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Tue, 7 July 2020

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Sustainability in construction should never be put before the safety of residents

Sustainability in construction should never be put before the safety of residents

In 2019, the Beechmere retirement complex in Crewe caught fire. There is a worrying history of concerns surrounding timber framed buildings, says Kieran Mullan MP. | Credit: PA Images

4 min read

There is a new found enthusiasm for resurrecting the use of timber in building because it is seen as being eco-friendly. We must ensure we use this moment of fire safety reform to act on risks across the board.

On Thursday the 8th August 2019, Beechmere retirement complex in Crewe caught fire.

Within hours the fire had swept through and destroyed almost the entire site.

150 residents were evacuated from the burning building with the fire requiring 16 fire engines from across Cheshire, Staffordshire, Shropshire and Merseyside to fight it.

We are lucky that we are in the position to say everyone safely escaped from the Beechmere fire thanks to the substantial efforts of emergency services, the friends and family of residents, and neighbours.

Sadly, since the fire, some residents have passed away and families will rightly worry that the stress and trauma may have had a longer term impact on their loved ones.

Everyone will want to see what the official investigation finds. But I have found that there is a worrying history of concerns surrounding timber framed buildings.

This is a story about a new found enthusiasm for resurrecting the use of timber in building because it is seen as being eco-friendly. A new green vision of skyscrapers made naturally to replace our concrete urban jungle.

In terms of its history, timber framed construction fell out of fashion after a 1983 ITV World In Action documentary crashed the market as it told stories of rotting buildings and condensation problems.

But around the world use of timber frame rose and rose and in the late 1990s Government thought again about timber.

By 2006 Government ministers were boasting that “The timber frame sector is helping to produce housing more quickly and at a better cost.”

A head of steam built up and by 2009 the Government made available a £6 million Renewable Construction Demonstration Project to encourage house builders to go even further and the pace of use continued to grow. But so did the concerns.

Places like Beechmere, which house people that will struggle to evacuate might need further restrictions of materials that can be used or have additional minimums, for example sprinklers.

In 2002, the newly built Yarlswood Prison was half burnt to the ground after a small fire started by rioters spread out of control.

Blazes in Croydon and Peckham, in 2007 and 2009, caused severe damage to blocks of flats with wooden frames. In 2010 a London Assembly report recommended tighter regulations on timber framed buildings. A 2012 Government statistics review identified clearly that fires in timber framed buildings results in more fire damage and an insurance industry review also claimed they were more likely to occur.

By 2014 the Health and Safety Executive released an open letter to everyone involved in timber framed construction after a spate of fires including the burning down of an £20 million University of Nottingham laboratory mid construction. The HSE is clear that the risk of timber framed buildings is particularly high during construction and when any work is being done on them.

Where are we now? We now hold the record for the world’s largest timber framed building, a ten-storey, 121-unit development in Hackney. Hackney Borough Council has been described as having a ‘Timber First’ policy.

The Government has already acted. The Hackney building could not now be built. There is currently a ban on using combustible frames on buildings 18 metres or higher. This is one of the many steps that has been taken in the light of Grenfell.

Since becoming the MP for Crewe and Nantwich, I have joined the APPG for Fire Safety and Rescue to raise the profile of this issue.

Both I and other members of the APPG, are keen to see another strand of additional rules that apply regardless of height and look instead at the intended use of the building.

The current proposed regulations for fire safety reform will likely lower the height threshold for using combustible materials to 11m.

This is to be welcomed.

But, both I and other members of the APPG, are keen to see another strand of additional rules that apply regardless of height and look instead at the intended use of the building.

For example, places like Beechmere, which house people that will struggle to evacuate might need further restrictions of materials that can be used or have additional minimums, for example sprinklers.

Sustainability in construction, while important, should never be put before the safety of residents.

Whilst rightly the focus has been on external cladding given the terrible tragedy and loss of life as a result of the Grenfell fire, we must ensure we use this moment of fire safety reform to act on risks across the board.

Kieran Mullan is Conservative MP for Crewe and Nantwich

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