Fire Safety – It’s in the detail
At the start of October, new rules on Fire Safety were introduced – post Grenfell, everyone appears to be regulating and regimenting every aspect of fire risk. Obviously, this is good if it saves lives – but how do you know when enough is enough.And who is competent to make that decision?
What is New?
The new changes can be summarised simply - holiday lets now need to have smoke/fire detectors/alarms (let's keep it simple and just call them alarms) in every room and all HMOs will need to have a formal, documented Fire Risk Assessment.
The holiday let requirement makes sense. If people will be sleeping and living in a room in say, an Airbnb setting within a house – it really ought to have an alarm as the occupant may not hear an alarm elsewhere in the property or realise that it relates to their situation. There is also presumably a higher fire risk in these situations though statistics are hard to come by.
It has long been stated by fire authorities that HMOs are high risk from a fire perspective. This is yet another example of the terminology around HMOs getting in the way of facts – yes, there are a category of HMOs which are incredibly high risk. A 10 or 12 bed property over 4 or 5 floors, subdivided into standalone bedsits occupied by recovering (or not) alcoholics and drug addicts is obviously quite a risky prospect when it comes to things catching fire and the chance of people getting out alive.However, there are many other types of HMO which are considerably less risky than say, a family house on a council estate – but no one ever drills into the detail to provide real granularity and, as usual, all HMO landlords are treated as having the highest risk dwellings on the planet.
The new rule says that if it is an HMO, it needs a formal, written Fire Risk Assessment (FRA) performed by a competent person. If the FRA defines the property as 'high risk' it will need alarms in ALL habitable rooms, whereas a 'low risk' property will only need them as before where there are likely to be sources of fire and on the escape routes from the property. This is good news, as for the 1st time, there is an attempt to separate and distinguish between the 10-12 bed multi-storey occupied by mentally ill or addicted tenants and the obviously less risky 3 bed bungalow occupied by 3 old ladies (to paint the 2 extremes).
Sadly, the direction of travel is obvious – eventually all rented properties will need alarms in all habitable rooms and FRAs will be required and will only be accepted if produced by those with appropriate qualifications, (For example membership of the Institute of Fire Engineers or Chartered Institute of Environmental Health), however for the moment – competent person is undefined.
Who is competent has been a matter of some debate within the PDPLA – it would be fair to say the majority view is that one should always get a professionally produced FRA from someone with the appropriate credentials and the necessary liability insurance to ensure you are covered. My own personal view is that for a small, 3 or 4 bed, HMO in Portsmouth it is only required to meet the Additional Licensing bureaucracy and most landlords with a modicum of common sense, a few hours study and an overall awareness of where fire is likely to start, where people are likely to be, how they will need to exit the building and what measures are required to separate the source of the fire from the escape route can produce an FRA for their property, given a good template (such as the NRLA one) and a little time.
Obviously, if it is a larger HMO, if it has more than 2 floors, if any rooms are 'internal' or there are open plan stairs or any other aspects that will make fire separation or escape difficult, it is not worth the risk and a professionally produced FRA needs to be requested, but for the majority of small HMOs – a sensible landlord should be able to assess whether he or she is in a position to produce their own FRA or whether they need to commission one.
257s are much harder – if the communal area is just a porch and all of the units are rented / owned by 3rd parties, a FRA is probably pointless, but conversely, 257s are probably a greater risk than a small HMO – so do take care in deciding what to include in an FRA and whether you are competent to produce it. Our recommendation would be to talk to PCC to understand what needs to be reviewed in your specific FRA for any 257s for which you need a licence – remember, there is no national legal requirement for an FRA for a 257 unless they have communal areas, this is just one more local regulation which has arisen from the ludicrous decision to treat 257s and small HMOs with exactly the same solution.
We asked our resident expert, Sarah at Apex Lettings to explain and she said, "there aren't many new rules as such when considering a typical HMO or section 257 - things have just been slightly amended, defined and strengthened.
There are some changes as some of the amendments have included all workplaces to be risk assessed rather than before which was only those with 5 or more employees. And now in blocks of flats, they've clarified that the structure of the building itself should be included on any FRA and so on.
All properties that come under the FSO (definitely section 257s with communal space, HMOs let by the room and perhaps those licensed although not 100% clear on the latter), have needed to be risk assessed for some time - hence why we've had them done as standard for some time. But there were peculiarities in the requirements - such as only significant findings needed to be recorded and shared - now it's been changed to all findings so that there can be no misunderstanding - effectively meaning you can no longer get away with not producing an FRA report and sharing it.
Another new thing is that they have stated the person who is responsible for arranging a FRA is now responsible for ensuring whomever undertakes the assessment are competent (not in the regs before as was previously silent on this matter) and that gov will define competent at a later date.
In regards to other new rules, it's mostly to do with the sharing info on fire doors and fire safety within a building with the tenants and anyone else it's relevant to and so on - before they move in and every 12 months and plus information needing to be put in communal areas. There are more new rules to do with buildings over certain metres in height but I haven't read any of these in any depth as they are not relevant to me at the moment"
We are running a course – Fire Safety for Landlords – on November 9th and the trainer, Robert Wylie, has qualifications in Health & Safety and is a member of the Institute of Fire Engineers. This course will give all landlords a good understanding of how to reduce risk of fire in their properties and what they need to do to ensure that should a fire occur, that occupants are quickly made aware and are able to exit the building or remain safe in an area of the building protected from fire. He states that the course alone is not sufficient for landlords to perform their own FRAs but I would argue that spending £300-400 per property on an FRA on a simple 3-4 bed HMO is yet another hidden cost of Additional Licensing that councillors glibly assured us were insignificant.
It is always the landlords responsibility so you need to decide whether you believe you are competent or not, but it would be a very strange court that found a landlord guilty of negligence in the case of a property fire if that landlord had attended a course and taken the time to formally review a property and to document precisely what the risk was and what steps were taken to reduce those risks.