Camden Council and London Fire Brigade work together to inspect multi-occupancy residential buildings where there are concerns around fire safety. Regular meetings provide an opportunity to share, discuss and track cases. Enforcement is rarely needed, but where necessary the two authorities will join forces to take appropriate action.
At Camden Council, initial information gathering, basic risk assessment and prioritising is done by one full-time principal environmental health officer (EHO), supported by their manager. Higher-risk buildings stay with the principal EHO for follow-up and enforcement, while lower risk buildings are monitored by the team of EHOs.
London Fire Brigade (LFB) have an ongoing programme of checking all tall residential buildings. Their role is usually focused on fire prevention and means of escape. This will include fire safety management, automatic fire detection (AFD) if applicable, fire doors and fire risk assessments (FRAs). Cladding or external wall issues are not easily identified on these site visits, and LFB may ask Camden to pass on information about walls or accompany them on a visit to provide advice.
Camden Council and LFB have a long-established good working relationship, including consultations and joint visits. The working dynamic has been informal – colleagues helping each other, rather than driven by written procedures or hierarchies. So, for example, a joint inspection takes place where either side thinks it is appropriate or requests help (rather than, for instance, a particular building height or material present).
Existing protocol has worked well, updated to reflect the additional workload of external walls. However, Iain Clark, Principal EHO, said: “The expanding workload, reorganisation and changes in staffing in LFB mean that this is changing, and the move to new legislation will mean revisiting this protocol.”
Information provided to the council by owners/agents is often incomplete, and the team will follow up on any potential problems. “Usually an informal approach is fruitful – we push the manager to carry out a proper intrusive survey, get a fire engineer to assess, and ask the manager to carry out recommendations and interim measures. Lots of work has taken place informally with little formal push from the local authority or LFB.”
Camden has a relatively small-to-medium number of high-risk buildings. The council and/or LFB have:
- gathered initial information on external walls of over 300 buildings over 18 metres
- taken a more in-depth look at about 125 buildings
- undertaken tracking of progress and close watch on remediation of about 60 buildings
- taken formal enforcement action on about 15 buildings with the highest risks.
Since 2018, Camden Council’s private sector and social housing teams have met regularly (monthly or bi-monthly) with the LFB’s borough commander and inspecting team manager. This has proved to be very useful for sharing and tracking cases in terms of ongoing developments and joint enforcement.
London-wide information sharing
The need for a London-wide group focusing on local housing authorities’ regulatory functions and private sector blocks came about from conversations at a Greater London Assembly meeting attended by all 32 boroughs. Camden already attended the London Council Housing Directors Fire Safety Group but this was a ‘tenure neutral group’, and did not cover the detail needed for complex enforcement matters.
In conjunction with colleagues in Newham Council, a group was set up with support from the LGA and London Councils. Camden and Newham drafted the terms of reference. The group has met monthly since July 2021 to share case studies, discuss problems and receive government policy updates.
Some owners and agents respond quickly to an informal approach, others use delaying tactics. When a building is believed to contain high-risk materials or there are other concerns, or when the owner/agent is not taking action to remediate, a joint inspection takes place involving the Camden Council and LFB. There have so far been more than 30 joint visits.
Iain said: “Having the owner or agent on site during the visit, and having a frank discussion on the risks and possible actions open to us, focusses minds very sharply. We will set out areas for action and further investigation. Key in this is to be clear that if there is limited knowledge of the wall system or the effect on escape routes or spread to other dwellings, the FRA must be updated.”
The joint visit often sets off a chain of actions towards remediation. “Having the LFB involved generally leads to better compliance, more urgency, and is essential for the many properties where there is mixed commercial and residential use.”
Where risks are low or lowered by interim measures, the council and LFB are usually happy to allow the owner/agent to work towards remediation. Further enforcement is rarely required but another joint visit may take place to check progress, and a Section 239 or Improvement Notice may be issued.
Example: joint enforcement
This 1930s seven-storey building, 19.1 metres, was originally a warehouse and jewellery workshops. It was converted in the 2000s, with retail to the ground floor/basement and flats from the first floor up (10 in total). During conversion the external rear fire escape staircase was enclosed using Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) curtain walling. ACM covered around 10 per cent of the total façade.
Issues came to light in 2020, when Camden Council chased the managing agent for information on the external walls. ACM was present, but the information provided was incomplete and inconsistent. Camden referred it to the LFB fire safety inspection team and a joint inspection visit took place.
LFB found that actions from the previous fire risk assessment had not been followed up and it did not take account of ACM being identified. They issued an Enforcement Notice requiring the FRA to be revised and the faults addressed.
Minimal progress was made, and following a further joint visit in April 2021 Camden issued a Section 239 Notice, advising leaseholders and occupants of the ACM issue. At this point, the freeholder became actively engaged. Bypassing the managing agent led to a much better response. An extension was given for compliance and the owners fixed some of the issues, including compartmentation.
An Improvement Notice was served in June 2021. It required the removal of ACM and combustible materials and appropriate replacement, within nine months. The owners moved things along and, at the time of writing, works were due to commence. There had been some delay due to funding issues, but as the risks were now lower the deadline was extended to accommodate this.
Iain said: “Joint working was definitely best in this instance. LFB could address urgent issues more quickly than we could. It was more appropriate for them to focus on management issues and the commercial parts, and ensure appropriate interim measures. Their actions led to an early reduction in risk, allowing for external walls to be addressed in the longer term.
“This was one of our earlier cases. Now, we would be more alert to the failings of the managing agent and would push for confirmed progress earlier, and would likely serve notice earlier.”
- Having one EHO able to focus and build up knowledge without carrying a caseload has been important. A lot of learning has been by way of good reports and assessments by surveyors/engineers. However, some information has been low quality or wrong, and it is important to be able to assess what is passed to the council.
- Generally, fire and rescue colleagues expect much quicker action, which is appropriate for some measures but unrealistic with external walls. However, fire service involvement and interim measures leads to significant reduction in risk, making it possible to extend the time for full remediation.
- Even where everyone is competent, cooperating and has the same aim, it is still a very slow process towards final remediation.
- Continual change (new guidance, evolving expectations, changing legislation, funding uncertainty) makes things more difficult for everyone.
Iain Clark, Principal Environmental Health Officer, London Borough of Camden: [email protected]