The new Parliament will likely consider or oversee critical changes in building regulations and safety in the coming year. Drivers include the Government response to the Grenfell Tower fire, along with a need to reduce emissions from housing to meet the UK’s net zero emissions target.

Why an interest in building law?

Building regulation changes happen in England (and the devolved nations) on a regular basis, mainly through statutory instrument. Upcoming changes are likely to be higher profile, need primary legislation and may feature in a Queen’s Speech. They will also capture greater interest than prior changes.

Following the Grenfell fire, the Government asked Dame Judith Hackitt to lead a review of building regulations and fire safety. An interim report was published in December 2017 and the final report followed on 17 May 2018. The main recommendation was a new regulatory system for high-rise residential buildings, covering both the building and occupation.

A series of actions, proposals and consultations were outlined in the Government’s 2018 implementation plan, some requiring primary legislation. Proposals may also arise as the Grenfell Tower public inquiry continues; the 2019 phase 1 report recommended statutory requirements for high-rise building safety, and phase 2 of the inquiry will start in 2020.

So far, the main consultation has been around building safety in high-rise buildings (see below). Other consultations included a review of the building regulation guidance on fire safety and the use of sprinklers. The new Parliament will have to scrutinise the decisions on the final rules.

Parliamentary committees are also interested. The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee has considered building safety issues. In July 2019 it criticised the Government’s pace of change in this area, considering it ‘far too slow’.

What involvement does Parliament actually have?

Building work is governed by Building Regulations, which in England and Wales apply under the Building Act 1984 and the Building Regulations 2010 (both as amended). Powers are now devolved to Wales, while Scotland has a different legal basis for their regulations. Building regulations are important because they set minimum standards for new buildings. These cover health, safety, welfare and convenience of people using or affected by a building. They also include conserving water and energy, and reducing waste.

Introducing the future homes standard

Fuel use in housing contributes around 15% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions. The previous Government was consulting on a new Future Homes Standard to reduce emissions levels allowed from new homes by changing building regulations. This is important to contribute to meeting the current 2050 net zero target. These changes would come into force in two stages in 2020 and 2025. Also, they cover only new homes, so other policies will be needed to deal with existing homes. Nor is it the first policy in this area; the 2015 Conservative Government scrapped a previous plan for new zero carbon homes.

The consultation suggests a two-stage approach: measures to achieve either a 20% or 31% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions in the 2020 regulations compared to the 2013 rules; and a 75-80% reduction is the aim for 2025. The same document promised further consultations on non-domestic buildings and for when work is undertaken on existing housing.

The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee has been critical of the Government’s progress on energy efficiency in several areas. Recent recommendations included the swift introduction of the Future Homes Standard along with the closing of what they call ‘loopholes’ in the regulations.

A building safety law ready to go?

In the 2019 session, the Government promised legislation on building safety standards. This would be based around the consultation opened by the Government in June 2019 on building safety. It was reported that they were wider than the Hackitt Review proposed, and concerns have been raised about additional costs for existing buildings, particularly in the social sector.

If this legislation reappears, along with a response to the consultation, it is likely to include a new safety framework for high-rise residential buildings; accountabilities and duties for buildings’ design, construction and occupation; stronger enforcement and sanctions; and a new framework for construction products across the UK. The Conservative manifesto commits to continue this work. The Labour manifesto included ‘system-wide’ change, with mandatory building standards and a fire safety fund for high-rise residential local authority and housing association buildings.

Some of the changes might not mean primary legislation but will also have long-term impact through to 2050. The next Parliament will see MPs scrutinise these changes in a variety of the ways, both in the Chamber and in Committees, and also by seeing the impact on local developments, businesses and the homes of constituents.

Further reading

Insights for the new Parliament

This article is part of our series of Insights for the new Parliament. This series covers a range of topics that will take centre stage in UK and international politics in the new Parliament.