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What the Building Safety Act means for student accommodation

20 February 2024

The eighth season of Accommodation Matters is here – and this time, we’re talking everything to do with the Building Safety Act and how it intersects with student accommodation.

Grenfell Tower (2017). The Cube student accommodation fire, Bolton (2019). Two disasters that reshaped the landscape for building safety in student accommodation, and led to stringent new legislation in the Building Safety Act.

But what does the Building Safety Act actually mean for purpose-built student accommodation? How can we trust that students are safe in our buildings? And how can you make sure you’re compliant with the regulations? We’ve got you covered with our 40 minute deep-dive into the issue.

Our expert panel discusses the benefits and challenges thrown up by the Act, the practical stages of compliance, who’s accountable for what, what it all means for students, and what the future holds for building safety,

Hosted by Jenny Shaw, HE External Engagement Director at Unite Students, the panel includes:

  • Ian Fletcher, Director of Policy at British Property Federation (BPF)
  • Ian Bamforth, Head of Estates & Facilities at Unite Students
  • Abi Yeo, Performance Quality & Systems Manager at Unite Students

Special guest Jo Blair, Head of Quality & Standards at Unite Students, also shares how we put together a resident engagement strategy to keep 70,000 students informed about building safety, as required by the Act. All of Unite Students’ buildings are safe to live in.

Accommodation Matters brings together sector experts to discuss the Higher Education sector’s key issues through the lens of student accommodation. This episode was recorded on 9th February 2024 and produced by Ed Palmer.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are the personal views of individual guest speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Unite Students and/or Unite Group plc.


Episode transcript: ‘What the Building Safety Act means for student accommodation’

Jenny Shaw: For as long as I’ve been in the student accommodation sector, fire safety has been a top priority. It’s something that keeps leaders awake at night, and there’s no doubt that a fire in a building full of students is truly the stuff of nightmares.

On 15th November 2019, a devastating fire broke out at The Cube, a student accommodation building in Bolton town centre. The fire caused by a discarded cigarette rapidly spread and caused substantial damage to the building.

But fortunately, no loss of life. At its height, 130 firefighters were engaged in containing the blaze. Two residents trapped by the fire were successfully rescued. One was pulled from a sixth floor window using a high reach aerial appliance while the other was assisted in escaping from a second floor window with the use of ladders. The efficient and complete evacuation of the building played a crucial role in ensuring the safety of all 217 residents. Despite the intensity and the unpredictability of the fire, no serious injuries were reported.

Fortunately in that incident, everyone got out alive, but just two years earlier, the fire at Grenfell Tower had a far more tragic ending with the loss of 72 lives. This rightly sparked an independent review and led to new legislation and a new regulator.

Welcome to Accommodation Matters, where as always we look at the big issues affecting student accommodation. I’m Jenny Shaw, and today we’re taking a deep dive into the Building Safety Act and its many implications for student accommodation. So it’s fortunate that I’m joined in the studio today by some top experts. Ian Fletcher is the Director of Policy at the British Property Federation. Hello, Ian.

Ian Fletcher: A very good afternoon to you, Jenny. Nice to join you.

Jenny Shaw: Abi Yeo is Performance Quality and Systems Manager for Unite Students. Hi Abi.

Abi Yeo: Hi Jenny.

Jenny Shaw: And Ian Bamforth is Head of Estates and Facilities for Unite Students. Hi Ian.

Ian Bamforth: Hi Jenny. I’m here to confuse everyone with two Ian’s on the podcast again.

Jenny Shaw: Well, I was just going to say that we do have two Ian’s in an unprecedented move, so I’m going to be super formal and use surnames so that we know who’s saying what. But if I can start with you, Ian Fletcher. So one of the first things that changed after the Grenfell fire was the removal of cladding. So something very visible, but the Act does go a lot further than this. Can you outline some of the implications for student accommodation?

Ian Fletcher: Yes, absolutely, Jenny. There are, in my mind, four aspects to the Building Safety Act. So the first of those was to the new building safety regulator, and that underpins a lot of the new system. The second is around remediating existing buildings, and that’s not particularly applicable in terms of some of the Act provisions to the student accommodation sector.

