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Britain’s buildings are vulnerable to fire. We must mobilise industry expertise to improve standards

4 min read

By combining effective oversight of building regulations with a focus on fire safety procedures we can help people to feel safe in their homes

The horrendous Grenfell Tower fire should never have happened, if only the recommendations and advice of the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group had been listened to following the Lakanal House fire of 2009.

I vividly recall waking on 14 June 2017 and seeing on the TV screens the shell of what had, in effect, been a towering inferno. I, like everyone, felt sickened. The inquiry will, I trust, result in tangible recommendations which will ensure there will never be a repeat of such a disaster.

The fire has raised a number of concerns. The scandal of apartment leaseholders unfairly confronted by high costs, trapped in blocks judged unsafe because of ACM cladding, illustrates the wider community impact of fire.

The latest information still records 310 high-rise residential blocks with ACM cladding unlikely to meet building regulations, yet to be remediated.

Similar considerations also apply to high-pressure laminated panels, and maybe other cladding types. Recent fires where there was substantial destruction – such as the Beechmere care home, hotels at Willenhall and Bristol, flats at Barking, and The Cube student block in Bolton – point to further probing questions.

How can today’s buildings be apparently so vulnerable to fire?

“It remains a mystery why sprinklers are not more widely employed with fire containment”

Taking responsibility is vital for a safer future, but it isn’t yet clear who will fulfil that role centrally.

Oversight of the built environment indicates that design and building technologies, products and construction systems, have raced ahead of fire safety, for several valid reasons (including efficiency, sustainability, building value and a sense of place). But fire safety has been left behind.

Regulation must catch up. That’s the challenge for the regulatory system to meet.

But as Dame Judith Hackitt observed, the system is broken. Repair is necessary, based on what is working. The Lakanal inquest coroner recorded in 2013 that review of regulatory guidance was necessary. The last major review was in 2006. Now we await what is expected to be an important revision.

The APPG wishes to play its role in helping progress towards an effective outcome, using the knowledge and expertise available through our Parliamentary colleagues, our advisers and broader links we have to fire safety know-how.

The principles for fire safety are sufficiently captured by core regulation. They are to minimise the outbreak of fire. But if fire occurs then it must be kept small and contained for prompt fire service response before it can grow to become unmanageable. Priority is to protect occupants, so they can reach a place of safety, without injury, as appropriate for the situation.

The main issue does not seem to lie in regulatory provisions. It is rather predominantly observance of fire safety in practice; and the challenge is to secure compliance and enforcement by authorities and industry, together.

It is important to mobilise the expertise in the UK’s fire safety sector. Heightened awareness combined with effective protection and resilient, robust, low-risk construction is essential. That includes applying best-protection practice. It therefore remains a mystery why the benefits of sprinklers are not more widely employed with fire containment.

A great deal is being done by Government departments, and several other groups and organisations. Numerous actions have been taken, with more to follow, but keeping track and pulling details together into a coherent whole is a key requirement. Fragmentation remains a major issue for fire safety in design and construction.

A strategic view from above is essential. But who is to take control to ensure the various strands are stitched together?

The role for the new regulator when it takes shape under the Health and Safety Executive is therefore a major one. Requirements are high. The APPG is keen to support what needs to be a re-energised focus on fire safety through our regulations and regulatory guidance.

Sir David Amess is Conservative MP for Southend and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group

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