Two years after Grenfell and more than 10 years since the tragic Lakanal House fire, more than half of Southwark-owned high rise blocks are considered to be outside of the 'acceptable' parameters of fire risk.
Our research also revealed that more than 80% of Fire Risk Assessments on Southwark Council's website are out of date.
A year on from Southwark's alleged dishonesty about the number of intrusive (Type 4) Fire Risk Assessments they'd carried out, we undertook an audit of the councils basic communal (Type 1) Fire Risk Assessments on their high rise residential blocks.
Our research; based on the data published on Southwark Council's Fire Risk Assessment webpage (as of 17th July 2019) raises serious questions and concerns on safety, competence and transparency.
We inputted the data from the available 174 high rise Fire Risk Assessments onto a spreadsheet and highlighted where blocks were found to be at beyond 'tolerable' risk and where assessments were out of date, according to Southwark's own policy and standards.
Our research revealed:
- More than half (67%) of Southwark owned high rise blocks are considered to be beyond 'tolerable' risk
- 81% of published Fire Risk Assessments are out of date
- No Fire Risk Assessment for Lakanal House has been published on Southwark's website since 2017
- As of May 2018, despite major investment and fire safety works, Marie Curie House is still considered to be at 'high moderate' fire risk (the same risk level as the Ledbury Estate blocks.)
- None of Southwark's high rise blocks fall into the 'Trivial' (acceptable) risk category for fire safety.
- Examples have been found of individual assessors carrying out in excess of 5 high rise Fire Risk Assessments in a single day
All of this despite over £62 million of fire safety investment. We find these results to be in direct contradiction to the claims made by the local authority.
Southwark Council's fire safety webpage Q&A section states:
Does every block of flats managed by Southwark Council have an FRA?
"Yes, and they are all up to date. We have published the high rise blocks (seven plus storeys) online for everyone to view."
How often does an FRA need to be carried out?
"For our high rise blocks (blocks of seven storeys and above), sheltered housing units, hostels, tenants and resident community halls, traveller sites and our one extra care unit, we undertake yearly assessments."
What information is given to the council that is not given to residents?
"The information you see on the FRA is the same information given to everyone else in the council. We do not withhold any information and this document provides full accountability."
Click on the image below to view our full spreadsheet of Southwark Fire Risk Assessments.
Southwark Council's information on risk levels
Phil Murphy - @MancCommunities - Former Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service, said: "I'm really disappointed that we're still seeing bad fire safety management in practice at a time when we'd have hoped to see a transition to better fire safety management behaviours."
"Taking one example, the Fire Risk Assessment for Marie Curie House (sister block to Lakanal House) why on earth have they not installed fire dampers in the ventilation ducting? The coroner concluded after the fire at Lakanal House that this very factor was a major contribution to the death of several residents in that fire. There are a whole range of highly significant issues that are not being actively dealt with, they (Southwark) need to plan how to deal with them, alongside regular reviews - but that is not happening."
We put this article to Southwark Council and their response was:
"More than half (67%) of Southwark owned high rise blocks are considered to be beyond 'tolerable' risk
The use of the building risk classification system within Fire Risk Assessments is a cumulative scoring method which provides an overview of the management and condition of the building, along with the behaviour of its residents and visitors. Classifications of ‘Low Moderate’ or ‘High Moderate’ do not mean that there are immediate risks to safety but are an indicator that work is required. This level of risk is considered to be acceptable in the short term. Should any fire safety issue be identified which does present an immediate risk, the block would receive a higher classification such as ‘Substantial’ or ‘Intolerable’. In these cases, immediate action would be taken to rectify the issue.
In addition, undertaking any works other than simple repairs is a complicated process, governed by a variety of legal processes. Rules governing notice periods to leaseholders, HSE notifications, procurement rules etc., make delivering a large programme of works, such as replacing dwelling front doors, a lengthy process. To ensure we effectively manage costs for tenants and leaseholders, and limit disruption, we combine works wherever possible and link them to major works projects. For example, if a block is due to have internal decorations next year and the Fire Risk Assessment has highlighted that the flat entrance doors need to be replaced , we would look to combine those projects, reducing the costs and the disruption to residents. We would then look at the potential risk posed by the current condition of the doors and either bring the decorating works forward, or delay the replacement of the doors to fit with the redecoration schedule. This can result in the higher category of risk for the building (Low Moderate, High Moderate etc.) remaining in place until the works are completed and the FRA is reviewed. A higher risk classification on a particular block does not mean that the block is ‘outside the ‘acceptable’ parameters of fire risk’.
