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Independent Commission recommends raft of actions to improve the fire safety of Essex County Council property

26 February 2018

A report commissioned by Essex County Council following the 2017 Grenfell Tower tragedy and published on Monday, 26 February has recommended a series of actions for the Council to implement to improve the fire safety of its property and third-party owned buildings.

Former Chief Fire Officer of Suffolk and Berkshire, Andy Fry OBE, chaired a cross-party review of the authority’s property estate, investigating building cladding and general fire safety standards.

The aim of the Independent Property Review Commission was to conduct a comprehensive examination of fire safety in Essex County Council buildings, through investigating building cladding, and scrutinising general fire safety standards. 

Mr Fry and his team visited sites, heard evidence from experts and scrutinised written information, before drawing conclusions and making recommendations.

Key findings were:

  • The Council should be commended for its swift response to requests for information about external cladding, and for a number of other proactive steps taken, in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy
  • More work is needed to understand the extent to which cladding may be a problem in multi-storey schools and care homes
  • The council needs to put in place ‘effective routes’ to gather expert guidance on ‘relatively complex’ fire safety matters
  • The Commission found well-established approaches for ensuring minimum Building Regulation standards are met in the design and construction of new buildings
  • Potential opportunities are being missed to improve fire safety standards in new buildings, as well as in their design
  • Progress appears to be being made to address weaknesses in how the Council uses third-party fire risk assessors
  • The Council should strengthen its role in providing guidance to schools which are managing their own building maintenance and refurbishment work

Key recommendations for the Council to act on included:

  • The Council should take urgent action to ensure appropriate steps are taken to address fire safety issues in third-party owned high-rise residential care homes fitted with potentially hazardous cladding where ECC places residents
  • The Council should introduce ‘sample auditing’ to check the suitability of fire risk assessments in third-party operated care homes where it has residents
  • Guidance should be issued to all Council-maintained schools and third-party run residential care homes to make sure  the implications of potentially hazardous cladding are assessed, managed and shared with other schools
  • Clear arrangements should be out in place for ad hoc specialist advice on complex fire safety issues
  • Essex County Fire and Rescue Service should be involved at an early stage in building design in all construction projects worth over £2m
  • Property protection and business continuity risk assessments should be an integral part of all future design briefs for new buildings
  • A raft of progress reviews should be undertaken, including a Scrutiny Committee review of progress on the report's recommendations in 12 months’ time

Andy Fry OBE, Chairman of the Independent Property Review Commission, said: “Councils have a clear responsibility to make sure people – especially younger, older and vulnerable people – are safe in the buildings they own or which are owned by third parties and where the council has a responsibility for the occupants.

“Essex County Council wanted to act in the aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy to make sure its responsibilities in this area were not falling short of the highest standards.

“We often hear the words ‘lessons must be learnt’ in the aftermath of a tragedy. As we respond to Grenfell, not only must lessons be learnt, but they must translate into decisive action.

“The Council deserves credit for commissioning the review and I believe, as the Commission chairman, that our findings are robust, comprehensive and practical, and identify the areas where meaningful improvements can be made.

"I am also confident that implementation of our recommendations will make Essex County Council buildings even safer in the future than they are today."

Cllr David Finch, Leader of Essex County Council, said: “The Grenfell tragedy’s legacy must not be that local authorities failed to learn lessons and heed warnings.

“I am grateful to Andy Fry and the Independent Commission for their work. It is a thorough examination of our estate and property portfolio.

“The report praises much in our approach and intentions but also contains actions which we must undertake.

“There is a clear list of recommendations and a set timetable within which we will operate. Some of those actions involve us working with third parties, but we must ensure this happens if we are to ensure that our employees, schoolchildren and vulnerable adults live and work in buildings which are even safer in the future than today.”