It’s vital that tenants have a say in shaping fire safety policies, writes Mike Williams of Procurement for Housing, but for that to happen, social landlords must learn to communicate more effectively – and listen
THE role of tenant engagement in reducing fire risk has been strongly debated since the Grenfell tragedy.
In last year’s social housing green paper, the Government said it agreed with Dame Judith Hackitt’s assessment that residents deserve transparency of information about their homes, and it stressed that landlords should engage effectively with tenants on issues of building safety.
Indeed, just two months after the Grenfell Tower fire, the information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham recommended that social landlords should proactively release their annual fire risk assessments – something that has been contested by some providers.
Last October, housing minister Kit Malthouse acknowledged the importance of high-rise residents having better access to fire safety information and said he may weave this into future legislation.
The Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government has also launched a Social Sector (Building Safety) Engagement Best Practice Group to ensure that tenants are better informed about the safety of their buildings and have a greater say in work carried out.
These are all positive steps forward but, from my experience, communicating with tenants on fire safety issues is not a simple business.
I used to manage fire safety and retrofit at several social housing providers and informing residents and listening to their views was a key part of my role. I came across a host of hurdles around fire safety engagement and learnt some important lessons on how to overcome challenges.
This seems obvious but it’s a really important point. When you plan how to communicate fire safety information to tenants and gather their views, you need to use the right channels and customise communication for different groups.
For instance, when I first began organising resident fire safety meetings for one particular social landlord, I found the majority were poorly attended. But when we actually asked tenants what times were best for them, a bespoke schedule of meetings could be developed. Finding out what works best for tenants boosted attendance significantly.
The same goes for disseminating information via other channels such as leaflets, letters, posters, emails or messages. Not all tenants speak English, and some may not have strong literacy skills so don’t assume everyone can digest written information.
I found it useful to ask tenants about their preference for safety communication when they first moved in. This helped us target information more effectively.
Involve tenants in policy development
It’s vital that tenants help to shape fire safety policies. Their perspective and insider knowledge can improve tenant buy-in and increase safety.
The Hackitt Review supports this view, stating that “residents themselves have a role to play in identifying and reporting issues that may impact on the safety of the building”.
When a social housing provider is making annual revisions to their fire safety policy, a resident representative should always be involved. It’s their on-the-ground insight about a lock being in an inconvenient place or a resident regularly leaving bulky items in a hallway that housing associations may not be aware of.
It’s not just fire risk assessments that social landlords should be sharing, it’s also the time scales for rectifying issues.
Once a hazard has been identified, tenants want to know it will be sorted quickly and to build trust, landlords should be open about the timing of remediation.
Be ready for resistance
A few years ago, I was involved in assessing the fire risk in a sheltered housing block. In the communal areas we found long curtains, rugs and console tables – all posing hazards. But these items were very popular with residents and our proposal to remove them went down badly.
Local councillors agreed with residents, so we had no political support either. However, after various meetings with the fire service who subscribed to our view, we removed the items. This experience prepared me for tenant and political opposition to fire safety measures – and taught me when to compromise and when to take a hard line.
Find alternative solutions
Despite the story above, it’s important to work with tenants to find alternative arrangements if possible.
For example, in another social housing block I was responsible for, residents were charging their mobility scooters in shared hallways. This posed an access issue and rather than ban everyone from charging their vehicles, we found the funding to install an external charging station.
Dame Judith Hackitt’s review recommended that social landlords develop a resident engagement strategy around fire safety to “support the principles of transparency of information and partnership with residents”.
But for this partnership to be truly effective, social landlords need to really listen to tenants; involving them in every step of the fire safety process and demonstrating their commitment through transparency and responsive action.
Mike Williams is Procurement for Housing’s relationship manager for asset management