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The Fire Safety Bill (FSB) received Royal Assent on 29 April 2021, enacting the Fire Safety Act 2021 (the Act). Although parts of the Act will not come into force immediately, it is seen as a positive step towards improving fire safety in buildings in England and Wales and forms part of a series of proposed changes to fire and building safety in response to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.

What are the main changes brought about by the Act?

The Act provides much needed clarification on the scope of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (RRO), which sets out the legal duties of a ‘responsible person’ with regards to management of fire safety in non-domestic premises in England and Wales.

The main changes brought about by the introduction of the Act are as follows:

1.    Clarification that the RRO applies to all multi-occupied residential buildings and is not dependent on the height of the building.

2.    ‘responsible persons’ must now assess, manage and reduce the fire risk posed by:

a.    the structure and external walls of the building for which they are responsible, including cladding, balconies and windows; and

b.    all individual doors (including those to individual flats) that open into common parts of any building.

3.    Extension of the Fire and Rescue Service regulatory powers to include enforcement against non-compliance in relation to external walls and individual doors opening onto the common parts of any premises.

4.    The Act also provides a foundation for secondary legislation to take forward recommendations from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry Phase 1 Report, which suggests that building owners should be responsible for:

a.    regularly reviewing and updating evacuation plans (which includes personal plans for residents whose ability to evacuate may be compromised);

b.    providing easy to understand fire safety instructions for all residents; and

c.    regular lift inspections and reporting on the findings. Such reports are to be made available to the local Fire and Rescue Service.

For many commentators, neither the FSB nor the Act (as enacted) go as far as they had hoped or expected in terms of addressing the numerous safety issues highlighted by the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

What other measures are being taken?

Alongside the Act, a number of actions are being undertaken by the Government to improve building and fire safety. Most notably, the enactment of the Building Safety Act (BSA) when the latter comes into force, which is not expected until 2023. The underpinning intention of the BSA is to enhance the existing regulatory regime for building, design and construction, with a particular focus on high rise residential premises.

The BSA will bring about the establishment of a new Building Safety Regulator (BSR), which will focus on:

1.    overseeing the safety and standard of all buildings;

2.    assuring the safety of higher-risk buildings; and

3.    improving the competence of people responsible for managing and overseeing building work.

At present, it is unclear how the two regimes will operate but it is clear that alignment between them will be important given that there will be some overlap. More details will follow but it is envisaged that duty holders under both regimes will need to communicate and co-operate with each other in order to ensure that any building, as a whole, is effectively managed.

As a reminder, the Government has also taken further action to:

1.    ban the use of combustible materials on external walls of high-rise buildings;

2.    publish clearer guidelines on existing regulations that building owners must follow;

3.    make it mandatory for sprinklers to be fitted in all new blocks of flats over 11 metres high;

4.    provide £600 million to remove and replace unsafe Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) cladding from both private and social-sector homes over 18 metres high;

5.    provide £1 billion to remove and replace non-ACM cladding materials from high-rise residential blocks;

6.    steps to ensure that remedial works to existing buildings are not delayed any further. The Government has announced that it will “name and shame” building owners who have not started to remove unsafe cladding; and

7.    relaunch the “Fire Kills” campaign.

What will organisations need to review in light of the Act to ensure their operations are compliant and the fire safety measures are to up to date?

In terms of immediate action, ‘responsible persons’ should (if they have not already) review their fire risk assessments to ensure that they take into account the external façade and individual entrance doors.

Owners of multi-occupied buildings should also implement a suitable system of inspection and maintenance and review/update their fire strategies and evacuation procedures.

What are the potential consequences?

It is a criminal offence if you fail to comply with the RRO. The Fire and Rescue Service has various statutory powers which includes service of enforcement and prohibition notices to serve compliance. It is also within the regulator’s power to prosecute and those found to be in breach of the RRO will be subject to unlimited fines.

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