that, under the Sale and Supply of Goods to Consumers Regulations 2002, if something is faulty when it is purchased, the buyer has a legal right to compensation—a full or partial refund, a free repair or replacement. I do not know that I will be writing to Sajid Javid, but I will certainly be writing to whomever I can to see whether we can get that responsibility devolved to Scotland, because it is important.
Bob Doris and others mentioned the councils that do not come up to scratch, which are mentioned in paragraphs 30 and 32 of the committee’s report. In paragraph 32, the committee said:
“we acknowledge the Minister’s finding that a few local authorities will need to improve their performance by April 2018 in order for their appointment as verifiers to be extended.”
I think that local councils are the best people to act as verifiers. We have heard some horror stories about building verification outwith local authorities and self-certification. The committee went on to say:
“We therefore seek an update by April 2018”.
I hope that that will come forward.
The committee also said of the local authorities that do not come up to scratch that
“aspects of their work relating to building standards”
“been rated as ‘poor performance’”.
Glasgow City Council, which covers my constituency, is one of those local authorities, so I look forward to receiving the report and to finding out exactly what is happening.
I mentioned the two towers, as they are called, on the harbour site. My constituents there are having a horrendous time. We have talked about fire safety; those people are paying £2,000 a day—£2,000 a day—for three gentlemen to walk around with a torch and so on, looking for fire. The residents, who are by no means all rich people—these are not £500,000 flats—might be penalised by having to pay for cladding to be removed and replaced, which could cost between £1 million and £10 million. Who is responsible for that? That is what we are trying to find out. I have met the residents, who have been advised to get a lawyer on board.
That brings me back to the verifier. I am trying to get my head round all the language—“verifier”, “self-certification” and so on. The situation is not really set out in laymen’s terms, but I will do my best. Local Authority Building Standards Scotland says:
“The work of verification has two main elements:
checking that building plans comply with regulations when an application is made for a building warrant, and
undertaking reasonable inquiries to verify that the building work complies with the approved plans, details and with regulations.”
LABSS also says that verifiers can inspect on-going work and
“may also require work to be opened up to show that compliance with the building regulations has been achieved.”
That is a really important point.
On the point about achieving compliance, I want to read from some correspondence with a constituent—I will not name the person. I have had lots and lots of letters from constituents. This is one constituent’s story about what is happening just now in the flats that I talked about in the context of the charge of £2,000 a day and the £10 million that it might cost to fix the cladding. The person wrote:
“I bought the flat 24th June 2005 directly from the builder”—
I think that I can name the builder, because we know who it is—
“Taylor Wimpey, almost 2 months after the change in Building Regulations which had been on the statue books since 2003 and became mandatory on 1st May 2005”.
I would like someone to have a look at this issue and tell me who is responsible. The Building (Scotland) Act 2003 was passed before the buildings were completed, and a person would not have to be Einstein to assume that anyone who was building something would have known about the change in regulations in relation to cladding, which came into force in 2005 in Scotland, which has different regulations from the rest of the UK. I had assumed that a builder would know about that.
The Building (Scotland) Regulations 2004 came into force in May 2005, so if someone bought a flat in June 2005 that has cladding that is now deemed to be dangerous and must be removed, who is responsible for that? That takes me back to the point about verifiers being able to inspect on-going work and to require that work be opened up
“to show that compliance with the building regulations has been achieved.”
Is that the builder’s responsibility? Is it the verifier’s—that is, the council’s responsibility? These things have to be clear, and people need to know exactly what they can do. As I said, those folk are not millionaires—it could be any one of us—and they are stuck in a trap, paying £2,000 a day and facing costs of nearly £10 million to take off the cladding and repair their building.
For that reason, I think that the committee has produced a fantastic report and I am pleased to have been able to speak in the debate, to highlight the matter and to say that the whole issue to do with self-certification and building warrants really needs looked at. I support bringing back clerks of works, to ensure that people know exactly what they are buying.15:14
I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests as I am a councillor on Scottish Borders Council.
I thank the Local Government and Communities Committee for its work. The committee and its clerks deserve praise for their flexibility and willingness to extend the committee’s inquiry to cover issues arising from the Scottish Government’s review following the horrific disaster at Grenfell tower. While we await the outcome of the enquiry into Grenfell, one thing is clear: the fire penetrated every element of the building and compromised the escape routes. The images of acrid black smoke swamping the tower, of flames ripping without mercy through its halls, and the resulting terrible loss of life, underpin why this debate is so important
This subject should not be considered as a reserved issue or a devolved issue. It is an issue that resonates profoundly with us all as parliamentarians, as parents, and as human beings. Ensuring that there is an effective review, and that there is delivery of a robust regulatory framework for building standards and fire safety, is the contribution that we in Parliament can make to minimising the risk that a tragedy like Grenfell will ever happen in Scotland.
The Scottish Conservatives welcome the establishment of the ministerial working group, and we look forward to reviewing its findings, alongside those of the Scottish Government’s consultation. In doing so, I hope that we will also look at the work that is currently being undertaken by the UK Government, which has been taking written evidence from key experts in fire safety since that awful day in London.
I assure members that I have been taking part in the UK ministerial working group. In the interests of sharing information, I and my officials have also talked to Dame Judith Hackitt, who is heading up the UK’s review of building standards. That will continue; we can all learn from one another. Beyond that, I will meet the UK Minister of State for Housing and Planning, Alok Sharma, on Monday. Without doubt, this matter will be on the agenda.
I am delighted to hear that. It is an excellent example of co-operation at a time when it is really needed.
I want to use the time that I have today to flag up a number of important issues around fire safety that arose for me as I studied the committee’s report and from my own research and experience. I acknowledge that the working group has already commissioned, and is making substantial progress with, an inventory and inspection of high-rise domestic buildings in Scotland, which is to be welcomed.
I also note that the committee’s view is that the working group should focus on a review of current building and fire safety regulations and on making necessary changes. I hope that, in doing so, the working group will consider recommending that all regulations and technical guidance be subject to constant review and incremental improvement, so that they can respond to and keep abreast of innovative construction methods, systems and products. That should be underpinned by a robust requirement for, and provision of, on-going training for those who are charged with buildings and fire safety regulations compliance. That is especially the case for fire safety regulations, as current regulations offer little explanation of the rationale.
Inevitably, in the wake of Grenfell, there have been calls for all high-rise domestic properties to be fitted with fire sprinklers. I understand that the ministerial working group will examine that suggestion. Although support for sprinklers is understandably unanimous in the chamber, I urge caution. Without a rigorous maintenance programme, sprinkler systems risk not functioning optimally. Furthermore, sprinklers must not be seen as a risk-reduction measure that reduces the level of fire brigade cover that would be required. The ministerial working group must recognise that maintenance of sprinkler systems is imperative. I hope to see some real and detailed analysis of that in its report.
I agree that sprinklers cannot be a substitute for other measures, but is not Michelle Ballantyne just making a case for making sure that all regulations—not just those for sprinklers—are robust in all regards, and that they are all followed through and inspected properly?
Yes, I agree—but in this case, I am talking specifically about sprinklers. Daniel Johnson is absolutely right that everything should be robustly followed through.
We cannot and should not understate the role of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service in supporting a robust approach to fire safety, and I welcome the minister’s commitment to considering an increased role for the service in the verification process. I trust, however, that any additional role will be properly resourced, given the strain that the SFRS is currently experiencing.
