Clare Norton for Inside Housing – Bringing Health and Safety to the Forefront

Clare Norton, CEO of PBHA and chair of the G320 group of smaller housing associations in London, recently wrote this article for Inside Housing. It was posted on the Inside Housing Website on 10/08/17.

Over recent weeks, I have been sharing deep concern with many G320 chief executive colleagues at the deaths of so many in the tragic Grenfell Tower. It is now eight weeks ago that the whole country felt the heart wrenching shock and pain of seeing the fire engulf the tower and subsequently experienced the anger and quest for answers that the victim’s families, community and the public seek.

It falls to us all to respond to the urgent requests for assurance and action, to reassure tenants, staff and the public, to explain to everyone including our own friends and family how the fire safety rules work in residential accommodation.

It has been a difficult task but one which can only be answered with one fundamental response. A culture of health and safety must be at the centre of everything we do.

As leaders we take the responsibility to make sure the resources, training and oversight is there to keep people safe in their homes and their places of work. Knowing that we had to make improvements in our culture, I brought the right people into Peter Bedford who were clear health and safety was their number one urgent responsibility. I set the standard and made sure the leadership was there to push through complacency and to reach high standards in overseeing safety. We invested in training key staff to achieve health and safety qualifications such as NEBOSH, which succeeded in raising standards across the whole organisation.

Our housing teams take a group approach to fire safety where they work together to carry out their health and safety monitoring and testing. Although the group approach provided reassurance, nevertheless immediately after the Grenfell fire our staff were very nervous about having responsibilities for fire safety, all acutely aware of the potential enormous impact gaps in their work can create.

We have also been pleased to be a part of sharing our response to the disaster with other registered providers and local authorities, offering an insight into the learning and priorities we have set ourselves as we have strived to embed that health and safety culture.

The value of gathering with peers in networks such as G320 is clear. We learn from others, to set meaningful performance indicators on fire safety, understanding what constitutes an acceptable level of fire risk, how to make sure all tenants, staff and service users who need one have Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans. Sharing best practice and learning from each other prompts us to examine our practice and put in place measures to make improvements. We can confidently prioritise investment in safety, clear that investing in safe buildings is beyond negotiable.

Local authorities in London are preparing to be as transparent as possible with their fire risk assessments. Our commitment is to open up a dialogue with residents through full disclosure. Transparency and debunking the jargon is a priority for us, and as a small local landlord, doing this through individual conversation, newsletter fire safety advice, listening and feeding back is our preference.

With advice from the London Fire Brigade, at Peter Bedford we are digesting the recommendations in the newly published fire safety guidance for specialised housing from the National Fire Chiefs Council. We have built the guidance into a new fire safety policy which we are consulting on currently.

The guidance aims to increase fire safety measures and practices, providing recommendations designed to protect from fire three-quarters of a million residents of specialised housing (sheltered housing, extra care or supported housing).

The report states the following: “Most deaths from fire occur in dwellings; a disproportionate number of such deaths from fire occur in blocks of flats and multiple occupancy dwellings. Those living in specialised housing can be among the most vulnerable to hazards such as fires. Compliance with the building regulations alone is not necessarily sufficient to address the protection of vulnerable residents from fire.”

To reduce the risks of vulnerable tenants being at higher risk of fire and not being able to evacuate, we have been installing fire safety equipment such as portable sprinklers, fire retardant bedding and curtains and when redecorating using fire retardant paint. As levels of need have risen in our accommodation over several years, the fire brigade advised us to install fire alarms into shared accommodation. The upgrades have taken two years to complete and we have prioritised these over other improvements. We have reduced the review of fire risk assessments to two years, and in addition a trained staff member will review them every year.

Having reduced the level of fire risk to an acceptable level, our focus now is identifying tenants whose behaviours impact on the fire safety of the premises. Hoarding is a particular concern, and as a mental health provider, we naturally house a number of tenants suffering from this mental health condition. Our priority is to support the tenant to reduce and manage their fire risk. To improve safety we share individualised Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans for each tenant with the fire brigade.

We believe investing in a strong health and safety culture is the only way to reassure tenants about their safety. We are striving to go beyond building regulations where risk levels demand, so we can be sure we have done everything we can to reduce fire risk and keep people safe.