HC Deb 28 July 1988 vol 138 cc781-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Durant.]

8 am

Mr. Terry Fields (Liverpool, Broadgreen)

I apologise in advance to the Minister if I do not allow him the customary amount of time to reply. My speech is so extensive that I could have done with an hour and a half. I hope that the Minister will understand that I do not expect a detailed reply. I shall give him a document and ask him or his Department to write to me about it.

The specific problems facing the fire service that I want to deal with concern warehousing. Uncharacteristically, perhaps, the only political statement I wish to make is that Britain used to be the workshop of the world, but we are fast becoming the warehouse of the world. The proliferation of warehouses up and down the country is there for all to see.

Warehouses, by the nature of their use, can pose extreme problems in the event of fire for the people working in them, the firefighters attending them and the population living around or working in them. There has been an upsurge in the warehouse industry in recent years. As the growth of imports has risen, so the number of warehouses has similarly increased.

The growth in the warehousing industry has led to an increase in large and costly fires in warehouses, many of which have been extremely costly—often more than £250,000 and, with increasing frequency, they are in the multi-million pound category.

The two fires at the Ministry of Defence establishment at Donnington in Shropshire are conservatively estimated to have cost £265 million. As that loss is borne by the taxpayer, central Government budgets must be cut and savings must be made in other expenditure. Fires in private warehousing mean an increase in insurance costs for all insurance customers. This scenario deals only with direct losses and takes no account of consequential losses, which often can be equal to the direct loss and, in certain circumstances when contracts are lost or default clauses operate, they exceed the direct loss. A company's long-term viability and profitability may also be affected. When foreign goods are lost, effectively imports are doubled, which may be reflected in the balance-of-trade figures.

The Fire Protection Association's figures for the period December 1986 to November 1987, which were published this year in its "Fire Prevention" magazine, show that of more than 250,000 fires, 20 occurred in warehouses totalling a direct loss of £25,269,000. That was 9 per cent. of the total for all fires in that cost bracket and accounted for 11.46 per cent. of total cost figures.

Another article published by the Fire Protection Association in 1985, "The Warehouse Fire Scandal", by Dr. R. B. Ward, showed that, between 1979 and 1984, 11 warehouse fires occurred in the £5 million cost bracket totalling £377 million, a rough average of £34.25 million per fire.

The same article shows that between July 1983 and June 1984 there were 213 fires, approximately 17 per month, in storage premises, which cost the country £137,302,000. In 20 fires in sprinklered warehouses, the cost was £12,981,000, and one fire alone cost £10 million because of inadequate provision of sprinklers. That means that the remaining 19 fires cost a total of £2,981,000, which is absolute peanuts compared to unsprinklered losses.

I shall deal with five particular fires. I will list them chronologically and explain the lack of control over the warehouse industry in the past decade.

In Braehead container depot in Renfrew on 4 January 1977 there was a fire in a warehouse used for transport and storage. The fire spread to a bonded warehouse and the fire and explosions caused by the storage of commercially pure sodium chlorate destroyed properties and caused widespread damage to domestic, commercial, industrial and public buildings within a one-mile radius. Twelve members of the public and one watchman were treated for shock and minor injuries. Burning debris from the explosion fell on fuel tanks at a nearby power station. Fortunately, they did not ignite. In that instance, no fire safety legislation was applicable on the site.

In February 1980, at the Permaflex company in Stoke-on-Trent, there was a fire and a series of explosions. The fire originated from arcing on a fork-lift truck in an area where flammable gas, LPG—liquefied petroleum gas —was present. The warehouse was used for storing cartridges and aerosols, containing 49 tonnes of LPG. The aerosol and butane fuel containers were exploding and being violently expelled from the building. Local residents and commercial and industrial premises were evacuated. Five hours later the fire seemed to be under control. Then, two massive explosions occurred causing damage to adjacent property. That led to a re-evacuation of the area. The fire burned for a further 60 hours—2.5 days. The local authority concluded that the Fire Precautions Act 1971 did not apply.

A fire at B and R Hauliers in Salford in 1982 involved a warehouse where some 2,000 tonnes of chemicals stored included 25 tonnes of sodium chlorate. Sixty people attended the local hospital after inhaling smoke and fumes and suffering from shock. One person was admitted with breathing difficulties, nine were treated for cuts and lacerations, one for eye injuries and four for nausea and vomiting. Later, 100 people attended the Salford Royal hospital with chest ailments, sore throats and so on. Surrounding properties suffered varying degrees of damage. Several hundred people were evacuated. A cloud of hydrogen chloride—hydrochloric acid—formed around the area but, because of the nature of the premises, the Fire Precautions Act did not apply yet again.

