Jess McCabe

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My latest feature at Inside Housing is an investigation into…

My latest feature at Inside Housing is an investigation into fire safety breaches by London’s social landlords:

Fire safety under scrutiny

Social landlords promised to clean up their act after the Lakanal House tower block tragedy, but five years on, fire safety breaches are still occurring. Jess McCabe reports

London’s social landlords are getting used to life under the microscope. The city’s fire brigade upped its scrutiny of housing in 2013, carrying out 1,948 audits of purpose-built flats of four or more storeys – up from 1,344 the previous year. Attention has been firmly focused on the city’s housing stock since six people died in the Lakanal House fire in London’s Camberwell, in a 14-storey block owned by Southwark council in 2009.

But have London’s social landlords learned their fire safety lesson? Or is the fire brigade finding cause for concern? On the face of it, there is still reason to worry.

The London Fire Brigade has handed out 35 fire safety enforcement notices against social landlords in the year to March. These notices are issued by the fire brigade in England and Wales, in cases when a landlord breaches fire safety laws – specifically, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. The last time Inside Housing dug into the LFB’s database of enforcement notices, in January 2013, we found 16 had been served in six months. When these figures are extrapolated, this suggests the number of enforcement notes being issued is up slightly.

Over the same period the LFB has also upped its scrutiny of landlords. Of the 1,948 inspections, 20 per cent (380) were found to require a variety of improvements. Not all of these interventions would be in the form of enforcement notices, as some problems might have been relatively minor.

Hearing of this finding, Peter Gannaway, chair of the National Social Housing Fire Safety Group, says: ‘We should be working towards ensuring we don’t receive any notices.’

Yet fire safety officers in housing associations and local authorities alike agree that most social landlords have poured more resources into fire safety in the aftermath of Lakanal.

Increased resources
Sarah Stevenson Jones, health and safety manager at 21,000-home Westminster-based landlord CityWest Homes, is emphatic. ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘While health and safety generally has always been at the forefront of most organisations’ agendas, high-profile incidents such as Lakanal House raised awareness at board level and has resulted in fire professionals receiving the resources that perhaps weren’t previously available to address fire risk.’

‘I certainly think councils are now well aware of their responsibilities and the gravity of the situation,’ agrees Russ Timpson, a former fire-fighter who now runs risk management company Horizonscan, and organises the Tall Buildings Fire Safety Network. He describes the scramble to improve fire safety after the deadly Southwark blaze as ‘tombstone legislation’.

There are some signs that London landlords are taking things seriously. For example, Brent Housing Partnership was recently about to demolish a block of flats in south Kilburn. Before the demolition, it used the opportunity to do a real-life smoke test on the building, in order to see if lessons could be learned for similar blocks still occupied by tenants. The test proved large volumes of smoke can spread quickly in unprotected areas, according to BHP.

But the fact remains, that 35 enforcement notices have still been issued – more than one a fortnight. In these days of eye-rolling at the mere mention of health and safety, it could be easy to dismiss the severity of the fire safety enforcement notice. But fire safety experts say these notices are only issued in the most serious cases – when a problem in the structure of a building or plans for what to do in case of a fire is very serious. Or, in other cases, when the landlord has repeatedly ignored attempts to address the problem.

‘I like to call it a last resort,’ says Mark Andrews, deputy assistant commissioner of the London Fire Brigade. Talking over the phone, Mr Andrews explains that inspectors from the fire brigade will first give verbal advice. If it is not acted on, this will be followed up with a letter. An enforcement notice is only issued ‘in more serious cases or if we give advice that’s been ignored’.

‘It’s an enforcement notice. It’s serious,’ agrees Brian Castle, assistant director at Richmond Council and chair of the London Councils Fire Safety Group. Brought in to bring all fire safety rules under one regime, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 sets a number of requirements on social landlords, including ensuring adequate precautions in case of fire, and making sure the premises are equipped with the necessary fire alarms and firefighting equipment.

Not every building is inspected – the fire service focuses its lens on inspecting tall buildings, more than four storeys high, and more vulnerable properties such as care homes (because residents may find it more difficult to escape in case of a fire) and hostels (because residents’ behaviour, combined with the type of building, increases the hazard).