My final point is about an important consideration for fire safety design and advice, going forward. Currently, the term “fire engineer” is not connected to any particular professional qualification and, accordingly, the experience and training of people with that title, and the quality of the advice that they give, can vary. There have been calls for the fire engineering industry to develop a system for establishing competence; I hope that the Government will look at that key area to ensure that the fire safety design of buildings in Scotland, and around the UK, is underpinned in that way.
There should be an holistic joined-up approach to the process for verifying building design before issuing a building warrant in Scotland, and it should be fortified by professional expertise and robust chartership. That means that it should involve the SFRS and local authorities working in conjunction with industry specialists who have expertise in fire dynamics, including toxicology, ignition and chemical interaction, and in the structural design and fire protection of buildings.
The establishment of a ministerial working group is a laudable step forward. I welcome consideration of the role of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service in assessing fire safety in high-rise domestic buildings. I look forward to reviewing the outcome of that body of work which can, I hope, be a catalyst for delivering a fire safety and building regulations framework that is fit for the 21st century.15:21
I congratulate the members of the Local Government and Communities Committee for the work that they have done so far and for bringing the issue to the chamber.
In a matter of weeks, members of Parliament will consider whether to pass on the £300 million of cuts to our services that will be handed down by the Conservative Government. If previous years are anything to go by, it is vital local services and hard-working local government staff that will bear the brunt of any so-called savings. I know that this is not a budget debate, but the decisions that we make in the chamber about how we fund services are fundamental to the debate on building standards and safety in Scotland.
I welcome the report and the committee’s detailed work, and I fully agree that verification must remain a local-government delivered function. As has been mentioned, the backdrop to the committee’s inquiry has been both tragic and eye opening, and a number of members have reminded us how the Grenfell disaster rapidly moved our attention to the importance of building regulations. The committee rightly widened the scope of its inquiry to include that issue, although the impetus for the inquiry was the failure of the private finance initiative agreements leading to scores of schools in Edinburgh being closed.
At the heart of the report is a debate about how we should provide a public service in response to the state being eroded. For Labour members, the response is that we should fight the cuts that have brought us to this point. Our plan is to use our tax powers, recognising that the salami-slicing in local government, which totals £1.5 billion since 2011, is harming the front-line services that we all use and rely on. The cuts have also had a drastic impact on back-office functions such as building standards, in which staff numbers and services have been slashed.
Mark Griffin and I could have an argument across the chamber about resourcing, but we delivered an extra £4 million to local government for local services last year and I have given all local authorities the opportunity to beef up their building standards service by raising their fees, which have not been raised since 2005. Will Mark Griffin join me in urging local authorities to use that money to beef up their building standards services?
I welcome that. There are other ideas flying around, including a similar idea for added fees for the planning service to provide an improved service as well as a similar option for building standards.
However, colleagues in local government and trade unions representing local government staff are telling us about the pressure that back-office staff, in particular, are facing. Just weeks after the Grenfell tower fire, Unison’s report “Building stress: Overworked, stressed and stuck in the office” highlighted that half of all building standards staff are feeling the funding cuts, with nine out of 10 facing heavier workloads. Moreover, there are 56 fewer staff in building standards offices across Scotland than there were in 2010. In short, building standards officers feel overstretched, undervalued and exhausted.
The fact that, months after Grenfell, we belatedly got the news that homes in Glasgow had ACM cladding only underlines Unison’s findings. The message in the report is clear: our local authorities must have the funding to carry out effective verification. Allowing the verification service to be moved away from local authorities would, I think, be a mistake. The point that I want to emphasise—it is not an ideological but a public safety point—is that building standards must be a protected local government service. The arguments have been well rehearsed and cover issues such as impartiality and conflicts of interest, and I firmly believe that the service should remain with local authorities.
There should be no question about who should provide the verification service. Instead, the question that we should be asking is how a quality public service that prioritises public safety should be funded. I would include in such funding the contribution that is made by developers. As I have said, the call from the house-building industry for higher fees in return for a better planning service is constructive. With the economy limping along, I understand the calls for verification to be extended. The NHBC has said that the period for obtaining a stage 1 warrant can vary from two to 45 weeks and that the period for obtaining a stage 2 warrant can vary from nine to 98 weeks. That is just not acceptable. When builders find themselves up against a building standards service that has become glacial as a result of cuts and understaffing, I can understand why our housing crisis is so persistent and remains with us.
Our call for a more comprehensive house-building plan that goes beyond start and completion numbers is alive to that. If we are to achieve the ambition of building 50,000 affordable homes or to revert to pre-crash house-building levels, we really need to take a long, hard look at how we support supply and maintain skills and the planning infrastructure.
The power of verification that we are debating might seem technical, but it is crucial. It is about the impact of austerity on public safety and public services. With the budget due to be published within weeks, we have to think closely about the unintended consequences of the decisions that we make in this chamber.15:28
I thank my committee colleagues, the clerks, the Scottish Parliament information centre and all those who gave evidence to the committee’s inquiry. For the avoidance of doubt, I am responding to the committee’s report on my own behalf and on behalf of the Scottish Green Party.
As others have said, the inquiry began modestly, but the tragic fire at Grenfell tower gave our deliberations an altogether harsher focus. Building regulations exist to ensure that the buildings that we live and work in are safe, meet relevant environmental standards and protect the interests of others in relation to, among other things, fire, noise and odours. In general, it is fair to say that we found our building standards regime to be reasonably robust, but we also found out, in the course of our deliberations, that the system has weaknesses, some of which are substantial. Those weaknesses were brought into sharp focus by the Cole report, which the Education and Skills Committee has been looking at and which will no doubt be a major feature of the Grenfell inquiry. Given the importance of standards, it is vital that they be robust in their terms and rigorously applied in practice.
The issue of verification has been raised this afternoon, and the NHBC and others have told us that they would like the verification that standards are being met to be made available to the private sector. However, I am not persuaded that such a case has been made. I welcome the committee’s recognition that verification should not be tendered to the private sector but should remain within the control of local authorities for
“the benefits of impartiality, accountability and local knowledge”.
I have a wider problem with calls for verification to be opened up to the private sector. As many members know, I have long called for the speculative volume-house-building industry model to be scrapped. It is not fit for purpose and does very little to address the housing crisis beyond inflating house prices and delivering overly costly homes with short design lives. The speculative nature of the model also means that the needs and interests of consumers are nowhere in the process. That is at the root of many of the problems that Mr Simpson’s constituents brought to him.
In addition, the industry is dominated by a few large players with substantial influence in the wider house-building industry. For example, Nicola Barclay, the chief executive of industry body Homes for Scotland, also sits on the board of “The Consumer Code Scheme” for home builders and on the Scottish committee of the NHBC. An oligarchy of large nationwide businesses now dominates, lobbies on and seeks to assert control of housing policy on the basis of its own agenda.
In the past decade, since the start of the recession, we have seen a sharp decline in the number of small and medium-sized businesses that are operating in the house-building sector. That has proved advantageous for large-scale developers, but it delivers little competition or reliability and assurance for the consumer. That is important, particularly in relation to questions that are raised in the committee’s report about the role of a clerk of works and whether that role should be extended in the building industry.
