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Fire safety in houses and blocks of flats

This briefing discusses fire safety requirements for houses and blocks of flats, the 'stay put' strategy and the government response to the Grenfell Tower fire.

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Fire safety during construction and occupation

The fire safety of houses and blocks of flats is governed by different regimes at different points:

The fire safety measures that houses and blocks of flats must include at the point of construction (or some refurbishments) are governed by the Building Regulations 2010.
The building owner or manager is responsible for the fire safety of blocks of flats during occupation, under the Fire Safety Order 2005. As the ‘responsible person’, they must regularly carry out fire risk assessments and, if necessary, put in place and maintain fire safety measures.The Fire Safety Order 2005 only applies to communal areas in shared blocks of flats, not to individual flats or houses.
Building regulations and fire safety are devolved matters. This briefing focuses on England, with section 7 covering the devolved administrations.

This briefing focuses on the fire safety of blocks of flats and houses. It does not cover how the fire safety of other buildings, such as hospitals or care homes, is regulated. 

Compliance and enforcement
During construction and refurbishment, it is the responsibility of those carrying out the building work (for example, the developer) to make sure that it meets required standards. They need to seek approval from a building control body, either the local authority or a privately approved inspector.

The local authority has powers to force developers to fix non-compliant work and to pursue prosecution against those who violate building regulations.

Once blocks of flats are occupied, local fire and rescue services can take enforcement action if responsible persons do not meet their duties, for example, if they do not put required fire safety measures in place.

The ‘stay put’ strategy
Most purpose-built blocks of flats in England are designed and constructed to support a ‘stay put’ strategy. This strategy is based on the assumption that a fire is contained in its flat of origin.

To ensure a fire does not spread, current building standards require blocks of flats to be designed and constructed to achieve effective compartmentation.

This means each flat and all escape routes are enclosed with materials that prevent the spread of fire and smoke. This allows residents to remain in their flats if there is a fire in another part of the building.

The National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) said they support a ‘stay put’ strategy because, if all residents try to leave a building at the same time, they could hinder firefighters (PDF). It could also result in congestion on escape routes.

Changes following the Grenfell Tower fire
The Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 drew attention to the building and fire safety regime governing high-rise blocks of flats. The rapid spread of the fire was linked to the cladding material used on the exterior walls of the tower.

Following the fire, the Government commissioned the Grenfell Tower Inquiry and the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety (the Hackitt review). In line with the recommendations of the inquiry and the review, the following legislation was introduced:

The Building Safety Act 2022: to strengthen the compliance and enforcement regime governing the construction and refurbishment of buildings. For example, it extended the powers of local authorities to deal with building regulations violations.
The Fire Safety Act 2021: to clarify that, in a shared block of flats, the designated responsible person also has to consider a building’s external walls and flat entrance doors in their fire risk assessment.
New rules for ‘higher-risk’ blocks of flats
Through the Building Safety Act 2022 and Fire Safety Act 2021, the Government also created a new, more rigorous regime for ‘higher-risk’ buildings. These are buildings that are 18 or more metres in height or have seven or more storeys and have at least two residential units.

From October 2023, the construction and refurbishment of higher-risk blocks of flats will be overseen by the Building Safety Regulator (BSR).
Since January 2023, the designated responsible person of a higher-risk blocks of flats also has to prepare floor and building plans for their building, keep a record of its external wall materials and share information with their local fire and rescue service.
In future, higher-risk blocks of flats will also have a designated ‘accountable person’ in addition to a responsible person. The accountable person will be responsible for assessing and managing building safety risks. The BSR will make sure that accountable persons meet their duties.  

Plans for residents who cannot self-evacuate
Of the 37 disabled residents that lived in Grenfell Tower at the time of the fire, 15 lost their lives in the fire. 41% of those who died in the fire were disabled.

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry recommended that the government should develop evacuation guidelines of high-rise blocks of flat for instances where the ‘stay put’ strategy failed, including procedures for helping residents who cannot self-evacuate or require assistance (such as disabled or older people).

In 2021, the Government consulted on whether to require responsible persons in high-rise blocks of flats to prepare personal emergency evacuation plans (PEEPs) for residents who cannot self-evacuate. It concluded that “the evidence base for PEEPs is not sufficient to mandate their implementation”.

The Government sought views in 2022 on other ways to support residents who cannot self-evacuate, for example, by sharing information with local fire and rescue services to help them evacuate residents in an emergency in buildings that have a ‘simultaneous evacuation’ strategy in place.

These proposals were met with concern from disability rights groups, which have argued that disabled residents should not have to wait to be rescued.