In 1982 there was a fire and explosions in Cary's warehouse in Ipswich. The warehouse stored wickerware, ammonium nitrate fertilisers, compound fertilisers and potassium nitrate. Between 750 and 1,000 people were evacuated from local housing estates, shops, old people's homes and a primary school in an area three quarters of a mile long and half a mile wide. Five people were rescued by firefighters. The explosions were so powerful that they ejected burning materials and lethal sized pieces of corrugated iron and glass into adjoining premises within 100 m of the incident. Again, the Fire Precautions Act did not apply.

In the Brightside lane warehouse in Sheffield in 1984 a fire started in a furniture repository. The repository formed one unit of a large building sub-divided into five smaller units. In two days the fire destroyed the whole warehouse complex with the exception of one unit. That survived due to the effectiveness of fire separation between it and the rest of the complex. The building was not dissimilar to Braehead and the fire was similar to that which occurred there in 1977. It is obvious from the catalogue of fires I have listed that the lessons have not been learned. The Fire Precautions Act did apply in that case, but only to one of the units which was put to a "designated use".

The risks in all those cases are covered by many pieces of legislation and regulations. There is the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, the Building Act 1984, the Fire Certificate (Special Premises) Regulations 1976, the Notification of lnstallations (Handling of Hazardous Substances) Regulations 1982, the Control of Industrial Major Accident Hazards Regulations 1984, the Fire Precautions Act 1971, the Fire Services Act 1947, the Storage of Flammable Liquids Regulations, and the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974.

None of those pieces of legislation had any real effect on the control of what was stored in those premises, nor did they put any responsibility on the owner or occupier to take the course of action which the fire service would demand. For instance, should someone want to develop a new site or redevelop an existing building for warehousing, it seems politic to examine what controls the planners would or would not have over such a development. By virtue of the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987, the Town and Country Planning Act 1984 classifies warehouses as class B8 storage and distribution. That means that if the development of a site is new, planning permission would be required. If, however, the site is an existing one and is already classed as the same usage group, no planning permission is required.

However, nowhere in the planning legislation is there a requirement for the fire authorities to be consulted, nor is the fire authority given any power to act as an objector to a proposal. Hazardous sites which do not fall within the scope of the Health and Safety Executive Regulations 1982 and therefore the 1987 order can gain automatic planning permission where there is no change of use. The Fire Precautions Act 1971 and the 1987 order made by virtue of it have one serious failing. They fail to differentiate between risk, and nowhere more so than where a class B8 building or site is under consideration. In effect, that means that a low fire risk-load warehouse, for example, steel stockholders, can be transformed overnight into a high risk-load premises, for example, for the storage of foam plastics, without any requirement for any form of planning consent and, therefore, no facility for local population objections.

The Building Act 1984 and the regulations made by virtue of it deal with fire safety in two ways. One is life safety in the form of means of escape from fire, and the second is the ability of a building, structure or fabric to resist the effects of fire. I shall deal primarily with the second aspect. Warehouses, for the purpose of the building regulations, are classed in the purpose group identification system as "other non-residential". As with the planning controls, the building regulations fail to differentiate between user risk. The final anomaly with the building regulations is that there is no on-going control so that, as with the planning control, once a building is within a purpose group no account is taken of the risk that the building poses. Therefore, a change of occupier or risk causes no reassessment of the building.

There is no reason to believe that certain warehouses, used purely for the storage of agricultural products—for example, fertilisers—would be exempt from any building regulation control by virtue of definition as an agricultural building. Bearing in mind that fertilisers have played a significant part in some warehouse fires, that is not a happy scenario. The Fire Certificate (Special Premises) Regulations 1976 also apply to warehouses, but the quantities of hazardous substances to be specified are such that there would almost certainly be an overlap with the next two regulations with which I want to deal.

The first is the Notification of Installations Handling Hazardous Substances Regulations 1982. It should be noted that these regulations rely on notification being given to the Health and Safety Executive by a premises or site occupier. Of course, in many instances, such people can be shady characters who refuse or neglect to give information to the Health and Safety Executive and, as a consequence, stuff is stored there which should not be there. No controls or regulations cover that.

