Fire safety experts say modifications by right-to-buy owners have exacerbated problem
Three-quarters of all social housing blocks are potentially unsafe in a fire, according to a survey questioning managers responsible for ensuring buildings are properly maintained.
A similar proportion of housing managers are not confident that their blocks have had a proper fire risk assessment, according to the study, carried out jointly by the Chief Fire Officers Association and Chartered Institute of Housing.
The findings will further raise concerns that fire safety in social housing, particularly in high-rise blocks, remains a significant problem even two years after the Lakanal House tragedy in Camberwell.
Six people, including three children, died on 3 July 2009 when a blaze swept though the 14-storey south London block. While an official report into the cause has been delayed pending a still-running police investigation, fire experts who examined Lakanal's sister block concluded that decades of botched modifications to the 1959-built structure massively compromised its ability to contain fires, allowing the flames to spread at speed vertically and laterally, trapping residents.
Following the fire the Chief Fire Officers Association and Chartered Institute of Housing organised a series of safety seminars for professionals in the social housing sector, during which they polled participants about the blocks they managed.
A total of 400 people were surveyed at the first three events, all in England, using an anonymous, push-button vote system. Asked before the seminar whether they believed their buildings were "fit for purpose" regarding fire safety, 45% agreed. After the expert briefing this fell to 27%.
Similarly, while 40% were initially confident they had carried out proper fire risk assessments on their housing stock, this dropped to 25% afterwards.
Both organisations stress the findings do not mean three-quarters of buildings are fire traps or that the occupants should be worried.
But Tony Prosser, director of operations for the West Midlands fire service, who led the study for the Chief Fire Officers' Association, said it showed that many supposed experts in the housing sector did not know as much as they thought.
"We were quite surprised by the results, bearing in mind that the people who come to these events tend to be already reasonably aware of the issues," he said.
"It's a worrying figure. When we go through the various scenarios it made people aware of some things they'd maybe not considered."
A main concern is modifications to buildings, some by residents, for example right-to-buy flat owners who replace the original fireproof doors to their flats with combustible replacements. Similarly, work on communal areas could sometimes cause hazards, he said.
"Some of these buildings are 50 years old now. Since then there's been a lot of work – satellite dishes, additional plumbing, heating systems. You can get heating engineers who bang holes between floors and don't do anything about filling in the gaps. In some buildings it can be a process of steady degradation."
Debbie Larner, head of practice at the Chartered Institute of Housing, the professional body for social housing groups, said the figures were "quite shocking" but stressed the need for perspective. "There's much more awareness about what the issues are. We're getting a sense that people really want to ensure that their assessments are much more robust. It's less of a tick-box approach," she said.
Some fire safety experts take a more gloomy view, saying that decades of chronic under-investment in social housing stock has left many hundreds of blocks unsafe and places greater emphasis on affordable easy to retrofit fire protection solutions.
Source - Guardian