The Grenfell Tower tragedy has highlighted the importance of fire safety provisions in buildings generally and high-rise residential blocks in particular.
Residents of Grenfell Tower were wholly unaware of the risks arising from the cladding, but they had highlighted with those responsible for managing the building the more obvious risks including:
- no functioning emergency lighting
- a single escape route out of the building which was a stairwell with no natural light
- no internal or external sprinkler system
- the communal areas being used for storage.
Questions have rightly been asked as to whether the current legal and regulatory framework for fire safety is fit for purpose. Fire safety law is largely contained in the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 and relies on risk assessment rather than prescriptive requirements.
How does the fire safety order work?
Under the order, responsibility falls squarely on the person in control of the premises to carry out a risk assessment identifying dangers and risks. That person has a duty to remove those risks so far as reasonably possible, and to implement the necessary fire precautions to address any remaining risk.
The order applies to virtually all premises. It covers nearly every type of building structure and open space. It does not apply to private homes, nor to flats in a block or house, but it does apply to the communal areas in those buildings.
Who is responsible for ensuring compliance with the fire safety order?
In essence, anyone who has control of the premises, or a degree of control over certain areas or systems. Typically this means the owner/occupier or an employer. For communal areas or shared equipment such as fire-warning systems or sprinklers, it may be the managing agent. Where responsibility is shared, there is a duty to co-operate.
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry will examine the fire prevention and safety provisions in place, and whether the law was complied with. Separately, the Government has also announced an urgent independent review of building and fire safety regulations and their effectiveness (the Review). The purpose of the Review is twofold:
- To make recommendations to ensure there is a sufficiently robust regulatory system for the future, and
- to provide further assurance to residents that the complete regulatory system is working to ensure the buildings they live in are safe and remain so.
The Review will submit an interim report in the autumn. The Government has indicated that it will assess whether there are any changes in the interim report which can be implemented immediately while the Review's work continues.
The history of fire safety law shows a tightening of the legal requirements in response to a tragedy. It is inconceivable that the Review will recommend that the current regulatory regime, based on risk assessments and self-policing by those who have 'control' of the premises, should simply continue as before. Instead, a return to a far stricter, prescriptive regime should be anticipated.
Fiona Lawrence is a Legal Director in our Dispute Resolution department and former Head of Law at the London Fire Brigade.