Following the report of the Ministerial Working Group on Mortgage Lending and Cladding published in March 2021, the Scottish Government has agreed to provide a free safety assessment of all homes with external cladding. The pilot stage of the programme is due to commence this month with the Scottish Government intending, over the summer, to decide how to distribute funding for remedial works on cladding which has been deemed unsafe.
The Assessment Programme is available to all home owners, including social housing landlords and local authorities, and will look at the entire building not just an individual home. It is expected to replace the need for External Wall System (EWS1) reports - often insisted on by mortgage providers and others providing lending for individual properties.
For those in the social housing sector who own properties which they consider may have unsafe cladding, the Assessment Programme may be a welcome initiative. Others will have previously commissioned their own assessments and will know whether action is required. Some will have already gone further and had remedial works carried out.
However, having heard engineers highly experienced in analysing cladding express concerns over what material, or combination of materials, is truly "fire safe", it would seem sensible for social housing operators to think about a heightened emphasis on ensuring that the other fire safety measures they have in place, will work. That is, measures which are unrelated to the integrity of the building's fabric, such as:
- Firefighting equipment and fire detection systems - Are they properly inspected, maintained and repaired? Can equipment be easily accessed?
- Tenant and occupant behaviour - Do those in the building know what to do in the event of a fire? Is the information they have up to date and comprehensible? Are vulnerable occupants adequately provided for?
- Exit routes - Are they adequate in number? Are they lit, sign posted, clear of obstacles?
Of course, fire safety measures for social housing properties should be outlined in a risk assessment. Fire safety is often complex - more so when it is in the context of multiple occupancy buildings with common areas, and even more so when the buildings are high rise. Fire risk assessments in relation to these buildings should be comprehensive and completed by someone appropriately qualified. Once the assessment is done, it has to be remembered that is not an end to the matter. Having the perfect risk assessment is no use if it is then filed away in a folder. Risk assessments are very much living documents and should be viewed as such. The steps identified in the risk assessment need to be actioned and, in that regard, those implementing the steps need to understand what is being asked of them. A fire risk assessment stating "Common areas to be free of combustibles" is of little help if the person responsible for clearing the common areas does not know what is, or is not, considered a combustible. So, communication with fire safety experts and/or the fire service is important.
Risk assessments also need to be reviewed - not just on a regular basis but also when a material change occurs, such as technical developments, or new legal requirements, or changes in the way the building is used or occupied.
For those who take advantage of the Scottish Government's Assessment Programme and find out in the coming months that one or more of their buildings does require remedial work, it will be necessary to assess the fire risks associated with those works as well.