The responsibilities are quite clear and a lot of that part of the Act is more about how leasehold operates in flats for sale owner occupied flats. The third aspect is how we build new buildings, and that has a lot of implications I think for the student accommodation sector. Traditionally it delivers buildings just in time so they’re ready to occupy, but the new regime is quite rigorous and means you’ve got to be very well organised in terms of presenting various documents to the regulator at the right time so that you can have your building occupied when you want to.

And then probably the most important aspect of the act applies to existing buildings. So over the last year or so, existing buildings, have had to be registered to be registered by October last year if they were over 18 metres high. So, any residential building. And the reason for that is that all existing buildings over 18 metres that are residential use are then going to go through a certification process. So the building safety regulator is going to look quite rigorously at a number of aspects of evidence to illustrate that that building is safe in use, managed well, interacting with its residents and generally has building safety as its first priority.

Yeah, quite a lot of work there.

Jenny Shaw: Yeah, it absolutely sounds like it. Could you tell me a little bit more about those tall buildings? Because we do have a lot of tall student accommodation buildings across the UK. What does it mean for them? You talked about that as something that was in the future. Is there anything that needs to be done now and what’s that going to play out in the future?

Ian Fletcher: Yeah, so I’ve had a lot of interaction with building safety managers with health and safety managers over the course of the last four or five years. And those people are finding their workload is naturally, increasingly, significantly with the act. And as you say, a lot of student accommodation is over that 18 metre threshold. So for them it’s a case of they have to produce what is called a safety case.

So lots of different scenarios almost planning in terms of how that building is managed and run and being able to illustrate to the regulator that is being done well. There have to be people that put their hands up and are responsible for various aspects of that. They have to illustrate that they’re competent to be able to do the things within the buildings.

And as I say, there’s a sort of an element to ensuring that this is not something that is just done to people. Clearly within any residential building, your residents are an important part of that ecosystem and can be a first port of call in terms of problems in that building. So if you’ve got good communication channels with them, then that’s seen as being something that is helpful vis-a-vis not having good communication with your residents.

Jenny Shaw: Yeah, thank you. And yes, we were talking just before the recording, weren’t we about how this has become quite a big part of your role now unexpectedly since the legislation was put in place.

Ian Fletcher: On many respects, I feel sorry that it’s taken tragedy to uncover these sorts of people in the member organisations. Unfortunately, I think sometimes the property sector has these sorts of almost unsung employees that are doing really essential work and up until four or five years ago, my interaction with health and safety managers, building safety managers was quite limited.

But we’ve got a community of those individuals, we call it all building safety sounding board, and as much as hearing from me, it’s an opportunity for them to share best practise because this is a difficult journey in terms of the Building Safety Act and there are in many ways learning from each other as well as learning from us and the regulator and so forth.

Jenny Shaw: Well, it’s great to hear how people have come together. I think it doesn’t surprise me really in the student accommodation sector. I think there’s a lot of willingness to work together, but it’s just really great that safety has that high priority.

Abi, I want to come to you now because you’ve been part of a project team on the Building Safety Act. What is it that you and that team have been working on?

Abi Yeo: Yes, it’s been a large and complex project really, so I could probably talk about it all day. So I’ll just talk about some of the key milestones we’ve worked on as projects, and not least the first is forming the team.

One of the things Unite do really well is manage our buildings safely. What we don’t do is probably cross-functionally manage safety, and I think this is one of the things that the Act really gives us that opportunity to do is centralise all our information together, our processes on management systems.

So of course the first thing that I needed to do was get all the experts together, fire safety teams, project delivery teams or health and safety teams, IT teams, consultants that help and guide us along the way. And of course Jo, who we’ll hear from, we had to understand what the Building Safety Act requirements were.

That was the first point of call. We needed to compare that with what we currently do. And as I mentioned, we do things well. We cover all the aspects of the Building Safety Act, but it’s not all joined together. So we needed to understand what systems and management systems we needed to pull that together to do that. We researched and found a IT solution, which we implemented – that’s called gliderbim, and it’s been a great tool to hold our documents and our asset data.

