Fire Safety: What you can expect
Following the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 there is renewed vigour to improve standards, particularly relating to fire safety. While initially focused on high-rise blocks, increasing attention is moving to other types of properties – and it’s important landlords are aware of the changes coming down the line. Public Affairs Officer James Harvie takes a closer look at what landlords can expect in relation to fire safety.
Cladding crisis continues
A ban on ACM (aluminium composite material) cladding in 2018 required many high-rise buildings – over 18 metres – to strip cladding from their exterior, however finance is an ongoing concern. In turn, lenders are cautious about offering mortgages for properties that could be deemed unsafe. Following further, and broader, government guidance issued in early 2020 many lenders have been requesting External Wall System (EWS1) checks as part of the valuation for all buildings with any cladding, making selling these properties more difficult.
In response, the Government announced in February 2021 that it would make a further £3.5 billion available in grants and loans to address unsafe cladding. This was followed by an update by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) to its guidance notes on valuing residential buildings with cladding, aimed at clarifying where EWS1 forms are required.
Yet, there are many who say this does not go far enough, with variable influence on lenders, and that developers or the government should fund the removal of all unsafe cladding, without making innocent leaseholders bear the cost.
There are also wider fire safety issues which may come into play, such as lack of compartmentation, which inspections prompted by the cladding crisis have highlighted. So, even if cladding is not an immediate issue, if your building was built recently and is still under warranty (eg NHBC 10 year warranty for new builds) it may be easier to make a claim against the developer during this period if you or your freeholder believe it does not meet relevant building control standards.
Whilst certainly the most vocalised issue, cladding removal is only one part of the incoming measures the government will enact to improve safety standards. Over the past year, the NRLA has been liaising with government, the Health and Safety Executive, and other partners in the sector, on the broad scope of work on fire safety.
What else can we expect?
In the Queen’s Speech, the Government reiterated its intention to bring forward a Building Safety Bill. This Bill will implement recommendations made by the Hackitt Review, established by then Home Secretary Sajid Javid after Grenfell.
If passed into law, this will place new responsibilities on developers and freeholders and ensure there is a nominated ‘Accountable Person’ for higher-risk buildings who will be responsible for fire safety. The Accountable Person’s duties will include providing fire safety information and responding to concerns raised by residents and leaseholders. The Government is also setting up a new building safety regulator through the Health and Safety Executive to oversee design, construction and occupation of these buildings, and the accountable persons.
Alongside the Building Safety Bill, the Fire Safety Act 2021 gained Royal Assent this year. The Fire Safety Act amends the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 so that responsible persons for residential buildings with two or more sets of domestic premises must include in their fire risk assessment the structure, external walls – including doors, windows, and anything attached such as balconies – and common parts, as well as all doors opening onto common parts of the building between the premises. All landlords with relevant properties should be aware of the forthcoming changes, although the Act will only come into force after the risk-based guidance has been published – expected in the autumn.
These pieces of legislation will predominantly place responsibilities on developers and freeholders, or landlords of houses in multiple occupation. But the proposed changes to HHSRS will affect all landlords.
The Government announced in 2019 that it will be reviewing the current Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS), used to assess housing conditions, with the intention to update and simplify the process. This is also expected to include a replacement for the LACORS guidance on fire safety. Originally published in 2008, parts of the guidance are outdated.
With new British Standards, updated Building Regulations and the expected changes as part of the Grenfell response, the NRLA and its predecessors has been pushing for the LACORS guidance to be addressed for a number of years. This will be a significant improvement for landlords in providing up-to-date information and worked examples.
What else may need attention?
The management of fire safety is an ever-evolving issue and there are questions still left unanswered. What responsibility does a tenant hold? Will pushes towards more advanced and more energy-efficient buildings introduce new risks to contend with? How should standards be made easier to understand and enforce? Could more advanced in-home monitoring technologies be misused to infringe upon civil liberties?
These questions and more will need greater scrutiny in the coming years and the NRLA will continue to work with the government and others in the sector to ensure forthcoming regulations work for the private rented sector, and that landlords know what they need to do to keep their tenants safe.