Although the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 gives some redress for tenants in poor living conditions, much more needs to be done to ensure that residents are able to enforce safety in their homes. Rights for an individual tenant to bring a claim are important, but it is also important to give them the power to prompt the state to act on their behalf.
The regulation of common parts of buildings in particular creates problems, and when it comes to the vital matter of effective compartmentation, legal responsibility might be unclearly delineated. In addition, practical issues can make the enforcement of private rights difficult, including the limited availability of legal aid and the potential absence of specialist housing lawyers or advisers who can act where a tenant is not able to navigate the complexity of bringing proceedings themselves.
Together with the Tower Blocks Network and Environmental Health expert Stephen Battersby, and with input from fire safety expert Phil Murphy, a group of us in the Law School at the University of Kent have therefore developed a checklist.
This is designed to help tower block residents identify and highlight fire safety issues in their buildings or individual flats, and guide them on what might be done to redress this.
The list helps gather information, and when completed tenants can use it to support a request for an assessment under the Housing Health and Safety Rating System. The assessment should then be made by the local authority to identify the seriousness of the risks.
The list is explicitly designed for tenants, whether their landlord is a local authority or not, and includes a flowchart to help them work out routes to resolve problems.
Leaseholders may also find the checklist a useful source of reference on fire safety. But they will not be able to seek help from the local authority for issues that are demised to them under the terms of the lease.
The checklist is easy to use, giving tenants tick-box questions to go through.
It is divided into those on common parts and those on individual flats, and includes questions on physical and structural issues as well as management issues.
As residents work through the questions, the safest response is indicated by a shaded box; the more ticks there are in unshaded boxes, the greater the risk. As well as the questions themselves, the checklist includes illustrations of what to look out for, sources of further information and tips for how to deal with local authority environmental health officers.
We are keen to gather feedback on the checklist to improve it on a continual basis, so if you do have any comments please contact us using the email addresses below.
Fire literacy is important, as is the need for tools to navigate the complexity of housing law; but empowering occupiers is only the first step that needs to be taken. Freeholders, managers and housing professionals need to listen and respond to occupiers' concerns, and the legal regime needs an urgent overhaul.
It makes obscure distinctions, and our research demonstrated just how little relationship there was between these and the poor conditions in which residents live.
Those who want to improve the safety of their home face numerous and often insurmountable barriers to justice. We argued that the state should legally accept responsibility for enforcing minimum standards, but that residents should be given tools to force action as well – including, for example, the ability to take concerns straight to the First-Tier Tribunal, which could then have the powers to order a local authority inspection. The checklist is therefore a start, but much more still needs to be done.
Gary Strong, RICS global building standards director, comments: 'We support the need for involvement of residents in fire safety and have published a consumer guide for owners occupiers on fire safety.'
Ed Kirton-Darling is a lecturer and solicitor and Helen Carr is a professor at Kent Law Schoolek276@kent.ac.uk email@example.com
Related competencies include: Fire safety, Landlord and tenant