Following the dreadful Grenfell Tower tragedy last month, many residential tower blocks across the UK have had their cladding tested. But landlords must also be aware of their fire safety responsibilities, to ensure that their buildings are compliant with health and safety regulations, warns a lawyer.
Louise Scott-Nichols, of LHS Solicitors LLP, outlines the responsibilities of residential landlords regarding the fire safety of their properties.
Following the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower, there has been little clarification for landlords on their repair and maintenance responsibilities. To ensure that you understand your duties, Scott-Nichols has explored your legal obligations in relation to high-rise flats and other complex buildings.
Statutory duties for high-rise and complex buildings
Statutory duties are imposed on landlords under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 and the Health & Safety at Work Act 1972, amongst others.
Broadly speaking, the key statutory duties for landlords are:
- To conduct a detailed fire risk assessment, identifying any possible dangers, and keep it under constant review.
- To consider those at risk, such as the elderly, physically impaired, or children.
- To eliminate or reduce – so far as is reasonably practicable – the risks from fire and introduce fire precautions to deal with any residual risks.
- To create an emergency evacuation plan.
Fire safety obligations for residential properties
When it comes to fire safety in residential properties, landlords must install smoke alarms on every storey of their property and a carbon monoxide alarm in any room with a solid fuel burning appliance. You must also ensure that tenants have access to escape routes at all times.
We have put together a thorough guide for landlords on all of your legal obligations regarding fire safety: https://www.justlandlords.co.uk/news/landlords-guide-complete-fire-safety/
Following the Lakanal House fire in 2009, the coroner made a number of recommendations for landlords, in addition to the Government and local fire and rescue services.
These included the need to provide clear information and guidance to residents concerning the fire safety features of their building, and what to do in the event of a fire. For instance, whether tenants should stay in the property or leave if a fire breaks out. There has been a huge debate around this issue alone, long before the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Advice on such matters will obviously differ from property to property. However, it is essential for landlords to clearly communicate the appropriate action to be taken in the event of a fire to their tenants.
Another key recommendation for landlords to think about as a matter of urgency was the retrofitting of sprinklers. The presence or absence of a properly maintained and working internal sprinkler system has been the subject of considerable debate, and is a key consideration in relation to fire safety.
Currently, there is no statutory duty to install sprinklers and, for buildings over 30m high constructed prior to 2007, it is not mandatory. However, with Grenfell Tower demonstrating catastrophic consequences of minimal fire safety measures, it is clear that such a lack of obligation must change, insists Scott-Nichols.
Residential buildings managed by more than one party
In cases where residential properties are managed by both a property manager and a landlord, the responsibilities of the property manager will vary based on the specific terms of the management contract, but can include responsibility for regular maintenance and emergency repairs.
However, it is worth remembering that the responsibility does not stop with them – repairs that fall under the remit of the landlord are the landlord’s responsibility. The agent simply acts as an intermediary and makes arrangements to engage contractors to undertake the works required. For example, the requirement for an annual gas safety inspection still rests with the landlord, though it is more likely that the agent will organise this.
Tenant complaints and legal penalties
If a management company deals with repairs on behalf of the landlord but does not in fact complete jobs, then the tenant is at liberty to invoke the company’s complaints procedure in the first instance. This may prompt the company to arrange the repairs. If still nothing is done, the tenant can complain to their letting agent redress scheme. Then, the tenant can report to the landlord directly, putting their concerns in writing.
If the landlord does not undertake the repairs and this affects the tenant’s health and safety in their home, they can ask the local authority’s environmental health department to inspect the condition of the property. The council will be able to offer help and advice, as well as serve the landlord with any appropriate notices to carry out repairs/remediation within a set timeframe. Failure to act at this stage is in fact a criminal offence and the local authority can prosecute the landlord for failure to abate the nuisance or remedy the problem.
A time for change
Scott-Nichols insists that landlords should not await the results of a public inquiry or inquest into the Grenfell Tower tragedy to take proactive action in reviewing their current procedures, equipment and property. At this stage, it is too early to draw conclusions from the disaster and the inquiry could last years.
However, the statutory duties are clear – landlords must review their current position to ensure compliance.