UK: Grenfell Tower - What Should Landlords Of High-Rises And 'Complex Buildings' Be Doing Now?

Last Updated: 28 June 2017
Article by Kerry Gwyther
Most Read Contributor in UK, July 2017

The recent tragic events surrounding Grenfell Tower have received extensive coverage and a Public Inquiry has been ordered.

Very little however, has been said about what landlords of high-rises and other complex buildings should be doing now.

It is clearly too early to draw lessons from the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the Public Inquiry and/or Inquest may well take some years.

This update therefore details the current statutory duties in relation to high-rises and other complex buildings for landlords, as well as looking again at recommendations after the Lakanal House fire in Camberwell in July 2009.

What are landlords' statutory duties in relation to high-rises and 'complex buildings'?

Statutory duties are imposed on landlords under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 and the Health & Safety at Work etc. Act 1972. The first question to ask though is what is a high-rise?

Typically high-rises are defined as buildings with seven storeys and above on the basis that this is usually the maximum reach of external fire fighting equipment.

British Standards Guidance also talks of floors higher than 30 meters above ground which is more like 10 storeys. However, the most telling definition, and most practical, is any structure where the height can have a serious impact on evacuation.

High-rise is not the only issue: these principles should be applied just as much to 'complex blocks', i.e. buildings which might  be below seven storeys but where there may be more vulnerable occupants (e.g. sheltered accommodation, hostels) or building complexities (e.g. listed buildings or buildings with more than one means of escape).

The key statutory duties are:

  • the landlord (not the local fire and rescue service) must carry out a detailed Fire Risk Assessment identifying any possible dangers and keep it under constant review;
  • the landlord must consider who may be especially at risk: elderly, mobility impaired, children etc.;
  • the landlord must eliminate or reduce, so far as is reasonably practicable, the risks from fire and introduce fire precautions to deal with any residual risks; and
  • the landlord must create a plan to deal with an emergency.

These are broad duties but underlying each one will be detailed policies, practices and procedures.

What is not covered:

  • in relation to buildings built prior to 2007, it is not obligatory to have sprinkler systems fitted; and
  • currently, there is no statutory duty to retrofit sprinklers.

The presence or absence of a properly maintained and working internal sprinkler system has been the subject of considerable debate even before the Lakanal House fire and is a key consideration in relation to fire safety.

Recommendations following previous fires

The Lakanal House fire took place in July 2009. The inquest concluded in March 2013 and a criminal prosecution of Southwark Borough Council concluded in February 2017 some eight years after the original fire.

In February of this year, Southwark was fined a total of £570,000, including costs, for four offences under the Fire Safety Order, namely:

  • failing to conduct an adequate fire risk assessment;
  • allowing breach of fire resistant structures between each maisonette, staircase and any common internal doors;
  • allowing fire loading and lack of compartmentation in the false ceiling structure of internal corridors; and
  • failing to provide fitted strips and smoke seals on fire doors, including flat front doors.

At the Inquest, the Coroner, her Honour Frances Kirkham, made a number of recommendations not only to Southwark Borough Council as landlord but also to the government and local fire & rescue services.

The key recommendations in relation to Southwark as a landlord were that they should:

  • provide clear information and guidance to residents around the fire safety features of their dwelling and the building generally and what they should do in the event of a fire, i.e. stay or leave. There has been huge debate around this issue alone, long before the Grenfell Tower tragedy. It now seems clear that any policy must be case specific and will depend on a multitude of factors, chief amongst which is whether a fully functioning sprinkler system is in place;
  • provide clear and prominent signage, including pictograms, on each floor explaining to residents what should happen in the event of a fire;
  • review existing policies and procedures under the Fire Safety Order to identify which flats are most at risk and how often inspections should take place;
  • consider whether  staff engaged in maintenance and refurbishment are properly trained to ensure that materials and products used in any refurbishment have appropriate fire protection qualities i.e. do staff procuring work fully understand the significance of the "compartmentation" principle;
  • ensure suitable access for emergency vehicles; and
  • consider, as a matter of urgency, the retrofitting of sprinklers.


It would not be prudent or sensible for landlords to await the results of a Public Inquiry or Inquest into the Grenfell Tower tragedy. As with Lakanal, this could be a very lengthy process.  But, the lessons from history are already there, and have been for some time, as have the statutory duties and it would be worthwhile all landlords reviewing their current position to make sure they comply with both.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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