We then collated all our information for the registration. That was a key milestone that we needed to achieve. So we identified our High Risk Buildings – ‘HRB’ is an acronym we’re very familiar with now, and ‘KBI’ or Key Building Information. So we identified 84 buildings which and created all the relevant and required information to register those buildings.

I think we calculated there was something like 70,000 data points, lot of information to collate once we’d registered, that was a big relief. We were uploading the key documents, pulling those key documents that we have across a business about that building into that IT solution gliderbim.

One of the things I should say about that solution is that it gave us an opportunity to restructure and standardise our asset data into an industry known standard. And that helps outside of the occupied building scenario for new developments to come in because our contractors will be working in those same standards, so sharing information will be a lot easier. We had to define what a safety case was, what sort of information do we need to hold as a safety case? And this was not as easy as it sounds because we wanted to get as much information as we could, but stay proportionate.

And that’s one of the key pieces of guidance that we had from the regulators and the HSEs (Health and Safety Executives). Be proportionate, don’t go surveying every building if you don’t have it and it’s a risk, make a plan. So the safety case was key to us identifying what information we really need and if there are any gaps.

So we built a format within our gliderbim system to collate that information. We had a team, fantastic team of professionals extrapolating that and almost creating a database of building information which we haven’t had before. Alongside that, we know that we will need to produce a safety case report and we see the safety case reports almost as a building risk assessment. Tell us about your building, tell us what can go wrong and tell us how you’re controlling it and let’s acknowledge that nothing is ever going to be a hundred percent.

We will have fires, but how are we containing it? There are risks to the structure, but how are we managing that risk? So the safety case report really goes to that point of ensuring we are doing the best we can to prevent anything awful happening. So it’s not just technical information, technical systems, technical documentation. Key to the Building Safety Act is the management systems – or policies and procedures – very much in place.

We had to make sure they were aligned with the Building Safety Act – specifically, Ian Fletcher mentioned competencies – how we’re managing risk, what are our safety management systems, and actually they were really well aligned. We just need to pull them all together under one umbrella and tick those boxes.

Lots of other stuff, not least making sure systems are suitable for mandatory occurances. So, incidents that happen in our buildings when there’s contractors in place, if a customer has a concern or an issue they want to raise, we have the systems in place, but we needed to specifically align with the Building Safety Act. So when I list all that, I just think how much we’ve done and how far we’ve come. So I’m actually breathing of sigh of relief as I’m saying this.

Jenny Shaw: It sounds like a lot of work, but a real opportunity for that cross-functional working. As you say, things were safe. I’m sure that’s the case right across the sector that a lot of work had already gone into building safety on an individual building basis, but actually bringing that together with other functions. It sounds like there’s been a lot of standardisation. What have been some of the benefits of that cross functional working?

Abi Yeo: Yeah, what a great opportunity to bring all the information about a building into one place. There’s inevitable cost savings to prevent surveys upon surveys that may have been done over the years, providing the same information for our operations team to have access to information about their building. We will absolutely see the benefits of that in our operations, not just to suit the legislation.

Jenny Shaw: That’s great. Thanks Abi. Ian Bamforth, I want to come to you. You’ve been waiting very patiently, but I can see you’ve been following the conversation, and I’m really keen to hear from you. So you are Head of Estates and Facilities. What does the Building Safety Act mean to you in your role?

Ian Bamforth: Thanks, Jenny. Actually, just listening to Abi there, it makes me incredibly proud of what Unite Students have done, and I think we are leading the way in the way we’ve approached this and just wanted to add that our consultants who have worked with us have reflected back to us that we’re taking a really proactive approach to this. So I’m really pleased about that well done to that project team.

But for me personally, the reality is there’s nothing in the Building Safety Act that is anything less or more than I should have already been doing as a Head of Estates, and we should be doing and responsible for as a competent landlord. It’s unfortunate that it’s taken the tragedy of Grenfell to get to a place where we need to legislate for this in such a way when people were saying that safety is paramount, but the reality is they were acting in a different way from that.

So actually, it’s reassured me that this country takes safety very seriously indeed, and that we are prepared to put legislation in place to back that up and prepared to back that with good oversight as to how we will manage it.

