Time for action: lessons from Grenfell Tower

In the light of the horrific fire in West London in June, it is time to overhaul the fire assessment regime for flats says 1st Sure MD Paul Robertson

The tragic event at Grenfell Tower will haunt many of us for some time. For those working in the residential property sector the fire - described even by the emergency services as “unprecedented” - raises a number of difficult questions.

I have been asked several times in the last few days what insurers are going to do in response to concerns over the cladding at Grenfell Tower? Insurers do have the opportunity to influence the market by refusing to insure buildings of certain construction, where there are concerns around the safety of a particular product. However, the problem for block insurance is that most freeholders and the managing agents acting for them simply don’t understand the materials used in the construction or renovation of their block. If insurers start asking more questions and refusing to insure certain types of construction, there is the danger that claims will not be paid or that payments will be reduced under the provisions of the Insurance Act, as freeholders will not be able to make appropriate disclosure when placing their insurance. Undoubtedly such an approach would save lives in the future but at the risk of putting many flat owners in financial hardship.

My personal view is that the real failure lies with the UK fire regulations, which have not kept pace with modern building materials. We all hate red tape but when red tape saves lives there can be no argument. The time for action is now and our fire regulations need an urgent review.

There are a number of things managing agents can do to tighten up safety in their blocks. Look at your fire risk assessment, particularly in blocks of modern construction with cladding. The actions set out in this document need to be responsible and proportionate. If blocks genuinely have the fire separation for a stay-put policy to be in place then residents need to understand and have confidence in that assessment. There is a significant danger that lives could be threatened by inappropriate and potentially dangerous mass-evacuation. In light of Grenfell Tower, a residents meeting to explain the reasoning behind the policy and to take questions from those with individual concerns may be appropriate.

For anyone managing blocks clad in what they suspect may be a similar product to that at Grenfell Tower, help is at hand from the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) which is offering free safety checks. For more information on this, go to https://www.1stsureflats.com/news/safety-checks- private-residential- blocks/

Of course many flat owners and tenants will be worried and may be wondering what they can do to protect their safety. Here are some quick wins that could save lives:
• Ensure all flats have working smoke detectors with fresh batteries.
• Educate residents to only operate any fire extinguishers or fire blankets where they are familiar with using them and where safe to do so.
• Encourage residents to have a family evacuation plan and rehearse it, ensuring all the family knows what to do.
• Ensure residents understand the importance of keeping communal areas free of obstructions.

Despite the advice to leave possessions I would personally grab my phone as it can act as a torch and be used to contact the authorities - but only if I could quickly and safely do so.

If lasting lessons are to be learnt from this recent tragedy, the key point is that fire safety in flats needs to be urgently updated. I have grave concerns around the emerging build-to- rent sector, fearing that the next disaster could occur in one of these blocks. These are likely to be timber frame buildings with so-called fire retardant and thermally efficient cladding, built to a budget with the maximum number of floors permitted under current regulations in order to ensure maximum return on investment.

Many of the UK’s large insurers already take fire safety seriously when they reinstate damaged buildings by using more fire retardant materials than those with which they were originally constructed. Only a few days ago one major insurer identified a block they recently reinstated to its original specification which meets current fire safety requirements. Following the tragic events at Grenfell Tower that insurer has decided to replace some of the materials used in the reinstatement with materials that have a better fire safety rating. I can only applaud this action which the insurer in question is about to conduct completely at its own expense. This should be an example to us all.

Paul Robertson is MD of Midway Insurance and 1st Sure Flats

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