Last week’s case involving a Liverpool Landlord who was sentenced to 8 months imprisonment after concealing domestic living accommodation above commercial premises was perhaps the most concerning case of its type that I have been involved with.
That was a case where the Defendant, having been served with a Notice Prohibiting the use of the premises for sleeping accommodation, proceeded to conceal the staircase leading to the living accommodation, creating a much more substantial risk to tenants in the event of fire.
Although the Defendants actions were reprehensibly unusual, the fact is that these types of premises are by far the most common type of premises that I have prosecuted. They involve domestic living accommodation above or connected to commercial premises. To all intents and purposes, it is the “living above the shop” scenario, and in most cases ‘the shop’ involves a commercial kitchen.

I am asked many questions about the effectiveness of the Fire Safety Order in relation to all types of businesses but I am rarely asked about the most common risk, which, in my experience, is where the owners of commercial premises allow them to be used for living accommodation either for staff or other tenants.

The fire safety issues which arise from such premises are fairly straightforward. The most obvious risk of fire is usually in the commercial premises. The requirement for early warning for potentially sleeping residents is therefore paramount. Fire protection and separation is essential and exit routes must be properly protected. Tenants must also be clear as to the strategy for evacuation in the event of a fire.

Unfortunately, in the cases that I have prosecuted, there is rarely even a Fire Risk Assessment.

The Responsible Persons in these cases are usually small to medium sized businesses, and in most cases, a lone business person. These types of premises are let in a number of different ways. Many of the commercial premises are sub-let from the original tenant. Some tenants pay a rent for the whole building with the commercial premises as the primary reason for the letting. In other cases, the living accommodation is completely unconnected to the commercial premises.

The disparity in the way in which these premises are let may well be the reason that fire safety issues arise so frequently.

In many cases there is a cultural issue where the owner of the commercial premises employs staff on the basis that he will provide food and accommodation for employees. Rent is often not paid as the costs of the living accommodation are deducted from wages at source or come part of a package of employment.

In nearly all of the cases there has been an issue with a Landlord or a sub letting tenant who has clearly not fully understood the nature of the risks to those sleeping above commercial premises. In many cases the fire safety issues arise purely out of ignorance of the potential risks and a lack of education in relation to fire safety issues.

If the Responsible Person is a lone businessman or small business, fire safety advice and guidance is often not considered as a priority and sometimes not considered at all. Even if advice is taken, the implementation of fire safety measures in such cases has been poor. My experience is that the rent from the domestic premises is often used to support unprofitable businesses in paying the overall rental liability to a Landlord. The rental income certainly hasn’t been used to make the premises safer.

Many Fire Services are attempting to engage with local communities with a more strategic approach and a more sympathetic enforcement policy to work with and educate local businesses as to risk, rather turning to more draconian enforcement measures. Where offences are committed out of ignorance rather than a desire to profit at the expense of the safety of relevant persons there is clearly merit in this approach. With compliant landlords it may be possible to establish a ‘safety first’ culture.

But the sentence of imprisonment of 8 months handed out to Mr Ali in relation to living accommodation above an Indian Restaurant will hopefully send a message to those who have been warned about the risks but who have chosen not to act upon such warnings.

But given the nature of such premises and those who occupy them, I am concerned that it is only a matter of time before a significant tragedy involving those who are willing to or have no option but to “live above the shop”.

Press report

Liverpool Echo