Landlord leaseholders of flats affected by dangerous cladding are forking out incredulous amounts of money for buildings to be monitored overnight for fire outbreaks, when in many cases the precautions taken are in effective.

Following the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017, the Government established a Building Safety Programme with the aim of “ensuring that residents of high-rise residential buildings are safe, and feel safe from the risk of fire, now and in the future.”

As of last December it was estimated that there were thousands of affected high-rise residential buildings and publicly owned buildings that had Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) and non-ACM cladding systems which were unlikely to meet Building Regulation guidance on fire safety. A considerable number still need remediation.

The remediation work which is likely to last years is complex, and the associated costs are significant. The big question of who is responsible for paying for the remedial works has been described as “a legal quagmire” and is at the forefront of debates about how quickly the necessary work can be carried out and the financial implications for some leaseholder residents, and this includes many landlord leaseholders as well.

As a stop-gap safety measure walking watch fire marshals are being employed to monitor high rise blocks overnight. In the light of experience using these, two problems are arising: (1) the unacceptably high cost to individual leaseholders and (2) the effectiveness of the system.

In total it is estimated that these fire marshals will cost owners of flats with dangerous materials, before any remediation can be carried out, in the region of £200m per year. It has also been estimated that the number of blocks of flats which require a “waking watch”, where fire wardens patrol buildings for any signs of fire overnight, is now approaching 800.

Surprisingly, according to government sources, The National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) has stated that the officials whose guidance has caused these overnight patrols to be introduced had no solid evidence to show that they actually work in practice.

Flats, Fire Safety Regulations

On 20 January 2020, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick, made an oral statement to the House on building safety highlighting:

• the establishment of a new building safety regulator,

• likely proposals to change sprinkler requirements,

• a consultation on lowering the level for banning combustible material on external walls,

• publishing updated and consolidated advice for building owners,

• clarified advice on ACM panels and fire doors,

• comments on the speed of remediation in high rise buildings with

ACM and wider funding for cladding issues.

Legislation in the form of the The Fire Safety Bill 2019-21 was introduced in the House of Commons on 19 March 2020 and received its Third Reading in the House of Lords on 24 November 2020. It is now subject to back and forth to the Lords, with dates yet to be announced. All stages of the Bill and its current version can be accessed on the Parliament website.

A House of Commons Library briefing paper: Leasehold high-rise blocks: who pays for fire safety work was published on the 22nd of December last, and the Local Government Association has published a paper: Supporting residents who have been affected by cladding issues

Meanwhile, leaseholders are being asked to pay as much as £1,500 a month each for the fire Marshal patrols, or otherwise face having to leave the flats vacant. But in some cases anecdotal evidence shows that guards have been caught napping or watching TV while on duty.

It is estimated there are around 200,000 flats in more than 3,000 tower blocks with flammable cladding materials. The waking watches are seen as a temporary measure until the cladding is replaced, but this could turn into a permanent feature given that this work could take years to complete.

The National Fire Chiefs Council has said it is: “…unaware of any formal research into the effectiveness of waking watches.” and is unaware on what basis the guidance had been issued.

There had been “no generic impact assessment” and no minutes were available of meetings formulating the guidance, the NFCC has said.

Responses obtained from 39 of the country’s 45 fire services to FOI requests by the Labour Party show at least 766 buildings have watches, up from 420 last March. These watches cost on average £331 a month per flat in England, rising to £499 in London, according to housing ministry data.

Last month, the government announced £30m to fit fire alarms so that all high rise buildings affected by this would no longer need waking watches. But campaigners have now said risk assessors usually require at least one warden to stay in place after alarm upgrades.

Roy Wilsher, the NFCC’s chairman, told the Sunday Times that it created “non-statutory and practical guidance”, but legal responsibility for decisions lay with each building’s “responsible person”, such as the managing agent. “That includes the decision to implement a waking watch.” The NFCC is “concerned that in places there is an over-provision of waking watch”.

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