02 May, 2023
It is almost six years since the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy, which highlighted pitfalls in fire safety regulation and guidance for those living in high rise flat blocks. The subsequent Grenfell Inquiry stressed the importance of prioritising fire safety for the housing sector as a whole through their recommendations. The Government has echoed this sentiment through the introduction of the Fire Safety (England) Regulations 2022 "(FS(E)R 2022)" which came into force on 23rd January 2023.
The Housing Ombudsman recently stated that although many landlord's responses have improved regarding complaints involving cladding and fire safety cases, 'Social Landlords still have learning to do' after the watchdog discovered various findings in respect of handling tenant's complaints such as maladministration, lack of effective communication and regard for fire safety.
Landlords will no longer have a place to hide from complying with any fire safety recommendations. Regulation 10 of the FS(E)R 2022 requires fire doors in buildings over 11 metres in height in domestic premises to be checked in communal areas at least every 3 months and those which are at the entrances of individual domestic premises at least every 12 months. The 'responsible person' must use their 'best endeavours' when checking the safety and compliance of those fire doors. It should be noted that the new rules only apply in England. In Scotland, guidance published in February 2021 already stated that fire doors should be inspected every six months. There are no new regulations which apply to Wales; however, the country is covered in more broad terms by the Fire Safety Act 2021.
The mandatory introduction of requirements for fire safety in high rise residential buildings will serve as peace of mind for tenants, given that following the Grenfell Inquiry it was revealed that poorly functioning fire doors assisted in the spread of the fire; however, the introduction of the regulations isn't without its potential drawbacks for social landlords.
Firstly, it is unclear how social landlords should comply with the regulations. The guidance states that it is not required for a specialist to carry the checks out and that "caretakers, managing agents, housing officers and maintenance personnel" should suffice; however, there is criticism from those within the fire safety industry about the potential for underqualified people to carry out such vital work. It is said that if social landlords were to pay for qualified professionals to inspect fire doors at a cost on average of £20-£40 per door, the costs for the housing associations for a high-rise block of flats would be astronomical. In addition to the fees of paying for a professional expert, it cannot be guaranteed that all inspectors are accredited, and this may lead to 'cowboy' fire safety inspectors, with no professional qualifications taking advantage of the increased regulation in this area.
Some social housing associations, however, are surpassing their statutory obligations by choosing to train their staff on the regulations and how to effectively conduct checks 'in-house' ensuring that specialist staff are qualified to be making potentially lifesaving decisions, others are choosing to use contractors.
It has been reported that other housing associations are also redefining the status quo when it comes to fire safety guidance with one housing association rejecting the long followed 'stay put' government guidance in the event of a fire in blocks of flats completely. The government's guidance was based upon the idea that residents staying put would ultimately compartmentalise the fire, however, this has been criticised following Grenfell. Instead, the provider has implemented a range of back ups in the event of a fire, such as firstly a fire sprinkler to suppress the fire, compartmentalisation to contain it and evacuation to remove everybody from the premises in the event that the first two steps fail. There are gaps however in this method, as it assumes that all tenants can self-evacuate and are not classed as disabled, which was another criticism following the Grenfell Inquiry, as the disabled residents formed the largest percentage of a group who died during the tragedy. The government was criticised for not bringing in guidance for landlords for those individuals who are unable to self-evacuate due to disabilities in the event of a fire through personal emergency evacuation plans, as they deemed it not 'proportionate' to do so. The provider in this case has stated they were unable to find a solution to this issue but that they had offered the opportunity to relocate to any resident who would struggle to evacuate without assistance.
The topic of fire safety and the specific context of social housing is not going away any time soon. Social Landlords need to somehow strike a balance between ensuring they are complying with these important regulations and prioritising their Tenants' safety and the cost of implementing these measures within the confines of their already existing funding constraints.
For more information contact Catherine Kennedy in our Housing & Regeneration department via email or phone on 01772 220162. Alternatively send any question through to Forbes Solicitors via our online Contact Form.
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