Liverpool City Council and Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service (MFRS) have an informal structure for joint working on fire risk to high-rise residential buildings, based on effective communication and information sharing. Liverpool has over 200 blocks over 18 metres high, including purpose-built student and private residential blocks.
In considering the limitations of the Housing Act 2004, Liverpool City Council’s Private Sector Housing (PSH) service recognised the need to work closely with MFRS in assessing high-risk residential buildings. A historic Memorandum of Understanding was in place which allowed for the sharing of relevant data.
Liverpool’s head of service and the MFRS chief fire officer were keen to mirror a ‘joint investigation team’ approach. The council used ‘New Burdens’ funding to second a fire officer into its PSH service for six months (eventually 18 months) to help with assessment and enforcement. Managers recognised that the knowledge and experience of a fire officer would be invaluable in tackling the significant cladding issues the city was facing.
Jo Tambourini-Kay, PSH Service Support Manager, said: “The fire officer joined us just as the Hackett report was released. This gave us the scope to determine how we could forge the relationship between the organisations and pre-empt Dame Judith Hackett’s vision of the ‘golden thread’ in how we approached our work together.”
Bringing a fire officer into the council involved a steep learning curve on both sides and highlighted some organisational differences. The fire officer undertook the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS) course, which gave them a good understanding of how joint working could ensure that action was taken by the most appropriate authority when required.
A new data sharing agreement was put in place by legal officers. A ‘SharePoint’ platform was created to enable relevant officers from the council and MFRS to share knowledge on buildings, discuss findings and concerns, and plan joint visits.
Joint inspections are currently undertaken reactively in response to concerns about a building, either through complaints into the council or fire service or following information received as part of the external wall system (EWS) investigations. Buildings of concern identified by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) are also prioritised. Either authority will lead on enforcement where appropriate, determined and agreed on a case-by-case basis.
Once work was underway, Liverpool City Council recognised that a wider steering group was required to ensure that the issues, risks and enforcement activity were understood at a senior level. A building safety group was created, chaired by the assistant director for environment and attended by managers with decision-making powers from building control, planning and emergency planning. Monthly meetings are held to discuss progress, share intelligence and receive updates from MFRS.
MFRS set up a building risk review team and the seconded fire officer went back into that team, transferring the learning gained at the council. Key to this new team was a liaison officer who acted as the conduit between the council and fire service, which was invaluable for the free-flow of intelligence.
This work enabled both sides to re-evaluate the partnership and streamline their joint working, discussing buildings and deciding who should lead on enforcement. Jo said: “From the start we could see the enormous benefit to the [council] team from this partnership working with the fire service. They allowed us to assess risk from different views, and it created a level of reassurance that we were tackling buildings in the right way, with the most appropriate enforcement team taking the relevant action and with everyone fully informed.
“The relationship has proven invaluable. We were able to establish a strong understanding of how our powers could work in conjunction with MFRS, develop a strategy for dealing with buildings with problematic external wall systems, and determine who was best to take enforcement forward where required.”
Establishing inter-team and cross-organisational working at a high level was essential to build comprehensive intelligence on buildings, particularly ‘problem’ blocks.
Liverpool City Council has created a follow-on group, the high rise decant group, which will bring together organisations and community groups to create a policy and procedure for emergency events that may require full-scale decant of a high-rise building. The council attends regular update meetings with DLUHC, with MFRS in attendance where relevant.
With MFRS’s building risk review team coming to an end, and as a result the liaison officer no longer in place, Liverpool and MFRS are moving to a new stage. They are determined to maintain the strong working partnership, and to continue to learn and build on that moving forward with the Building Safety Regulator. “We already have the fundamentals in place that align with the LGA principles, and look forward to seeing how we can further improve our working relationship for the benefit of the residents and our city.”
Liverpool City Council and MFRS worked together on enforcement at this city-centre development of mixed private, student and short-term lets. There were five blocks, either built or under construction, with at least one exceeding seven storeys. The council’s request for documents, stemming from the Government’s EWS investigations, was responded to with evidence of aluminium-composite material (ACM) and partial completion certificates, prompting a joint inspection.
There were concerns over one block which required significant improvements to fire safety, in particular with the EWS and fire safety management. MFRS took immediate action, ensuring that the number of appliances would meet the scale of need at the development in the event of a fire, and ensuring immediate interim measures.
Liverpool City Council took enforcement action based on significant concerns around inadequate cavity barriers and spread of fire. With no works forthcoming, the council served a Prohibition Order under Section 5 of the Housing Act 2004. This was appealed, but the appeal was not successful, the Prohibition Order became operative and the building had to be decanted. A joint multi-agency and partnership effort ensured that accommodation was made available.
The building managers were given two years to fully remediate, with interim measures put in place. The Prohibition Order was revoked in March 2020, with the council’s inspectors satisfied that the works undertaken had removed the risk.
The ability to discuss these issues between the council’s relevant teams and with MFRS, with continued open information, helped to ensure that all the activity was coordinated. Jo Tambourini-Kay said: “What we learnt from this building was that the understanding of the fall-out from the Grenfell tragedy was not fully understood with our wider teams. The building had been audited by a fire officer, but the issues evident during our visit had been missed as they fell out of the normal audit checks.
“Complaints about the building via our PSH team had not been cross-referenced and had been dealt with by different officers. The block had not been brought to the attention of the high-rise team. These issues were highlighted, and action to reduce the recurrence for both organisations took place via learning and training.”
- Decisions must be based on justifiable risk and follow relevant enforcement processes. One case ended up with the First-tier Tribunal, but the robust process and evidence in place, in addition to clear policies, allowed for the successful defence of the council’s decision.
- Clearly communicate the joint working relationship to building owners/managers, to avoid information not being passed to both organisations.
- Proactively manage communications between the council and fire service: when communication drops, important updates and messaging can be lost.
- Build up networks and partnerships with others such as the Health and Safety Executive, Government, developers and so on.
- Be reflective and learn from situations – consider what you might do differently next time.
Louise Harford, Head of Private Sector Housing, Liverpool City Council: [email protected]
Jo Tambourini-Kay, PSH Service Support Manager, Liverpool City Council: [email protected]