The term “clerk of works” derives from the clerics who were responsible for the supervision of the building of churches from the 13th century onwards. As the Institute of Clerks of Works and Construction Inspectorate, which has a very long history, notes on its website, the role of a clerk of works is a “very isolated” one; clerks must be “absolutely impartial and independent” and are employed by, and accountable to, the client for ensuring building quality. A health board that wishes to procure a new hospital, for example, will employ architects and planning consultants to design new buildings, and it will then put the construction out to tender. The health board will then employ a clerk of works to check that the work of the contractor is done according to the plans, and the clerk of works will look after the interests of the health board as the client.
By definition, the clerk of works cannot be in the pay of the contractor. That principle poses particular problems when applied to the speculative volume house-building industry, which, unusually in a European context, is responsible for the construction of the vast majority of new homes in the UK. The client in the case of the volume house-building industry is the house-building company. Crucially, though, it is not going to be the owner of the building for very long. The company will sell the building after its completion—indeed, often before completion or even before the work starts—and the ultimate client, the future home owner, has no one looking after their interests during construction in the speculative model.
That is one reason why we need to move to a more European model of housing that is self-procured by individuals, co-operatives, councils and others, which typically accounts for 60 to 70 per cent of all new builds in most continental European countries. It is also the reason why having a clerk of works is meaningless in the speculative volume context, because the interests of the speculative volume house builder are not the same as the interests of the person who will ultimately acquire the house and live in it.
The best way to ensure high building standards is, first, as other members have pointed out, to invest in the building surveying profession in local authorities. In that regard, I welcomed the order that we passed at committee some months ago, which allows councils to increase the charges for building standards services. Secondly, we need to move to a model of self-procurement of housing by individuals, co-operatives, housing associations and others. Such a model would drive up standards by ensuring that the interests of the building owner would be represented and protected from the very beginning of a building project.
I look forward to working with the committee to produce a final report in the light of the speeches that have been made in today’s debate. It is important to note that the report that we published contains a number of recommendations, most of which are expressed in the form of questions. They are designed to be answered by MSPs and others who have been engaged in the committee’s work over the length of its inquiry, in order to help us to produce a final report.15:34
As a non-member of the Local Government and Communities Committee, I am not sure that I am in the best position to provide the answers to which Andy Wightman has just referred, but I certainly pay tribute to the committee for the work that it has done and for the recommendations and legitimate and pertinent questions in its interim report. These inquiries are never straightforward, but the committee is to be commended for the way in which it has managed to incorporate the findings of the Cole report and respond to the horrific events of the Grenfell disaster by expanding the inquiry and the evidence that it has taken.
On the latter point, I said last week when Angela Constance made her statement on the work of the ministerial working group that I very much support the three workstreams that she outlined, which Kevin Stewart reiterated. They seem sensible and welcome. However, I also said in response to the statement that, although expanding the role and responsibilities of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service seems reasonable on the back of on-going work on fire safety, the service is, as Mark Griffin said, already under considerable strain. It would therefore be helpful to understand the resourcing of any expansion of those roles and responsibilities.
I turn to the issue of verification. I have listened with interest to colleagues’ contributions and I understand why committee members wrestled with competing interests in considering whether this process and these responsibilities should remain within local authorities or whether they should be outsourced to the private sector. On balance, I accept that, in order to ensure accountability, avoid conflicts of interest and ensure impartiality, the course that the committee recommended is sensible.
However, given that there are capacity issues in a number of local authorities, the option of bringing in support or expertise from the private sector where necessary should remain open. Unison is one of a number of organisations that pointed to the particular strains in local authorities that have resulted from capacity and workload constraints. That applies not simply to verification; we see it arising in relation to building warrants and planning permission, too. The minister made the valid point that any increase in the fees for that work needs to be directed towards improvement in the service that is provided. That will give it legitimacy and ensure the buy-in of those who are subject to the fees.
The Cole report talked about the need to strengthen the verification process. Exploring mandatory inspections is a sensible route to follow, but we need to be clear about the criteria on which such inspections would be based. We also need to make sure that penalties are enforced so that it does not come across as a superficial exercise. There is a sense that more site inspections are needed, but we also require a culture shift within the industry.
I turn to a couple of issues that are tangential to this topic but important nonetheless. I was glad to hear Andy Wightman touch on the fairly centralised approach to the procurement of housing development. In using the Scottish Futures Trust, the Scottish Government has created a situation whereby it is dependent on a few extremely large corporations that are essentially just management contractors. Even when that leads to poor-quality development, there seems to be little risk of recourse and the corporations are not challenged. For example, we would not expect the smallest local authority in the country, Orkney Islands Council, to be capable of taking on Galliford Try, which is a company with a turnover of £3.5 billion.
It strikes me that the portal system for procurement that we have risks locking in monopolistic positions for the major players, which then decide among themselves how they want to divide up different contract opportunities across the country. That is frankly not in the interests of customers, nor is it in the interests of the wider economy, as smaller companies find that their ability to win contracts or secure reasonable margins when they are subcontracted suffers as a consequence. That, in turn, reduces opportunities to develop skills in local economies, particularly in places such as the Highlands and Islands.
My final point is on energy standards in relation to building regulations—the issue will be familiar to the minister, given his various visits to Orkney over the years. There is ample evidence that the application of the building regulations is not necessarily doing what we would expect or want it to do. As the minister will know, I have made the case that Orkney appears to be building in fuel poverty. A fabric-first approach could help to address fuel poverty, reduce bills across the board and reduce emissions. I know that the minister is sympathetic to that argument but, unfortunately, building standards apply the regulations to the letter rather than to the spirit. That needs to be addressed.
I again thank Bob Doris and his committee colleagues for shining a light on a growing landscape where there is clearly work to be done to improve safeguards and to deliver the public policy objectives and the public’s expectations for what should be achieved through building and fire safety regulations. I look forward to seeing the outcome of the committee’s final report.15:40
I am not a member of the Local Government and Communities Committee, but I wanted to speak in the debate because of my casework on developments in my constituency and correspondence from architectural firms that are based in my constituency and because I am mindful of development that will take place in my constituency in years to come.
The report is important and considered, which I strongly welcome. It is significant at a time when house building is so important for the Government’s national policy. For example, nearly 9,000 affordable homes were approved in 2016—a 20 per cent rise, which we all welcomed. As we move forward with social housing and private sector development, it is important that we review where we are today and how building standards have affected the previous phase of development, particularly before the financial crash.
The report challenges us to ensure that new builds in the future are of a high standard in their construction and the quality of build, along with the regulatory framework that governs them. I have heard from a number of constituents who have had problems with their new-build developments that were similar to the problems that have been articulated by other members: dampness, poor insulation, poor workmanship and a lack of recourse. In our determination to build more homes amid Scotland’s current high housing demand, we must make sure that the standards of build are as high as we would want for ourselves and the population of Scotland.
In my experience, the dominance of a few big firms that work with a multitude of subcontractors can play a part in poor building standards. As the report explores, there should be a more systematic and informed approach to the assessment of risk by the people who enforce building standards. For example, we need notifications to the authorities of poorly performing building and construction firms, with mandatory inspections during building alongside the risk-based approach that is currently adopted.
As the report helpfully notes, careful scrutiny will be needed to determine what the best way is to manage this process and what penalties or sanctions should be in place to prevent building works from proceeding without the relevant building control warrant or subsequent inspections.
