Montagu Gardens Ventilation Shafts Deemed Fire Hazards by Supreme Court
Author: Charles Gomez & Co
An appeal to the Supreme Court has laid bare a potential fire hazard affecting blocks in a popular building estate in Gibraltar.
Montagu Gardens was completed in 1992 and is home to over 600 families.
Arising from Fire Hazard Abatement Notices issued by the Gibraltar Fire & Rescue Service against certain flat owners who had encroached into shafts in some of the buildings, the Supreme Court, Mrs. Justice Ramagge Prescott presiding found that the shafts were in any event and regardless of the encroachments unfit for purpose as smoke ventilation shafts (Judgment 5th May 2023).
“…not in dispute that the shafts were not fit for purpose as smoke ventilation shafts. They were of irregular sizes. Airbricks were placed in the shafts for decorative reasons or to stop the ingress of birds…contained cabling and electrical boards and fuse boxes…debris and building materials …criss-crossed beams covered in concrete … and permanently open vents” [Paragraph 80 Pizarro & Others v Chief Fire Officer 2023/ GSC/020].
The Judge concluded by saying: “…the Management Company should carefully consider any duty they may have to ensure that by any means practicable, there is a proper and effective fire safety system in place for Montagu Gardens, we only have to remember the horror of Grenfell Towers to realise the importance of fire safety in residential blocks” [para.90].
Commenting on this, the Property Department at Charles Gomez & Co who have long experience in management company obligations say that the high-level judicial finding that the shafts are not fit for purpose reflect potentially severe fire safety consequences. The staircases would become smoke-logged in the event of a fire, making them untenable. This raises serious concerns about the safety of the buildings’ occupants and highlights the need for the urgent remedial action called for by the Judge.
As the Judge clearly pointed out, the first obligation in this situation falls to the buildings’ management company, who are responsible for the safety of the building and its occupants. They must take immediate steps to address the issue and ensure that the smoke ventilation system is made fit for purpose. This may involve the installation of new smoke extraction fans and other remedial works as suitably qualified experts may advise.
The Building Control Department of the Government is also responsible for ensuring that the building meets all relevant safety regulations. They must work with the management company to ensure that the building complies with the latest fire safety regulations and guidelines.
Similarly, the GF&RS has an important role to play in this situation. They must ensure that the building is safe to occupy and that the risk of fire is minimized whilst safe egress from the buildings is facilitated, as necessary. They will no doubt do this by carrying out inspections of the buildings and provide advice to the management company on fire safety procedures and protocols.
The impact of these inherent defects on the buildings’ all-risk insurance policy will depend on the specific terms of the policy. It is likely that the policy will be affected, and the management company may need to take out additional insurance or make other arrangements to ensure that they are adequately covered.
The finding that the shafts in these high-rise apartment blocks are not fit for purpose as smoke ventilation shafts is a serious matter that requires urgent attention. The management company, building control department, and the fire service all have important roles to play in ensuring that the building is safe to occupy and that the risk of fire is minimized.
Failure to address the issue could have severe consequences, both for the building's occupants and for its insurance coverage.
- Supreme Court appeal laid barepotential fire hazard in Gibraltar's Montagu Gardens estate.
- Shaft encroachments led to Fire Hazard Abatement Notices, but the shafts themselves were found unfit for purpose as smoke ventilation shafts.
- Shaft irregularities, debris, and permanent vents could cause smoke-logging in staircases during a fire, trapping occupants.
- Management company, Building Control Department, and the fire service have important roles to play in ensuring building safety and fire risk minimization.
- Insurance policy impact will depend on specific terms and may require additional coverage.