HL Deb 13 July 1992 vol 539 cc85-94

8.36 p.m.

Lord Howie of Troon rose to ask Her Majesty's Government to what degree the new building regulations relating to fire safety in England and Wales differ from those for Scotland and Northern Ireland, and why.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, after that excitement I rise to ask the Unstarred Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. The problem has become slightly more complicated than my Unstarred Question suggests because in the period which has passed since I first tabled it the Scottish building regulations and the English and Welsh building regulations are now in operation although they are different while the Northern Ireland regulations are not yet changed but, I am told, are likely to comply with the English and Welsh regulations when they are eventually altered. I believe that that process is in accordance with the Government's underlying wish that the regulations should be unified throughout the country.

A further complication arises from the attitude of the Loss Prevention Council which represents many insurers and which has published its own new code of practice. That document is not legally binding but its requirements will have considerable influence on the premiums which insurers will be required to pay. The requirements of the LPC are more stringent than either of the building regulations.

Why should these various regulations differ in what is after all a technological area? One reason is that the LPC code is aimed mainly at the protection of property whereas the building regulations are aimed largely at the protection of life. It appears from these documents that life needs less protection, by and large, than property, and that life in England needs less protection than life in Scotland. At any rate the new English and Welsh regulations are less onerous than the Scottish ones, although I daresay the fires are much the same.

Leaving aside the LPC code for the moment, it may be useful to consider the differences in the two sets of building regulations. The Scottish regulations, which were revised in November 1990, are not greatly different from the previous regulations which date from 1985. However, the new English regulations reduce the periods of fire resistance of elements of construction, introduce a trade off by permitting reduced resistance periods when sprinklers are used and relax the non-combustibility requirements of certain construction materials. Of course, those regulations were revised by two separate groups of experts. However, it is difficult to see how they could come to such widely different conclusions, even though some were Scottish and some English.

Perhaps the most startling difference is in the minimum fire resistance period for a multi-storey storage building. In Scotland, in certain instances of high hazard, it is four hours while in England and Wales it seems, so far as I can make out, to be only two hours. That can be reduced to no more than 90 minutes if sprinklers are installed. Most other resistance periods are compatible but in none of them do the Scottish regulations allow any reduction when sprinklers are used. That is also true of all other European countries.

When the English regulations were being drafted they were put out for consultation with interested bodies. I gather that more than 200 replies were received by the Department of the Environment. In cases in which favourable or unfavourable views were expressed the replies varied from 2: 1 against to 5: 1 against the proposed changes. Nevertheless, the department persevered and the changes went ahead.

The justification for reducing fire resistance in the presence of sprinklers, especially automatic sprinklers, is their efficiency in controlling fires or extinguishing them quickly. That is sensible. But how effective are they? Unfortunately, they do not always work. According to Home Office statistics published two years ago automatic sprinklers were effective in extinguishing or controlling fire on about 60 per cent. of the occasions when they ought to have been activated. Taken over a longer period that percentage figure may be slightly higher. Nevertheless, a figure of 60 per cent. scarcely suggests that a reduction by half in the resistance period is sensible. At any rate, the Scottish panel did not appear to think so.

Three questions arise. First, in proposing any trade-off, what consideration has the Department of the Environment given to continuing reports of sprinkler failures due to maintenance activities, inadequate design, human error, blockages, failure of water supply, disrepair, arson, and other causes? In relation to arson it is important to note that according to the Home Office in all years since 1981 the number of fires reported as being deliberate or possibly deliberate continued to rise, reaching 23,600 in 1990—more than a fifth of all fires in occupied buildings. In dwellings those fires have risen from 8 per cent. of all fires in 1981 to 15 per cent. in 1990 with the number doubling over that period. In occupied buildings other than dwellings they have risen from 21 per cent. to 31 per cent. of all such fires over the period from 1981 to 1990. Nearly a third of all fires in occupied buildings are deliberate or possibly deliberate. The possibility arises that the arsonist deliberately creating a fire will be quite likely to deactivate the sprinkler system if he possibly can.

