Smoke and heat alarms in homes – frequently asked questions

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Updated on 26 October 2020

SPICe has received a number of enquiries on forthcoming changes to the law for smoke and heat alarms in homes. This blog addresses some of the most common questions received, including the types of alarms covered, costings and enforcement.

First, it should be noted that the changes for smoke and heat are due to come into force on 1 February 2021. However, in a statement published on 20 October 2020, the Housing Minister Kevin Stewart announced the Scottish Government will ask the Scottish Parliament to delay the new standard by 12 months:

“Given the impact of COVID-19, and the difficulties this is likely to create for people seeking to install new smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, we have listened to concerns and decided to ask the Scottish Parliament to delay implementation.”

In a letter to the chair of the Local Government and Communities Committee on 20 October, the Housing Minister stated he will to write to MSPs and update Parliament on the intention to delay implementation of the changes.

Overview

Following the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, the Scottish Government established a Ministerial Working Group to review Scotland’s building and fire safety regulatory frameworks. After a public consultation on fire and smoke alarms in homes, the Scottish Government announced its intention to strengthen the current standards in place for smoke and heat alarms in March 2018.

These measures, set out in the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987 (Tolerable Standard) (Extension of Criterion) Order 2019, were agreed by the Scottish Parliament in January 2019. The Order extends the definition of the tolerable standard for housing to include:

  • satisfactory equipment installed for detecting, and for giving warning of, fire or suspected fire
  • satisfactory equipment installed for detecting, and for giving warning of, carbon monoxide present in a concentration that is hazardous to health.

A dwelling that falls below the Tolerable Standard is considered to be unfit for human habitation.

What are the changes?

The Scottish Government states that every home in Scotland must be fitted with the following:

  • one smoke alarm installed in the room most frequently used for general daytime living purposes (normally the living room/lounge)
  • one smoke alarm in every circulation space on each storey, such as hallways and landings
  • one heat alarm installed in every kitchen
  • a carbon monoxide alarm where there are fixed combustion appliances such as boilers and wood burners.

All alarms must be ceiling mounted and interlinked.

The new standards for heat, smoke and carbon monoxide alarms extend those which currently apply in the private rented sector to all housing types. To support implementation of these changes, the Scottish Government published a factsheet providing further information on the new standards for different types of housing.

Which alarms are compliant with the new standard?

The Tolerable Standard Guidance for satisfactory fire and carbon monoxide detection provides a definition for each of the above alarms, alongside the standards that any installed alarm should conform to. Alarms can be either mains powered (with battery backup) or use long-life lithium batteries.

Mains-wired alarms will require to be installed by an electrician and may require a building warrant for flats.

Who is responsible for implementing the standards?

All homeowners and landlords are responsible for ensuring their properties meet the new standards. These changes will be the minimum standard for safe houses.

How much will these changes cost for property owners?

The Scottish Government estimates the cost for an average three-bedroom house which requires three smoke alarms, one heat alarm and one carbon monoxide detector to be around £220. Any costs will be the responsibility of home owners and landlords.

Through the Scheme of Assistance, local authorities have discretionary powers to provide assistance to homeowners (usually those who are unable to cover the cost of repairing and maintaining their homes) which can be in the form of information, advice, guidance or practical assistance. It is for a local authority to decide what kind of help should be provided in different circumstances, and this will be subject to local priorities and budgets.

How will these standards be enforced?

Enforcement in the Private Rented Sector, where the standard is already in place, is undertaken by the right of tenants to apply to the First-tier Tribunal for Scotland (Housing and Property Chamber). Penalties for non-compliance are determined by the Tribunal.

In the social housing sector, the standard is to be monitored by the Scottish Housing Regulator, who may intervene as they deem appropriate for any non-compliance.

For homeowners, the legal duty is set out in the Housing Minister’s letter to the Local Government and Communities Committee:

“As with other housing standards, it will be the responsibility of the homeowner to meet the new fire and carbon monoxide alarm standard. However, it should be noted that the legislation does not create a direct duty on home owners. The legal duty rests with the local authority to ensure homes in its area are meeting the standard. Homes that don’t have the right alarms will clearly not be meeting the safety standards, but nobody will be breaking the law if they are not able to comply.”

Local authorities have a number of statutory powers to require owners to carry out work on substandard housing. In some cases, the powers allow local authorities to carry out the necessary work and recharge this to the owner. However, this entails upfront costs and resources for the local authority.

Statistics suggest that the use of discretionary powers in housing legislation, for example, maintenance orders, are rarely used.

In the tolerable standard guidance, the Scottish Government advises that any such intervention is expected to be “proportionate, rational and reasonable.” The guidance also advises that:

“Local authorities are to consider the cost of any intervention alongside the cost of assisting owners to bring their property up to the minimum standard for satisfactory fire detection. As a general rule it is preferable that owners should carry out necessary works on a voluntary basis rather than as a result of enforcement action.”

The powers may also be applied to housing in the social or private rented tenures.

What is the Scottish Government doing to raise awareness of these changes?

The Scottish Government have advised there will be information on which alarms to buy to meet the standard available at point of sale in retailers such as B&Q, Screwfix as well as online retailers like Amazon.

A social media campaign involving the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS), retailer and alarm providers is expected to launch in due course.

In addition, a leaflet by alarm manufacturer AICO is being distributed containing the Scottish Government logo. In his letter to the chair of the Local Government and Communities Committee, the Housing Minister provided clarification on whether the leaflet is endorsed by the Scottish Government:

“Recent marketing campaign issues by AICO, which carried the Scottish Government logo, has led to considerable correspondence and commentary on this legislation. It is regrettable that an error in due process led to government officials giving permission for the use of the logo – this was not signed off by Ministers. I can appreciate that this could be taken as an endorsement of specific products. However, the Scottish Government does not endorse any particular suppliers or products. We have therefore asked AICO to withdraw the Scottish Government logo from further advertising material.”

In the Scottish Government’s announcement on the proposed delay to the changes, Housing Minister Kevin Stewart stated:

“If this delay is approved, we will continue to work with partners to spread awareness of the changes before the new deadline. Our focus will be on supporting householders to ensure satisfactory fire alarms are installed so we can improve the safety of their homes.”

How will the COVID-19 restrictions affect alarm installations?

On 9 July 2020, the Scottish Government announced the move to Phase 3 of the Route Map from Lockdown, permitting tradespeople to enter properties in order to undertake jobs such as alarm fittings.

Any work taking place in people’s homes is dependent on both the occupants and tradesperson being well and not showing coronavirus symptoms, and providing that no person in the household is self-isolating.

The tradesperson undertaking the work must observe social distancing, use appropriate and proportionate protective equipment (including a face covering) and follow the guidance on sanitation.

The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning wrote to social landlords in July 2020, setting out that landlords should use best endeavours to meet the February 2021 deadline. Where that is not possible then they must have a remedial plan in place for meeting the standard which should be complete by 1 May 2021 at the latest.

Alisdair Grahame, Enquiries Officer

Blog Image: “Fire Alarm” by espensorvik is licensed under CC BY 2.0