Of the 37 disabled residents classed as ‘vulnerable’ who were living in Grenfell Tower in 2017, 15 died in the fire that broke out on the night of 14 June. That is a shocking statistic and one that caused the Grenfell Inquiry to recommend that Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans or PEEPs, should be put in place for anyone with a physical or mental disability living in a high-rise block and who would be unable to escape the building without help should a fire break out.
But when this idea was put to industry experts advising the Government on new building safety plans, it was rejected as being impractical and was placed firmly on the “too difficult pile”. It’s not hard to see why. In multi-occupied residential buildings, the ‘Responsible Person’ – that’s usually the building owner or block manager - is unlikely to have full control either of the whole block or of who enters and exits. They are only responsible for the common parts and not for what goes on in individual residents’ flats. And unless the block has a concierge or an on-site management team there are unlikely to be people around on a regular basis available to help a disabled resident evacuate the building. So coming up with a ‘buddy system’ or another way to ensure help is at hand for elderly or vulnerable residents is difficult.
Last week the Home Office republished guidance on fire safety in blocks of flats with no mention of PEEPs. Instead, a caveat was simply added to a section on evacuation plans for disabled residents. Not good enough, said the families involved in the Grenfell Inquiry - and they threatened legal action. As a result, the Government has now done an about-face and has published a consultation “seeking views on new proposals to implement the Grenfell Tower Inquiry Phase 1 recommendation on Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans”. Under pressure, the Government has recognised that more must be done to help those residents who can’t evacuate high-rise residential buildings by themselves. There is no doubt that this will be harder than it looks, but let’s keep this in perspective.
In 2019/20, the Government’s own figures show that there were 1,884 evacuations from buildings on fire. Just under 30% were from purpose-built blocks of flats–and only 2% from high-rise buildings. There are many people with disabilities living in flats around the country, but not all of them have serious mobility problems that would prevent them from evacuating a burning building. So in reality, the number of vulnerable people who will require help in any one block, or even one development, is very small. A further point to consider is that while someone with mobility problems who own their flat may opt to live on or close to the ground floor for sheer convenience, tenants in social housing with similar disabilities may not have the choice of where they live, as housing for social rent is in such short supply. Where this is the case, surely local authorities have a duty of care to ensure their tenants are safe in their own homes.
So yes, the practicalities of PEEPs present us with a whole range of problems to unravel, but let’s wait for the results of the consultation before jumping to the conclusion that they will be too irksome and onerous for property owners and managing agents to put into place. Anyone affected by the need for PEEPs is invited to respond to the consultation, which runs until 11:45pm on 19 July 2021. The government also wants to hear from building owners, landlords and property managers potentially affected by any change to their responsibilities.
We will report on the findings in a future blog.
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