Looking in-depth at some of the notices issued reveals the level of the risks.

Circle Housing Old Ford was pulled up on six separate breaches of the order in relation to its 82-home Sandall House block of flats in Tower Hamlets, on 8 July last year, including its ‘failure in the effective management of the preventative and protective measures’.

Circle has spent £7,500 on fixing the problems identified by the fire service, including the addition of fire-stopping in a lift shaft, pipework that allows the fire brigade to pump water to upper floors, and training staff.

‘We are committed to ensuring that all our residents have a safe place to live and taking these steps could save lives,’ says David Richardson, regional director of property services.

Identifying problems
Not every case involves the fire service sweeping in for an unexpected inspection, however. On 9 January, for example, Newlon Housing Trust was issued an enforcement notice on three counts. This happened after the 7,500-home trust was carrying out electrical and cabling work on its 249-home Ashburton Triangle keyworker flats, and realised there were some fire safety problems.

‘Obviously in this instance, we invited the fire brigade in, and we were aware that was likely to happen,’ says Joe Molloson, spokesperson for the trust. So far it has completed most of the remedial work that the fire brigade ordered, he adds.

Ilo of microscope

Source: Andy Council

Given that tower block safety has been a particular concern after Lakanal, and the fire brigade is in the middle of a high-profile campaign flagging escape routes from tower blocks to tenants, it is worrying that safety breaches in blocks of flats are the still most common problem identified by Inside Housing’s research – 15 of the 35 cases relate to flats more than four storeys high.

Another 11 of the enforcement notices relate to care homes owned by social landlords. As the LFB issued a total of 62 actions against care homes, this means that social landlords account for one in six of care homes failing to meet their fire safety obligations in this period.

Another seven cases relate to fire safety failings uncovered in hostels. For example, Ekaya Housing Association was served a notice related to a series of problems at a supported housing project for five single parents in Brixton. It has since carried out the majority of work required by the fire service, such as repairing emergency lights and adjusting doors. A spokesperson says that Ekaya ‘will do everything in its power to ensure this is not repeated’. The association is also training supported and housing management staff on fire safety.

Only a small handful of the 35 notices were served on local authorities. Four were served on a council-run hostel, a care home, a tower block and a building classed as ‘other sleeping accommodation’. One arm’s-length management organisation, Hackney Homes, was also served a notice on a block of flats.

Accountability
Privately, some fire safety officers working at local authorities complain that housing associations are under less pressure to take fire safety seriously than their council peers. Partly this is politics: if the local fire service rebukes the council on fire safety failings it is much more embarrassing and councillors are likely to get involved. More than one fire safety officer noted that councils, unlike housing associations, are directly and democratically accountable.

By contrast, housing associations are accountable to private boards. Most are spread across many local authority areas, and so are also less likely to have a close relationship with all the fire services that will be inspecting their buildings.

London-based housing association L&Q had five notices served on its buildings, the most of any single landlord. In a statement, its spokesperson says: ‘L&Q owns around 6,000 residential blocks that are covered by risk assessment, this equates to less than 0.1 per cent of our property blocks receiving a notice for the period indicated.’

The 70,000-home landlord is also upgrading fire safety across all its homes through a £15 million investment programme, that will finish in March 2015, she adds.

However, one fire safety expert working for a London borough was not convinced by this response. Speaking anonymously to avoid his council being seen to directly criticise the housing association, he says he would be ‘mortified’ to have received a fire safety enforcement notice on one of his blocks, let alone the most fire safety enforcement notices of any landlord.

The question now is whether social landlords as a whole are taking fire safety seriously enough. As Lakanal starts to shift from terrifying recent event to the history books, is the shock of tragedy starting to fade? Or is the prospect of a rebuke from the fire brigade losing its bite?

Enforcement by numbers

35 
fire safety notices served against social landlords

28 
served against housing associations

4
served against local authorities

2 
served against housing charities

1 
served against an arm’s-length management organisation

537 
enforcement notices issued in total

23
were to hostels

62 
of these were to care homes

Read this feature on Inside Housing

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