Lastly for me, obviously that consistency between my colleagues in construction and in the built environment is going to be really useful because we can start to use a common language as to how we will manage safety, and of course it makes sure that it keeps it at the top of our agenda every time we think about how we’re going to manage the building and how we’re going to deliver a great service to the customer.

Now, from a student perspective, our students are just looking forward to joining university, having a great experience and being able to come away, having attained the best degree, the qualification and life experience that they can possibly have from that fledging part of their life when they’re just starting out on their careers and what they want to do for the future.

The last thing that they’ll be thinking of is their home safe enough? And the reality is that I have an obligation and the people around me, our business have the obligation to make sure that they don’t have to worry about the safety because it’s just a given. The Act helps us to do that. It helps us to be accountable for that. So the Act has brought in roles that are specific around that.

The business itself is the principal accountable person for how we organise that against the Building Safety Act. But me, I have an accountability, I’m an accountable person. So I have to take that accountability really seriously. I’ve had to make sure that I’m on top of the legislation what it’s saying to me, but also the linking legislation such as how we manage the big six areas of compliance like fire and gas and water quality, lifting equipment, et cetera. So it just means that I have had to sharpen my tools to make sure that I can really say to the students, “We’re ready to accept you, to welcome you into your homes.”

Jenny Shaw: Thank you. And in terms of those new accountabilities and roles, have you needed to put in any additional training for staff across Unite to meet these obligations?

Ian Bamforth: Thanks, Jenny. Yeah, we’re doing that and it’s ongoing as well because got to make sure that any new members of staff that join us are also as ready to take up their responsibilities. So we’ve created a hierarchy of accountability against the act and that spreads quite far and wide. We operate right the way across England and Wales, and of course there are separate regulations in Scotland, but we want to give as much consistency so that anybody in the UK can recognise that we deliver a safe and welcoming product for our students.

There’s lots of training going to be going on in the near future. There’s things that the Act and the regulator are still informing us about and we need to keep everybody on top of that. So we’ve got regular feeds into the regional teams and the city teams to make sure that they’re on top of what they need to know.

And again, it’s just reinforcing how it’s okay to identify gaps and raise them to us so that we can do something and support that with the local teams as well. We’ve got some great collaboration between teams, between Central Estates and the regional teams, particularly the General Managers who are our responsible people for the cities that they look after, and we’ve got to make sure that they have everything they need to be able to answer the questions that may be asked of them when the regulator starts to assess the competency of the building ready for giving us that certificate. So yeah, we’ve done a lot of work.

The great thing is the systems that we’ve used combine that information into one place and start to make it simpler for everybody to know where the information is. In actual fact, by giving us this consistency, it’s meant that we can be more clear about how we’re performing. And so that’s got to be a bonus for us.

Jenny Shaw: Thank you, yeah. One of the things I picked up on that you just said then was just about staff feeling comfortable to raise things. Something like a culture of openness. How do you create that?

Ian Bamforth: It’s not the easiest thing and it takes work, but the reality is is just because you are a responsible accountable person, we fit into the umbrella of our principal accountable person, which is the business. And what the business needs from us is openness and honesty. So actually calling it out, having systems like AVA that report any upcoming issues that can then be fed into our live building safety case reports is really critical and that gets monitored on a regular basis through our performance teams. The operational performance team will see what’s happening on a regular basis, where do we need to provide support for certain cities that might need extra help?

And we also have regular contact with our contractors who play an enormous role in making sure that we’re compliant and making sure that we’re looking after the buildings in the right way. So we’re doing a lot of work with the procurement team as well at the moment, making sure that the contractors that we go into partnership with really understand our values, get the purpose of the Act themselves and are on top of the certification, the escalation of any issues that we might have. And this all adds to us being ahead of needing to do anything that is high risk so we can really be in control of that.

Elsewhere in the business, of course, I look after the in occupation phase of the Building Safety Act. That’s what they’re calling it. But we are a developing business. We grow regularly, so our colleagues in the development team, our colleagues in the health and safety team, and our projects team who redevelop our properties and put new facilities into our properties, are all going through similar training at the moment to make sure they understand their roles and responsibilities.