Secondly, what measures will be required to ensure that sprinkler systems are effective during the lifetime of the building? Will those measures cater for any subsequent change of use of the building, its layout or its contents? Thirdly, will it be necessary to evacuate a building constructed on the trade-off principle if the sprinkler system becomes inoperative for any reason as the fire precautions will be inadequate while the sprinkler system is deactivated?

As to the combustibility of building material, it has to be remembered that most fire deaths arise from the inhalation of smoke. That is directly connected with the chemical composition of the materials used in construction, including paint and various forms of building board. Under the new English regulations materials of limited combustibility are no longer required for the construction of compartment walls except in hospitals and fire-fighting shafts. I believe that that also applies to compartment floors, separating walls and external walls. The relaxation does not apply in Scotland. Nor does it apply throughout Europe.

Lastly, should the Scottish regulations be brought into line, as the Government intend, despite the conclusions of the revising panel in Scotland, a recent Early Day Motion in another place, urges that any attempt to require Scottish standards to follow the England and Wales regulations, as has been indicated by Ministers, might proceed only after the new departures have proved themselves in practice to Scottish satisfaction". If the English want lower standards perhaps they can have them. That is none of my business. The new English standards are not only lower than Scottish regulations and the LPC code; they are also lower than the requirements of BS5588 and those in other countries of Europe, at least to some degree. No other country in Europe permits a trade-off in fire resistance when sprinklers are used. If the English must have those standards there is no reason to impose them on the Scots, as Ministers appear to wish.

Can we perhaps apply the principle of subsidiarity here? At the very least, if subsidiarity is to be ignored the Scots should not be whipped into line until the lower standards have proved to be adequate, if they are. I should like an assurance from the noble Viscount that no attempt will be made to coerce the Scots in this matter until the Scots are satisfied that the new English regulations have proved themselves. How long will that take? I suggest at least five years, which is the normal period between reviews. After that the situation can be reviewed again and changes made, but only if the relevant Scottish authorities agree.

I hope that my comments will receive a sympathetic hearing from the noble Viscount.

8.48 p.m.

Lord Gregson

My Lords, the House will no doubt be aware of my interest in safety as I chaired the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology inquiry into occupational health and safety. Since that time, I have maintained a close interest in the subject, both as an engineer and as a director of British Steel. I must state categorically that I am more concerned with the safety of people than with buildings, structure and property.

In any consideration of fire resistance provisions in building regulations and approved documents it is important to recognise that the term "fire resistance" is not a synonym for fire safety. Fire resistance has a specific meaning; namely, the ability of a structural element to withstand collapse.

Studies of the fire casualty statistics show that fire resistance is a very minor factor in fire safety. In 1989, out of a total of 843 fatalities, two members of the public died in buildings which suffered collapse, and it is still not known whether the deaths were caused by the collapse itself or by other factors such as smoke or fire. By far the greatest cause of casualties are smoke and burns. Around 90 per cent. of the casualties, even in those categories, occur in the home. It is instructive to compare the United Kingdom experience with that of Switzerland, which has the lowest fire fatality rate in Europe. In Switzerland there is no fire resistance requirement at all for structures such as houses and similar properties; yet the fatality rate there is one-sixth of that of the United Kingdom.

Clearly the difference in fire resistance provisions has little influence on fire safety with regard to persons—and it is persons that I am most concerned about. In contrast, the installation of sprinklers in a building has had a marked effect on fire safety and on saving life. It can be inferred from the figures given in a Home Office report of July 1990 that sprinklers can reduce fire fatalities by as much as 80 per cent., and recent fire bomb attacks confirm their effectiveness.

Lord Howie of Troon

My Lords, I wonder whether my noble friend will allow me to intervene. He will recall that the same report suggests that the sprinklers were only effective in 60 per cent. of the cases in which they ought to have been used.

