Building safety revamp: what it means for residents and construction professionals

Two people sitting at a desk with pens and pads of paper

Anna Britland and Sarah Western are part of the construction team at Greene & Greene Solicitors - Credit: Greene & Greene

Sue Wilcock speaks to Sarah Western, partner at Greene & Greene Solicitors in Bury St Edmunds, about the Building Safety Bill which comes into force this year. 

The catastrophic Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 brought building safety sharply into focus. It sent shockwaves through the construction industry, and as a result initiated major changes in numerous aspects of building safety. 

The Building Safety Bill 2021, which is expected to become law this year, sets out new competency requirements that parties involved in the design and construction of buildings will have to comply with. It seeks to improve safety standards and encompasses a more onerous regime on ‘higher risk buildings’ which includes anything that is over 18 metres tall. There will be criminal sanctions for breaches by companies and directors, including unlimited fines and imprisonment for up to two years. 

The Bill has been amended several times since its introduction in July 2021 and is quite controversial in parts. 

As Sarah Western explains: “The implications of the Building Safety Bill are significant for all those involved in construction projects. Most notably, the time limit under which a resident can make a claim for defects will now be 30 years as opposed to the current six years and it will apply retrospectively. This means that properties defectively constructed in 1992 could be subject to a claim. However, there are issues as to how this will work in practice. 

“From a legal perspective, it will be particularly difficult for a resident to make a valid claim if the documents, or parties involved in the project, no longer exist e.g., if they are now insolvent. There also may not be insurance in place.” 

There have been calls from many industry bodies that parts of the Bill may be unworkable in practice. CIAT (Chartered Institute of Architectural Technologists) has raised concerns that the extended limitation period is in danger of persecuting innocent parties who have no means to defend themselves, without any realistic positive outcome for the resident. The reality of the situation is that most of the professional service providers in the industry are SMEs or sole practitioners, with limited ability to pay out on any such claims. 

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The Hackitt Report, ‘Building a Safer Future’, which resulted from the Grenfell tragedy, recommended that all high-risk residential buildings should have a ‘golden thread of information’ detailing how the asset was designed, built and is being maintained. This live document would then be held digitally and exist alongside the physical asset. This is set to be a legal requirement under the new legislation, and construction firms will now have to work out how they will deliver on this. 

Despite the concerns, the Bill is clearly seeking to improve things for residents going forwards and there are benefits. As well as giving a clearer oversight and accountability for the safety of buildings, there will be an undertaking that more frequent and detailed inspections will be carried out by higher qualified persons with residents knowing who is accountable and what they should do if there is a problem. 

The Bill will also bring an assurance and confidence in building safety. This is particularly important for mortgage lenders and insurers. Since Grenfell, residents of high-rise buildings have found it very difficult to get mortgages, and insurance premiums have been very high - the new laws should make these processes easier and cheaper. 

Mark Hart is Joint MD of Barnes Construction and welcomes any legislation that supports building safely and responsibly. “As an industry we have a duty to make sure that what we build is safe, secure and robust, whatever its use. The introduction of the Building Safety Bill ensures that all those working in construction have safety as a priority, and that the issue of a lack of accountability during the life cycle of a building is addressed. We strongly believe that an independent building safety regulator is a key step forward and one that we fully support. 

“The advantages of the new legislation for residents are clear,” Mrs Western added. “However, our clients, who include contractors, developers, consultants, employers and manufacturers, will have a lot of work to do to ensure that they are both up to speed and can quickly adapt their practices to the new requirements. I envisage that many construction professionals will need their standard terms and conditions and other contracts reviewed and updated to encapsulate the new rules and to also give additional protection where possible.”