HC Deb 30 July 1997 vol 299 cc297-302 12.30 pm
Ms Tess Kingham (Gloucester)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to make my maiden speech on a subject on which I feel strongly and which has directly affected people in my constituency—the fire safety of supermarkets and superstores and whether it should be compulsory for them to install fire sprinkler systems.

I am privileged to represent Gloucester—a fine city which has undergone many changes in its history. Just this year, we are celebrating the 900th anniversary of Glevum, the Roman colonia set up where present-day Gloucester now stands. Every year, we host thousands of visitors who come to admire Gloucester's heritage—our wonderful Norman cathedral, the refurbished Victorian docks and the best-preserved friary in England, the Blackfriars friary, to name just a few of our attractions.

Gloucester is not merely a tourist attraction; it is a thriving working city. It was traditionally known for railway carriage and aircraft manufacturing but today, because of our strategic location and good communications and, of course, our wonderful people, we are managing to attract businesses from all over the world to relocate to our fine city. In recent years, we have benefited in particular from the relocation of financial institutions and a good deal of light industry.

Gloucester is also similar to any other major town and city in Britain today in that we have a plethora of new superstores blooming along our trunk roads. They are welcome because they contribute to the local economy and provide jobs, but the fire safety of those superstores and supermarkets concerns me, and that is the reason for today's debate.

In May last year, a major fire broke out at the MFI superstore on Eastern avenue in Gloucester. The building was not fitted with a fire sprinkler system. The fire soon got out of control and engulfed the building. It took 100 firefighters and 15 pumps working throughout the night to control that blaze. Luckily, no one was injured, but the cost was high. More than £5 million worth of damage was done to the building and stock and there was major pollution of the environment in the neighbouring area, damage to neighbouring superstores and a considerable cost to the public purse for the rescue operation.

At that time, I was the prospective parliamentary candidate in Gloucester. I was shocked to discover that it is not compulsory for supermarkets and superstores to install sprinkler systems when they are built. Along with other members of the public, I had assumed that such action would be a matter of course. Under current legislation—British standard 5588, part 2, 1985—fire sprinkler systems are merely recommended.

Since being elected, I have looked into the issue in some detail and I am firmly of the belief that it should be compulsory for sprinkler systems to be installed in all new, warehouse-style, single-storey buildings over 2,000 sq m used for commercial purposes. That definition would encompass the majority of new superstores and if that proposal were implemented, it could help to avert future disasters and potential loss of life.

The arguments for making sprinkler systems compulsory are compelling. First, all evidence shows that sprinkler systems work. Statistics from Australia, New Zealand, the United States of America and the United Kingdom show that sprinkler systems, if they are properly maintained and operational, will control between 95 and 99 per cent. of all fires in the early stages. That is because they are area specific. That means that sprinklers are activated only in the immediate area of the fire, thus attacking the seat of the fire before it has a chance to take hold. If sprinklers are not in use and a fire takes hold, it spreads in area and intensity in between 10 and 20 minutes and becomes what is termed a fully developed fire. At that point, the fire is much more difficult to control and usually requires a full-scale rescue operation of the type that we witnessed at MFI in Gloucester.

Fully developed fires are dangerous and devastating. The lives of firefighters who may have to enter and search unsafe buildings for unaccounted people are put at considerable risk. The main causes of injury and death to firefighters in Britain are flashovers and roof collapses. Those occur in fully developed fires at very high temperatures—the very conditions that fire sprinkler systems are there to inhibit in the first place.

In February 1996, a 21-year-old firefighter, Fleur Lombard, was tragically killed by a flashover when she was fighting a supermarket blaze in Bristol. Fleur's father has been a leading campaigner, calling for compulsory sprinkler systems in superstores. In 1993, two firefighters died when a roof collapsed and, in Dover in 1995, four firefighters were injured in a flashover in a major fire at a B and Q superstore. None of the buildings involved in those incidents had operational sprinkler systems. If they had, the fires could perhaps have been controlled at the early stages and might not have become fully developed fires and reached such an intensity as to become a danger to firefighters' lives.

Fully developed fires also cause environmental damage. Pollutants from burning buildings and materials can be carried by water from firefighters' hoses or expelled directly into the air. Waterborne pollutants from superstore blazes can include such unsavoury things as bleach, fertilisers, paints and dyes and those can accumulate in the soil or find their way into local water supplies. Air pollutants can include carbon monoxide, soot or hydrochloric acid in gaseous form when PVC is burnt.

A final consideration is the financial cost of not installing sprinklers, both to retailers and the public purse. Millions of pounds of retail stock are ruined every year when blazes get out of control and firefighters have no option but to deluge the whole area in tens of thousands of gallons of water. Sprinkler systems can limit that stock damage. They activate only in the immediate area of a fire, which means that, in comparison with the deluge from firefighters' hoses, little water is expelled in the vicinity of the fire and much less stock damage caused. Fire Protection Association statistics claim that five or fewer sprinkler heads extinguish 95 per cent. of all fires. Sprinkler systems are, therefore, cost-effective for retailers and also prevent the high public costs of full-scale rescue operations and all the accompanying paraphernalia that has to go with them.