Lord Gregson

My Lords, as I remember, the report said it was of little material effect so far as concerned people, though it may have an effect regarding buildings. But in regard to people, the statistics are absolutely fundamental.

Lord Howie of Troon

My Lords, the total number of people was extremely small.

Lord Gregson

My Lords, four fire bombs in the Arndale Centre in Manchester, my home town, in December last year were extinguished almost immediately by sprinklers. The stores were open for trading again within hours. A senior fire officer said that day: Without sprinklers, we would not have had the Arndale Centre this morning". I should not like to say what the riposte in Manchester would be to that remark, because it would be unrepeatable in this House. Nonetheless, the sprinklers saved the buildings, and there were no casualties.

Similarly, in London's Oxford Street and at Brent Cross, on the 2nd and 15th of December respectively, fire bombs were effectively extinguished swiftly by sprinklers. Again, of 13 department stores which were fire bombed in Northern Ireland on the night of 5th January 1991, nine did not have sprinklers. Of those, eight were completely destroyed and one was 30 per cent. destroyed. All four which had sprinklers escaped without any significant damage, and I suggest that when the Secretary of State is considering the regulations for Northern Ireland he should look very carefully at those statistics.

The new approved document B for England and Wales encourages the use of sprinklers by reducing fire resistance times when sprinklers are installed. This is a positive contribution to fire safety which I particularly welcome. It is essential that monetary incentives should be applied in this way in order to increase the number of sprinklers that are installed, because they are effective against fire deaths.

8.55 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for introducing this subject. It is not a subject upon which I myself am very expert, and I listened with interest to what the noble Lords, Lord Howie and Lord Gregson, said since they obviously know a great deal more about the subject than I do.

Not being an expert I went to an organisation which one would expect to be fairly expert in this area-the Fire Brigades Union. The noble Lord, Lord Howie, has already covered much of the ground. As has been said, the fire regulations have been changed for England and Wales, although not for Scotland, from June of this year. Structural fire protection requirements for buildings were reduced by the Department of the Environment if companies introduced sprinklers into their buildings. However, I am advised by those who should know—the Fire Brigades Union—that sprinklers are not necessarily more effective and can break down. That view seems to have been endorsed by the noble Lord, Lord Howie, in his contribution today. Thus, buildings that have not been built in accordance with the regulations previously existing will be that much more vulnerable.

The Fire Brigades Union informs me that it believes the previous regulations were safer. The union believes that structural fire resistance regulations should not be reduced but that sprinklers could be added and offset against other fire safety requirements, such as the size of compartments and the distance people have to travel to escape the fire.

As the noble Lord, Lord Howie, has already said, the Loss Prevention Council, which is an arm of the insurance industry, is against these new regulations. The Fire Brigades Union is of the opinion that the lives of firefighters could he endangered, as well as those of people trapped in buildings. It holds the view that the regulations have been introduced too soon, without scientific evidence that sprinklers alone will be enough seriously to prevent fires. I am advised that fire losses in the United Kingdom are running at around £1.3 billion this year—but even more important, of course, are the deaths and injuries which result from fires.

Then there is the need, as I see it, to enforce the regulations that do exist. During the debate this evening there has been talk about deaths of people, and I notice that quite recently there was a horrendous fire in Hove which has been the subject of an investigation. The fire took place in one of those buildings which have been converted into flats and, apparently, there was no means of exit at the rear of the property. The barrister who was responsible for the inquiry said afterwards: The trend in national and local guidance on fire safety has been away from insisting on external escapes in buildings of this size, in favour of protecting the internal stairway as the escape route from fires which are presumed to originate within the units of accommodation, not within the common stairway and entrance hall". I may say that such precautions included fireproof doors to flats and fireproof dividing lobbies. The barrister continued: Such measures do not, however, provide a means of escape in the case of a fire maliciously started in the common stairwell". That apparently is what happened in this case, and unfortunately a number of people were trapped on an upstairs floor and lost their lives. The barrister concluded that more money and time should be spent by central and local government on enforcing fire regulations. I am sure we would all agree with that.

