HC Deb 18 March 2002 vol 382 cc142-8

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

10.40 pm
Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

I am pleased to have this short Adjournment debate on the question of fire safety in warehouse distribution and storage premises. My interest in the matter arose from a fire that took place in my constituency in premises that were used for food storage and distribution. However, it is fair to say that there are several constituencies such as mine which, because of their position on the way to a port or at the junction of several motorways, have acquired a large number of distribution premises, so we need to take a particular interest in ensuring the safety of those buildings and of those who work in them.

I visited the site of the fire in Warrington after it took place with officers from the Cheshire fire service. I wish to place on record my appreciation of those officers for the work they do generally and also for their patience in answering my questions on points that must have seemed to them blatantly obvious. The mistakes in what I am going to say are mine: the good bits are probably theirs.

What was obvious, even to someone like me, was the startling speed with which the fire took hold. The premises were not far from the local fire station and officers were on the scene in a few minutes. Nevertheless, the building had partly collapsed 15 minutes after the fire had started and the firefighters had to withdraw. Within 30 minutes, the building had totally collapsed. It was completely burned out, together with several lorries that had been parked nearby.

Cheshire fire service estimates that the immediate cost of the fire was some £30 million. Other costs are more difficult to quantify, but they include damage to business, loss of jobs and damage to the environment. Sad to say, fires in such premises are not rare. It is difficult to get exact figures because of the way in which records are kept, but an answer my hon. Friend the Minister gave me on 25 October 2001 showed that, in the nine years to 1999, there had been between 702 and 883 fires in storage and distribution premises. Many of those fires will, thankfully, have been small, with the damage resulting from smoke or late calls.

It is not unusual for blazes to occur in such premises. Indeed, the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association considers that the figures are much higher. It believes that some 25 per cent. of the fires that occur in the retail and distribution and industrial and transport categories are warehouse fires. It puts the number at some several thousand each year.

Many of those fires are serious. The Fire Protection Association estimates that there have been some 240 large fires in warehouse distribution and storage premises since 1990, leading to insured losses of hundreds of millions of pounds. Its figures are likely to be an underestimate, because it deals only with fires that cost more than £50,000 and it believes that insurers do not report all losses to it.

It is strange that we allow that situation to continue when we could do simple things to minimise the risk, such as changing building regulations and ensuring that sprinklers are fitted.

Although approved document B on fire safety recommends that sprinklers be fitted in single storey retail buildings, it does not do the same for single storey warehouse premises, which reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how the sector has developed. Single storey buildings may be very large indeed, covering up to 140,000 sq m, and may be up to 30 m high. The nature of the business demands that the most cost-effective use of space be made, so buildings are often densely packed and goods stored on high racking systems.

That in itself poses a danger to the people who work there and any firefighters who have to tackle a blaze. Fires can spread very quickly in such an environment. Indeed, research by the Building Research Establishment shows that fires started in a flue formed by boxes stacked on 10 m racking more often than not reach the top of the stack within two minutes. Multiplying that by the amount of goods and racking in big buildings gives some idea of the scale of the problem.

The problem is compounded by the fact that many modern buildings often have no windows and few doors, which makes it difficult for people to get out and extremely difficult for firefighters to gain access if there is a blaze. Once inside, they may find themselves dealing with fires that are above ground level, approachable only through a maze of unprotected steelwork and facing the hazard of that steelwork collapsing during the fire.

A further hazard is caused by the sandwich panels that are often used in such buildings to create a closed environment in which food may be kept chilled, although they are used for other food hygiene purposes as well. Such panels usually have an inner core sandwiched between sheets of galvanised metal, usually steel, and PVC fixing. That inner core may consist of several materials, usually polystyrene or a mix of polystyrene and rock wool. As such, it is highly inflammable.

Approved document B sets out the hazards of such a construction—it may cause toxic black smoke in a fire, it allows fire to spread unseen in the sandwich panels and it may create flashovers—and a number of fire services have reported on the problems it causes. For example, the Norfolk fire service reported on a fire in 1995 that it believes started against the outside wall of a building. The heat transferred through the wall and ignited the sandwich panels. The fire then spread inside.