In Edinburgh, as in other local authority areas, attention is needed to ensure that local authorities continue to be the best bodies to act as verifiers for projects in their areas—that point has been made to me through casework in my constituency. Building control departments can fall short on occasion with the care and attention that they bring to projects, and even simple applications can face delays. Constituents have concerns that too few warrant officers visit sites, which can impact on the quality of build as well as causing delay, as architects, builders and clients are stuck waiting for warrant approval.
Local authority control of verification can offer a guarantee of standards only if local authorities are in a position to staff their relevant departments to meet the required level. Therefore, the fees charged for building standards verification need to meet the cost of providing the service, so I welcome the minister’s recent action to facilitate raising fees and the report recommendations on the matter.
As the report says, buying a house will be for many people the most significant purchase in their lifetime, and it is understandably distressing for home owners when the build quality is substandard. For constituents, that issue has been particularly pertinent to new builds. Therefore, I, too, am interested in a proposed new ombudsman to shine a light on that part of the housing sector. As part of that change, people who have bought or opted to rent a new home off-plan could be given the right to inspect the home prior to the end of the buying or renting process and be able to defer completion until everything is satisfactory.
Any good build process starts with the standards that are expected of those who build our houses—that is hugely important. The recession pushed out as much as half the construction industry’s skilled labour and a fifth of the building workforce is set to retire in the next five to 10 years. Therefore, we face a challenge because of the construction skills gap, and we need to work together to support the education sector in that regard, not least because of the consequences of Brexit on the building construction sector.
An issue in Scotland is that some builders do not have formal qualifications. It is interesting and useful for the debate to make comparisons with Europe in order to consider how we can tackle that and the other challenges together. In my remaining time, I will indicate my understanding of what other European countries do, which is based on constituency correspondence and research.
In Demark, there is a dedicated local government department in every local authority area whose role is to independently survey all newly constructed buildings for quality. Those departments have full legal power and authority to compel builders to rectify all faults before anybody can move into the development. In such cases, the builder is compelled to place a highly visible notice on the property advising that their work is not up to standard and that they have had to carry out repairs. That is an interesting concept.
You have to come to a close, please.
I could go through other examples, but I will write to the minister in that regard.
I warmly welcome the committee’s report and the collective aspiration within it. This is an opportunity, potentially along with the planning and warm homes bills, to make progress on this important issue in our determination to serve our constituents and to enhance the urban environment.
We must now keep strictly to time.14:48
I will certainly endeavour to do so, Presiding Officer.
I welcome the detailed and insightful report prepared by the Local Government and Communities Committee, and I pay tribute to the work of the members and the clerking team.
It is clear that many debates in this Parliament inspire passion from all sides—that is only to be expected in a Parliament as a normal part of parliamentary democracy—but today’s debate is set against the backdrop of two very serious incidents. The first incident was the tragic deaths suffered as a result of the fire at Grenfell tower in June. The second was the collapse of the external wall at Oxgangs primary school, an incident that could have had far more serious consequences. Both incidents exposed weaknesses in the construction work on the buildings and potentially weaknesses in how that construction was regulated. However, much of the committee’s initial work in its inquiry related to private housing construction rather than to those specific situations.
In all the cases, there are shared concerns on how safety is placed at the heart of regulation. The extraordinary circumstances of the two events mentioned have rightly received further scrutiny through the Cole report and the independent public inquiry into Grenfell. As a result, the committee’s report is wide ranging and looks at the question of building regulation and safety as a whole. I will focus on one key issue in relation to its findings and the evidence that was taken.
As the committee’s report acknowledges, a shortage of skilled and well-trained entrants was cited by several contributors as being a significant factor in delays around obtaining building warrants and in undermining compliance with building standards. The Federation of Master Builders echoed the point about a shortage of technical skills across the construction industry in the round and the impact that that has had on building control departments in local authorities across Scotland. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in Scotland pointed to a lack of action on promoting building standards as a career choice.
We know that there are significant issues relating to providing the skilled workforce that will be required in the construction industry in the future. That is not only an economic issue, as we might find in the future that a shortage constrains ambitious policies around building homes and infrastructure. We have seen some positive work on promoting the construction industry, but more needs to be done, particularly on building standards and related occupations.
There is, of course, the wider backdrop of the availability of employment and progression. That is a matter of providing for a healthy economy that is prepared to build, but it is also a significant issue for the public sector as an employer. That is why it was particularly concerning to see respondents such as Highland Council state candidly that local authority succession management in those areas had seemingly “fallen off the radar”. The committee noted Highland Council’s view that
“apprentices and trainee surveyors seem to be a thing of the past.”—[Official Report, Local Government and Communities Committee, 14 June 2017; c 25.]
Overall, the Construction Industry Training Board has identified a need for 12,000 new workers in the construction industry over and above the currently committed modern apprenticeship places. Building safety training is, of course, vital across the industry, but it Is equally necessary that the need for specialists does not go unmet and that whatever solutions we find to enhance the protections that currently exist are adequately resourced and skilled.
The minister outlined some of those issues in response to questions asked by my colleague Alexander Stewart in the committee’s evidence session in September. I welcome the minister’s commitment to working with the industry. He also spoke then about his concern that a number of large firms were not taking on apprentices at the same level as smaller firms were. That could well be a matter that needs to be addressed.
All those skills and employment issues will, of course, be underlined by the accompanying regulation. The Cole report made a number of proposals on areas for the Scottish Government to consider in relation to inspections of building work and penalties where builders have acted improperly and proceeded without the necessary certification and inspections taking place.
One group of professionals that I have not yet touched on is the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. I do not intend to dwell too extensively on the service, except to note its substantial role in visits and inspections. Across Scotland, and particularly in the Highlands and Islands, which is my region, it does excellent work in ensuring fire safety and a preventative approach. I particularly draw attention to the committee’s recommendations in that area and the concern that the Fire Brigades Union Scotland raised on the handover of new-build properties. Its evidence showed that, with that type of property, there is a considerable problem in identifying the formal changeover of responsibility from building control to the fire service. I am sure that the ministerial working group and others will have looked into that concerning issue.
In looking forward to a future in which safety in construction projects is better regulated, it is essential that we get the fundamentals right. That means a real focus on issues such as skills, capacity and workforce planning. I again welcome the work that the committee has brought forward in its report, but it is clear that that is only a starting point for discussions that must take place.15:53
I welcome the committee’s report and our focus today on building and fire safety. That topic continually needs to be addressed for the safety and peace of mind of Scottish citizens.
Much has already been said about the Grenfell tower tragedy. I add only that my heart goes out to the friends and families of those who suffered loss of life, home and property. The residents of Grenfell tower expressed concern on numerous occasions about the safety of the building prior to its destruction. The tragedy has made it abundantly clear that the concerns of tenants and home owners are of the utmost importance. I believe that the UK Government inquiry will be far reaching. It must address all the comments and concerns of residents.
The Scottish Government has made listening to the concerns of residents a top priority and, in that way, is working towards preventing any future disasters. I hope that, through updating fire and building regulations, prevention will be the main cause of a safer Scotland.
Angela Constance, Kevin Stewart, Annabelle Ewing and the ministerial working group have been working hard to assure Scottish citizens of the safety of their homes and buildings. It is of benefit that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has extended its campaign to give fire safety advice to those who live in high-rise buildings. Citizens can simply visit its website and see multistorey flat safety information on the front page. In response to current fears surrounding multistorey flats, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has issued this reassurance to residents of those properties:
“You are at no more risk of having a house fire than those living in other types of house.”