There is widespread support for compulsory sprinkler systems in the type of buildings that I mentioned. The Loss Prevention Council, the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association and the Fire Brigades Union all support the proposal, as do the general public.

After the MFI fire in Gloucester, the Gloucester Citizen, our well-read daily newspaper, ran a lengthy campaign calling for the compulsory installation of sprinkler systems in superstores and supermarkets. The Gloucester people were asked to fill in a coupon and send it back to the newspaper and to their Member of Parliament. They responded enthusiastically, as I did when the matter was brought to my attention.

The campaign also received support from Douglas French, my predecessor, to whom I pay tribute. He faithfully served the city of Gloucester for 10 years and was well known for his willingness to speak out on any issue if he found it to be morally or politically incorrect, or where justice had not been done. He earned great respect in Gloucester. I did not always agree with him, but I admired his integrity and willingness to stand up and be counted.

At present, it is left to individual retailers to decide whether to be responsible and fit sprinkler systems. Some do it as a matter of course, and they should be congratulated; some learn by their mistakes: the new MFI building in Gloucester has sprinklers; but others refuse to fit them, no matter how much people urge and plead with them.

The new Sainsbury Homebase store, only a few hundred yards from MFI in Gloucester, has consistently refused to fit sprinkler systems. I received a letter from Sainsbury only today saying that it believed that its evacuation procedures and smoke alarms were sufficient. They may be sufficient for evacuating the mobile public, but they are certainly not sufficient to protect the lives of firefighters and save the public purse the considerable cost of rescue operations. Those are compelling arguments.

I hope that the Government will take decisive action and leave the superstores no hole to wriggle through in fire safety. The time has come for superstores to put people before profits: fire systems should be compulsory and installed as a matter of course.

12.40 pm
The Minister for London and Construction (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Kingham) on an excellent maiden speech. She has done all that hon. Members would expect from a maiden speaker: she paid a generous tribute to her predecessor, described the city that she represents in imaginative and attractive terms and, above all, highlighted a serious issue that deserves earnest consideration in the House and has a direct relevance to her constituency because of the fire to which she alluded, which was a traumatic episode in the life of the people of Gloucester.

The Government share my hon. Friend's concern about fires such as the one in Gloucester and the others to which she referred. It is obviously of particular concern when such incidents cause death or injury to firefighters. I shall say more about the Gloucester fire later, but, at this stage, I should like to express my sympathy, on behalf of the Government, to the relatives of all those firefighters who died in the fires to which my hon. Friend referred. We consider that to be a very serious issue, and it is extremely important that the Government should learn lessons from fires when they occur.

To that end, my Department has a contract with the fire research station, which is part of the Building Research Establishment, to investigate fires in buildings that could have implications for the building regulations. All the three fires to which my hon. Friend referred have been investigated and the issues discussed; for example, the use of sandwich panels is being considered.

The contract with the fire research station enables my Department to consider amendments to the building regulations that could have a bearing on life safety. I must stress at this point that building regulations are made primarily to ensure the health and safety of people in and around buildings, and are therefore not the right tool to deal with wider issues of environmental pollution and property protection. The health and safety of individuals is paramount, and I am sure that my hon. Friend would recognise that that is the right priority.

Guidance that would satisfy the fire aspects of the building regulations is given in approved document B on fire safety. The aim of the guidance is to ensure that buildings are safe while giving designers as much flexibility as possible. In the case of multi-storey retail buildings, the guidance suggests that floor area should be limited to 2,000 sq m in an unsprinklered building or 4,000 sq m in a building fitted with a sprinkler system.

It should therefore be clear that, in new multi-storey retail buildings, the floor area is not normally expected to exceed 4,000 sq m. Previous guidance to earlier building regulations suggested that the size limitation should be related to the volume of the space or compartment, but the current guidance takes account of research that suggested that fire loading was related more to floor area than to cubic measurements. In addition, adequate provision must be made for means of escape in the event of fire, regardless of whether the building is sprinklered.

The current guidance in the approved document suggests that single-storey retail buildings can be of unlimited extent without any sprinklers. A number of fires, such as the one in Gloucester, have occurred in single-storey retail units, and that aspect of the guidance has therefore been reviewed with the assistance of the fire research station, the fire advisory panel and the Building Regulations Advisory Committee.

The results of that work suggested that a case could be made for the installation of a sprinkler system in new single-storey retail buildings where the compartment exceeds 4,000 sq m. That is therefore one of the issues being considered as approved document B is redrafted for consultation. I have recently been in touch with the Home Office on the matter and I am keen that we make progress.

The delay in implementing changes has been caused partly by the lack of urgency accorded to the matter by the previous Administration and partly by the need to get together a comprehensive new package of guidance on fire safety. I am confident that we shall be able to start consultation in the very near future.

Proposed changes will reflect the need to consider the safety of both the occupants of the building and firefighters. Any change to the guidance is still expected to provide the designer with flexibility, giving the option either to compartmentalise the building to provide a physical barrier for fire containment, or to provide a sprinkler installation to control the spread of fire.

