Lessons from Grenfell
July 2017 LSE Housing and Communities led by Professor Anne Power collaborated with the Housing Plus Academy to consult with tenants across the country living in and organisations managing tower blocks in order to understand the lessons from the tragic fire in Grenfell Tower.
There are currently around one and half million-people living in high-rise, council built flats. The aim of the project was to help community activists living in those high-rise blocks take local action to tackle safety issues which are too often ignored.
This was delivered via 3 strands of work:
In depth residential training and group work with tenants, leaseholders, support workers, and professionals, to understand their experience of tower block safety, hazards, gaps, fears, management problems, and communication failures so that these can be changed in the future.
Advice and support from experts on fire, gas, building regulations, high rise maintenance to identify practical actions to deliver change. This advice was collected in resource packs.
Practical training and guides for tenants so that they understand how to work with their landlords to secure full regular safety checks, clear emergency measures, escape procedures and training for tenants so that they are equipped to have their voice heard.
What did tenants tell us?
Tenants want to be respected and have their voice heard and acted upon.
They want to work as partners with landlords, but they feel dependent and feel treated as though they are ‘second class’.
They want front-line, estate based management in their communities.
They want full and clear information and transparent reports on inspections concerning safety.
They want enforcement on bad behaviour, and also building regulations, fire safety, etc
Lessons for social landlords?
This process identified 10 key actions for social landlords:
There should be a single point of control for any multi-storey block so that everyone knows, whether it is staff, residents, or emergency services, where to go whenever emergency arises. There should be clear information and instructions for all tenants about what to do in the case of emergency and what precautions to take.
There needs to be a continuous flow of recorded information, sequenced from the start of any works on multi-storey blocks to the finish, handed over on completion to the responsible owner/manager. A full record of what has been done, how much it cost, the rationale and the specifications, allows any follow-up to use those records in order to check what is done and make sure that building elements are maintained as they should be for fire and other safety reasons.
There should be an equivalent of an MOT for all tower blocks, multi-storey, and high rise blocks as they are complex systems, involving the interaction of many different technical features such as plumbing, electrical wiring, heating, lift maintenance, roof and windows, compartmentation, meaning fire breaches in staircases and in flats, etc. Importantly, it would also cover fire doors and fire precautions.
The containment of fire within each individual flat is absolutely crucial (commonly known as compartmentation). This ensures against a breach in the party or external walls of flats, caused by installing television wiring, gas piping, electric wiring or other works and can create a conduit for fire, as has happened in several tragic cases. Containment must be regularly inspected, at least once a year to ensure it is intact.
In depth fire inspections should happen every year. In-depth means that an inspection should be carried out by qualified inspectors and is not just a superficial check at conditions, but also checking behind walls, equipment, cupboards, etc. to check there are no breaches of fire safety.
There should be direct knowledge of and control over leaseholders, private lettings and subletting, with the right to know who lives in the flat and the right to enter and inspect. There should also be a clear leasehold agreement so that leaseholders have to provide access keys in case of leaks or any other breaches of containment.
The landlord should have the ability to enforce basic conditions on all residents through on-site management and supervision. In the case of tower blocks, a concierge at the base of the block is an ideal solution. It is crucial that a landlord controls and enforces basic safety standards both in the stairwells, entrances, and within units. This requires on-site management and supervision.
It is important to consider the maintenance of a multi-storey block as an engineering challenge where precision and quality control are essential. This is based on Judith Hackitt's Interim Recommendations in her Review of Building Regulations.
Shortcutting on cost and quality: The short term savings can lead to huge long-term costs, as happened in the case of Grenfell Tower but also in Lakanel House and other examples of failure.
Underpinning these lessons is the pivotal role of tenants. It is crucial to listen to tenants, not just because they are entitled to have a voice in what happens in and around their homes, but also because they know more about what happens in blocks, which are often 40-50 years old, than staff do.