The website is full of useful information and I think that it is important that all of our constituents are aware of what to do in a fire situation.
As the ministerial working group on building and fire safety brings new problems to the forefront of people’s attention, it is our job to make sure that the suggested regulations are quickly put in place. There are several three-storey buildings in my constituency that have a form of outside cladding, and some residents had a misconception that it might be unsafe. Cladding that does not meet performance requirements can be unsafe. However, as we know from the report, cladding is made of different materials. I believe that much is being done to remove any hazardous or potentially dangerous cladding. Therefore, I have no concern regarding the external cladding that was used a number of years ago to upgrade those buildings. I note that that issue involving fire safety is addressed in the Scottish building standards, which state that the external wall cladding should
“achieve a non-combustible reaction to fire classification”
or meet the performance levels when tested. If cladding passes the test, residents should feel secure in residing in that building. As evidenced in the report, however, the cladding on any buildings that is the same as was on the Grenfell tower has been removed or is being removed with haste. In fact, the safety of buildings often goes far beyond cladding and is the combination of numerous factors such as installation of fire doors, smoke detectors, heat detectors and so on.
I note the comments that have been made this afternoon regarding building standards. We must address them.
It is the responsibility of those who are building a structure to make sure that they have adhered to all regulations and that no corners have been cut. However, I also believe that it is important that local authorities retain the control to prevent unsafe buildings from being built. Local authorities should ensure that no detail goes unnoticed by undertaking regular site observations of all new-build projects and of buildings that are being retrofitted. That removes the possibility of a conflict of interest, since a verifier from a local council would primarily be interested in the future safety of the residents. Most councils have done much to improve their performance and I believe that local council verifiers are still the most adept for the challenge at hand.
The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service does a great deal for the people of Scotland and deserves a special tribute to its efforts. We can only imagine the day-to-day life of firefighters. They make sacrifices by working odd hours and by training diligently and, ultimately, they put at risk their own safety to save Scottish lives. We must ensure that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is equipped to deal with and adapt to any and all situations that it must face.
I would also like to pay my compliments to building standards officers and the others who work in those departments. Their work is essential to ensuring the safety of Scottish citizens. In my years as a councillor, I dealt with building control issues on many occasions, and helped constituents with building control and warrant issues. I am grateful to those who dedicate their lives to making our country a safe one. Their job is vital, and they are often under a lot of stress to deliver excellent work in making sure that buildings are up to par. I note the comments about staffing levels that have been made this afternoon. Councils must address that issue.
It is important to remember that buildings are much more than just steel, stone, glass or mortar. Rather, they are where families live, where children learn and where parents work. I commend our Government for proceeding in updating standards with care and concern for our citizens, and all those who work towards making a safer Scotland. I am sure that, in the coming years, we will constantly review building procedures in order to ensure that they are kept up to date.
I thank the committee and the convener for this excellent report, and I look forward to further debates on the issue.15:59
Building regulations and standards, completion certificates, temporary safety certificates—all of those phrases have been the talk of the toon in Edinburgh in recent days, as well as over the past 18 months. Even colleagues from other parts are likely to have heard about the new main stand at Tynecastle stadium and the concern, particularly among Hearts fans, that it be completed on time. Its successful completion ended days and weeks of speculation in the city over whether the stand would receive its temporary safety certificate, as building works continued 24 hours a day in the lead-up to the deadline. The fact that the deadline was met was down to excellent and commendable co-operation between the club and City of Edinburgh Council officials.
Tynecastle stadium has acted as a lifeline for school pupils in Edinburgh in recent times. It was used as a temporary school facility for Edinburgh pupils who were displaced as a result of the schools defects scandal that rocked the city last year. The Cole report arising from that scandal was cited extensively in the committee report. Its findings are far reaching. Professor Cole himself highlighted that lessons learned should extend to procurement and construction in the public and private sectors.
A quotation from the Cole report captures the importance of the issues that we are discussing. In relation to the original incident at Oxgangs school in January 2016, the report said:
“The fact that no injuries or fatalities to children resulted from the collapse of the gable wall at Oxgangs School was a matter of timing and luck. Approximately 9 tons of masonry fell on an area where children could easily have been standing or passing through. One does not require much imagination to think of what the consequences might have been if it had happened an hour or so later.”
That stark statement declares the critical importance of building standards. The message is that cutting corners and bypassing responsibility can lead to loss of life. That is why the Local Government and Communities Committee report is so important and so welcome.
What have we learned from such a major incident, not just for building schools? Cole found that the funding model of public-private partnership was not to blame for what had happened, although it may have affected the mindset of local authorities when it came to responsibilities for projects. Whatever funding model is used, however, there is no excuse for lack of essential scrutiny. There must be a rigorous system of checks and balances that does not simply pass the buck and assume that the contractor is delivering what it has promised. A central part of Cole’s findings was that the City of Edinburgh Council should not have delegated away responsibility and that, instead, independent scrutiny should have been in place.
Cole’s recommendation that public bodies act as “intelligent customers” in procurement processes is highlighted in the Local Government and Communities Committee report. Surely it should be a given that the schools that our young people spend so much time in are safe for them. How is that to be achieved? Among the many recommendations in Cole’s report, I was particularly taken with the idea that a clerk of works should be present at building sites, which appears to be one potential step towards public bodies gaining confidence and becoming intelligent customers.
In the Edinburgh schools case, that could have made all the difference. Problems identified, such as lack of wall and header ties and other brickwork accessories, were parts of the construction that could have been observed during building, before they were covered up by external walls. In the case of the Edinburgh schools scandal, those vital elements were missed. Not only could a traditional clerk of works have identified those problems at the time but, as suggested in Cole’s report, the mere presence of such a person can positively influence the quality of work being done by contractors. Worryingly, though, as Cole states, the inspection role
“traditionally undertaken by a combination of resident architects, resident engineers and Clerks of Works ... has dramatically reduced over recent years, yet the essential role they played does not appear to have been effectively provided for by alternative arrangements within the forms of procurement currently in vogue.”
As seen in Edinburgh, and as the minister recognised in his evidence to the committee, that is false economics.
Many other recommendations in the report are worthy of consideration. However, if the Government takes those on board, it will need to assist in addressing skills shortages in relevant parts of the construction industry, including the availability of properly qualified clerks of works, in partnership with industry itself. The safety of our buildings and those who use them demands it.
To follow on from Ben Macpherson’s comments about the options available in the Danish system, perhaps we even need to consider bringing back the dean of guild court.16:04
It can be a challenge for those of us who have not been on a particular committee during an inquiry to take part in the subsequent committee debate. Committee members have been steeped in the subject for weeks, if not months, and other members cannot possibly have the level of in-depth experience that comes from actually preparing the report. However, we can bring a fresh pair of eyes to look at the topic and my comments today are from that perspective.
Grenfell and the Edinburgh schools have been a major cause of public concern and are reflected in the report. Our thoughts continue to be with those affected and other members have spoken specifically about those events.
However, I want to focus my remarks on new private homes, as that is probably the sector about which I have had most local casework during my years as a councillor, a member of Parliament, and now as a member of the Scottish Parliament. My constituency of Glasgow Shettleston includes an extensive boundary with both North Lanarkshire and South Lanarkshire, where once was green belt. That area has been very popular with builders and households for new housing over the last 20 years.