I understand that the Gloucester fire was caused by an arson attack during the night of 23 May and the early hours of 24 May last year. Fire was detected in pallets stored immediately outside and adjacent to a large single-storey retail store. The store where the fire started has a floor area of almost 2,000 sq m and is part of a larger development that contains other retail units separated from each other by compartment walls. Fire brigade access to the site is described as good, with access on three sides of the store.

Under the building regulations, the external walls need not be provided with any fire resistance, because they are not classed as elements of structure; they do not support upper floors, as would likely have been the case had the building been multi-storey. The building was also sited far enough away from other buildings and the site boundary for the external walls not to have required fire resistance. Once the pallets had been ignited, the fire had ample opportunity to enter the building through the external walls.

Fire broke into the storage compartment of the building and spread among flat-pack furniture laid out on steel storage racking. There was no form of smoke venting or mechanism for heat release, and firefighters could enter the building only in the very early stages of the fire. The fire spread throughout the retail unit and affected a second smaller unit containing stored carpet rolls, because the compartment wall separating the units failed.

During the fire's development, and mainly owing to the new source of fuel in the carpet area, a thick blanket of black acrid smoke hung over the area. The fumes were thought to be a cocktail of noxious gases. The chief fire officer, environmental health officer and police considered at one stage evacuating the housing development immediately adjoining the site, but it was decided that occupants could remain if they closed all their windows.

The fire officer drew particular attention to the roof structure, which to some extent prevented firefighters from fighting the fire and effectively cooling down the compartment wall separating the units. That was particularly important if an attempt was to be made to prevent the fire from spreading between units.

Because of the temperature of the fire and the nature of the stored materials in the two units, there was clearly a possibility of environmental pollution, although, as I have explained, that is not dealt with under the building regulations. As regrettable as the incident was, I am relieved, as my hon. Friend was, that there was no loss of life or injuries. I have also noted that the units were unsprinklered.

Automatic sprinkler systems have amply demonstrated their effectiveness in preventing large fires and my Department, in conjunction with other Departments, is considering what steps can be taken to encourage more widespread use of sprinklers on a voluntary basis.

Modern sprinkler systems are engineered to the extent that the components are designed to cater for the needs of the insurance industry and can be costly to install. Many systems that protect buildings are hydraulically capable of supplying up to 18 sprinkler heads at any one time, whereas records show that, in most fires, no more than four sprinkler heads actually operate. My hon. Friend referred to an average of approximately five in any individual case. However, it is probable that even a small number of operating heads will be sufficient immediately to reduce the rate of spread of the fire and raise the alarm about the fire.

I understand the concerns of insurance companies and the issues relating to property protection although, as I said earlier, building regulations which deal with fire relate only to those issues that affect life safety. However, the probability of a fire occurring at a time when the mains water supply has failed or when the mains electricity supply is not available is considered to be very small. We are, therefore, looking at ways in which the use of simpler, less costly sprinkler systems for life safety can be encouraged. A research project with the fire research station on sprinklers for life safety and means of escape is being undertaken for my Department to assist with that objective.

Research into a study of the interactions of sprinkler sprays with venting, and their combined effect on the fire gases in enclosures is also being undertaken by the fire research station on behalf of my Department. Another research project is intended to look at the relationship between sprinklers for life safety and means of escape. That will look at whether cheaper and simpler sprinkler systems are adequate for life safety rather than the more costly sprinklers installed for property protection. A study group will be set up to derive trade-off factors which compare the benefits of sprinklers with other fire protection measures such as travel distances and structural fire precautions.

It is also intended to develop mathematical models to assist with the decision making on the use of compensatory features relating to fire precautions in buildings. That will benefit both the occupants of the buildings from a safety point of view and designers with regard to flexibility. It should also help to make buildings cost-effective. Following from that research, there will also be an experimental study to provide better understanding of the interactions of the sprinkler sprays with venting and their effect on fire gases.

Human behaviour in fire is also an important issue, and a study on the impact of sprinkler systems on tenability limits will therefore look at the factors affecting smoke production and the effects of fire gases on human behaviour.

In the meantime, one further issue to which the new Government have given attention is the scope for local authorities to require enhanced fire precaution standards in advance of what would be necessary to comply with building regulations requirements. I was concerned to discover that when appeals were lodged against the exercise of such local discretion, it was routine practice under the previous Government to allow the appeal, therefore nullifying the effect of local discretion. I have stopped that practice and am now looking at all appeals on a case-by-case basis. That will, I believe, be welcome to local authorities which have, as my hon. Friend has highlighted, been frustrated by the inability to secure, in the past, compliance with their enhanced fire precaution requirements other than on the basis of voluntary agreement.

My hon. Friend will, I hope, appreciate from all of this that we fully recognise the importance of fire safety in buildings. Our research programme is designed to assist in the preparation of revised building regulations. I hope that we shall be able to go out to consultation in the next month or so on a revised version of approved document B. I can assure my hon. Friend that the revised text will deal with the issue of sprinklers in large single-storey retail buildings. Nevertheless, I and my officials will look again at the material that she has presented today. We are determined that effective measures must be in place to provide proper protection in the event of fire for all who could be affected, whether they are the individuals who use the store or firefighters trying to contain a fire.

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