The second piece of legislation in that category is the Control of Industrial Major Accidents Hazards Regulations 1984, which rely for application on the storage or use of quantities of specified hazardous substances. There are certain areas of overlap so that both sets of regulations may apply simultaneously. In effect, that means that only specific commodities stored in a particular warehouse are covered by the legislation. The legislation would not apply to other goods which could be stored in the warehouses without any controls and as a consequence the warehouses would be a danger to the public and to the fire service.

The fire service prepared the Fire Precautions Act 1971 which is a major piece of legislation. Its main thrust is to provide for life safety for persons within premises to which the Act applies. Two separate premise types have been designated so far. The first covers hotels and boarding houses and the other covers places at work. However, the designated titles serve to deceive because under the heading of "places of work" only premises to which the definitions contained in the Factories Act 1961 and the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963 are put to what is called a designated use.

The two definitions under the 1961 and the 1963 Acts apply only to certain types of warehouses. There is a range of warehouse types which do not fall neatly into definitions in the Factories Act 1961 or the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963. Therefore, while certain provisions in the 1971 Act apply, the main fire safety sections do not simply because the building is not put. to what is called a designated use.

Section 12 of the 1971 Act enables the Secretary of State to make regulations relating to any matter that appears to him to have an effect on fire safety. That power has been exercised only once to make certain regulations relating to fire safety in small places of work which, while they are put to a designated use, because of the small number of persons employed, do not require a fire certificate.

The 1971 Act is at present in the first phase of four-year alteration due to the provisions of the Fire Safety and Safety of Places of Sport Act 1987. It is generally understood that in other areas the status quo could be maintained.

The Fire Services Act 1947 is rather important to firemen, particularly section 1 (1)(d) which gives licence to fire authorities and requires that the fire authority make efficient arrangements for obtaining, by inspection or otherwise, information required for fire-fighting purposes with respect to the character of the buildings and other property in the area of the fire authority". However, even with those wide sweeping powers under the 1947 Act, the only restriction is that entry cannot be demanded unless 24-hour notice is given.

To the layman, quoting all this legislation is absolutely meaningless. My point is that there are warehouses that may be covered by specific areas in all the legislation to which I have referred, but without sufficient clarity to give the fire service any confidence that a proper job is being done, looking after the interests of the general public, of fire service personnel, and property in close proximity to some of the buildings that store these dangerous commodities.

There are regulations covering the storage of flammable liquids and the Petroleum (Regulations) Acts of 1928 and 1936 and the Highly Inflammable Liquids and Liquified Petroleum Gas Regulations 1972 apply. However, warehouses that store flammable liquids could fall within the arena of that legislation. However, it should be understood that the regulations are very specific in application and will apply only in certain specified conditions which are fairly detailed. They are beyond the scope of what I want to say.

If we compare the five warehouse sites to which I have referred with current legislation and assess the control of, planning and building regulations purposes, three of the sites would not require planning permission by virtue of the fact that the Notification of Installations Handling Hazardous Substances Regulations 1982 would apply. No building regulation application for three of the warehouses would be necessary. The Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 would apply generally to all the sites and did at the time of the incidents. It is therefore a matter for anxiety that it appears to have failed, because, despite the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act, fires of a major magnitude did take place, with severe damage to property and with severe risk to people and firefighters in the area.

It must cause anxiety that in the majority of the cases that I have detailed, which are but the tip of a very big iceberg, there was fragmented control over the sites and little effort to deal with the risks that the sites posed. The dangers of the sites were very real. It could almost be said that it was by divine intervention that no one was killed in those incidents rather than by the efforts of those bodies charged with looking after the public good.

Even more worrying is the fact that in two of the instances—40 per cent. of the instances—analysed the sites would still be bereft of legislative control and could be in business today. There appears to be no common goal of the safety enforcers. The controls, such as they are, are not complementary and do not inspire confidence. There is no interplay between the enforcers who operate independently of each other and have very little input into each other's areas of control. The anomaly in the Fire Precautions Act 1971 whereby certain warehouses are classified as "designated" and others are not is indefensible, as is the anomaly that only factory buildings that store or use highly flammable or explosive materials require a fire certificate, irrespective of the numbers employed.

The fact that the public purse in the form of the fire authority must always pay the cost of the provision of adequate water supplies for fire-fighting purposes is an antiquated and dangerous precedent in times of restricted budgets.

