by: Mary-Anne Bowring
Prioritise the Voices of Building Occupants
To be effective, the panel must be structured to prioritise the voices of building occupants over those of owners and non-occupying leaseholders. Before the publication of the Building Safety Bill at the beginning of July, during pre-legislative scrutiny from the housing, communities and local government select committee, the government declared that the bill would “put residents at the heart” by “giving residents in higher-risk buildings a stronger voice”. The first phase of the bill is now in our hands, and the idea of a statutory committee in the form of a residents’ panel is firmly front and centre of the government’s strategy for resident engagement. The transition plan suggests it will be introduced at least 12 months after the bill becomes law, 10 months after the limitation period of the Defective Premises Act 1972 is extended. The message from the housing ministry seems to be that consultation with residents already made vulnerable will have to wait – while they grapple with the uncertainty of EWS1 forms, remediation costs, and negligence claims levied against building owners and developers.
What is a residents’ panel in the context of the Building Safety Bill? What is its relationship with the building safety regulator? Is this a genuine attempt at meaningful engagement with those most deeply affected by the cladding scandal, and if so, why is it taking so long to be constituted? A residents’ panel is an incarnation of the “stronger voice” envisaged by the government, made up of residents of “higher-risk” buildings over 18m or seven storeys high, residents’ bodies, and representatives or advocates of residents, as well as non-occupying owners or leaseholders. According to the bill, the panel is to advise the regulator on strategy, complaints procedures and guidance relating to the safety of higher-risk buildings. The regulator is also required to consult the panel before issuing or revising guidance relating to duties owed to affected residents. On the face of it, the categories of engagement appear quite broad. The residents’ panel “must be consulted on guidance relating to residents’ engagement strategy, complaints, duties on residents and owners” or regulations made under any of those headings.
Providing the Right Resources
A second reading, however, reveals a more limited picture of mandatory consultation outside of changes to “guidance”. In those instances, the regulator has discretion over whom to consult, so while the bill provides an example of engagement with the residents’ panel in a situation where the regulator wants to test publicity materials aimed at residents of higher-risk buildings, there’s no guarantee that the panel would be consulted where regulations are amended. The bill refers to the regulator being able “to call on the expertise of the residents’ panel for insight and support”, although this too may be undermined if the weighting of the panel is in favour of non-occupying owners or leaseholders. An effective residents’ panel must put the safety of residents in occupation of higher-risk buildings first, which ultimately means providing the right resources to empower those residents to contribute.
It is difficult to visualise a residents’ panel that does not look like a forum when eligibility is as broad as proposed. The government concedes that it “expects the role of the residents’ panel to evolve over time”, although the issue of who is liable to pay remediation costs is, if unresolved, likely to turn a residents’ panel into a single-issue crucible. The Grenfell Inquiry should serve as an education in the time, detail and personally sensitive nature that needs to be accorded to matters of personal safety. It is a lesson in putting the lived experiences of those most exposed to the “higher risk” that is so casually explained. A residents’ panel, as hopeful as the idea is, cannot undermine the importance of focused dialogue with those who are living in the wake of the cladding scandal.
For the residents’ panel to work, the government needs to set a precedent on what the ideal panel may look like. It must clearly separate the issues faced by occupants and those of owners and non-occupying leaseholders, and put to bed the issue of remediation costs before looking to the panel as a consultee. The panel can only serve as a genuine and representative body for change if its primary concern is safety, rather than survival in the face of excessive debt. Each member of the panel needs to be given their own set of responsibilities to ensure the process is streamlined from the outset. This prevents it from being a box-ticking exercise and fosters a continuity of consultation that embeds residents’ concerns at the heart of decision-making. It ought to be collaborative, without giving undue weight to those with seasoned representation. A “stronger voice” must be the accumulation of many, rather than the preponderance of one.
Mary-anne Bowring: How is the building safety regulator’s residents’ panel going to work?
Keep up to date
(Weekly, fortnightly or monthly)