I beg to move,
That this House has considered fire safety and sprinkler systems.
It is a pleasure to see you presiding this morning, Mr Gray. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for providing time for the debate, which the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) and I requested on behalf on the all-party parliamentary fire safety rescue group. It is good to see a number of members of the group present to support the debate. I am also grateful to various organisations for their briefings, including the Library, the London Fire Brigade, the Fire Brigades Union, the National Fire Chiefs Council, the Fire Protection Association, the Business Sprinkler Alliance, the Association of British Insurers, the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.
This is the first dedicated debate on this subject since 2014, when the first ever Fire Sprinkler Week took place. Several colleagues who were present at that debate are here again today. Although this is the first dedicated fire sprinkler debate since then, sprinklers have been mentioned many times in other debates over the intervening years, not least because of the Grenfell tragedy. The all-party group has been campaigning strongly on various matters, especially since the 2013 coroner’s report on the Lakanal House fire. The four key issues are: a full review of approved document B to update building regulations and fire guidance, which is well overdue; an assessment of the progress made in deploying fire sprinklers in Scotland and Wales, which is clearly affording better protection to homes and businesses in those countries, leaving England behind; a reversal of Government guidance on fire sprinklers in new-build schools; and a requirement to install fire sprinklers in all domestic dwellings, especially new high-rise buildings, and the retrofitting of them in all high-rise buildings, especially post Grenfell. I will look at the first three briefly before focusing on the last item.
The Government are hiding behind the various inquiries after Grenfell: the public inquiry, the Dame Judith Hackitt review and the police criminal investigation. There is almost a standard response: “Let’s not anticipate their conclusions.” I say almost, because the Government did not wait to pronounce on cladding. They recognised that there was urgency and made a decision, which was a good job. That means that we do not have to wait for everything. On approved document B, the all-party parliamentary group was told in 2011 that the review would be completed and published by 2016-17. Not only was that not the case, it had not started properly, and Dame Judith is now overseeing a lot of that work.
In Scotland and Wales, better protection is now required for commercial coverage, and in Wales for domestic dwellings. On schools, last Friday the Government launched a call for evidence on “Building Bulletin 100: Design for fire safety in schools”. In 2007, the Labour Government issued revised guidance that encouraged new schools to be covered by fire sprinklers, but the coalition reversed that guidance. Whereas previously the number of new schools that were being sprinklered rose to 70%, after the coalition’s reversal that figure dropped back to 30%.
However, the main issue—the issue that I want to focus on, that is uppermost in the minds of the public, and on which the Government can take action—is the retrofitting of fire sprinklers in high-rise buildings and sprinklers in all homes. It has been well documented that sprinklers were considered for the Grenfell refurbishment at a cost of around £200,000 from an overall budget of nearly £10 million, but were not fitted. What a mistake. Had Grenfell been a new building, it would have been a requirement. If the Government think that sprinklers are needed for new buildings, why not for those already built, where the majority of people living in high-rise buildings actually reside?
Turning to the points raised by those who supplied briefings, the London Fire Brigade said that sprinklers save lives; they are not a “nice to have” or a luxury. The London Fire Commissioner, Dany Cotton, has said repeatedly that they are a “no-brainer”. They are highly effective in detecting fires, suppressing fires rapidly and raising the alarm. Sprinklers are not expensive; if included at the design stage, they can cost as little as 1% of the total build. There is also overwhelming public support for sprinklers. It is deeply concerning that in recent years, on the two occasions when the Government have reviewed sprinklers, protection has moved in the wrong direction: first, in 2013 through section 20 of the London Building Acts (Amendment) Act 1939, and secondly in 2016—resulting in less coverage, not more.
The Royal Institute of British Architects calls for a requirement for sprinklers systems in all new and converted residential buildings, as is already required in Wales, and in all existing residential buildings above 18 metres. It states that the urgency for change in building regulations is simply not as evident in England as in our neighbouring countries.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that, given the urgency, the retrofitting of sprinklers should be a priority for the Government, and that they should not wait for any outcomes of reviews? There is overwhelming evidence that we need to act now.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, for whom I have some affection, having been an operational firefighter in Battersea for 13 years. I will come back to her point later, because it is central to the issue that I am raising.