Particularly now that the building safety regulator has been positioned as the building control officers, it’s made us take a pause for breath when we think about doing new projects, and it makes us more conscientious and gives us that little bit more time to do the right thing, employ the right contractors, and deliver a great outcome that’s safe and ready to use from day one.

Jenny Shaw: I can feel your pride in the work that’s been done. I think that’s great. Ian Fletcher, I want to come back to you just to get a broader view on this because I’m just wondering what kind of demand there has been. You talked about you spending a lot of your time on the Building Safety Act. What kind of demand have you had for advice or training around the Building Safety Act from the student accommodation sector?

Ian Fletcher: Yeah, Jenny, quite a lot. As I say, there’s the Building Safety Sounding Board. We’ve also got a number of videos on our YouTube account at BPF that we did in conjunction with an organisation called Ark, and they set out for members a number of the aspects that Ian and Abi have touched on in terms of safety cases, the golden thread that was mentioned, fire risk assessments, so quite a suite of different documents there.

We did a really interesting event last year with the supply side, so some of the challenges that the industry face can be made easier through new technology, embedding things in buildings, new software that will help you systemise some of the new requirements of the Act, et cetera.

So yeah, that was quite an interesting afternoon and had a bit of a Dragon’s Den and had about seven people come in and present their different solutions, provide that technology to some of the new ways of working that people are having to do because of the Safety Act. You can’t, I suppose, resolve people’s problems through one channel. You need to provide them with a number of different ways that they can consume.

We followed up the videos with some sort of bitesized tutorials that are aimed at just being something that you could consume when you’re doing your commute on your phone as you’re taking a train to work, et cetera. So trying to think about how we reach as many people as we can.

Jenny Shaw: That’s great. And big it up for the podcast. Great way of learning, and we’ll put some links to that I think as well in the show notes if people want to follow that up. And I know as well that for anyone who’s listening to this when it’s still February 24, which is the month we’re in now at the end of the month, there is some training on this from Unipol as well.

I was just going to come back to you and ask what’s the most frequently asked question that you get about the Building Safety Act?

Ian Fletcher: Gosh, it changes. Yeah, there was a lot of, I think, uncertainty around definitions – things like ‘accountable person’. Towards the end of last year, we had quite a lot of queries about the registration process. Even slightly bizarre questions… you would think that the measurement of an 18-metre building would be clear cut, but actually, yeah, it’s quite challenging in some circumstances and you can end up with different results.

So quite a range of different queries. And looking ahead, one of the important phases that we’re now going through is those new buildings that have to go through three gateways and be cleared at each gateway before they’re safe to occupy. So members getting to grips with some of that at the moment.

Jenny Shaw: Thank you. And one of the things I’ve learned over the years is that when it comes to buildings, there’s no certainty about measurements or number of rooms necessarily. And Abi, just thinking back to what you said about the number of data points, particularly when you’ve got a big estate and you’ve got older assets, it can be difficult really to understand what’s there. I don’t know if you want to comment on that.

Abi Yeo: I definitely had a flashback there from, as Ian Fletcher mentioned, the heights of the building. And actually the first question, what’s the building? So typically at Unite Students we have properties and within those properties you might have a number of buildings and a number of sections within these buildings. So getting those definitions and understanding them and applying them to our portfolio was never something I thought we’d have to do before we really started on the project. So thanks for that reminder, Ian.

Jenny Shaw: It just sounds very philosophical, doesn’t it? “What is a building?” We’re going to hear now from another of my colleagues, Jo Blair, who has been leading on resident engagement, which is something that we’ve mentioned and here’s what she had to say.

Jo, you’ve been doing a lot of work around the Building Safety Act in terms of resident engagement. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Jo Blair: Yeah, absolutely. As part of the Building Safety Act, there’s a requirement to have a resident engagement strategy, which is something we’ve always done quite loosely in Unite Students with our customer panel and the customer surveys that we do. But this is a way to formalise now a lot of that work.

So we started off by reaching out to all of our students through a survey to ask them about what would that resident engagement strategy look like to them, what did they want to see? And it collected some of that data, put it against what’s in the legislation from the Building Safety Act, and worked with some consultants to make sure that we were ticking all the boxes. So not only were we legislatively correct, but we also met the expectations of our students.