I should like to ask the noble Viscount what consultations took place before the regulations were changed, with whom, and with what result. I think that what the Fire Brigades Union has to say is important. Firefighters are constantly at risk. The job they do is inherently hazardous, and they know that. The Government should therefore be prepared to listen carefully to what they have to say.

8.58 p.m.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, for asking this Question about the differences between building regulations in the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. It has given us the opportunity today to look at what these are and why they exist.

For historical and legal reasons, the three parts of the country have their own systems of building control. The England and Wales regulations are made under the Building Act 1984; the Building Standards (Scotland) Regulations are made under the Building Standards (Scotland) Act 1959; and the Northern Ireland Regulations are made under the Building Regulations (Northern Ireland) Order 1979. New building regulations came into effect in England and Wales on 1st June. Scotland introduced new regulations in 1991, and they and Northern Ireland are working to introduce revised regulations soon.

The requirements of the regulations under all three systems are expressed in functional terms. This means that they set out the broad objectives in quite general terms. For example, on the subject of conservation of fuel and power, all three regulation systems require that, reasonable provision shall be made for the conservation of fuel and power in the building. However, there is an important difference between the system in England and Wales and the systems in the other two countries. This is in the way that these broad functional requirements are translated into the technical detail to which designers and enforcing authorities work. The England and Wales approach is based on technical guidance, whereas the others set specific technical standards. The guidance is given in a series of documents approved for the purpose by the Secretary of State, and known as approved documents. There is an approved document for each aspect of the functional requirements of the regulations, including one on fire safety. This guidance is not mandatory and designers are able to depart from it, or use an entirely different approach, provided that the enforcing authority is content that the functional requirements are satisfied.

Although, as I have said, the regulations in Scotland and Northern Ireland also express the requirements in functional terms, compliance is achieved by conforming to specific technical standards or by following provisions which are deemed to satisfy the requirement.

Building designers want to know precisely what they have to do to satisfy regulations, and they want freedom to do something quite different when circumstances demand it. Unfortunately, those two demands are mutually exclusive. Regulations that allow significant flexibility tend to introduce uncertainty; but if regulations are highly specific in their requirements, they create a rigid, inflexible system. Any system of regulation is a compromise between flexibility and certainty. The balance in the England and Wales approach is towards flexibility, while the other systems tend more towards the objective of certainty.

Harmonisation of the technical content of the regulations was one of the objectives of the major review which preceded the publication of the new documents for England and Wales. Considerable progress has been made; but the process is not complete.

One impediment to harmonisation is the fact that building regulations are a moving target and have to be kept under review. One example from the fire safety area of the change with which regulations must keep pace has been the appearance of multi-user shopping complexes, in which all the public spaces are linked by covered malls and atrium spaces.

Lord Howie of Troon

My Lords, the noble Viscount talks of harmonisation. I assume that he means harmonisation within the United Kingdom. He must be aware that there is a concept of harmonisation within the European Community. He must also be aware that to harmonise the English rules with Europe will mean a move towards Scotland and not away from it.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, to clarify that matter, I was talking about harmonisation within the United Kingdom.

The reviews of regulations have been made on different timetables with the result that Scotland, say, may be starting a review, while England and Wales are finishing one off. This means that it takes some time for one set of regulations to catch up with another.

Where Northern Ireland is concerned, this catching-up cycle will soon be complete. The DoE Northern Ireland has already consulted on new fire regulations, and should be producing new regulations fairly soon which, although not in the same requirement-plus-guidance format as those for England and Wales, will be the same in technical content, so far as the different format permits.

The noble Lord, Lord Howie, asked me for an assurance on the forthcoming Scottish review. The Scottish Office is expected to consult on revised fire regulations this year which will include further moves towards harmonisation. The proposals, not yet approved by the advisory committee, include restructuring the document to reflect the sequence of Approved Document B. They do not propose substantial changes to the periods of fire resistance or compartmentation size currently required in Scotland. Any changes resulting from that consultation are unlikely to be in force before mid-1993.

