Do balconies present a fire risk?

If you own a property with balconies you must read the latest government report on fire safety in properties with balconies. It’s particularly important for owners of multi-storey, multi-occupied residential buildings. If you rent a flat with a balcony, you may want to take a look too.

The Grenfell Tower tragedy in June 2017 raised many questions about fire safety in multi-storey, apartments and flats. The first phase of an inquiry into the events has now concluded whilst a second phase is yet (as of April 2020) to commence.

One outcome of the first phase is the publication by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in January 2020 of new advice for owners of multi-storey, multi-occupied residential buildings, on internal and external fire spread. If you are an owner of any such building, you really must read this. Though all of it is vital information, we think the section on balconies might be particularly important. The term multi-storey implies high rise, and the initial focus of the panel who produced this report was buildings over 18m in height, however the report begins by noting: ‘External walls of buildings, of any height, should not assist the spread of fire’. This means that it is not just buildings over 18m high we should be concerned with, and there is some evidence that mortgage companies are concerned about this too.

Do I need to remove or change my balcony?

Does your building, your flat, or a building which you manage have balconies? Depending on how these are constructed, they present a potential source of rapid fire spread on the outside of buildings. Owners must understand what they are constructed of in order to have a better understanding of associated risk of external fire spread and be able to take action to manage the risk.

In their report, the expert panel conclude that ‘the removal and replacement of any combustible material used in balcony construction is the clearest way to prevent external fire spread from balconies and therefore to meet the intention of building regulation requirements.’ They state this should be done as soon as is practical.

Think – what are your balconies constructed from? If they are wooden or have timber decking set on a steel framework then they are likely to present a risk.

What is the risk of a fire on a balcony?

As we come to the summer, freeholders may wish to consider the terms for their leaseholders. Do your tenants know that having a barbecue on a balcony is a high risk for example? In May 2018 London Fire Brigade issued a warning to people who might be considering a barbecue on their balcony during the bank holiday.

The government report states that many fires started on balconies have led to external fire spread, but it’s not just the small barbecue that could be a problem. It’s the burning cigarette, the inappropriate ashtray, the mosquito candles, or maybe the fire pit sparks. A balcony fire in Erith was caused by a cigarette end in 2018 and more recently in January 2020, a fire in a flat in Thamesmead was believed to have started on the balcony.

The BRE Global 2016 report “Fire safety issues with balconies” details some other real life events.

All property managers should be aware of risks caused by fires on balconies. 

Partition walls and trellises

Building owners and managers should also be aware of the materials used in the partitions between balconies which can cause fire spread. However prudent you have been in ensuring the right materials have been used, did your tenant consider this before adding a trellis for their sweet peas or adding a roll out bamboo fence? Building owners should ensure this is covered in their property inspections – are tenants allowed to install trellis for example? And if so, is this wise?

Can I use my balcony for storage?

What percentage of the balconies on your property do you think are used as storage, and have you considered the associated fire risk? You may have existing policies in place as to what can and cannot be stored and used on balconies by residents, but it could be wise to review these and communicate with residents to develop their understanding of the risks.

Are wooden balconies acceptable to mortgage lenders?

I’ll leave you with this final word about wooden balconies… Regardless of their height and age, some mortgage lenders are starting to refuse to lend on property with timber balconies. Yes, really. Please, make sure you take a good look at this report and seek advice if necessary.

At the moment, this is not a statutory requirement (although we think it will become one). You may find that you will encounter insurance difficulties, and if there is a fire, ignorance will most likely not be a defence to liability.

Read the full Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government document