15 September, 2009
The safety of those residing in tower blocks is currently one of the most important issues affecting the social housing and rented accommodation sectors. Following on from the tragic incident in Camberwell, London in July 2009, the significance of ensuring that all blocks have satisfactory fire safety procedures has arguably never been greater.
Calderdale Council in West Yorkshire has recently become the first to utilise emergency powers to close a particular block after housing providers were warned to check the levels of fire safety after renovation work had been carried out.
The Council served an Emergency Prohibition Order on the 95-flat Dodgeholme Court near Halifax on 30 July 2009 and it is understood to be the first time that the tool has been used on such a large scale. Less than two weeks later, the Council had moved a significant number of the households into alternative accommodation.
It was discovered by the Council that there were significant fire risks at the tower block, which included poor quality fire doors and fire protection panels which were said to be missing.
Under the Housing Act 2004, if a local housing authority is satisfied that a category 1 hazard (the most serious forms of danger) exists at any residential premises and they are satisfied that the hazard involves an imminent risk of serious harm to any of the occupiers, it is open to them to make an emergency prohibition order. This in effect 'shuts down' the premises in order for remedial work to take place.
In August 2009, the Tenant Services Authority (TSA) issued its own guidance into dealing with fire safety matters. The advice states that one of the primary areas which should be checked are fire protection equipment which is incorporated into the actual structure of a building, particularly if any major refurbishment work has been carried out.
The guide also says that housing providers should check how easy it is for fire to enter ducting and false ceilings in properties and examine the fire resistance of wall and ceiling linings.
Instances such as these can only serve to highlight the importance of ensuring that all premises used for residential purposes are maintained to a good level of fire safety. Measures such as Emergency Prohibition Orders, which until now have been used very infrequently, may now be a more common occurrence in preventing future cases of fire protection.
It may be advisable for all providers of rented accommodation to check their properties to ensure that they have no significant fire risks and also to consider what action they could take if such an outcome was to arise.