Northern Ireland

NI tower block review recommends fire safety improvements

New Lodge tower blocks
Image caption Two of seven NIHE tower blocks in the New Lodge area of north Belfast have been clad

An independent review of tower blocks owned by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) has recommended a number of fire safety improvements.

The review was ordered after the Grenfell fire tragedy in London last June which killed 71 people.

NIHE has 33 tower blocks in Northern Ireland and four of them either have, or are getting new cladding.

The report said the material is not the same as that in Grenfell and the work is compliant with building regulations.

'Inadequate ventilation'

However, "issues relating to fire doors" were identified in all 33 NIHE tower blocks, according to Prof Alasdair Adair, who led the review.

He told BBC News NI that some parts of the four clad tower blocks lacked "proper ventilation".

"Also, in relation to the pyramidal roofs on three of the tower blocks - there wasn't adequate ventilation of smoke that would enter the pyramidal roof, so there needs to be a remediation there," Prof Adair added.

Image caption The review was led by Prof Alasdair Adair from Ulster University

The review also suggested that NIHE consider installing sprinklers in all towers "to give greater confidence to residents".

'Stay put guidance'

The report also examined a recent tower block fire which broke out at Coolmoyne House on the outskirts of west Belfast.

One person was rescued by firefighters and a number of residents were led to safety during the blaze at the NIHE property in Dunmurry last November.

The authors have recommended that the "communication to residents of the 'stay put' statutory guidance is reviewed and enhanced to ensure fire safety evacuation procedures are clearly understood".

They also suggested that "residents in each block potentially requiring assistance are identified".

Image copyright Sam Waide
Image caption There was a fire at Coolmoyne House in November 2017

Examining the wider legal framework around the issue, a Belfast-based construction law expert highlighted how the lack of a power-sharing government at Stormont could have an impact.

Ciaran McNamara said Westminster was expected to implement changes to building regulations and fire safety after the publication of final recommendations in the spring, but that the new regulations would not apply to Northern Ireland because the framework is a devolved matter.

"To reflect new standards we require specific Northern Ireland legislation," said Mr McNamara.

"Civil servants can keep the cogs of government turning, applying a little financial oil here and there, but they cannot introduce legislation.

"This would have to be enacted by a minister, either devolved or direct rule."

NIHE has already acted upon some of the safety recommendations, according to its interim chair, Prof Peter Roberts.

"We are currently addressing additional issues relating to fire safety measures which require prompt action," he said.

Prof Roberts added that "the health and safety of residents has always been a priority for the Housing Executive".

The public housing body said it will put safety ahead of resource, regardless of cost.

No timescale has been set to finish the recommended work but the NIHE said remedial measures will be completed as soon as possible.

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Media captionAerial footage shows the damage caused to Coolmoyne House

The group which carried out the review included representatives from the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service, Building Control, the Housing Executive, the Department for Communities and the Department of Finance.

They were commissioned by NIHE to carry out fire risk assessment and building control inspections across all 33 tower blocks.

They were asked to look at all aspects of fire safety and "take into account any lessons from the Grenfell fire".

'Reassured'

The two NIHE towers that are already clad are Cúchulainn House and Eithné House in north Belfast.

Cladding is in the process of being installed at Carnet House and Whincroft House in east Belfast.

Image copyright © Albert Bridge/CC Geograph
Image caption Carnet House in Dundonald is currently being refurbished with cladding

Two separate cladding systems were used by the NIHE and the review said both were "subject to a full-scale fire test and they were found to be compliant with building regulations".

Prof Adair said: "Whilst is it never possible to give 100% assurance on the safety of any building, the group has been reassured that the work carried out prior and subsequent to the Grenfell fire, has put residents' safety first.

"We are also confident that remedial measures and enhancements which the Housing Executive plans to do, will provide extra reassurance to residents and others regarding fire safety in all tower blocks."

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