Paragraphs 68 to 83 of the committee report, on the verification and certification process, and paragraphs 114 to 141, on the accountability and responsibility of builders, were of particular interest, so I will focus on them.
Paragraph 71, on the risk criteria for an inspection plan, was interesting; I was particularly interested in point 6 of that paragraph on contractor competence. Paragraph 73 considers situations in which there have been previous problems with a builder. It has been my experience over nearly 20 years that there are some building companies about which I have seldom, if ever, had complaints from constituents, while there are others about which I have had regular, and in some cases, numerous, complaints. As paragraph 139 suggests, a home is the biggest purchase that most people will make—most members seem to have referred to that—yet sometimes it seems that someone gets more help if they buy a faulty children’s toy or have a dodgy meal in a restaurant.
I will give a recent example and refer to the builder, but I should point out that there have been other builders in similar situations and that this is simply the most recent example. I refer to the new development by Persimmon Homes at what is called Lowlands in Baillieston. I have visited several homes in that development where the internal walls moved when pressed. I also visited a room that was absolutely freezing because the insulation had just been missed out.
If a builder is still on site, I have known residents to paint a large X on the front door by way of warning other prospective buyers about potential problems on that estate. That has proven to be an effective way for the resident to get a builder round to their house quite quickly to sort out problems, although it only works if the builder is still on the estate.
The building tends to be the main focus of attention, but if someone has bought a house at £150,000 or £200,000 and the back garden is subsiding away gradually, or the grass will not grow because the drainage is substandard, those are also serious and potentially expensive problems.
It seems pretty clear that some builders are riskier than others. Being an accountant, I wonder whether there might be lessons to be learned from the audit process that most larger organisations have to go through. The amount of work and detailed checking that external auditors will do depends hugely on assessing risk, including looking at internal controls and internal audit. If those internal controls are strong, the external auditor can rely on them more and reduce the detailed checking that they do, although they can never entirely eliminate it.
Reading the committee report, I wonder whether council building control departments are really assessing risk site by site and builder by builder as thoroughly as they could be. I was concerned by a few things in paragraphs 114 to 141 on accountability. Paragraph 121 quotes City of Edinburgh Council evidence, which included the comments that
“The housebuilding industry needs to be educated to take more responsibility for its actions”
“Greater accountability and traceability should be introduced to encourage individuals to take personal responsibility”.
The use of words such as “educate” and “encourage” strikes me as indicative of a less-than-robust system. That concerns me. I cannot imagine a finance department being encouraged or educated to take responsibility for the organisation’s finances; it is responsible for them.
Paragraph 123 of the committee report mentions an idea that has been recommended in England: that of having an ombudsman—or ombudsperson, perhaps—to mediate between the consumer and the builder or the warranty provider. I have also wondered whether trading standards could be involved. When I have tried that approach in Glasgow, trading standards seem to have relied entirely on the NHBC and the like, but as has been said, the NHBC has a slightly different role, and I do not think that it is seen as being independent in the same way.
On the question of who should verify building standards, I have met the NHBC, and I felt that it put forward quite a strong case. The fact that there are delays in the present system and faults that have been missed suggests that something needs to change. I was interested in its point that the committee asked no questions on that section of the report, whereas it did on others.
The fees system for building warrants is dealt with in paragraphs 43 to 67. The report asks whether the fees should be ring fenced or linked to improvements. Having been a councillor for 10 years, I have some sympathy for local authorities and bit of concern about ring fencing. If there is to be a requirement to keep fees in that service, councils should be allowed to keep full costs such as rent and council overheads.
My final point is one that has been raised with me by a few constituents. Given that the Government is putting money into new homes through, for example, the help-to-buy scheme, some people assume that the Government is giving some kind of stamp of approval with regard to the quality of those homes. Constituents have found it particularly galling that the Government encouraged them and helped them to buy a home, but the home turned out to be substandard.
Anyway, I congratulate the committee on the work that it has done and I encourage it to continue its work in the sector, which is a hugely important one for me and my constituents.
As that was the final speech in the open debate, I would have expected everyone who took part in the debate to be back in the chamber by now.
We move to the closing speeches.16:11
I can safely say that it has been an interesting, engaging and in-depth debate that has raised some big, fundamental questions about what one can expect when one is buying a new-build home and about the safety of our schools and public places. It has also reflected on the tragic events at Grenfell tower and on what we need to learn and do to ensure that our buildings will be safe in the future.
Many members have mentioned the Edinburgh schools crisis. I think that it is incumbent on me to reflect on that, given that it affected my constituency directly in that the catchment area of Oxgangs primary school, which is the school whose wall fell down in January 2016, lies largely within my constituency. St Peter’s primary school, which is also in my constituency, was affected, too. As Gordon Lindhurst pointed out, it was a matter of sheer luck that the 9 tonnes of masonry that fell to the ground did not do anyone any harm, let alone take any lives. We need to bear that in mind as we approach the debate and think about the requirements for building standards.
As Professor Cole pointed out, there needs to be improvement in the level of scrutiny and checking at every stage of the building process. We must ask two fundamental questions. First, how can we change how our buildings are built in the future to ensure that they are checked and verified properly? Secondly—just as important—what steps do we need to take to verify that the buildings that have already been built are safe?
I welcome the debate, and I commend the committee for the novel approach that it has taken of asking Parliament questions and seeking to incorporate the debate on those questions in its report. I think that the committee’s asking of blunt questions about what we should expect, why we should not approach buying a house in the same way as we approach buying other consumer products and what we must do to make our buildings safe has added to the debate.
It is a shame that Andy Wightman is not in the chamber now, because the points that he made went right to the heart of the Cole report. Although he did not mention Cole directly, the question that he asked about who does what, for whom and on whose behalf is the fundamental question that Cole asked. He went through the whole process, from procurement to design, build, handover and maintenance, asking what had gone on at every stage.
The fundamental problem was that local authorities had been treating those building contracts as black boxes, with a reluctance to inspect because, in the words of the report, they were worried about incurring liability themselves. That is fundamentally what has to change. We need the structural components to be certified and checked as they are added.
A number of members have referred to the clerk of works issue in that context. That is a fundamental insight from the Cole report; however, as Jamie Halcro Johnston pointed out, it is also about individual contractors and tradespeople being properly trained. Although we need those skills, we also need those skilled people to take responsibility for their work. That is another key point in the report.
I am glad that the report refers to building control and what we should expect. Sandra White did an excellent job of getting to grips with what the jargon means. Surely, if a building has a certificate, it should be safe. It is remarkable that we have to question that. Sandra White said that we need to “open up” the buildings to check what has been done, and she is correct—that is exactly what we must do. However, that is not happening, because beneath the guise of the risk-based approach there is huge variation in what is being checked and verified. Greater standardisation is, therefore, needed. The tragedy is that that is not happening because of resources.
When we asked those questions at the Education and Skills Committee, the reply was that building standards sections are unable to provide guarantees because they do not have the resources to do so. A significant increase in resources is needed if we want building standards sections to do that. When I put those questions to the minister, he acknowledged that much greater investment is needed if that is what we want. We all know what “greater investment” is a euphemism for in this context but, as Mark Griffin pointed out, building standards is a vital local service that underwrites safety.
