Why electrical safety must be put at the heart of building safety
With the Building Safety Bill progressing through the Lords, Peers have the power to help avoid another tower block tragedy by enforcing electrical safety checks for social tenants and leaseholders in England.
In the years since the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower, there has been much debate about the safety of high-rise blocks. Much of this discussion has focused on measures to remove and replace the unsafe external cladding that accelerated the spread of that tragic fire.
However, making high-rise residential buildings safe requires much more than action to stop fire spreading. There is also an urgent need to prevent those fires from starting in the first place.
One of the most important preventative actions that can be taken to achieve this, is by improving electrical safety. Electricity was the cause of a record 355 fires in tower blocks last year. Private landlords are required to carry out regular electrical safety checks every five years by law. However, current rules mean that similar inspections do not have to be carried out for social tenants and leaseholders.
This safety ‘gap’ is leaving families and buildings at risk. It is also highlighting the urgent need to extend electrical safety checks across all tenures. As the Building Safety Bill begins its passage through the Lords, Peers now have the opportunity to agree some simple amendments that will lead to fewer fires, creating peace of mind for hundreds of thousands of England’s tower block residents.
Lesley Rudd, Chief Executive at Electrical Safety First, is one of those urging the Lords to strengthen the rules around electrical safety checks. Rudd points out that the source of ignition for the Grenfell Tower fire was electrical – and was also the cause similar fires at Lakanal House in 2009 and Shepherds Court in 2016. Rudd’s key concern is that the current approach to electrical checks in high-rise blocks is incoherent and inconsistent.
“It cannot be right that social landlords in Scotland and Wales will be held to higher standards than those in England,” she explains. “It also cannot be right that in a mixed tenure block, a private renter will have electrical checks carried out by law, whilst the social tenant living next door will not. A fire in a tower block does not check the tenancy status of those it threatens. Those inconsistent standards could potentially undermine the safety of the whole building.”
This need to improve consistency is increasingly the focus of political debate too. The Shepherds Court fire occurred in Hammersmith, constituency of long-time fire safety campaigner Andy Slaughter MP. Commenting on this, Slaughter has been working alongside Electrical Safety First to strengthen the Government’s Building Safety Bill in the Commons, said:
“I’ve been concerned about electrical safety in high rises for some years,” he explains to The House. “There are a number of omissions in the Government’s Building Safety Bill but my amendments focused on electrical safety in high rise buildings. I want to see mandated, five yearly, electrical safety checks in both social housing and leaseholds in all high rises.”
Improving electrical safety in high rises will not only protect hundreds of thousands of people but also provide peace of mind
Slaughter believes that these proposals have the potential to make the system more consistent and effective, reducing the number of fires, and improving the safety of tenants and residents.
It is clear that social landlords would be supportive of such changes. In a survey by Electrical Safety First, 97% of social landlords who responded backed the call for mandatory checks in the social rented sector. Putting these checks on a statutory footing would make it easier for landlords to gain access to carry checks out, and also make it simpler for tenants to hold landlords to account if routine checks are not undertaken.
Andy Slaughter is clear that unless legislation to address the current imbalance between private renters and social tenants is strengthened, large numbers of people will be left at risk in their own homes.
“All tenants living in a multi-occupancy block can be at risk from a single incident,” Slaughter explains. “It is imperative that they are all subject to the highest safety standards. And their level of protection should not depend on tenure. Improving electrical safety in high rises will not only protect hundreds of thousands of people but also provide peace of mind.”
For Rudd, introducing mandatory checks would also allow Government to add real meaning and weight to the words in last year’s Social Housing White Paper. “The headline promise in the Government’s recent Charter for Social Housing Residents was that tenants would be safe in their own homes,” she explains. “What clearer route could there be to achieving this than introducing regular electrical tests that reduce the likelihood of fire?”
As the Building Safety Bill is debated in the Lords, there is still a clear opportunity to level the playing field for tenants across tenures, giving social tenants and leaseholders the same protection as private renters. It is an opportunity that hundreds of thousands of tower block residents in England will not want law makers to miss.
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