The ABI states that in the UK no one has ever died from a fire in a fully sprinklered building. It recommends that sprinkler systems be fitted by qualified engineers, using accredited systems and equipment, to a recognised standard. The ABI has also commented on sprinklers in warehouses, care homes, schools and high-rise buildings.
The National Fire Chiefs Council wants sprinklers to become a requirement in all new high-rise residential structures above 18 metres, and wants student accommodation to be included. It says that where high-rise residential buildings exceed 30 metres, there should be a requirement to retrofit sprinklers when those buildings are scheduled to be refurbished—and should be retrofitted regardless of future refurbishment plans where such buildings are served by a single staircase.
Back in 2014, we debunked the myths about fire sprinklers as depicted in TV adverts, drama productions and movies. The issue of cost has also been successfully challenged; the cost has been shown to be much less than was claimed by opponents. The tragedy of Grenfell is screaming out for Government action. To delay further is an abdication of responsibility at best, and criminally irresponsible at worst.
In 2014, the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler), who is now the Housing Minister, said:
“I am proud to be an ambassador for the Derbyshire fire and rescue service…I am delighted to tell everybody in today’s debate that my local council, South Derbyshire…will be building new council housing because of the changes to housing funding, and because of that, it will be installing sprinklers in all the new council houses and council properties that it builds in future.”—[Official Report, 6 February 2014; Vol. 575, c. 181WH.]
If it is good enough for South Derbyshire, why not for the rest of England? In the same debate, the then Fire Minister, the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), proudly claimed that fire deaths were continuing to fall. Sadly, that is not the case now.
The Government, local authorities and housing associations that rent in the public sector should, as a matter of urgency, agree to install sprinklers as soon as possible in all their housing stock. All private rented accommodation should start planning to fit sprinklers in all new builds and during all refurbishments. Without sprinklers, some 300 people will die and thousands will be traumatised each year in domestic fires. Although most casualties occur in ones, twos or family groups, there is no guarantee that there will not be another Grenfell. The long period of fewer fires and fewer deaths has plateaued over the last five years, with cuts the most likely explanation.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. He mentioned the Housing Minister, the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler). The chief fire officer for Derbyshire is the lead officer for the National Fire Chiefs Council, which proposed unanimously that fire sprinklers be fitted urgently, without us awaiting the full completion of the consultation on approved document B. If all our fire officers are saying that, should the Government not go ahead?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point, which I shall come back to in a moment.
Things that the Government can do to check the plateauing of deaths in fires include stopping any further cuts to the fire service, funding it appropriately, restoring the guidance on sprinklers in new schools, accelerating the review of approved document B and publishing it as soon as possible. However, the most urgent focus should be on fire sprinklers in homes, especially in high-rise buildings.
In one of my first meetings as fire Minister in 2005 or 2006, a senior civil servant advised me, “There’s room for a brave decision here, Minister.” I said that I recognised that as a line from “Yes, Minister” and told them to go away and bring back something else. Minister, there is room here not only for a brave decision, for a common-sense, pragmatic decision and for the right decision, but—most importantly—for a decision that saves lives.
The majority of people who die in fires are the old, the young, the poor, the sick or the vulnerable. Sprinklers are needed to improve fire safety in the UK’s buildings. The NFCC, the ABI, the FPA, the London Fire Brigade, the FBU, RIBA, RICS and the public all support them. The Government need a win, and this is an opportunity.
Order. A glance round the Chamber shows that plenty of hon. Members wish to speak. I do not really believe in time limits, but if colleagues could honourably restrict themselves to four or five minutes each, it would be a courtesy.
As always, Mr Gray, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I declare an interest as a former firefighter, a former member of the FBU—I think technically I might still be one—and a former fire Minister when responsibility for fire was first brought into the Home Office.
Not all of what we ask today is in the Minister’s gift. Personally, I think that the fire Minister should have much more control over building regulations. When the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and I were firemen many years ago, most fire prevention work was done in-house in the fire service; I remember quite junior officers going away for up to two years to become fire prevention officers. Long before the terrible Grenfell disaster, we spent years and years, under numerous Governments, discussing whether we should have sprinklers in the home. As the hon. Gentleman says, the people who die in fires tend to be the most vulnerable. That is a national catastrophe.
