The national Joint Inspection Team (JIT) was set up to assist councils in taking enforcement action against private landlords that were slow to remediate high-rise residential blocks with Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) cladding.
In 2021 the JIT's remit was expanded to cover non-ACM combustible cladding, and to help train council staff to do their own inspections and take enforcement action.
The Joint Inspection Team is funded by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. It acts as an expert adviser to local councils but does not have its own legal powers, instead supporting councils to use their own. The focus is on residential buildings over 18 metres, assessing the level of any fire safety hazards using the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS) operating guidance.
The team is comprised of a fire engineer, building control surveyor and environmental health professionals. There are also support staff including an intelligence officer and solicitor (who do not generally go on site visits).
Although the JIT advises on enforcement using the Housing Act 2004, because it is specifically advising councils, it is a multidisciplinary team which includes a fire engineer. Councils usually share the inspection report with their local fire and rescue service (FRS) and involve them in developing a plan of action.
The first inspections took place in 2019. Since then, at the time of writing, the team had conducted 34 inspections. From those they found 18 ‘Category 1’ hazards, which councils have a duty to enforce on, and have assisted those councils at all stages. There have been 16 ‘Category 2’ hazards, and on many of those the councils concerned served Improvement Notices. Although the JIT only visits blocks because they have combustible cladding, other issues are always found which require remediation, so the team’s impact reaches further than it was designed to.
Brian Castle, Team Leader, said: “Having this expertise within one team enables us to say what the real risk is. Our experts in building construction and fire safety can discuss and evaluate what is there, even when they can’t actually see it, and assess the likely effects of a fire starting in various places in a building. Then, as we are using Housing Act legislation, we need environmental health officers to assess the risk of any hazards and advise on how the legislation applies.”
Following a site visit of up to two days, the JIT advises the host council through an extensive report and risk assessment. Where there are serious problems in a block, the council (or FRS where relevant) can use this evidence to take enforcement action.
This expert input can make a big difference in getting landlords to accept what needs to be done. Once they are presented with the evidence, some landlords concede quickly; others concede slowly. Brian said: “There can be some real tactics at play, but they eventually give in because we are able to present such solid evidence.”
The JIT is now helping to build capability within councils to do their own enforcement, both through free fire safety training courses (Levels 1 and 2) and by sharing information on the LGA website and ‘KHub’ online resource. To date the team has trained about 500 people, including staff from 147 councils in England. In course feedback, for Level 1 attendees 95 per cent reported being very or fairly satisfied; for Level 2 courses 100 per cent of attendees reported being very or fairly satisfied.
Getting hold of information before a site inspection can be challenging, particularly where the building was signed off by an Approved Inspector. Documents may not exist or may never have been seen by the landlord. “There is almost always less information on a block that was signed off by an Approved Inspector, and the landlord can’t be made to produce what they don’t have.”
Documentation is usually better when the building was signed off by building control surveyors. However, in one recent instance, a council had a policy of destroying documents after six years, so all the floor plans and documentation had gone. Landlords often mistakenly believe that sign-off as compliant with building regulations rules out action under the Housing Act. Delaying tactics are common.
Lack of resourcing within councils is another challenge. Often, environmental health teams in areas with lots of unsafe blocks do not have enough staff or skills to tackle them. JIT is helping with training, but there is a need for councils to be properly resourced so that they can employ enough staff for this challenge.
According to the JIT, these are all common challenges that councils and FRSs all around England will be grappling with.
The administration involved in serving an Improvement Notice is complex but at present that is often the only viable route, so the JIT supports councils to do that. When the Fire Safety Act comes in, fire service colleagues will unambiguously be able to enforce on wall systems as well, but how much that option is taken up depends on other factors. FRSs are often not resourced for enforcement. It can also involve a significant culture change for the service, which has not historically had a strong enforcement role.
In one example, the JIT inspected a block that was reported to have ACM in the wall system. The local fire and rescue service had shared information on the block and the landlord.
The team found that the cladding was less than 5 per cent ACM, but there were other problems. These included vertically aligned balconies with combustibles that would probably lead to a fire spreading up the block, and a number of other issues inside the block. It was assessed as a ‘Category 1’ hazard. The council served an Improvement Notice, and both the council and the FRS helped to monitor progress towards an acceptable conclusion.
In another instance, a council contacted the JIT concerned about a block. A virtual meeting was held, which also involved the local fire service, and documentation was shared with the JIT. Following the team’s advice the FRS served an Enforcement Notice and, at the same time, the council served an Improvement Notice on the same block.
Brian said: “In that example, both the council and FRS served notice on similar issues. Their logic was that if they served an Improvement Notice which didn’t include something on fire safety, the landlord would not take it seriously. They did both and it was really effective. We didn’t even visit that site, we talked them through it. I understand that the landlords went on to remediate.”
- Some issues in a block lend themselves better to enforcement under the Housing Act and some under the Fire Safety Order, and in all cases the JIT recommends that councils and FRSs work together to decide who should lead on which problem.
- Some areas are good at sharing intelligence between the council and FRS that could be useful, for example historical knowledge about a building or landlord.
- A lack of knowledge within a council – including among senior officers – about the legal duties under the Housing Act can result in important information not getting to those who have the legal powers to deal with it.
- Through working in a joint team the experts have become better at explaining what they can see in a building to the rest of the team, and at communicating its relevance.
- The JIT’s fire engineer previously served as a fire fighter, and this knowledge of both the theory and practice of fire fighting has added an extra dimension to their input.
Brian Castle, Team Leader, Joint Inspection Team: Brian.Castle@local.gov.uk