81% of published Fire Risk Assessments are out of date
This is incorrect, for two reasons:
It assumes that an FRA for all blocks is due exactly one year after the date of the last inspection. This is not the case. The list of FRAs on our website includes a column showing when the next FRA is actually due. In some cases, i.e. low risk blocks, the next FRA may not be due for several years.
Secondly it assumes the status of all FRAs is updated on our website in real time. This is not the case – we update the spreadsheet annually. Southwark undertakes more than 300 FRAs every month across the borough. Publishing these assessments is a time consuming task and doing so on a real-time basis with our current systems would be impractical. For this reason, we publish the FRAs annually. The FRA programme continues all year round and each building is assessed within a time frame appropriate to the building type. If at any point in the cycle a resident wanted to see the FRA for their block we are happy to provide it.
Although each assessor will set a recommended date for the next FRA, there is no legal obligation to undertake these inspections on an annual basis. Current fire safety legislation (Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, Part 2, article 9) states that;
9.—(1) The responsible person must make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to which relevant persons are exposed for the purpose of identifying the general fire precautions he needs to take to comply with the requirements and prohibitions imposed on him by or under this Order.
(3) Any such assessment must be reviewed by the responsible person regularly so as to keep it up to date and particularly if—
(a) there is reason to suspect that it is no longer valid; or
(b) there has been a significant change in the matters to which it relates including when the premises, special, technical and organisational measures, or organisation of the work undergo significant changes, extensions, or conversions, and where changes to an assessment are required as a result of any such review, the responsible person must make them.
No Fire Risk Assessment for Lakanal House has been published on Southwark's website since 2017
This was correct and was an administrative error on our part. Although it had not been published, the FRA for Lakanal House has been undertaken regularly, in line with our FRA procedure. The up to date FRA has now been published on our website.
As of May 2018, despite major investment and fire safety works, Marie Curie House is still considered to be at 'high moderate' fire risk (the same risk level as the Ledbury Estate blocks.)
As discussed earlier in this response, a ‘High Moderate’ risk rating denotes that additional works are required and is not considered to be unacceptable in the short term. The required works are already scheduled within our programme of major works.
The ‘High Moderate’ rating at the Ledbury Estate blocks represents a reduction from the ‘Substantial’ rating originally recorded on the FRA. The reduction is the result of works undertaken in response to that ‘Substantial’ rating, as would be the case wherever such a rating is determined.
None of Southwark's high rise blocks fall into the 'Trivial' (acceptable) risk category for fire safety
It is unlikely that any high rise residential block would ever be classified as ‘Trivial’. Residential buildings are in continuous use and unlike commercial premises, they are not ‘controlled’ by the presence of a permanent workforce. Without the presence of on-site management, something which is beyond the financial wherewithal of most local authorities, fire risk can fluctuate from day to day and risks may be introduced to the building without the knowledge of the council. Across the borough we regularly deal with a whole range of issues which introduce new risks into our buildings, from smoking to the storage of motorbikes in the communal areas. When we are made aware of these issues, either through our estate inspections or by residents, we will take action but this is an ongoing issue. Residents’ items stored in the communal areas and obstructing an escape route for example could be removed by the resident following a visit from a member of the housing team, only to reappear the following day or week. For these reasons, ‘Trivial’ classification is rarely used but this is not the only ‘acceptable’ classification.
Examples have been found of individual assessors carrying out in excess of 5 high rise Fire Risk Assessments in a single day
On analysis we only found two instances of the same assessor carrying out four FRAs on the same day. These were all blocks of similar or identical construction on the same estate. Southwark have a team of qualified and highly knowledgeable fire safety professionals and under certain circumstances, undertaking multiple Type 1 FRAs in a day is perfectly feasible. Where the blocks in question are simple in design (single staircase, limited number of flats per floor etc.), and/or of identical construction and design, identifying the existing risks is a strait forward process for a skilled practitioner. In many cases, the risk assessor will have visited the building on previous occasions to undertake FRAs and in all cases, before visiting a block, they will have looked at the earlier FRAs, records of any works undertaken since the last inspection and evidence of any testing and maintenance carried out. All of this helps to reduce the amount of time required on-site for the inspection. The more time consuming aspect is producing the FRA document based on their findings and this will usually take far more time than the inspection itself."