Sprinklers have changed enormously over the years, from the drenching sprinklers that swamped everything to get the fire out and destroyed nearly everything apart from people’s lives, to the very fine particulate sprinklers that we have now, which create more of a mist. The need to protect environments as well as lives is much more obvious now, and the new sprinklers do that.
I support all the calls being made. I do not think that we need to wait for this or that report, because it is blatantly obvious, as old-fashioned common sense tells us, that there is a strong correlation between sprinklers and lives saved. As we have heard, where sprinklers have been installed, no lives have been lost. I do not want to say too much about Grenfell, but there is a strong possibility that the fire started inside the building and then spread to the outside and the cladding. A sprinkler system is inside, not outside. Quite simply, if the fire had never got to the cladding in the first place, the situation would almost certainly have been very different.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
May I make a tiny bit of progress first, because of the time constraints that we are quite rightly under? It is fantastic to see so many colleagues here.
It is obvious common sense to have sprinklers in all new housing. Interestingly enough, they not only save lives but make insurance premiums go down. As with other types of insurance, such as telematics in car insurance, we have driven the industry to say, “If you install this, things could be better and your premiums could be lower.” Sprinklers also matter to developers choosing to buy properties in a certain area. Surely they must be the way forward. I will come on to social housing in a second, but let me first give way to my hon. Friend.
I support the point made by my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) about the need for sprinklers. My right hon. Friend mentions the spread of fire. Does he recognise that the Grenfell tragedy could have been averted if the spread of fire by combustible cladding outside the building had been prevented? At current rates of progress, it will take five years to remediate all the private sector buildings in the UK. [Interruption.] The Minister shakes his head, but that is the current rate of progress. Where ownership or responsibility is unclear, does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government should step in and provide a fund to allow remediation work to take place more quickly?
I am sure that the Minister will respond to my hon. Friend’s point. Obviously we would like to see people sleeping in homes that are safe, and the faster that happens, the better. I am sure that the Minister feels exactly the same.
If the Government do not take action on sprinklers, they are really saying that property is more important than people’s lives. They may say that the costs are high or that the developers do not want sprinkler systems, but actually we have found that installing them in all new builds and major refurbishments would cost less than 1% of the build cost—not the retail value, the build cost. I cannot understand anyone in the 21st century arguing against installing sprinklers in all new properties. The insurers insist on it in most commercial and retail properties, and surely lives are more important.
As an ex-fireman and ex-Minister, I know the advice that the Minister has been getting, but he needs to turn round and say, “I am afraid that some of that advice is tosh.” The cost implications are there. New build could start tomorrow and refurbishment costs can be met. Now that we are building more social housing than ever—in my constituency we are building like wildfire, because we need more council houses—surely the Local Government Association could bring councils together to say that sprinklers should be installed.
I will not go into carbon monoxide and smoke detectors, but the successes in that area have caused a sudden drop in fatalities. We need to do more work on carbon monoxide, but this debate is about sprinklers. Sprinklers need to be in everybody’s homes as soon as possible.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), the secretary of the all-party fire safety rescue group, on initiating and leading this extremely important debate in the light of the atrocity at Grenfell Tower nearly two years ago. I also thank the group’s chair, the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), for his leadership over the past 20 years. I was delighted to be appointed as a vice-chair last year.
I am here to make a difference. First, I will challenge the resistance shown by the Government and their advisers towards the overwhelming and compelling evidence of the benefits of fire sprinklers to property and life. Their protection extends to the firefighters and other first responders to whom so many of my community owe their lives. Those who risk their lives every day to save ours also need protection.
As one of a package of fire safety measures, sprinklers work where other measures have failed. Where installed in flats, they have controlled or extinguished 100% of fires, according to research carried out by the National Fire Chiefs Council in May 2017, a month before the fire. The Building Research Establishment’s 2012 cost-benefit analysis confirmed that sprinklers are cost-effective in most blocks of purpose-built flats and in larger blocks of converted flats. Why have the Government not implemented that seven-year-old independent report? The public inquiry is reviewing what Ministers have failed to implement since the study in 2012, the coroner’s rule 43 letter in 2013 after the Lakanal House inquest, and the NFCC research. On behalf of a bereaved community, I ask the Minister to encourage the Secretary of State to push ahead with the building regulations review and, please, to act on the findings now.
