The communal areas of residential blocks is an area of great importance which contributes towards the overall fire safety of a building. These areas can prove detrimental to the fire safety of a building if they become congested with items and in some cases these items themselves can often be deemed hazardous. It is therefore to the benefit of the blocks’ residents and leaseholders, to consider preventative actions to eliminate any potential risks in order to improve the safety of the building.
Occasionally the lease itself will cover this issue of fire risk in communal areas. The lease will identify what can and cannot be stored in the corridors, staircases or landings. If this is not covered, it falls into a fire risk assessment to set the policy which is not always straightforward, and this can cause disputes between the leaseholder and freeholder surrounding ownership of these areas.
However, there are two approaches that can be adopted:
Although this method is by far the simplest, it does not prove popular with many residents. With zero tolerance all common areas must be always kept completely clear, which includes seemingly innocuous items such as doormats. This can cause dissatisfaction among residents, who may prefer a homelier feel and look to their block as opposed to a rather sterile environment and approach.
This is by far the most popular choice and often landlords will want to take a more flexible approach to its relatively drastic counterpart, which as a result can often lead to a more harmonious living space for residents, and perhaps encourage them to be more cooperative around the subject matter of shared responsibility.
This policy can be as simple as a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ item list. ‘Yes’ items may include pictures in frames on the wall, a potted plant, a doormat and ‘No’ items might be tables, dressers, chairs, pushchairs etc.
Certain items in communal areas can also be considered where space and design allow i.e., a small side table, or sofa in a communal seating lobby etc, however these items should be fire resistant.
Sometimes, items can be anticipated such as doormats which can often be fixed into the floor to avoid creating a trip hazard, as well as pictures and plants for residents which are deemed fire resistant. As an alternative, block owners can choose to display their own pictures, providing they conform to fire safety requirements. This can provide a more homely and welcoming feel and help landlords fill empty flats.
Unfortunately, it is not always plain-sailing and a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach may have to be enforced following the abuse of a ‘managed’ use policy, on the basis that fire safety must take priority.
A TORT notice can be served on any items that need to be removed, such as old bikes, unwanted furniture etc. This is a legal document that can be attached to an item that is believed to have been abandoned on the grounds of the property. After the notice has been served to a resident, they are then afforded 14 days to comply before the item is removed by the managing agent. It may be necessary to remove items immediately and serve a TORT notice retrospectively if the items are causing a significant hazard (i.e., BBQ gas bottles etc.)
Factors to consider when choosing a ‘managed use’ or ‘zero tolerance’ policy
When considering a ‘managed use’ policy, it is necessary for the responsible person to undertake a risk assessment to ascertain the likely and potential impact of additional objects in the common areas and corridors. Particular attention should be paid to the construction of the block – concrete or brick construction is less flammable, and a ‘managed use’ policy should only be applied where there is a suitable level of fire protection. Single stairways and ‘dead end’ corridors can also pose a risk when adopting this policy.
It is paramount that residents adhere to the ‘rules’ of a managed use policy and therefore freeholders must consider their resident profile. For example, longer term residents and those that take pride in their surroundings are more likely to embrace the managed use policy.
How to manage dangerous items
A complete ban or alternative outdoor storage of dangerous items is essential towards the fire safety of a block. This can include petrol or diesel driven items, such as a mini motorbike, chargeable mobility scooter, electric (battery) bike or even a lawn mower. In the event these items exist, a lock up or shed on the premises made accessible to residents can provide a solution.
Flammable and combustible materials such as cardboard boxes and sources of ignition such as gas canisters should not be stored in communal areas or storage rooms within a building as they contribute to the growth and spread of a fire, as well as obstructing escape routes. This also extends to communal area riser cupboards, that can be used as dumping grounds by the residents, further contributing to a risk of fire.
Clear common areas essentially limit the risk of fire spread.
What is the best approach?
Frequent and transparent dialogue with residents is essential in helping them understand the reasons for keeping common areas clear. This together with inspections of the communal areas and the disposal of potential hazardous items should also be exercised regularly. Any breaches in the ‘managed use’ policy should be dealt with immediately, by serving a TORT notice for example, to avoid any further issues.
Alternatively, if there are certain problems that keep reoccurring, it is helpful to work with residents to identify storage options within the block that do not compromise fire safety. This, for example, could be the installation of a new storage facility in a sufficiently fire protected area that is compartmentalised. Outdoor storage can be arranged for any items that pose a greater fire risk.
Ultimately, when deciding which policy to adopt, it all comes down to the block, its residents and more importantly the fire risk assessment. With all this within a freeholder’s arsenal, only then can the right decision be reached.
We can undertake fire risk assessments for blocks including inspections of fire safety doors and flat entrance doors by qualified professionals.