The London fire brigade graphically described a fire in these terms: The heat caused the polystyrene filling to melt and the metal sheets to distort. The heat and fire travelled through the panels and into the false ceiling and through the remainder of the sandwich panels. Humberside fire brigade has reported on several such fires, one of which destroyed a building.

The cost of all those fires is hard to estimate because of the way in which we keep our records, but we ought to include in the equation not just the insurance costs, which, in the end, we all pay, but the cost of fighting the fires, the benefits paid to those who unfortunately lose their jobs, the revenue loss to the Exchequer when firms cease to trade and clearing up the resultant environmental pollution.

The Warrington fire took place at a food distribution depot, so afterwards residents nearby suffered what I can only describe as a plague of flies, which were attracted to the food. I was surprised to find that milk, which we think of as harmless, can seriously pollute a water course if it gets in after a fire, and clearing it up costs a great deal.

Set against those costs, the cost of providing sprinklers in these buildings is negligible. Cheshire fire service estimated that the cost of putting sprinklers into the building in Warrington when it was built 10 years ago would have been about £30,000, which is nothing by comparison with the cost of the fire.

I am not primarily making an economic argument, however, although I believe that it is a strong one. My argument is about the safety of the public. The people who work in these buildings, and the firefighters who have to go into them to tackle the fires, face unacceptable risks which could be greatly reduced. The theory has been that single-storey retail buildings required sprinklers where possible, because of the possible loss of life. The same did not apply, however, to single-storey warehouse buildings. I hope that I have said enough to make it clear that the situation on the ground is much more complicated than that.

These buildings are very large. They are often crammed with goods and can be difficult to get out of. The fire service knows that, in these circumstances, managers are often reluctant to confirm that everybody has got out of the building. If that happens, firefighters have a duty to enter the building and search it whenever possible. When they do so, they face hidden fires, toxic smoke and the possible collapse of panelling and racking around them. That is an unacceptable risk for any public servant to have to face when it is not necessary to do so.

In these cases, it is certainly not necessary, because we have known what needs to be done for many years. Committees have reported to successive Governments about what needs to happen with these buildings, but the measures have never been enforced. As far back as 1946, the post-war building studies that aimed to learn the lessons from firefighting in the second world war recommended that warehouses of more than 10,000 sq ft should have sprinklers fitted. I am not very good at converting feet into metres, but I think that that is about 940 sq m, a tiny area by comparison with the buildings that we are dealing with here.

In 1970, a departmental committee on the fire service under the chairmanship of Sir Ronald Holroyd drew attention to the fact that fires could spread unseen in this type of building, and recommended the installation of sprinklers and automatic fire alarms. A report produced for the Home Office in 1980 suggested that 90 per cent. of our industrial buildings could effectively be protected by sprinklers. Yet we have not legislated for this. We prefer the risk assessment option, but that option has clearly not worked. We continue to have a great many of these fires, and people continue to be put at risk.

It is time for the Government to act. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that I know many local authorities, including my own, that are very concerned about these buildings. They are afraid to act on their own, however, because they are afraid of chasing away jobs and investment. What is needed is Government action. We should, through our building regulations, be limiting the size of unsprinklered compartments to 2,000 sq m, and requiring the fitting of sprinklers in buildings such as these.

I hope that the Minister will also think seriously about ensuring that proper research is carried out into the use of alternative materials for sandwich panels and, if possible, about moving to require non-combustible cores to be used in them. I hope that, in any regulatory impact assessment that is undertaken, we will put into the equation not only the insurance costs but all the other costs that I have mentioned, which we, as members of the public, have to pay in the end.

The issue is about more than cost, as I have said. It is about whether we are prepared to put people's lives at risk inside these buildings. We hear a lot about reducing red tape, and I am not in favour of imposing unnecessary bureaucracy on anyone. However, I am not in favour of removing a single piece of red tape if it puts someone's life at risk.

I think my constituents who work in such buildings are being put at unnecessary risk, and I think that those in the fire service who have to deal with fires in them are also being put at unnecessary risk. I hope we will act to minimise that risk in the future. I hope we do not have to wait until, tragically, someone is seriously injured or killed before the necessity to act has been realised. We have seen that happen in the case of retail buildings; we should not wait for a similar tragedy to happen in a large single-storey warehouse before being prepared to amend the regulations to deal with such warehouses.

