This is a letter to the Swindon Advertiser

Smoke Alarms and safety in the Private Rented Sector

The recent report in the Advertiser of the death in a fire in a privately rented flat in Rodbourne (“Alarm might have saved woman’s life”) highlights the issue of safety in the private rented sector (PRS). Unfortunately the flat in question did not have a smoke alarm. The inquest determined that it was an “accidental death” but the Coroner made the point that if a smoke alarm had been fitted the life of the woman might have been saved.

No doubt many people will have wondered, is the fitting of such alarms not a legal obligation in the PRS? In fact as long ago as 1991 a law was introduced which made smoke alarms a legal requirement in properties built from 1992. Yet 22 years later it is still not a legal requirement for buildings in the PRS built before then (except in the case of Homes in Multiple Occupation).

As it happens the government has just begun a review on whether or not to make smoke and carbon monoxide alarms in the PRS a legal requirement. An amendment to the Energy Bill in the House of Lords has already given the government “enabling powers” to introduce such a requirement. However, they say this will only be used “if supported by the review which will consider the technical issues and currently overlapping regulatory regimes”. The review document was issued at the beginning of February (“Review of property conditions in the private rented sector”). It says that smoke alarms are “known to be an effective life saving device”. A person is at least 4 times as likely to die in a fire in the home if they don’t have a working smoke alarm.

The English Housing Survey estimates that 82% of the PRS has smoke alarms. However, this would still mean somewhere in the region of 680,000 were without them (18% of 3.8 million). Appearing to face both ways the document notes that “the installation of smoke alarms in all privately rented homes would impose additional costs on landlords.” They say that a non-regulatory approach has reduced deaths in the home by 60% over the last 30 years, to only 211 in 2012-13.

Only 211? I doubt whether the progress made will be much consolation to the families of people killed for the absence of a smoke alarm. In fact the government suggests that the cost would be from £5-£25, plus the cost of an electrician fitting them in the case of hard-wired detectors.

Frankly it is extraordinary that the government is even considering the possibility of not making smoke and carbon monoxide detectors a legal obligation in the PRS. The review says that regulation is always “a last resort” and it would only introduce it if “there was a clear need” and the costs of doing so “were clearly outweighed by the benefits”.

The same review also considers the question of whether or not there should be carbon-monoxide alarms. It says that fitting these could have “significant financial implications for landlords”. Yet the costs involved are frankly negligible when compared with the significantly greater threat to life in the absence of alarms.

The government has the powers enabling it to make the necessary regulations, with financial penalties for those landlords who fail to comply. So why not take up those powers? This is not ‘red tape’. It’s a sensible move which frankly should have been carried out years ago. Is the government really going to refuse to make them a legal obligation in order to save landlords the cost of making their premises safe? Is concern about the meagre costs imposed on landlords worth the loss of lives?

The closing date of the review is March 21st. You can tell the government to make it compulsory to install hard-wired smoke and carbon-monoxide alarms in the PRS by emailing them at PRSReview@communities.gsi.gov.uk

Martin Wicks

Secretary, Swindon Tenants Campaign Group

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