On 16th November 2019 Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State at the Department for Education tweeted:

“this afternoon, I have written to all university vice chancellors asking that they - and their commercial partners - review fire safety procedures and safeguards across residential, teaching & research accommodation. I have asked them to report back to me as swiftly as possible.”

On 18th November 2019 a letter was sent to all Vice Chancellors 

That letter said

I would be very grateful if you could please put in place a review to ensure that there is 100 per cent compliance across all buildings used by your students.”


“I would be grateful if you could write to me by 30 November 2019 in response to this request and assure the safety of your students across the university estate, working alongside your private providers of accommodation, teaching space and research facilities.”

Gratitude aside, the letter from the Secretary of State is clearly problematic because, whilst institutions would wish to try, wherever possible, to ensure the safety of their students, they will be unable to do anything other than check regulatory compliance as best they can. The SoS’s letter, however did not require a definitive response but asks HEIs to “put in place a review” and it should be possible to respond within the given timescale confirming such a review is in place and underway.

On 22nd November 2019 a clarifying Briefing Note for Information was Issued giving further details about what the Secretary of State had in mind. A copy can be accessed here.

The key points of this note are:

  • a review is not required by 30 November 2019, just confirmation the HEI will undertake it and when it will take place (start and end date)

  • the intention here is not to ask for confirmation of a higher level of compliance than building regulations currently require. This means that HEIs need to confirm that they are meeting their statutory obligations.

  • in respect of private or commercial providers or owners of residential buildings used by students of a HEI, the HEI should obtain assurances from those providers or owners regarding that their buildings are safe and complaint.

  • at this stage, the cause of the Bolton fire is unknown. Government will consider whether further action is required in due course.

In the SoS's letter it says “Building regulations and fire safety requirements are clearly set out” but the interpretation and enforcement of those regulations leaves much to be desired.

a) the building regulatory requirements are far from clear and are subject to significant review by MHCLG who have consulted on a number of proposed reforms. The opening words of the opening page of the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety by Dame Judith Hackitt says “In my interim report published in December 2017 I described how the regulatory system covering high-rise and complex buildings was not fit for purpose. In the intervening period, we have seen further evidence confirming the deep flaws in the current system.”

Paragraph 6.14 of that review stated “Government should ensure that the regulations are fit for purpose and that the regulator operates effectively in order to ensure buildings are safe.”

It is this lack of clarity that causes problems with establishing building standards and ensuring their enforcement.

b) MHCLG has concentrated on urging urging owners to remove ACM cladding from high rise buildings and bringing in a new Joint Competent Authority to manage and regulate high rise buildings. This will require primary legislation.

In student purpose built housing ANUK/Unipol identified 79 buildings (not all high rise) with ACM cladding. Only 8 buildings remain with any ACM cladding and only 2 buildings have no current plan to replace this. This rate of removal in student housing (which has come from a mixture of HEI pressure, pressure from the regulatory Codes, market pressures and many providers simply doing the right thing) has been far faster than in public buildings or social housing and has been much faster than the rather poor rate of replacement in the remainder of the private rented sector.

c) Looking at the current regulatory system, both the ANUK/Unipol Codes and the UUK Code carry out a number of checks as part of their verification systems. Although it has been made clear in that verification process that “The verification process does not directly test compliance with any statutory or contractual obligations and in no way absolves the providing organisation from their responsibilities to comply with such requirements.”

d) Although MHCLG has signalled that, at some stage, it will consider extending its proposed reforms to lower level buildings, that consideration is ongoing.

e) Some purpose built developments fall within local authority housing licensing schemes under the Housing Act 2004 (converted buildings fall under mandatory licensing, some HMOs fall within additional licensing, if applicable, and self-contained buildings can fall under selective licensing, if applicable). Licensing schemes only license the individual flats within buildings and fail to take a “whole building approach” in contradiction to the new regime proposed by the Dame Hackett Review which says “it is important for the JCA to be able to take a whole building approach to ensure that all building work can be properly considered.”

f) If anything, trying to treat purpose build student accommodation in the same way as off-street housing has made regulatory compliance more difficult. The Housing Act 2004 only applies to the private sector and does not apply to HEI accommodation or longer term partnership arrangements with HEIs.

g) Many high rise buildings have “stay put policies” and although many of these are under review the situation across the country is unclear in terms of plans to evacuate these buildings.

The Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Authority, who dealt with the Bolton Fire, has recently issued “Information for Residents in High Rise Buildings” which provides a useful checklist of residence-related matters https://manchesterfire.gov.uk/news/information-for-residents-in-high-rise-buildings/

In that guidance they say “We are reminding all residents to find out the evacuation strategy for their building. This should be clearly displayed in the building but if it isn’t you should contact your landlord or managing agent.”

This requirement does not apply across the country.

It would be useful for the Government to clarify the interplay between stay put policies and evacuation procedures.

h) All universities will want, within their current role, to take action to ensure their students are safe and Unipol would suggest the following measures:

  • on high rise buildings institutions should check that each building has a fire risk assessment (FRA) undertaken by a competent authority (this is confirmed in the recent DeS clarifying Briefing note). Many institutions will have already received this post-Grenfell and will already know that FRAs should be requested for new buildings

  • although fire guidance around the country varies on high rise buildings institutions should request that each building has an evacuation strategy and suggest that this is tested annually

  • students living in purpose built student accommodation should be contacted and reminded about the importance of fire safety and the importance of reading the information that should be available in their rooms/flat, telling them what to do in the event of a fire

  • where a university has concerns about the management systems of safety of its students it should raise this with the relevant regulatory authorities (either the local authority or the fire and rescue authorities) for their intervention. If the building falls within the ANUK/Unipol Code the National Code Administrator should also be informed.

  • clearly, greater attention should be paid to developments that are outside the Approved National Codes and the buildings covered within this Code can be obtained on https://www.nationalcode.org/Pages/Category/which-developments-are-in-the-code?Take=24

  • This will not list UUK covered buildings but universities will know which of their own buildings fall within the UUK Code in any event.