If you own or manage a residential development with balconies, you need to be familiar with the requirements in the government’s fire safety Advice Note, as Brady Solicitors’ Jeremy Weaver explains.
The dreadful Grenfell Tower tragedy of 2017 prompted a detailed and necessary focus on fire safety, and a series of government Advice Notes.
The first of these was the ‘Building (Amendment) Regulations’ published in December 2018. These regulations required stricter fire safety compliance for new, refurbished, and converted residential buildings with a floor 18 metres or more from the ground.
Then, in 2019, 20 flats in Barking were destroyed and a further 10 damaged by a fire suspected to have been caused by a flat on a balcony. This led to a new government publication in June 2019, Advice Note on Balconies in Residential Buildings, which applied to all existing residential buildings with multiple dwellings, irrespective of their height.
This was then followed in January 2020 by a more comprehensive Advice Note titled ‘Advice for Building Owners of Multi-storey, Multi-occupied Residential Buildings’ that superseded and updated the previous advice, and included a section on balconies.
External wall systems and fire doors
The main focus of the Advice Note is to ensure that owners of all multi-storey and multi-occupied residential buildings and those responsible for managing them, undertake investigations into the external wall systems and fire doors to determine any risk to the health and safety of residents.
Where the external wall systems or fire doors are considered to give rise to a risk, advice should be taken on the remediation or mitigation measures required. The height of the building is immaterial, and the focus only on buildings over 18 metres tall no longer applies.
The Advice Note states that “the removal and replacement of any combustible material used in balcony construction is the clearest way to prevent external fire spread from balconies… and this should occur as soon as practical”.
So what should building owners and their managing agents do?
#1 Understand what materials are used in your blocks’ balconies
Understand the materials used in the construction of balconies. This will enable you or your specialist adviser to better understand the associated risk of external fire spread and take appropriate action to manage this risk.
Where there is doubt over the materials used, or combustible materials have been used and it is assessed that there is a notable risk of fire spread as a result, you should seek professional advice and take appropriate action to address that risk.
#2 Manage the fire safety of external wall systems including balconies
Check that adequate appropriate measures are in place to manage the fire safety of external wall systems (in line with the principles set out in section 3 of the Advice Note). You should also ensure that any risks arising from balconies are considered as part of the fire risk assessment and information provided to residents.
#3 Understand who is responsible for replacing the balconies
If the balconies on a building need to be replaced, consideration clearly needs to be given to who is responsible for doing so; the freeholder or the leaseholders. Careful review of the leases in the case of a leasehold block will be necessary to determine this.
#4 Implement policies to reduce fire risk
In some cases, it may be considered sufficient not to replace the balconies but instead to implement policies and regulations to reduce the risk of fires starting and spreading. Again, careful review of the leases in the case of a leasehold block will be necessary to determine what options there are in this respect.
#5 Review, develop and enforce balcony storage policies
Balcony fire risk can be increased due to the use of balconies as storage. Also, a significant number of balcony fires start from discarded cigarettes and matches and the misuse of barbeques. You may have existing policies in place as to what can and cannot be stored and used on balconies by residents. You should review these policies in the light of the materials used in the balcony construction and ensure residents understand the policies and why they are necessary.
#6 Review your fire warning systems
A rigorous policy of inspection and appropriate action to deal with breaches of regulations intended to reduce the risk is recommended. Fire warning systems should also be reviewed and where appropriate upgraded or implemented to reduce the risk. This could include a “waking watch” for example.
The most important thing for freeholders and their managing agents is to ensure that they carry out appropriate investigations and, where necessary, seek expert advice on the risks and appropriate remedial actions to be taken.
Brady Solicitors can help you with this.
We have access to specialist counsel who can advise on your options, and we can help you to enforce policies and regulations implemented to reduce fire risk.