Jocelyne Fleming: Draft cladding legislation has uncovered an uncomfortable truth

Jocelyne Fleming: Draft cladding legislation has uncovered an uncomfortable truth

Jocelyne Fleming

In this month’s CIOB Column for SCN, policy and public affairs officer Jocelyne Fleming argues that draft cladding legislation has highlighted Scotland’s wider built environment safety challenge.

Everyone deserves a safe place to sleep at night.

At the tail end of 2023, the Scottish Government published draft legislation to establish new powers for ministers to address ongoing cladding challenges across the country. This bill is a small, but necessary, step forward in improving the safety of Scotland’s homes.

However, the development of this legislation has highlighted a disconcerting legislative gap in Scotland. In collecting evidence on the draft bill, members of the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee have asked key questions about the scope of Single Building Assessments (SBAs), one fundamental framework enabled by legislation.

Though the specifications are to be determined, SBAs are slated to become the mechanism used to assess buildings for problematic cladding and identify those that require remediation. MSPs have asked whether SBAs should look beyond cladding – perhaps to assess fire doors, smoke alarm systems and overall building safety. Rightfully suggesting we need to find out about the safety of buildings beyond just cladding.

In following this line of thinking, the Committee has highlighted an uncomfortable truth. In the absence of legally mandated, regularly occurring building or fire safety audits for domestic properties, and further complicated by Scotland’s complex tenure system, identifying and undertaking building repair, maintenance and improvement is immensely challenging. Essentially, we do not have the frameworks and mechanisms in place to effectively assess, address, and maintain the safety of Scotland’s homes.

The Committee has posed questions about mechanisms that could possibly close this gap, such as establishing something like a ‘building MOT.’ In a parallel but closely related workstream, the Chartered Institute of Building has been part of a Tenement Maintenance Working Group, charged with developing a draft framework for a five-yearly building passport. These are important conversations, and it seems inevitable that, in time, some system should come into place.

However, as we’ve learned from the cladding challenge so far, identifying building safety concerns can leave homeowners in limbo – risking their ability to sell, insure, and finance their homes. If we roll out building MOTs or five-yearly passports without proper thought about the ways we implement these systems, we need to consider whether we could conceivably risk putting an ever-larger cohort of homeowners into a similar position.

With the recent news of a safety-related building evacuation in Edinburgh, we must ask ourselves what we need to do to start addressing wider building safety now. As it stands, in the absence of legally mandated building safety assessment protocols, we simply don’t know how safe our homes are.

I cannot stress enough the complexity of this challenge and the significant and careful consideration that must be given to how we tackle it. First, we need to develop systems to ensure that financial resources are in place later to carry out safety inspections and give owners and residents the financial and legal wherewithal to rapidly and properly undertake repairs to address safety concerns where they are identified.

The draft Cladding Remediation bill is an imperative step towards addressing fire and building safety in Scotland and urgent action to remediate buildings with unsafe cladding remains paramount. However, we must also accept the broader challenges facing Scotland’s built environment and start to consider a path forward that allows us to bring properties up to safe standards and ensure the safety of Scotland’s homes.

We have big hills to climb.

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