November 25, 2017

Tower block fires: Did government act on advice?

fOver the past few decades, successive governments have made changes to fire regulations for residential premises, to try to reduce deaths. Modern high-rise buildings in England, Scotland and Wales must be fitted with sprinklers, but calls for more to be done to improve safety in older tower blocks increased following major fires in south London in 2009 and in Southampton in 2010.

Following the disastrous fire at Grenfell Tower in west London this week, which quickly engulfed the 24-storey block, the government has been accused of failing to ensure sprinklers were fitted to older blocks and of failing to update building regulations.

Ministers have stressed that at this stage, the exact cause of the Grenfell Tower fire is not known, but Communities Secretary Sajid Javid told the BBC that following such a high number of deaths: “Clearly something has gone disastrously wrong … something needs to change”.

The former Conservative housing minister Mark Prisk told BBC Radio 5live that clearly not enough time had been spent reviewing fire safety in recent years and ministers “need to do more”.

There has been criticism that warnings were ignored from a coroner’s report in March 2013 following a deadly 2009 fire in south London – at Lakanal House in Southwark.

She did not say sprinklers must be installed in all high-rise blocks but recommended that the government “encourage” housing providers responsible for high rise flats “to consider the retro-fitting of sprinkler systems”.

She said there was “insufficient clarity” on advice given to high-rise residents about what to do in case of a fire – and recommended the government publish new guidance about how advice to “stay put” should be seen in relation to the “get out and stay out” policy

On building regulations, the coroner said one of the documents – Approved Document B, which relates to fire safety – was “a most difficult document to use” and recommended it be reviewed.

In particular it says the section relating to “external fire spread”, regulation B4, should “provide clear guidance” with regard to “the spread of fire” over the outside of a building and whether “attention should be paid to whether proposed [building] work might reduce existing fire protection”.

Shadow housing secretary John Healey has said the government should “start to act now” on the coroner’s report by “installing sprinklers in the high-risk blocks”, overhauling the building regulations and “make sure people do have clear advice and information when they live in high-rise blocks like this about what to do when there’s a fire”.

He has accused the government of having previously “rejected out of hand even encouraging the retrofitting of these sprinkler systems in other high-rise blocks”.

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