Fire safety issues are front of mind for owners of multi-occupied residential buildings following the Grenfell Tower tragedy. There is obviously widespread shock that such an incident could occur, given the UK’s highly regulated building standards regime. As investigations continue, there is rightly a focus on minimising the risk of any recurrence.

Universities (“Universities”) who house students in modern high-rise buildings are assessing risk in both University-owned Purpose Built Student Accommodation (‘PBSA’) and PBSA leased by Universities from private sector Providers (“Providers”). We set out below (i) some specific steps which we recommend Universities consider taking where University students are housed in third party Provider accommodation and (ii) our recommendation as to the technical steps which need to be taken by whoever (Provider or University) is responsible for the relevant building.

As a general point, it is important that Universities engage in dialogue with Providers to ensure that Universities are doing all they can to protect the interests of students. In most cases it is likely that both Universities and Providers will take a sensible approach.

Some of the issues which Universities will wish to consider are set out below.

University/PBSA Provider Liaison

Initial steps:

Some of the issues which Universities will wish to consider initially are set out below:

  • Responsibility under agreement – each lease/nominations agreement will be drafted differently and it is therefore important for all parties involved to be clear about which party is liable to carry out the necessary health and safety checks to ensure that nothing “falls between two stools”, bearing in mind that the regulatory body responsible for enforcing fire regulations, the Fire and Rescue Authority, will decide who is the “responsible person” for the building – which is the person “who has the control of the building”.
  • Communication with Provider - Even if a University is not contractually obliged to take action, it will wish to make maximum effort to guarantee the safety of its students. This means that Universities will wish to keep accurate and comprehensive records evidencing all dialogue with Providers. Even if a party is not the responsible person (according to fire safety legislation), that party can still suffer significant reputational damage and Universities need not only to act appropriately, but to be able to demonstrate that they have done so.

Practical steps:

We list below suggestions as to what Universities - or the responsible person - must do:

  • Ensure that a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment is carried out by a suitably qualified person, and ensure that all appropriate measures, as set out in the risk assessment, are implemented;
  • Carry out or direct the party responsible to carry out checks on fixtures and equipment in student accommodation to verify the safety of those items as far as possible (e.g. ensure that all boiler checks are up to date and check there are no appliances which have been recalled by manufacturers etc.);
  • Write to students (i) asking them to check the safety of their own items, (ii) reminding them of any relevant obligations under the terms of their tenancy agreements relating to safety (iii) reminding them of their fire escape exits and (iv) reminding them not to interfere with active fire protection systems, such as fire doors and smoke detectors;
  • Publish and notify in clear terms to all students the evacuation policy in place for all premises, e.g. there may be a “stay put” policy in place;
  • Write to the students to explain how the responsible party is managing any potential fire risks associated and to keep students updated on the steps being taken. A named University contact should also be provided for any queries or concerns;
  • If responsible for the fabric of a building, arrange for any cladding to be tested urgently and incorporate those findings in the fire risk assessment, and if potential problems are identified, urgent steps should be taken to resolve the problem and/or replace the cladding as quickly as possible; and
  • Questions may arise around whether the costs incurred in investigating/removing the cladding could be recovered via the service charge (the cost of which is often charged back by landlords/owners to tenants as part of tenants’ lease obligations). This will of course depend on the terms of the relevant agreement but as a general comment, unless the cladding is in a state of disrepair, the replacement of cladding may not fall within the scope of the service charge. This requires legal advice on a case by case basis.

Technical Steps

We suggest that these are followed by the responsible party (University or Provider):

  • Check specifications for buildings as to cladding;
  • Verify that the form of cladding used is as specified;
  • Seek advice on whether that type of cladding is/is not problematic, which may involve sample testing etc;
  • If the cladding as specified/used is problematic then seek design advice on replacement;
  • Carry out further risk assessment and take fire strategy advice on risks pending replacement to ascertain whether risk can be managed or if property needs to be vacated;