Post-Grenfell, what’s changed?

 

The Grenfell Tower fire has forced a change in fire-safety rules. Find out what it means for landlords

The loss of 72 lives in the Grenfell Tower fire in west London was a human tragedy that should never have happened. After an initial sluggish response, the Government commissioned Dame Judith Hackitt in July 2017 to undertake an Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety in England.

The focus of the review has been on multi-occupancy high-rise residential buildings. As an engineer and former chair of the UK Health and Safety Executive, Dame Judith was well placed to comb through the complexities of England’s construction industry. Her response was scathing to say the least. 

Ignorance, indifference and a lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities were her key findings, with safety guidance being ignored, misunderstood and misinterpreted. She said safety was not prioritised, and the ambiguity of regulations and guidance were being used “to game 
the system”.

There is no reason to wait for legal change to start the process of behaviour change, once it is clear what is coming and what is expected,” Dame Judith said. “A sense of urgency and commitment from everyone is needed.” 

The NLA was consulted on Dame Judith’s review, and it is largely supportive of her recommendations, but it is also concerned at how some aspects will affect NLA members. “I suspect that, for the vast majority of private landlords, not much will change,” says Chris Norris, director of policy and practice at the NLA. But some landlords could be affected by the cost of maintaining compliance and the impact that conclusions could have on property values.

Legislative changes 

“No one wants another disaster like Grenfell, but care should be taken to ensure that any necessary legislative changes do not put people out of business,” Norris says. “For example, we have a member with a few ex-local authority flats in Manchester. His properties were valued at around £60,000-£70,000 each in 2017, but the cost of re-cladding is currently being estimated at as much as £50,000 per flat. You then have two potential outcomes: either the property is repossessed because the landlord can’t afford to pay the bill, or the work won’t get done. What Dame Judith has called for seems eminently sensible, but we want clear guidance on who will pay for those safety improvements.” 

The Government has already committed to funding the removal and replacement of unsafe cladding by councils and housing associations, estimated at around £400m. While that doesn’t help private landlords, the Local Government Association, which represents more than 370 councils in England and Wales, notes that councils are trying to support local building owners to deal with the issue. 

Some of the insulating materials that were responsible for the severity of the Grenfell Tower fire have previously been recommended to landlords to improve their property’s energy rating. “We’re watching that with a great deal of interest because there has been such a focus on Energy Performance Certificate ratings in the past few years, particularly when upgrading older buildings,” Norris says – something that was also highlighted by the London Fire Brigade. 

“We understand why many would want materials such as ACM [aluminium composite material] cladding banned, but the [London Fire] Brigade agrees with Dame Judith’s conclusion that this would not help safety in the long term,” says Dan Daly, assistant commissioner for fire safety. 
ACM cladding panels were fitted to Grenfell Tower during a major refurbishment of the block in 2016. “It’s more important that the review concentrates on appropriate testing regimes for building materials, tighter regulations, and ensuring that competent people are making decisions about building safety,” Daly says.

Complex rules 

The complexity and overlap of fire-safety regulations was another aspect highlighted in the review, and that undoubtedly affects private landlords. 
“Currently, there are three or four oversight frameworks that apply to landlords, and sometimes they contradict each other,” Norris says. “We would certainly have no objections to legislative changes that bring clarity. The biggest areas of confusion tend to apply to common areas – some parts of a property are covered by fire-safety orders, while other areas are covered by Housing Act regulations. It’s currently the landlord’s responsibility to unravel the detail, so a new regulatory framework could simplify that process.”

While the review focused on tall buildings, Norris believes there will be a trickle-down effect: “Ultimately, I hope we can develop a system that fits most housing stock, providing we’re not just reinventing the wheel.” 

The National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) also believes that future legislative change should apply across the board. “We are concerned that the current definition is too narrow and overlooks vulnerable people and other buildings that present a notable fire risk,” says Mark Hardingham of the NFCC. “In addition, other residential buildings below 10 floors that could be considered high risk will not be captured.”

Norris hopes that the Hackitt Review will encourage freeholders and property managers to behave more responsibly. “A common topic on our Advice Line is poor responsiveness among freeholders. So, if the process of sorting out repair and maintenance issues becomes clearer and easier, that can only be a positive thing.” 

While we await legislative change, Norris recommends that every landlord downloads a copy of the Fire Safety Logbook from the NLA website. “It tells you how to carry out and record fire-safety assessments, which is actually pretty straightforward,” he says.

 

Dame Judith wants to see:
 

1. A less prescriptive, outcomes-based approach to the regulatory framework to be overseen by new regulator the Joint Competency Authority (JCA).

2. Clearer roles and responsibilities during design and construction, as well as during occupation, to ensure real accountability for building safety. These will be overseen, and held to account, by the JCA, and there will be stronger sanctions for those who do not comply. 

3. Residents to be consulted and involved in decisions affecting the safety of their home, and their concerns listened to.

4. More rigorous and transparent testing of building products. The review recommends that construction product testing is verified by an independent third party. 

5. Improved competence levels within the construction industry, rather than simply trying to build things quickly and cheaply. Buildings need to be defined as a ‘system’, with the safety of each considered on a case-by-case basis.

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9 November 2018 - 10:25am