Providing the legal protection to prevent another Grenfell

The devastating fire at Grenfell Tower in west London has thrown into stark relief the question of whether housing law and building regulations are adequate to keep people safe. Shelter plans to commission a review to identify the current gaps in housing law, the weaknesses around enforcement and to propose legal solutions to reduce the risk of a similar tragedy occurring in the future.

To inform the scope of the review, last week Shelter hosted a roundtable with housing lawyers to discuss inadequacies in current protections and agree priorities for reform. The participants are too numerous to list here, but suffice to say there is real will to tackle the deficiencies exposed at Grenfell. The debate revealed several key areas that demand further focus.

  1. Who polices local authority landlords?

The Housing Health and Safety Rating System provides a good framework through which environmental health officers can assess whether homes are safe. Where serious hazards are found, local authorities can order landlords to carry out remedial works. Assuming the local authority has the resources and will to carry out inspections, this provides a tool to hold private landlords to account and remedy the most dangerous hazards. But there is a crucial flaw in the system – local authorities cannot enforce against themselves and in practice do not enforce against housing associations. If a hazard is found in a social rented home, then no one can force a local authority landlord to act.

  1. Do we even have the right to a safe home?

Absurd as it may seem, there is nothing in housing law that says people have a right to live in a safe home. Previous attempts to updates the fitness for human habitation legislation have attempted to correct this, by introducing a legal baseline and giving tenants greater powers to hold their landlord to account.

The backbench MP Karen Buck plans to introduce a private member’s bill to ensure that all social or private rented homes must be fit for human habitation. This is a move Shelter has supported in the past and we will be lobbying MPs to support this legislation. The latest bill goes further than previous attempts in that:

  • It would apply to all parts of a building in which landlords have an interest
  • Tenants will have a claim against builders if they are killed or injured, even if they didn’t commission the works themselves.

Both are highly pertinent in the case of Grenfell. It is not enough for people to have a right to a safe home if the fabric of their building or the communal areas they must pass through put them at risk. And the right to financial compensation changes the incentives in a system which otherwise risks letting contractors get away with substandard work.

Fitness for Human Habitation is just one aspect of housing law. It was agreed that the whole system is – to use the type of legalese deployed – ‘a big mess.’ This blog provides a taster of how. Shelter’s review will aim to untangle some of this, but there were calls for the Law Commission to step in and conduct a formal review of housing law and regulations.

  1. How can we ensure works are done safely?

I’ve been struck by the awful irony that Grenfell was not abandoned to disrepair, but that instead a refurbishment project had been underway – a project which appears to have fatally undermined their safety of the building. Concerns were raised by our legal experts that landlords are not required to consult tenants, only leaseholders, when carrying out such major works and that there is no accountability if works are not carried out as agreed or to a good enough standard.

The discussion about how to involve occupiers in major works revealed some of the tensions which landlords – and policy makers – must negotiate. Major works can be cripplingly expensive for leaseholders in blocks owned by social landlords. Their instinct to reduce costs can often run in direct conflict to tenant demands for works to be completed to the highest standards possible. In some cases, leaseholders can act as a blockage on improvements and leases created for Right to Buy do not necessarily give landlords the right to go in and install sprinklers, for example.

This is just a snap shot of the large number of questions that need addressing. But we are confident answers will be forthcoming. We will commission our review imminently and will be able to report back before the official inquiry reports. We hope that government will be receptive to the remedies which are so urgently needed.