I have made myself clear on the issue of investment. That is one the reasons why I took the decision to allow an increase in charges for the first time since 2005. The committee and I have made it plain—as have others in the debate—that local authorities must use those increased resources to build up their building standards sections. If they choose not to do that, I will have to look at that at a later date.
There was a long period—from 2005 to 2017—until the fees were increased. We should question what happened in the meantime.
A number of members mentioned the ministerial working group. Bob Doris was right to urge the Government to instigate an on-going process that will look at the scope of, and undertake, the fundamental work that is needed to make sure that the right safety standards and procedures are in place. Likewise, David Stewart rightly questioned the scope of the work.
There has understandably been a focus on high-rise residential buildings and cladding because those are what triggered the reports, but we must continue to question and probe, because we do not know whether there are other issues. One of the key findings of the report was the failure to install fire-stopping measures in buildings. In evidence to the committee, Professor Cole said that we do not know how big that problem is. As long as we have those “unknown unknowns”, as Donald Rumsfeld put it, we must keep pushing and challenging our building and fire safety regulations. We need an inspection regime that is properly resourced to ensure that all our public buildings are safe.
It is disappointing to note that we still do not have in the chamber a full complement of members who have taken part in the debate.16:19
I am grateful for the opportunity to close on behalf of the Conservatives and as a member of the Local Government and Communities Committee. Members have heard about the opportunity that the committee had to deal with all the issues in its inquiry. We wanted to ensure that we took on board the events that had taken place. The report on the independent inquiry into the construction of Edinburgh schools gave us a lot of food for thought, and the main reason why our inquiry was expanded was the tragic events at Grenfell tower. Many members have outlined the issues relating to the safety of that building and the situation that people found themselves in.
Local authorities are responsible for the enforcement of building regulations, and the Building (Scotland) Act 2003 gives them the power to deal with work that has been done without a building warrant. The committee wanted to examine the parameters and see what is happening with regard to verification across Scotland. In 2005, the building standards system in Scotland was changed to permit the appointment of verifiers and a balanced scorecard approach. We wanted to see how that approach has progressed.
The committee gathered lots of evidence and information. I pay tribute to the organisations and individuals who told us about their situations, including those who told us about the nightmare scenarios that they have faced or the situations that they have found themselves in. The crux of the matter is that individuals told us the facts about how things are and how they should be. They told us their stories of what they have gone through.
More than 90 per cent of the respondents to our online survey talked about the undertaking of verification. Half of them believed that the ability to deal with verification should be extended beyond local authorities, whereas 40 per cent thought that it should remain with local authorities. Notwithstanding that, in March this year, the minister appointed the 32 local authorities as the verifiers for their own geographical areas. Nevertheless, some people believe that the verification role should be extended and expanded, as we heard in evidence.
The minister appointed the local authorities as verifiers for different periods of time, depending on their performance. If some local authorities continue to underperform, they should face the possibility of verification being moved. I welcome the comments that the minister made about local authorities being challenged if they are not doing the job. It is vital that we give the industry and the sector confidence that that will happen. The roles and responsibilities as well as people’s rights must be protected. I thank the minister for those comments.
We have heard many good speeches, but I pay particular tribute to the other Conservative member on the committee, Graham Simpson. He is to be congratulated and commended, because he endeavoured to ensure that all of us took the issue on board. He and I were previously local councillors, and we know about the difficulties that we dealt with in our wards. He had the tenacity to ensure that the report became a reality, and I commend him for that. The evidence spoke volumes about the problems that individuals face.
The committee’s convener, Bob Doris, set the context of the report and talked about how the committee has tackled the issue. He talked about the evidence and about accountability and our being able to monitor the minister’s working group as it progresses. It is vital that we have that contact.
Michelle Ballantyne gave a passionate, knowledgeable and understandable speech, and I pay tribute to Sandra White, who talked about the problems that she faces in her constituency. She mentioned the anxieties that individuals have to deal with daily. Not all of us have that kind of constituency to manage, but we appreciate that it must be a real challenge for Ms White to ensure that her constituents have the information that they require.
David Stewart spoke passionately about his idea for a Scottish solution on fire sprinkler systems. I commend him on his attempts to achieve that. I look forward to seeing his member’s bill on the subject progress and to the discussion that we can all have at that time.
Jamie Halcro Johnston talked about the weaknesses in the industry and said that safety issues should be at the heart of the process, which is what we all want. He talked about the skills shortages in the building industry and the action that is required.
Andy Wightman, who unfortunately is not in the chamber at the moment, talked about the robustness of the system that we have, but said that there are weaknesses in it. I see that Mr Wightman has just arrived in the chamber. He also talked about the crisis that exists in the housing sector because of its speculative nature. That has to be managed, and we must realise that it is a major problem as we go forward.
Liam McArthur thanked the committee for its work and talked about accountability and capacity issues. We all understand that there are capacity issues. Anyone who has been in local government—I was in it for 18 years and other members were in it for similar periods—will know that there are certainly capacity issues that need to be addressed. I am sure that we will continue to challenge ministers and the Government on that.
Ben Macpherson talked about the affordability of homes, the review of building standards and some of the difficulties that he faces in his constituency, which is very different from Sandra White’s constituency. In more affluent areas, people might be trying to achieve different things. There is a balance to be struck between affordability and what individuals aspire to have.
Gordon Lindhurst hit a nerve when he talked about our approach going forward and the risk to lives.
I thank all members for their speeches. As I have said, we need to have confidence that the system has in place the safeguards that will protect the people in our constituencies.
I pay tribute to the clerks and other staff who supported the committee throughout the inquiry process.16:25
I thank all members who have spoken for expressing their views. I assure them that, as we progress our work, I will give careful consideration to what they have said. I apologise, because I will not be able to mention every point that has come up in today’s debate or acknowledge every member’s speech.
I very much thank the Local Government and Communities Committee for its wide-ranging and considered investigation into building standards in Scotland. I also thank the Education and Skills Committee for its previous inquiry. Much of that work will inform and feed into the various reviews that my officials are taking forward.
We all want the houses that we live in and the buildings that we use every day to be as safe as possible. Good building standards underpin the safety of us all. We spend nearly 90 per cent of our time in buildings, so it is vital that we make every possible effort continually to improve our standards.
The safety of people in and around buildings is of paramount importance to ministers and is at the core of the Scottish building standards system. Daniel Johnson and Gordon Lindhurst talked about what happened at Oxgangs. That should not have happened, and it was indeed a matter of “timing and luck” that no one was injured. We need to ensure that we get such things absolutely right.
If our buildings are to be safe, everyone involved needs to play their part. People must all understand their roles and responsibilities and they must understand the roles and responsibilities of other people in the construction chain. That applies all the way through, from procurement and initial and detailed designs, through construction to—most important—final sign-off. We must ensure that everything is done properly.
Local authorities have a role to play, as verifiers. Verification has been the subject of some debate today. I took different steps to my predecessors when I appointed verifiers earlier this year, and I will continue to monitor what is going on across the country. Last week, the City of Edinburgh Council faced an audit from my officials, and Glasgow City Council will face an audit next week. That work will continue, to ensure that there is a drive towards improvement.
Let me turn to the points that members have made, which are the most important aspect of a debate such as this. I assure members that I have made comprehensive notes, so if I do not mention everyone, I will ensure that their comments are fed into the processes that we are undertaking.