10.55 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) on securing the debate, and on her speech. She clearly takes considerable interest in the subject, not least because of local experience, and she also has great expertise. She has raised this important issue not just in written parliamentary questions, but in early-day motion 241.

I am concerned about the number of fires that occur each year in all buildings, not just those that occur on warehouse, distribution and storage premises. This is a serious matter. It is important to learn lessons from fires that have occurred, and important for us all to take reasonable steps to prevent losses—and not just those in relation to death and injury—through fires.

The last decade has seen a considerable increase in the number and size of single-storey warehouse buildings. However, when we consult the supporting fire statistics we note that the occurrence of death and injury has remained reasonably static during the last seven years, and, in comparison with those in other buildings, is thankfully very low. I refer to the last seven years because our fire reporting system was revised in 1994, and before that a separate category for warehouses did not exist. According to our provisional figures for 2000 there were 630 recorded fires in warehouse-type buildings in England and Wales, giving rise to 30 injuries and—I am glad to say—no deaths.

My hon. Friend raised a number of issues relating to potential fire hazards on single-storey warehouse, distribution and storage premises. As in her early-day motion, she called for the building regulations to limit the compartment size of such single-storey buildings, and to require the installation of sprinklers in buildings where compartments exceed 2,000 sq m and the use of only non-combustible cores in all sandwich panels.

The building regulations—which are important in terms of the regulation of construction of such buildings—apply to most building work undertaken in England and Wales, typically the erection or extension of a building. The fire safety aspects of the regulations are intended to secure reasonable standards of health and safety for persons in or about buildings. However, they do not in themselves address economic loss or the effect of fire on the environment. The issue of economic loss is generally something that individual companies, in liaison with their insurers, are best placed to quantify. They are also best placed to establish what additional measures may be necessary to reduce the potential risk of property damage or business interruption from fire.

As my hon. Friend said, guidance on fire safety measures that will meet the requirements of the building regulations is given in approved document B, on fire safety. The guidance aims to ensure that buildings are as safe as can reasonably be expected, while giving designers as much flexibility as possible. The latest edition of approved document B, which came into force on 1 July 2000, includes a new provision limiting the compartment size of single-storey shops to 2,000 sq m, where previously there was no limit. The provision suggests, however, that where sprinklers are provided there should be no limit to the floor area of compartments. The need to restrict compartment size in single-storey shops was first proposed following a number of high-profile fires in large supermarket and DIY-type outlets, which led to concern about public and firefighter safety.

It is important to note that the definition of "shop", as given in approved document B, includes premises used for a retail trade or business". It therefore generally includes all single-storey retail buildings, including the increasingly popular discount warehouse-type stores that are open to the public.

The provision of a 2,000 sq m threshold was set after consideration of the comments that were received as part of a much larger public consultation on approved document B, which closed in March 1998. The original proposal was for a compartment size threshold of 4,000 sq m in single-storey shop premises. However, we considered that a threshold of 2,000 sq m would ensure an even greater level of safety for occupants and firefighters alike.

The decision to limit the guidance on the use of sprinklers in the 2000 edition of approved document B to single-storey shops, as opposed to other types of building such as warehouses, was based on the central fact that there is greater potential for loss of lives in fires in shops. That is because of the large number of people who will be present within a shop, the fact that they will generally be unfamiliar with their surroundings and the level of managerial control that can be placed on members of the public, which is somewhat different from that which can be placed on staff in, say, a warehouse-type building. The decision to provide such guidance on single-storey shops was arrived at following a full regulatory impact assessment.

Owing to the recognised fact that the level of risk to occupants and firefighters can increase with height, the approved document already suggests maximum compartment volumes, both with and without sprinklers, for multi-storey storage-type buildings.

My hon. Friend suggested that only non-combustible core materials should be used for sandwich panels that are provided within single-storey warehouse and distribution buildings. The 2000 edition of approved document B offers guidance for the first time on the use of sandwich panels within buildings generally. The approved document recognises that the potential for problems in fires involving non-combustible cores is less than those for polymeric core materials and offers guidance accordingly.

