Tower block landlords must carry out urgent safety checks
The landlords, owners and managers of private rented sector tower blocks have been contacted by the government in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster.
Melanie Dawes, permanent secretary of the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), told landlords safety checks must be carried out on buildings as a matter of urgency in a letter. She said: “Following the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower in North Kensington last week, we want to ensure you are aware of help that is available in checking your buildings.
“There has been much public concern and comment about potential flaws in the cladding that was on Grenfell Tower. While the exact reasons for the speed of the spread of fire have yet to be determined, we have concluded that there are additional tests that can be undertaken with regard to the cladding.
“We have asked local authorities and social housing providers to identify whether any panels used in new build or refurbishment of their own housing stock are a particular type of cladding made of Aluminium Composite Material (ACM).
“These checks will be relevant to privately owned and managed residential buildings too, so please can you consider carrying out these checks on your buildings.”
Her letter goes on to explain how to identify the cladding and includes an offer to pay for samples to be tested. It is prioritising buildings more than six storeys or 18 metres high. Around 600 high rises across England are using similar cladding to Grenfell Tower, Downing Street estimates.
Tower blocks across the UK are being examined after the London blaze, which has left 79 people dead or missing, presumed dead. It’s a figure authorities say is still set to rise, and they may never identify all the deceased. Three samples have been shown to be "combustible" and more results will be made public in the coming days.
What is Aluminium Composite Material (ACM)?
Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) is a type of flat panel that consists of two thin aluminium sheets bonded to a non-aluminium core, typically between 3 and 7mm thick.
The panels can have a painted or metallic finish (e.g. copper or zinc effects). It can be differentiated from solid aluminium sheet by looking at a cut edge whereby the lamination is visible. It may be necessary to cut a hole in a panel if a cut edge is not readily accessible.
ACM cladding is not of itself dangerous, but it is important that the right type is used. If landlords identify that cladding on their buildings is made of ACM, then a sample can be tested.
What landlords need to know about testing
Where the entire block is not owned and managed by the same party, only one sample should be provided and necessary permissions must be obtained for taking and sending off the sample. Individual leaseholders within a building are not expected to send off samples for testing.
On buildings with a floor over 18m above ground level, where ACM panels are identified, it is necessary to establish whether the panels are of a type that complies with the Building Regulations guidance - i.e. the core material should be a material of limited combustibility or Class A2.1
To allow for the identification of core materials, a government-funded testing capacity that will allow a small sample of the cladding to be tested and its type identified has been set up. Landlords who wish to take up this offer will need to submit samples for testing.
Where the surveyor undertaking assessment of a composite panel determines that it is necessary for cladding to be subjected to laboratory screening, they should follow this procedure:
Cut out two samples of at least 250 x 250mm in size from each location sampled. Take photographs as necessary to identify the location of the sample. Samples should be taken from above and below 18m above ground level as appropriate and check different multiple panels where you have concern that material specification varies.
Using an indelible ink pen, note the building name or number, postcode and a unique identifier (i.e. the name of building owner followed by unique sample number e.g. ABC/001) traceable to the specific location within the building of each sample. Add a direct dial telephone or mobile contact number to be used in the event that there are any queries on the sample.
You must make close the hole using a non-combustible sheet such as steel fixed with self-tapping screws or rivets.
Landlords must complete a data return form attached to the letter and include a hard copy of it with the sample. They should provide as much information as is readily available, but not if this will delay submission of samples for testing.
Place one of the samples from each location in a padded envelope with a copy of the data return form (attached below). Clearly mark the envelope 'URGENT – CLADDING TEST SAMPLE'.
Send the test samples by recorded delivery or courier to: BRE, Bucknalls Lane, Garston, Watford, Herts, WD25 9XX.
Retain the second sample from each location for your own records or for testing in the event that samples are lost or misplaced in transit.
What else can landlords do?
"As well as this work it is of course important that owners/landlords have robust fire assessments for their properties," Melanie Dawes explains in her letter.
“All landlords have legal obligations when it comes to fire safety,” adds Andy Wynne-Jones, senior underwriting manager at Simple Landlords Insurance.
“If nothing else, the Grenfell Tower tragedy should be a reminder to all landlords to check escape routes on their properties, and check the fire alarms. These may well be conditions of your insurance. Fire is an insurable risk and if the worst happens you should be covered under most buildings and contents policies - but as we’ve seen quite clearly in Kensington you simply can’t put a price on people’s lives.
“I would also recommend making sure your tenants are keeping fire doors properly closed, and you may wish to consider writing out to tenants or scheduling in an inspection.”