David Stewart has a long-standing interest in building standards and fire safety. He has had conversations with the cabinet secretary and has taken part in a number of fora in the Parliament, including events that I have attended. I appreciate his input. On his call to fit sprinklers in new and existing social housing, we have gone further on sprinklers than have other parts of the UK. The review of building standards under the ministerial working group will take account of all relevant evidence, including what is going on in Angus, Fife and Dundee. Anything that makes the people of Scotland safer in their own homes has to be looked at very carefully: we will do that and take action based on the evidence.
Daniel Johnson made some comments about the ministerial working group focusing too much on high-rise buildings. We said that the working group would be a short-term ministerial working group, and that short term has disappeared. We have also said that we will work through the evidence methodically. Obviously Grenfell took our attention, so the first thing that we needed to do was to ensure the safety of folk who live in high-rise properties in Scotland. We will continue to work along those lines until we are absolutely certain that we have captured all the information that we need, and have taken appropriate action. We will then move on to other aspects of building standards and fire safety. We will not ignore those other aspects; we will look at them all.
David Stewart talked about folk in deprived areas who are more at risk of fire. We need to take an evidence-based approach to see exactly what is required to keep people safe, so I assure Mr Stewart that we will look at that in some depth.
Another major issue that has been raised is clerks of works. I expect the roles of clerk of works, and of other professionals, in reassuring building owners who are carrying out work, to be considered again within the remit of the building standards compliance and enforcement group, which is chaired by John Cole.
This morning, I had the great pleasure of meeting a clerk of works at a Link Housing development in Edinburgh. I am always impressed by the detailed knowledge of clerks of works, and by what people have to say about their new homes or buildings when a clerk of works has been involved. Snagging does not seem to be such an issue when that is the case.
The other thing that I did this morning was something that I always do when I visit such sites: I spoke to apprentices. They are the future. We must all encourage more people to go into the construction industry. It has a great future and members from across the parties have a part to play in ensuring that folk enter the industry.
I realise that I am running out of time fast. The setting up of the ministerial working group should reassure Parliament that the Government is committed to ensuring that lessons are learned and action is taken to make buildings safe. We are ready to respond to any new evidence that emerges, whether from the UK or further afield, from our own working group, or from the two review groups on fire safety compliance and enforcement. We will consider the findings in the committee’s report and what has been said in today’s debate, and we will identify the actions that need to be taken.
We will be open and transparent. We appreciate the folks who have fed in to what we have done thus far, and I will appreciate it if all members continued to do so.
I now call Bob Doris to close the debate on behalf of the Local Government and Communities Committee. Will you take us to decision time, please, Mr Doris? That is 4.40, not 5 o’clock.16:33
I am delighted that it is not 5 o’clock and I think that everyone else is, too.
On behalf of the Local Government and Communities Committee, I thank the clerking team, SPICe, which has helped to inform us, all those who gave written and oral evidence, and fellow MSPs. I also thank building control officers the length and breadth of Scotland who do a difficult job in challenging circumstances. This inquiry is no slight on them.
I thank everyone who has given their thoughtful contributions and views today. I am sure that they will assist the committee when we return to the issues next year.
It would be usual for the deputy convener to sum up a committee debate, but Elaine Smith is not able to be with us this afternoon so members are stuck with my second speech. However, I will begin by raising an issue that I know Elaine Smith would have raised had she been here, and that is clerks of works.
Clerks of works were once a regular feature in public construction, acting on behalf of the client to ensure that buildings were constructed to a high quality and helping to ensure that any defects were rectified at the time they arose. However, we have learned that their use has declined over recent years, although some have suggested that a few companies might be beginning to use them more often than they have done.
The presence of clerks of works was recognised in the Cole report as impacting positively on the approach of site operatives to the quality of their work. The minister also commented that the use of clerks of works might involve some spending on the ground but will save a lot more in the future.
Although we recognise that the Cole report was in response to a particular set of circumstances in Edinburgh schools, we are keen that the lessons learned there are considered in a wider context. Therefore, we have recommended that consideration should be given to using clerks of works in a wider range of public sector construction projects, such as those that are high value or very innovative. The positive impact that clerks of works can have on build quality and in addressing defects as they arise was the key reason in persuading us that they should be used more widely.
Also, I note that, in its report on school infrastructure, which followed the Cole report, the Education and Skills Committee said:
“unless there are clear reasons why another method of quality assurance would be more suitable, the employment of a Clerk of Works reporting to the client should be part of every capital project in the public sector.”
I am delighted that, in correspondence to the Education and Skills Committee, the minister signalled that the guidance might be updated to suggest that that should be the case.
This afternoon, we heard from the minister, who said that there should be a risk-based assessment for building warrants and the verification process. The committee believes that there should be a mandatory aspect to that, which does not currently exist. We believe that the use of clerks of works would lend itself to there being less risk in a project, which might then require less attention in the form of on-going checks throughout the construction process. Perhaps we should look at the experience of the builder or the architect, or at the track record of the developer, when deciding how often we should inspect works on the ground.
One of the things that I meant to address in summing up was comments that were made by Liam McArthur and other members about making sure that penalties are in force. We need to look at that very carefully and I assure the convener that we will do that as we progress.
I thank the minister for that information.
Generally, across the board in the chamber, we have identified that clerks of works drive up standards in the construction sector. I note Andy Wightman’s contribution on the conflict over who the clerks of works would be accountable to, which needs to be ironed out, and I appreciate the point that he made about the private sector.
The minister said that we have to attract and retain people with the right skills to the sector, and he mentioned a recent industry summit. Jamie Halcro Johnston, David Stewart and Mark Griffin all made similar points on making sure that the skills are there and are funded in local authority building control departments.
I note that a recent fee increase will give an additional £3.5 million to local authorities, but that money will not be ring fenced and there is some debate about whether it will allow full cost recovery for all the expenses of building control departments. That has to be part of the debate.
I was fascinated by the part of Graham Simpson’s speech about his constituents’ experience of foundation and roofing issues in the construction process. The key thing that I recognised is that the developers dealt with the issue but that, legally, they did not have to. They did so out of good will—as they should—but it should also be an issue of compulsion and enforcement.
John Mason talked about not just bricks and mortar but gardening and landscaping.
I want to put on record my respect for the work that David Stewart has done on fire suppression systems. The committee remains open minded on their use and will listen carefully to the information that David Stewart brought to the chamber. We will also listen carefully to Sandra White. Her suggestion that it is costing £2,000 a day for fire safety in Glasgow harbour sounds as though a private company is profiteering from fire safety, which is not acceptable.
I note that most of us—indeed, just about everyone—want local authority verifiers to be retained, but that does not mean that we do not want standards to be improved in local authorities.
My time is almost up, so I want to finish by saying that our committee will return to the inquiry in the new year and that we look forward to the minister’s updates. However, it would be wrong of me not to finish the debate as we began it—with a comment about Grenfell. One of the issues with Grenfell was that tenants and residents were not listened to and not empowered and that their fears and concerns were not acted on. Richard Lyle put it very well when he said that buildings and houses are not just steel, stone, glass and mortar—they are homes for families—and what our housing associations have done very well in response to Grenfell has been to develop a social community contract with all their residents in high-rises to reassure them that good-quality fire safety measures are in place.
However, we can never be complacent. Our committee will return to the matter in the new year, and we look forward to updating Parliament on it.
That concludes our debate on building regulations and fire safety in Scotland.