The failure of both planning and building regulation controls to differentiate between the potential risk of a building or a site because of the use of blanket purpose group headings is worrying in the extreme. The hypothesis that a steel stock warehouse in the middle of a residential area could be changed overnight into a chemical storage depot without any form of control is worrying.

I shall provide the Minister with a list of 12 recommendations, but I shall briefly mention them now. I shall be demanding—and the fire service through the Fire Brigades Union will be demanding—the classification and grading of warehouses. There will need to be notification of change of storage and planning and building regulation consent will be required. There would be a need for designation of warehouses for the purposes of the Fire Precautions Act 1971. There would need to be fire protection measures for warehouses, because I believe I have demonstrated that a sprinkler at warehouses can give fire protection. There needs to be a draft marking of building regulations, which I believe that the Health and Safety Executive is circulating for discussion. On non-public sites, water supplies should be paid for by the developer or the user of the site, and not by the local authority whose finances are presently a little strapped. Fire certificates and annual inspections with reports should be mandatory, so too should be the keeping of an up-to-date list of all materials stored at a site, which should be accessible to firefighters.

I apologise for going on so long, but this is a detailed and complex matter which needs to go on record. I was a fire officer for 26 years. We must protect the firefighters who are entering unknown territory in certain factories. We must protect the general public and ensure that we make a contribution to fire safety and reduce fire losses.

8.23 am
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten)

I understand the wish of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mr. Fields) to set out his points in some detail. I know he will realise that, because of the lack of time, I shall not be able to go into all of his points in as much detail as I should have liked. I am sure the House will agree that we should listen with care to what the hon. Gentleman says about the fire service, because, as he said, he was a member of the fire service between 1957 and 1983. He has great experience in these matters and I am grateful to him for the way in which he has spoken this morning. I shall ensure that the document that he passes to me is examined in detail in the Home Office.

While I agree that we should listen carefully to the hon. Gentleman about firefighting, I am not sure that we should listen to him quite so carefully when it comes to the national economy. The country is certainly not one great warehouse now. It has a lot of warehouses, but it also has a lot of workshops, a lot of innovation, and a lot of technical expertise. There is much selling of that expertise and of financial services abroad, which makes Britain one of the economic leaders of the Western world. We have begun the eighth successive year of economic growth. That is an unparalleled record in recent history.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me this opportunity, albeit briefly, to pay tribute to the fire service, which frequently combines with other emergency services to provide an invaluable source of help and assurance for the public when disasters occur. It occasionally rescues people from terrible situations and deals with warehouse fires, which can sometimes be considerable conflagrations.

Firefighters are sometimes led into the unknown. It is a sad fact of life that the demand on their services shows no sign of diminishing. The hon. Gentleman has some detailed suggestions to make on how the work of the fire services in dealing with warehouse fires can be improved. It is perhaps appropriate, even at this early hour, to say something about finance as a background to my remarks about the fire service and warehousing.

The Government are committed to the maintenance of an efficient and effective fire service. They provide support through the block grant mechanism of the rate support grant settlement. Support will continue in the form of revenue support grant under the new local government finance system, which comes into operation in 1990. Since 1982–83 the Government have increased by 12 per cent. expenditure on the fire service. Some of the money and the effort of the fire service goes on fighting fires in warehouses. I agree that warehouse fires have often been a cause of concern, but, happily, the fire service has always risen to the occasion—as we have all grown to expect and appreciate.

All brigades take account of warehouses and other special risks, such as chemical plants and others that the hon. Member mentioned, when arranging fire cover in their areas. Fire service resources are also deployed to meet the risk categorisation of plants, factories and warehouses. Brigades ensure that they deploy appliances so that if some disaster should occur it is dealt with as quickly as possible.

The Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council keeps all new risks under review and gives operational advice to the fire service. It can also recommend to the Government any changes in law that are thought appropriate. The hon. Gentleman told the House about some of the 12 recommendations that he will let me have after the debate so that I can ensure that my noble Friend Lord Ferrers, who has ministerial responsibility for these matters in the Home Office, can consider them.

I expect that the Home Office and the Department of the Environment will examine the important matters that the hon. Gentleman has raised about building regulations and planning, as well as about the fire brigade, so that we can send him a consolidated reply as soon as possible. I do not know whether that reply will reach the hon. Gentleman before, or after, the summer holiday. I wish him well for the holiday, which I hope gives him rather less time for what "DOD's Parliamentary Companion"' lists as his special interest, which is working-class struggle, and rather more for his recreation, which is wine making.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Eight o 'clock on Friday morning.