South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue Authority (SYFR) are set to launch an ‘urgent’, independent review into Sheffield’s student accommodation sector, in order to examine the fire safety of the city’s accommodation according to ForgeToday.

The review comes after a blaze at ‘The Cube’ student accommodation block in Bolton on Friday 15 November saw the evacuation of over 200 students. Concerns have been raised by the likes of Greater Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, over the use of combustible cladding – notably high pressure laminate (HPL) cladding, and whether it was used on the five-storey Bolton block.

Made of wood fibre and acrylic, HPL cladding is different to the combustible aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding found on Grenfell Tower, where 72 people died in the 2017 fire. Government tests, which concluded that HPL satisfied fire-safety standards in July 2019, have since been fiercely contested in a report by experts who argue that the tests the government ran were “fundamentally flawed” – that it “did not reflect real-life conditions and underestimated the risks of combustible materials on high-rise and high-risk buildings.”

It hasn’t been confirmed whether HPL cladding was responsible for the spread of the fire in Bolton, but this has not stopped calls for its removal from over 440 tower blocks. The private firm that managed the The Cube, Valeo Urban Student Life, also manage the ‘Liv Student’ accommodation just off Ecclesall Road, Sheffield.

The SYFR review also comes after more than 100 students were evacuated from Sheffield’s Royal Riverside flats on Tuesday 15 October, when a power-cut left the block without water, electricity or working fire alarms.

Speaking to the Sheffield Star, Cllr Paul Wood, who is also the Cabinet member for Neighbourhoods and Community Safety, praised the University’s response to the incident, adding that ‘although it’s a private building, the Council can get involved if there is a safety issue. We will bill them for the cost that’s been incurred.’

The former Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Students, Paul Blomfield, has since “received reassurances from the South Yorkshire Fire Authority and from Sheffield City Council that an urgent review will be undertaken on local high-rise developments, but has urged the Government to take action.”

Documents seen by Forge Press outlining the next steps of the SYFR shows that there will be moves to identify any student accommodation in the city that uses similar cladding to that on The Cube through their Risk Based Audit Program, which, under The Regulatory Reform Order (2005), gives fire authorities the power to inspect buildings and enforce the party responsible for the building to make changes where there is a risk to safety.

The document, produced by SYFR, states that: “Following the fire within Bolton, Greater Manchester, which occurred on the 15th November 2019 and affected student accommodation, I thought it prudent to update you on the immediate action taken by SYFR prior to the release of additional information from either Greater Manchester FRS or the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC).

“Officers from within the Business Fire Safety (BFS) department are in contact with colleagues in Greater Manchester to identify the construction type and the company responsible for “The Cube” building in order to identify if similar buildings are within South Yorkshire.

“In addition BFS officers are seeking further information on the exterior cladding, given it appears that the fire spread from within the building to the exterior and developed up the exterior cladding. It is too early to confirm the exact material used on the exterior, however, once this is confirmed we will seek to identify premises within South Yorkshire which are similar and through our Risk Based Audit Program prioritise our engagement.”

The document also notes that, since the Bolton fire, SYFR are “reviewing the training provided to all operational staff to ensure that the knowledge and skills are in place should attending crews be faced with evacuating [a] tall building in the event of a fire.”

In addition to this, a letter has been distributed to both of Sheffield’s universities, third-party accommodation providers and all local Councils within South Yorkshire, in order “to make responsible persons, approved landlords and corporate partners aware of this incident and the importance of reminding occupants to evacuate premises which adopt a phased or full evacuation strategy.”

The letter calls on accommodation providers to “ensure all residents understand the fire procedures and evacuation strategy for the building; Take steps to minimise the incidence of ‘false alarms’ which can undermine confidence in the fire warning system and impress upon your residents the importance of following the fire evacuation plan in the event that the alarm is raised.”

In a statement from Beren Maddison, Welfare Officer at Sheffield Students’ Union expressed that: “Following the Bolton fire, the Student Advice Centre has contacted University accommodation and Sheffield City Council earlier in the week for updates on any actions being taken in light of the fire and checks being made to University and other PBSA accommodation in Sheffield.

“We are working closely with the University and partners in City to ensure Sheffield Student accommodation is safe, and all students should make sure they are aware of their own building’s fire safety procedures. Don’t ignore fire alarms however often they go off and report any concerns around faulty alarms to relevant housing management.”