So, simplicity was really the key from our students’ perspectives. They really wanted it to be broken down in a way that it could be understood by everybody always got a mind on accessibility as well.

So we came up with three strands to it, which is effectively: we want to communicate with all of our students to make sure that they’re really informed around what the Building Safety Act means for them, which buildings are and aren’t impacted by it, as well as what’s going on in their buildings that would be relevant to the Act.

We wanted to make sure that they had lots of engagement pathways so that they could contact us in the way that was the most comfortable for them and read about the information in the way that was the most comfortable for them, but then also empower them to get in touch with us if they were worried about anything at all. And we’ve put in quite a structured format. So if you’re a resident, you have access to some information as part of your residents pack, and if you’re not a resident, there’s an access or a pathway that you can connect and ask the questions that you want to ask.

Jenny Shaw: That’s great. And what kind of things do they need to know?

Jo Blair: So, ultimately it’s things like – fire safety is a key element of the Building Safety Act. As we all know, Building Safety Act came off the back of Grenfell, so there’s a huge fire safety link in there. So there’s things around electrical safety, structural safety of the building as well. Now, buildings generally these days are investigated to the nth degree to make sure that they’re safe to live in. And I think there’s also that bit where students need to know that we do actually take their safety really, really seriously.

So it’s making sure that, as I said, the information is always available and accessible, but making sure that people talk to our students about it in a way that makes sense to them. So if they want to ask something about fire safety in our buildings, we’re not going in with a load of technical jargon. We’re making the technical jargon available for those that want it, being able to explain it in ways that make sense to the lay person.

Jenny Shaw: We’ve got students coming to live with us from all over the world, so different languages, different levels of English, and also potentially different understandings of fire safety, different practises. How do we make sure that they know what we need from them?

Jo Blair: Most of our content is published digitally, so by doing that, students can translate that into any language in the world. We have tools available on our website that students can read it in their own language. There’s also filters that you can add on top for certain challenges around what you see on screens.

We also have our Home Charter that’s up in our properties and it’s available on our website as well. So our Home Charter is just a simplified document with really clear, concise language which talks to the key points, the things that you need to do as a resident to make sure that you keep yourself safe and the things that we are responsible as an accommodation provider to do for the student as well.

Our teams on the ground also are always available to talk to the students as and when they want to talk to us. If there was somebody that had a specific need to sit down and talk with an expert, then we have clear experts within the business that are available to talk one-on-one to students as and when required.

Jenny Shaw: That’s great. And I know that for years we’ve been running fire safety campaigns. What are some of the less obvious things that students need to be doing in terms of fire safety?

Jo Blair: In different countries and in different parts of the UK, the communication differs around what to do if there’s a fire in your building or what to do if a fire alarm goes off in your building. So in some countries they have to say stay where you are. And in our buildings, every one of our buildings we say really, really clearly, if you hear the fire alarm going off, you must evacuate the building. And I think that’s probably the key thing.

As frustrating as it can be, the fire alarm goes off in an inopportune moment as three o’clock in the morning, whatever, we get it, we know it’s really annoying, but that one time that could be a real fire. And by making sure you follow that pathway out of the building, that could save yours and lots of other people’s lives. So that would be the number one key thing that I would always urge people to do.

There’s some other clear simple things as well. So if you come across a fire call 999. It sounds really simple, but you would be really surprised at the amount of times things happen in properties and nobody’s actually called the emergency services. If there’s something that people don’t think is right, report it. If a door’s not quite closing properly or you think something’s not working as it should be, just let somebody know. We’d rather know about it and it’d be nothing than not know about it and it’d be something.

And then another really key one is, don’t let rubbish build up in your properties. So again, we’ve all seen our fair share of messy kitchens over the years. It’s really important. Take your rubbish out, don’t let it build up because one day that could just save your life because it helps you get out of the building more quickly.

Jenny Shaw: Thanks, Jo. Is there anything else that I didn’t ask you?

Jo Blair: From our perspective as a responsible provider, we are responsible if we find an issue with the property structure or safety systems, we have a responsibility to tell you about it, but also tell you how we’re going to keep you safe while we fix it. We have to make sure that we share fire safety and fire prevention information with you. We do that across many, many platforms.

