The 2021 Fire Safety bill has now passed into law, but what are the implications for those responsible for social housing and multi-tenanted buildings?
Social housing and fire safety - a new chapter
For years now, following the Grenfell tragedy, owners of social housing stock and HMOs have been seeking clarification about what they should be doing to comply with the law and keep occupants safe.
Historically, there has been a lack of knowledge around key legislation and its implications for these kind of buildings and their operators. In 2014 one piece of research concluded that:
50% of those responsible for managing fire safety in multi-occupancy buildings were simply unaware of their legal obligations around the installation of fire doors.
Meanwhile, research in the last year has shown that fire safety now ranks as a top concern for social housing landlords including local authorities, care/retirement home operators, housing associations and others.
These concerns include the extent (and expense) of fire safety remedial work required on the ‘communal areas’ of properties and the best way to manage these with the tenants, owners and co-owners who occupy them.
Who's responsible for communal areas?
The exact definition of ‘communal areas’ or ‘common parts’ has been preoccupying the industry for some time. Do the communal areas of a building include the doors to individual apartments, their windows, balconies and external cladding? Or should responsibility for their fire safety devolve to the individual leaseholders of flats? It was just this lack of clarity in the regulation that allowed responsibility for monitoring and maintaining the fire safety of these parts of a building to fall between the gaps, contributing to the tragedy at Grenfell.
Following the successful passage of the Fire Safety Bill 2021 through parliament, however, there is now clear guidance about what constitutes the ‘communal parts’ of a building and exactly who must take responsibility for fire protection in these areas.
How does the Fire Safety Bill 2021 clarify responsibilities?
The Bill finally clarifies the provisions of the Regulatory Reform Order Act (2005).
“The Bill clarifies that for any building containing two or more sets of domestic premises the Order applies to the building’s structure and external walls and any common parts, including the front doors of residential areas. It also clarifies that references to external walls in the Order include “doors or windows in those walls” and “anything attached to the exterior of those walls (including balconies).” These amendments to the Order aim to increase enforcement action in these areas, particularly where remediation of aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding is not taking place.”
Regardless of whether flats within buildings are in shared ownership, owned by leaseholders or tenanted it is the ‘person responsible’ (the building owner or operator) who must take action to ensure individual front doors are fire safe - and that the windows, cladding, balconies and external doors related to that flat meet the regulation.
The Fire Safety Bill - what social housing managers must do
If you are responsible for the common parts of a building you now must include those elements in a fire risk assessment and in the remedial action you take to safeguard occupants.
The fire risk assessment should take the following format:
1. Identify fire hazards
Your responsibility to identify fire hazards now extends to doors into flats as well as windows, and external cladding. But these may have been compromised over the years by:
- Occupant DIY (replacements, installation of cat flaps etc)
- Landlord refurbishment
As a result, you should pay special attention to them in your risk assessment determining if the quality of materials used or mistakes in fitting have compromised their ability to meet the regulation and control the spread of fire.
In Grenfell it was found that some errors made in the fitting of fire doors could have contributed to the disaster.
2. Identify people at risk
In social housing particularly there could be many groups of people resident who will find it particularly difficult to evacuate in the event of fire. You should consider each of these groups e.g. the deaf, blind, wheelchair uses, the elderly, mentally ill etc and their specific needs. Some tenants/occupants may live in adapted properties and have technical devices to help them move around their property - you should take note of their needs and liaise with them/their carers where appropriate to determine how they should be assisted.
3. Evaluate, remove or reduce and protect against remaining risk
Once you have identified the hazards and identified the special needs of your residents you should look to control the risk of the spread of fire and unsuccessful evacuation.
Special action will need to be taken if fire doors are found to be inadequate - and action on cladding will be required where it is deemed dangerous.
There are a host of requirements for the removal of hazardous materials and the placement of fire alarms and extinguishers in the RRO. But social housing operators should also consider how to provide for the safe evacuation of those with special needs.
You should also consider how the alarm system you have selected will be able to alert those with hearing problems, if disabled refuge alarms are appropriate in the property and if voice alarm and public address systems will work for those whom English is not their first language.
You should consider whether everyone in the building has access to an evacuation route that they can safely use. Similarly you should consider if evacuation plans and notices are accessible and readable by the people at risk that you identified in the previous stage.
4. Record, plan, instruct, inform and train
Following the first stage of the risk assessment you should document, plan and work with the relevant people to inform and instruct occupants about what to do in the event of fire.
Record any major findings and action you have taken.
- Discuss and work with other responsible people
- Prepare an emergency plan
- Inform and instruct relevant people
- Provide training
5. Ensure that you regularly review your risk assessment
Make sure you revisit and renew your risk assessment every year to ensure nothing has changed. Busy working buildings are always being officially (and unofficially) changed and altered. Unless you’re formally reviewing what’s going on within them, it’s easy to become non-compliant and know nothing about it.
Is that all?
In the next few years we expect there will be additions to the legislation which will be especially relevant to social housing operators. These include a formal requirement to develop personal evacuation plans for vulnerable occupants.
Will you need an EAS?
For specific advice on this refer to our previous blogs, but in high rise blocks a separate EAS (Evacuation Alert System) is also likely to become a requirement in the years to come.
The Fire Safety Bill 2021 has further clarified who has responsibility for undertaking fire risk assessment and associated remedial work. It’s also underlined the particular requirements for social housing managers to understand and act on. It’s now your responsibility to ensure you are compliant and can prove to the regulators that you have taken all the steps you need to protect the occupants of your properties from the risk of fire.