Speaking exclusively to Forge Press, Assistant Chief Fire Officer of South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue, Steve Helps acknowledged that “a review is well under way and inspections of accommodation have been brought forward. We do need to wait to hear back from Manchester fire authorities before we can begin to identify buildings that are using similar cladding to that on the Bolton accommodation.

“The advice that has been given out by the South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue has been two fold. Firstly we have written to universities and their accommodation partners and providers, encouraging them to assess their accommodation and make sure that the fire-safety procedures they provide are up to scratch. The government has also written to university deans across the country, asking them to provide certainty that their accommodation is safe.

“Secondly we have written to students, insisting that they familiarise themselves with the fire safety protocols – especially new students. Not all students follow those procedures, especially in the early hours of the morning, where it is easy to just think that the fire alarm going off is just a false one. We have also been advising against malicious attempts to set off fire alarms where there is no fire.”

Helps expressed concerns around the changes that have occurred over the past 15 to 20 years in building construction, fire-safety regulations, the powers of fire services, and the growth of third party building inspectorates, stating that: “There have been a lot of changes in the past few years in regard to fire safety and building construction, especially since the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order of 2005 came into power. In the planning stages of building construction, the fire service can only offer an advisory service. This has led to the creation of a self-regulatory system, where the fire authorities have to trust that any advice given to the developer or responsible owner of the property will be acted on. Building sign off is not in the hands of the fire authority, but often lay with either the local authority inspectors, or increasingly with third-party inspectors employed by developers.

“And, generally speaking, we have found that build quality over the past few years has significantly decreased. Codes of practice which are used by developers and construction companies are sometimes cherry picked to find ways to cut costs and make it easier to build accommodation. We have seen instances where contractors have put piping into buildings yet not put any fire stopping back. We have seen instances where fire doors are removed and fire corridors are blocked.

In relation to combustible cladding, Helps spoke about fire-safety criteria surrounding buildings over 18 metres high. In December 2018, the government brought in a ban on external, combustible cladding on new high-rise buildings over 18 metres. However, this ban does not apply to buildings below 18 metres.

‘The Cube’ student accommodation measured in at 17.86 metres – just below the 18 metres threshold. It has since been revealed by Inside Housing that more than 100,000 medium-rise buildings, built below 18 metres, fall outside of stricter scrutiny and the requirements to remove dangerous cladding.

On this, Helps noted: “We need to better understand the ways in which developers are using building criteria, especially around building height, to get away with avoiding much more thorough scrutiny.”

“And historically we have also seen a decline in the quality of building materials. Materials like combustible cladding need to removed from high-rise buildings. At the end of the day whether it be HPL, which has failed government testing, or any other unsafe cladding, it needs to be removed.”

‘The systems around fire-safety need changing, especially around legislation. New legislation needs to be ready and relevant for the next 20 years,” Helps added.

“And of course, this legislation will take time; it cannot be rushed. We also need to see greater government funding being put into the removal of unsafe cladding, alongside, for example, the retrofitting of buildings with sprinkler systems, for example.

“Here in South Yorkshire we are doing a lot, and generally speaking we are doing quite well as a region in making sure our buildings are as safe as possible. The last thing we want to see is something awful happen again, like in Bolton.”

After the Grenfell tragedy, the University of Sheffield launched an extensive review into their own accommodation, with the aim of identifying the combustible ACM cladding found on Grenfell. Only a portion of Allen Court was found to be clad with ACM cladding. At the time of the review, the University concluded that ‘we continue to maintain our estate in a safe condition and we remain vigilant to ensure that fire safety is a key risk which is regularly managed.’

In light of the fire in Bolton, a spokesperson for the University of Sheffield told Forge Press: “The safety of our students and staff at the University of Sheffield is paramount to us, and following the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower in London we undertook a thorough review of all of our student accommodation, policies and processes to make sure we have the most robust fire safety procedures and equipment in place.

“We continue to actively work with South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue who assessed the University’s fire safety policy to be outstanding in following best practice, and we have mandatory fire safety training for all students and staff to ensure they understand what to do in the event of a fire.

“The University only advertises privately rented accommodation that is registered with the SNUG scheme. The voluntary scheme, operated by Sheffield City Council, inspects any property being offered as student accommodation in Sheffield, sets out to drive up standards and promotes good quality, safe housing.”

Sheffield Hallam University were also approached for a comment, and gave Forge Press the following statement: “We take the safety of our buildings extremely seriously and ensure that all our facilities comply with fire safety regulations.

“We do not own student accommodation, but the University works closely with partner providers to ensure that accommodation is safe and meet all the necessary building standards.”