By Diana Sterck
Following the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower block in Kensington, as I drive around the borough I have spent the last few weeks peering at all the tall buildings and wondering about them. Do they have cladding? Have they had fire risk assessments? Do they have sprinkler system and fire equipment? Do they hold regular fire drills? And the list goes on. And I just think, if I’ve been thinking these sorts of things then I’m pretty sure others have too.
So sitting alongside the Borough Commander for the Merton Fire Brigade in the Merton Partnership meeting last week, I asked him what businesses should be doing and what all of us who work in buildings over 4 storeys tall should be considering. And indeed, what we should be asking if we live in high rise accommodation.
He sent me a pretty full response (below) and, in the light of the suffering and tragedy that those in Kensington have gone through and continue to experience, I wanted to share it with you and for you to consider circulating it to those who you think it might apply to. I feel passionately that the very least I can do is help people understand what they should be asking and acting on, and I hope you feel the same way too.
And, just to remind everyone, you can take advantage of the workshops we hold in Wimbledon to help you meet your obligations as an employer when it comes to fire and risk assessments – click here to book your place.
Legislative and regulatory framework
i. Housing Regulation
The principal regulations for residential premises, including purpose-built blocks of flats, are the Housing Acts 1985 and 2004, which set out the Housing Health and Safety Rating Scheme (HHSRS). These make housing authorities specifically responsible for keeping the condition of housing under review and checking all aspects of health and safety in homes, including fire safety. In London it is the borough councils that are the housing authorities.
ii. Fire Safety Regulation
Fire safety regulations are now covered by the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (the RRO). This is enforced by fire authorities – in London this is the London Fire Brigade (as London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority). These regulations do not apply to residential premises themselves i.e. inside a flat, but do apply to common parts of blocks of flats. The regulations require those who control the premises to make a fire risk assessment and provide the various fire precautions indicated by the risk assessment. Fire authorities can enforce when these are inadequate or not done at all.
iii. Building Regulations
Almost all building work must meet standards for safety required by the Building Act 1984 and Building Regulations 2010. In particular, much building work requires specific approval from a building control body who will monitor and inspect the building process. This can be either the local authority or Approved Inspectors in the private sector – the person carrying out the work can decide who to approve the work. The local authority has power to enforce building standards – but only if a breach is discovered within tight time limits from the end of construction.
Responsibility for fire safety
The responsibility for ensuring a building is safe and meets fire safety regulations sits with the owners/managers of the building. The enforcement of fire safety in residential premises is split between the fire and rescue service (FRS) and the local housing authority (LHA). As above, in London the LHAs are the London borough councils and the common council of the City of London.
The Housing Acts 1985 and 2004 make housing authorities specifically responsible for keeping the condition of all housing in their area, including their own housing stock, under review and for checking all aspects of health and safety, including fire safety. The legal duty on local housing authorities applies in respect of the whole building including the private living accommodation.
Additionally, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (RRO) 2005 relates to fire safety in parts of blocks of flats which are used in common by more than one flat. Typically these are entrance halls, corridors, lobbies or landings, stairways, lifts and lift shafts, services shafts, bin chutes etc. It does not extend beyond the front doors of flats or maisonettes into people’s homes. Although it has not been tested in court, the view from government is that this does not extend to external facades.
The RRO places responsibility for fire safety in the hands of the ‘responsible person’ i.e. the person with actual control of the premises. It requires the responsible person to carry out a fire risk assessment, act on its findings and keep it under review for each of these premises. A fire risk assessment helps to identify all the fire hazards and risks in the property so that the responsible person can make a decisions on whether any risks identified are acceptable or where something needs to be done to reduce or control them.
Fire and rescue services deliver their enforcement duties through audits by their fire safety inspecting officers. These officers are trained to check a premises’ compliance with the RRO. They are not responsible for, trained, experienced or skilled to assess the compliance of building (including cladding systems) to building regulations. Fire authorities have to rely on the building regulations system having produced safe and compliant buildings.
Cladding – compliance with building regulations
Cladding systems for use on buildings need to comply with Part B4 of the building regulations which requires a limit to the speed at which fire can spread over the external face of the building or may contribute to a fire. In order to comply with the building regulations, the cladding system is tested on the substrate to which it is to be fixed and using the prescribed fixing method. If any of these elements are later changed during the installation to a building, the compliance with the standard required by the regulations might be compromised and the safety of the cladding system cannot be assured.
Local housing authorities can enforce across the whole building through the Housing Act, although the Act gives no guidance on how this relates to cladding. Local authority building control is responsible for ensuring installations comply with building regulations but in practice the ability to enforce this is time limited, believed to be up to 12 years after installation depending on the circumstances. If an Approved Inspector is used, the local authority’s building control may well not see what is actually being built.
The responsibility for the safety of a building and thereby any cladding system attached to it rests with the building owners/managers, who must ensure any cladding added is compliant with building regulations standards. The testing regime for cladding systems is rigorous and involves constructing a replica installation equal to three floors of a building, including substrate and fixing methodology as referenced above. It therefore follows that the compliance of a cladding system with building regulations cannot be guaranteed by a simple visual audit after construction. It requires a high level of technical competence to examine the cladding systems, interpret technical specifications for the fitting methodology and in some cases where the relevant technical specifications cannot be supplied or referenced (more likely in older installations) dismantle and test the cladding system to ensure compliance.
Safety checks following Prime Minister’s announcement on panels (on 22 June 2017)
The government asked for local authorities and other registered providers of social housing to identify whether any panels used on new or refurbished buildings were of a particular type of cladding made of Aluminium Composite Material (ACM). In London, the local authorities where these ACM panels have been identified are being contacted and asked to take action.
Alongside this work, London Fire Brigade crews are visiting the premises identified to check the fire safety of the building and make sure that in the event of a fire, firefighting facilities are all in place.
The Brigade’s fire safety inspecting officers are also carrying out more in-depth inspections jointly with representatives of housing providers as part of an on-going process to check the general fire precautions within buildings, for example that fire doors are correctly fitted and self closing, and that escape routes are clear. Inspecting officers will advise housing providers on any immediate actions that need to be taken, but all housing providers need to have looked at their own risk assessment before Brigade visits.
Further advice and LFB Statements
We have issued a press release re-stating our stay put advice for people who live in purpose built blocks of flats and maisonettes – it is really focussed on practical advice for tenants and is being promoted on social media too. The press release can be found here:-
It also links to content on the LFB website about fire safety in purpose built blocks of flats and maisonettes, the key pages are:
• For tenants – this includes animations and info about “Know the Plan”
• For landlords – links to relevant legislation and landlords responsibilities
London Councils have circulated this information widely to all local authorities, asking them to share this information with their residents .
In addition, following the statement from the statement from the Prime Minster earlier on Grenfell Tower and the government scheme for testing cladding, we issued this statement explaining what the we are doing to help ensure the safety of blocks in London: http://www.london-fire.gov.uk/news/LatestNewsReleases_Brigade-safety-checks-following-PM-panel-announcement.asp
Finally the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 applies to all buildings and businesses other than single private dwellings. So the pertinent information here should also apply to all businesses in the Borough.
If you require any further advice or assistance please don’t hesitate to contact me
Darren Tulley BSc(hons) GIFireE
Borough Commander | London Borough of Merton | London Fire Brigade
020 8555 1200 x 26021 | 07825 996398 | E120 | firstname.lastname@example.org