Neil Merrick 26 September 2019

The safety of social housing

It is more than two years since the fire at Grenfell Tower left an indelible impression on social housing. Councils throughout the country were spurred into action, anxious to improve fire safety in high-rise blocks and avoid a repeat tragedy.

Most tower blocks owned by local authorities and other social landlords are not clad in the same aluminium composite material (ACM) used at Grenfell. According to fire safety experts, they do not pose the same risk.

But that does not prevent tenants who watched the scenes unfold at Grenfell in June 2017 from feeling concerned about how they would evacuate in the event of a fire.

Beyond the removal of ACM cladding, the most common safety measure being taken is the installation of sprinkler systems. In Nottingham, the city council is nearing the end of a two-year programme to install sprinklers in all 13 of its high-rise blocks.

Work should be completed by May, says Anthony Slater-Davison, project manager at Nottingham City Homes (NCH), the council’s arm’s length management organisation. From the outset, NCH liaised closely to residents, with fire safety assessors visiting each block to address concerns.

A significant challenge, he says, was convincing residents that, when activated, the sprinklers would not flood an entire building, as sometimes seen in American films. But it has been far easier gaining access to flats than last decade when, during the decent homes programme, some tenants in Nottingham and elsewhere refused to have kitchens and bathrooms upgraded.

The £8.5m programme also includes installing or upgrading intercom systems to improve communication. ‘Grenfell has made people more aware that customer well-being and the feeling of being safe in your home is important,’ says Mr Slater-Davison.

To date, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has not offered Nottingham anything towards the bill. However, it has paid £136.4m to 14 councils that ‘remediated’ tower blocks with ACM cladding. Thirty-three housing associations were given £123m for similar work. That leaves just over £140m left from the £400m promised to social landlords in 2018. The MHCLG is also offering £200m to private property owners with ACM cladding, with the bidding process starting this month [Sept].

Most of the councils receiving money are in London and include Camden, which received juts over £80m for replacing ACM cladding on tower blocks at its Chalcots estate. Work took place in summer 2017, within weeks of Grenfell, with residents evacuated while cladding was removed. Camden has since appointed a director of resident safety to follow up fire risk assessments.

Wandsworth (£16.5m) received the second largest sum, while Westminster was given £6.7m, Outside London, the largest recipient was Sheffield (£3.9m). The MHCLG declined to say how many local authorities had applied for money or had applications refused.

A survey last year by London Councils showed 25 boroughs had spent a total of £562m on fire safety, including £319m on sprinklers. But according to Darren Rodwell, executive member for housing at London Councils and leader of Barking and Dagenham, money is only part of the problem.

In June, fire destroyed about 20 privately-owned flats in Barking after flames spread along wooden balconies. Rodwell is concerned that, where tenants in the private rented sector raise safety issues, councils lack ‘the right toolkit’ to force landlords to make improvements. ‘Residents were raising concerns. We had no power to look into it,’ he says.

MHCLG figures up to the end of July show that, since 2017, remediation work has been completed on 57 tower blocks in the social rented sector with ACM cladding, compared with 13 owned by private landlords. A further 324 buildings are awaiting attention, including 166 that are privately owned.

While ACM cladding is prohibited under existing regulations, the government intends to go further and ban combustible materials on the external walls of all new buildings that are more than 18 metres high and contain flats, student housing, hospitals or residential care facilities.

Rodwell would like to see the law beefed up as soon as possible. ‘We’re dragging our feet in making sure we have the right legislation and powers to ensure people feel safe in their homes,’ he adds.

In Leeds, the council identified 11 privately-owned tower blocks with some ACM cladding, though in some cases the amount of ACM is small, says Neil Evans, the council’s director of resources. Most owners were alert to the problem and agreed to remove any ACM, he adds.

While the council owns no housing clad in ACM, tenants in blocks with other types of cladding were still concerned in the months following Grenfell. During 2017, the council put leaflets though the doors of about 10,000 tenants in 116 blocks, assuring them that buildings met safety standards.

Having started installing sprinklers in some sheltered accommodation five years ago, the council plans to spend £22.5m on sprinklers in 56 blocks by 2023. In the long run, says Evans, it wants sprinklers in all high-rise blocks, but beyond cost there is also the question of capacity in the sprinkler industry.

Eamon McGoldrick, managing director of the National Federations of Almos, says the response of social landlords during the past two years has generally been good but agrees installation of sprinklers may be affected by supply problems.

Some landlords, such as Nottingham City Homes, have trained staff and set up in-house teams to install sprinklers. ‘There is no industry out there,’ says Mr McGoldrick. ‘There are not dozens of contractors who only do sprinklers.’

The Government, meanwhile, has just finished a consultation on wider safety issues. Proposals include establishing a building regulator with powers to take enforcement action against building owners, and the appointment by each social landlord of a building safety manager to address tenants’ concerns.

Matthew Warburton, policy adviser at the Association of Retained Council Housing, says prudent councils will look ahead and prepare for tougher regulation and more tenant involvement.

However, the appointment of a safety manager who is up to speed with building technology and can work effectively with residents may well be a challenge. ‘People with technological expertise who are also good at interacting with residents are like gold dust,’ he says.

This feature first appeared in Local Government News magazine - click here to register for your own free copy.

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