The guidance suggests the type of core materials, including polymeric, that may be used in various circumstances, and recommends that where deviation from that guidance occurs, a risk assessment should be undertaken and appropriate additional fire precautions put in place. It also offers design recommendations in relation to the associated jointing and fixing systems that typically support such panel installations.

Given those amendments to approved document B, there are no immediate plans to introduce further amendments in relation to other single-storey premises. However, we are continuing to keep the issue under review. As with any new guidance within an approved document, any decision with regard to single-storey premises would need to take account of a range of views and expert advice, and be subject to a full regulatory impact assessment.

We shall consult in the summer on proposals for the reform of fire safety legislation for buildings in use, using an order under the Regulatory Reform Act 2001. The purpose of the reform is to rationalise and modernise fire safety legislation, which is currently spread over numerous different statutes. It would provide for a risk-based approach to fire safety allowing more efficient and more effective enforcement by the fire service. We shall also aim to remove legislative overlap where possible.

Under our proposals, warehouses in use would be subject to one fire safety regime, which will apply to all occupants, not just employees. We shall also be considering whether the regime may protect people in the vicinity of a warehouse in case of fire. I would stress that the reformed legislation will not be prescriptive, but require fire precautions to be provided on the basis of risk assessment. Employers will be free to arrive at their own fire safety solutions so long as they meet the basic and central fire safety requirements. The regulatory reform order giving effect to these changes will, of course, be subject to a full regulatory impact assessment.

In the mean time, and in order to address concerns that have been raised in relation to large warehouse-type buildings, my Department has supported and contributed to the development of a guide for fire precautions in large storage and distribution buildings. The working group that has produced the guide was chaired by a member of the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association, and the Fire Brigades Union is also a member of the working group.

The guide will provide information and advice on issues to be considered in relation to fire precautions and firefighting in large warehouse-type buildings. It has been written to assist developers, designers, property owners and managers in satisfying their statutory duties and aiding their commercial considerations.

In addition, the guide is intended to assist building control bodies and fire authorities to take an informed and consistent approach to the application of building regulations, firefighting precautions and the enforcement of fire precautions legislation, with respect to warehouse and distribution buildings. I understand that the guide is soon to be published by the Fire Protection Association.

My hon. Friend expressed concerns about ongoing fire safety in warehouses and the fact that even warehouses that are not frequented by a large number of members of the public often have poor escape routes. She suggested that that was a further cause for anxiety. In addition to guidance note B, there are fire precautions that are required in warehouses once they are in use. Those are normally governed by the Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations 1997 and, where the warehouse has been designated as a factory, by the Fire Precautions Act 1971.

The Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations apply to virtually all places where people are employed to work, not just to retail establishments. The regulations, together with the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, require employers, first, to carry out a fire risk assessment; secondly, to identify the significant findings of the risk assessment; thirdly, to provide and maintain such fire precautions as are necessary to safeguard those who use the workplace; and lastly, to provide information, instruction and training to employees about the fire precautions.

Where certain processes are carried out at a warehouse, it may be designated as a factory and may therefore require a fire certificate under the Fire Precautions Act 1971. The fire certificate will be prepared by the fire authority, which in practice will be the local fire brigade. Before issuing a fire certificate, fire brigade officers will inspect the premises and satisfy themselves that adequate fire precautions are in place including the means of escape in case of fire, the means of fighting fire, and the means of giving warning in case of fire.

As with the building regulations, fire safety legislation is concerned with life safety. The requirement for any fire safety measure, such as a sprinkler system, will be determined according to whether it is necessary for the protection of employees or other occupants of the building.

I hope that my hon. Friend appreciates from my remarks that we fully recognise the importance of fire safety in all buildings, including warehouse, distribution and storage premises. I can assure her that the merits of any changes to the fire safety guidance in support of warehouse-type buildings will be a subject for consideration as part of our regulatory reform order proposals, on which we will be consulting over the summer, and any future revisions of the building regulations.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes past Eleven o'clock.