And there’s things that we do from a compliance perspective. So we check our safety systems, make sure they’re working. So that’s everything from a smoke detector and a fire alarm through to emergency routes and emergency lighting. We must make sure that we carry out regular fire risk assessments. Then when we have a fire risk assessment done, we must make sure that we work through any actions.

These are done by a third party. The third party will go through our building, they’ll give us a risk assessment that says whether the building’s low risk, medium risk. We generally don’t ever have high risk buildings. We do a lot to make sure that our buildings are never high risk, but where we do have some actions like somebody’s found a box in a corridor or whatever, we must work through and close down those actions as quickly as we possibly can to make sure that the building remains as safe as possible.

Jenny Shaw: Thanks very much, Jo. So engaging with residents, I know it’s a very important aspect of the Act. I’m just going to put that question out to all of you if there’s anything you’d like to pick up from this interview with Jo.

Ian Fletcher: I think the main thing from us, Jenny, would be that again, it comes back to that best means of communication. And there are various choices in that respect, but the Act is quite clear in that you’ve got to have made best endeavours with what can be a very diverse set of people with different learning needs, different language needs, and so trying your best to ensure that they are getting the information they need and they’re being able to communicate with you and knowing how to do that.

Ian Bamforth: Part of our agenda is to support people to stay with us through their whole university career. Of course, that means that we have to provide for those individuals’ needs, which could be incredibly varied. So making sure that our approach to the Building Safety Act is consistent with their needs and reports against it.

So if we’ve had to make adaptations suitable for particular mobility, learning needs, et cetera, we’ve need to record that and they need to be comfortable that we’ve handled their specific needs well in our PEEPs – our Personal Evacuation Plans – the way that we’ve changed the building is properly registered and that we’ve consulted with the right people to do that.

So it’s really important. The other thing with regard to customers, and I think really off the back of Grenfell – which is where all of this really started from – is making sure that we do listen. The building and construction industry is full of people with lots of qualifications and ideas about how they are specialists.

The reality is, though, we all live in homes and actually we have a voice and our students are no different from that, we need to make sure that that voice is heard and that we treat that voice with great respect and are able to answer their questions fully, even if they seem like silly questions, because sometimes they might not be and they may be things that we need to act upon. So that’s the real difference that it needs to make. That attitude that we have to complaints as being things that we can actually really learn from is really important.

Jenny Shaw: Thanks, Ian. Abi, I wondered if you wanted to come in as well. I know you worked with Jo on that working group.

Abi Yeo: Yeah, I had limited knowledge of how well we interacted with our customers around safety. And from a personal note, we are covering a family that we’ve been, I’m just about to go through that process of going to university and living away from home for the first time. I just didn’t expect the amount of engagement we already had in place, things like Fire Safety Week. So I think for me, there’s a big relief when we started identifying the needs of the Building Safety Act, comparing to what we have at Unite and ticking the boxes straight away. So, really happy to see that.

Back to Ian Bamforth’s point about the area of the investigation after the Grenfell tragedy that really struck me was the residents have raised concerns numerous times they weren’t listened to. And I think what we’re really great at is responding to that – we’ve got those tools and now the customer and the resident has that ability to escalate if they’re not getting here. So great news.

Jenny Shaw: Similarly as a parent of teenagers who are hopefully going to go to university. Yeah, very, very reassuring. And I think Ian Bamforth something you said earlier that students don’t necessarily think about their safety, but their parents certainly do. So very reassuring, I think.

Ian Fletcher, I wanted to just ask you about the future. So we’ve had the Act, but is there any further legislation that is expected in the coming years and what might that mean if so?

Ian Fletcher: Firstly, the important thing is to get the Act in place. That’s pretty much there now, Jenny. There are one or two things that are outstanding. The government has stated its aim that it wants all residential buildings over 18 metres to have second staircases and still awaiting how it defines what is a second staircase. Again, it’s this issue of buildings and definitions. Does it mean to cores or does it mean two staircases around one core? So that is something that’s outstanding.