Lord Howie of Troon

My Lords, I am sorry to intervene again. Will the review relax the regulations on non-combustibility of building material?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I do not believe that it is appropriate for me to comment further on the review. It is not yet approved by the advisory committee.

As matters now stand between the regulations north and south of the Border, and leaving aside the different formats, the main differences in the fire regulations concern the following. Different criteria are used to decide the appropriate level of fire resistance and compartmentation; that is, the sub-division of buildings into fire compartments. There are requirements for three and four-hour periods of fire resistance in some instances in Scotland, where the England and Wales guidance sets a maximum of two hours. There are more onerous provisions concerning the compartmentation of basement storeys in the England and Wales guidance. The Scottish regulations require non-combustible construction in a number of instances where it is not specified in the England and Wales guidance.

Those differences will be reviewed whenever the occasion arises, but they may not necessarily be removed. It may be decided to monitor the effect of some of the changes introduced in England and Wales before adopting them in Scotland, or it may be decided that certain points are necessary to address circumstances found only in Scotland.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Gregson, that sprinkler systems have been shown to offer significant benefits to fire safety. To add sprinklers to the pre-1992 regulations would suggest that adequate safety levels have not been reached. Sprinklers fail occasionally, but the same is true of other forms of fire protection. There is clear evidence that, despite the occasional failures, the overall effect of sprinklers is to reduce significantly the loss of life.

Trade-off is allowed north and south of the Border, although it is expressed in different terms because of the different approaches to fire resistance and compartmentation. Such trade-offs are not new and there is good evidence that sprinklers reduce the likelihood of fire deaths and injuries. The new approved document on fire safety in England and Wales picks up the wider ranging concessions for sprinkler installations that first appeared in the 1990 Scottish regulations. Now Scotland has to decide whether to follow the changes in the new England and Wales document concerning fire resistance and compartmentation. Those changes attracted considerable comment and polarised opinions of various interest groups. It would be understandable if a decision was deferred until we had more experience with the new measures.

There are economic arguments for harmonisation. Designers wishing to work throughout the UK have to familiarise themselves with the differences in the regulations, as do contractors tendering for construction work. Property owners such as retail chains with a portfolio spread across the country have to adapt their practices when they cross the Borders. The Government have been conscious of all those factors and have made harmonisation one of the aims of the review of building regulations in order to relieve industry and commerce of burdensome legislation. The situation has improved and will, I believe, continue to improve.

However, it is important to stress that these are economic arguments. If one looks at the fire loss statistics one sees that there are geographic variations. The fatality rate in Scotland tends to be higher than average, but the highest rates of non-fatal fire casualties are in some of the large metropolitan boroughs in England. It is not possible to ascribe those variations to specific differences in building regulations.

As regards the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Howie, and the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, multi-seat fires, other than deliberately set fires, are most unusual. Deliberate multi-seat fires are less likely to be in occupied buildings because the perpetrator is likely to be discovered. At present they are not seen as a significant new change which could be addressed in building regulations. The situation will be monitored.

The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, asked about consultation. The preparation of new regulations both north and south of the Border involves consultation at several stages. A draft for public consultation is developed in discussions between officials, technical experts, lawyers and the panel which advises the Secretary of State on building regulation matters; that is, the Building Standards Advisory Committee in Scotland and the Building Regulations Advisory Committee in the south. At the public consultation stage comments are received from hundreds of interested individuals and organisations. Those comments are then considered before the advisory panel makes its final recommendations.

I hope that I have been able not only to explain the differences in the regulations which currently exist but also the reasons for them and the steps that are being taken to remove them. It only remains for me to thank the noble Lord, Lord Gregson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden. for their contributions to the debate and, in particular, the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, for asking the Question.