I think the big unknown in this area is we have the second Grenfell inquiry, and it is due to report, I think, in the spring or summer of this year. And eventually recommendations that flow out of the Grenfell 2 inquiry, one guesses will end up in legislative measures that need to be taken. I suspect if there’s anything that comes out, it’ll be around maybe products and new builds rather than necessarily some of the existing buildings and management issues. One can never second guess where the inquiry will go.

Jenny Shaw: Thank you, that’s really helpful. And on the subject of products, I started at the beginning of this podcast talking about cladding, and that was an early indication of change just as a country, as a sector, where are we in terms of removal of cladding, and is there likely to be any further legislation about the kind of materials that can be put on buildings?

Ian Fletcher: Again, I think we’re nearly there on that in terms of government being clear on what’s acceptable, not acceptable. The sector is just about there. On the ACM cladding, the same cladding that was on Grenfell, and there were I think 58 student buildings that had that. I think three remain, and I think I’m right in saying that those three buildings are not occupied. So the ACM cladding has been removed and replaced on the whole student accommodation estate.

There were other forms of cladding. The Cube in Bolton was what’s called HPL cladding; that is more integrated into the wider building safety programme in terms of replacing that cladding. So I don’t have any statistics on that.

Ian Bamforth: Unite Students are forefront of just taking action and delivering against that, and making sure that our ACM is gone and making sure we’re ahead of the game when it comes to other cladding types. So our programme to deliver is a vast investment.

Jenny Shaw: I know we’ve had several years of just seeing stress in people’s eyes with just the enormity of the cladding issue, particularly when we have such a big estate and anything that is dangerous has got to come off, and it’s a massive piece of logistics, isn’t it? Where are we at with that now?

Ian Bamforth: So we took really early decisions about what we would do following the Grenfell tragedy. That meant that we got early information about our cladding systems. We were able to remove the ACM very rapidly. And we’re now on a programme of addressing all potential cladding risks as we’ve investigated what the make-up of our buildings are so that we can replace that with something that we’re really confident is the right thing to put in place.

And that hasn’t been easy because we’ve had to disrupt students’ lives. It’s not been quick. We’ve had to take that at a pace that really works with the HE partners as well. And of course, we’re not just affecting our buildings, we’re affecting our neighbours, the local authorities and all sorts of things like that. But look, we’re going to be in a place in the next 18 months where we can really say we’ve got a portfolio of buildings where the cladding is not an issue anymore and we can grow from there. So it’s really great news for us.

Jenny Shaw: So we’re coming towards the end of the show now, and as usual, I’m going to ask each of my guests for a key takeaway. So can you give me your number one tip when it comes to building safety? And that might be something that’s maybe quite quick and easy to implement, but not blindingly obvious. Abi, can I come to you first for that?

Abi Yeo: Hard to choose one. I think the seemingly obvious one, but not always there, is making sure everybody’s aware of their roles and responsibilities.

Jenny Shaw: Thank you. No, that’s great. Ian Bamforth?

Ian Bamforth: Yeah, for me it would be: make sure you’ve read your building safety case report, and remember that it’s only live from the day that you run the report. It’s an interesting way of looking at it, but of course, things change in buildings, so make sure you keep a regular read of that Building Safety case report. Top tip number one.

Jenny Shaw: Brilliant, thank you. Great tip. And Ian Fletcher?

Ian Fletcher: I think it might well be for providers that this is not a lonesome journey, that there are a number of other people taking that same journey, and so there’s a lot of good practise to be shared and learnings to be passed on. And then I think also good quality fire risk assessments I think can go a long way in terms of from that year to year sort of management, just ensuring that any significant issues are picked up. So going for a good quality fire risk assessment is a must.

Jenny Shaw: That’s great. And what a great way to end. So thank you to all my guests today. Ian Bamford, Ian Fletcher, Abi Yeo. Thank you as well to Ed Palmer, our producer, and thank you to you for listening.

If you found this episode useful, please share it with your colleagues and if you’ve got ideas for future shows, why not get in touch? We’d love to hear from you. Until next time, you stay safe.

Learn more about our approach to fire safety with our interview with Sailesh Parmar, Fire Safety Manager at Unite Students.

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