Hon. Members will be aware that, following the atrocity at Grenfell, a full technical review has been instigated of approved document B, with a call for evidence. The NFCC has responded and set out its advice. I hope that hon. Members agree that it is well placed and qualified to determine the requirements and that we should support its position. All the chief fire officers in the country are saying with one voice that regulation needs to be improved, so I hope that the Government will listen to them, rather than waiting for the result of the review, and that hon. Members will support this interim measure to speed up the process and take action to protect lives against fire.
A change to guidance alone will not address this matter, as demonstrated by the approach to schools, which has guidance in the form of Building Bulletin 100. That document defines the expectation for automatic fire sprinklers in schools as a property protection, and saw the inclusion of sprinklers in 70% of new schools over three years, between 2007 and 2010, but that has since fallen to an alarmingly low level. The London Fire Brigade commissioner has said that it relates to very few schools now—only four of the 84 schools it has attended have had sprinklers.
The Hackitt report defines high-rise residential buildings in need of sprinklers as those of 30 metres, or 10 storeys. The most recent London Councils position is to support sprinklers in buildings of 18 metres, or six storeys—not just for new build, but also for retrofitting in existing buildings. It has asked that the work for council-owned buildings is funded by the Government in full. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Chartered Institute of Building have jointly called on the Government to require the installation of sprinklers in all new and converted residential buildings of 11 metres, or four storeys. RIBA has expressed its concern to me about the very high-rise buildings that currently have planning permission but are yet unbuilt, and what rules will apply to them.
Different rules govern fire safety in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but fire does not respect political or geographical boundaries. Councils, developers and social and private landlords need clarity from the Government and are demanding action now, without further confusion or delay. As one of the Grenfell survivors, who predicted the fire, has said, without action now, “Grenfell 2 is in the post”. The Government must not let that nightmare prediction come true, and must listen to the experts—the National Fire Chiefs Council, the Building Research Establishment, London Councils, RICS, RIBA, CIOB—and legislate now, to save lives.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on securing the debate. He has been a magnificent voice leading on fire safety issues in Parliament. If his voice had been listened to over the years, we would not be in the powerless state that we are at the moment.
I congratulate and thank all the members of the all-party parliamentary fire safety and rescue group. It is a wonderful group and we speak with one voice: we want sprinklers to be installed on a mandatory basis in certain buildings. If we had been listened to at the outset, there would not have been the Lakanal disaster and there would not have been the Grenfell disaster. I am in absolute despair: Ministers come and go, and yet the advice remains constant from officials and others. That advice is absolutely wrong. It has cost lives.
The debate is pertinent because changes to building regulations approved document B guidance are currently being considered following the Grenfell Tower disaster. That was nearly two years ago, but I am sure it only seems like yesterday to the hon. Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad).
I endorse everything that the hon. Gentleman says about the work of the APPG. Is the difference between us and the Government not that we have been willing to listen to expert opinion, and to take that into account when deciding the appropriate way forward? Surely, this is the time to listen to expert opinion.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We have the privilege of not just one, not just two, but three former fire Ministers here today. It is about time that the present Government listened to their expertise on the subject. I cannot think of any meeting where the APPG has not had an item on the agenda about automatic fire sprinkler protection.
We should never have got to the position of the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy, especially after the warnings and recommendations of the coroner at the Lakanal House fire inquest in 2013, and the rule 43 letter to the Secretary of State. We have all the correspondence about what the APPG was trying to do at the time.
All Governments of all colours have failed us. On 4 July 2017, the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), said that
“we may have to confront an awkward truth. That over many years and perhaps against the backdrop of, as data shows, a reduced risk in terms of fire, in terms of number of incidents and deaths, that maybe as a system some complacency has crept in.”
Well, I think that is what Dame Judith Hackitt feels about the situation, and we will just have to see how that pans out. Claims of complacency could never be aimed at the APPG.
In 2012, the Building Research Establishment updated its 2006 research into the cost-benefit analysis of installing residential fire sprinklers and concluded that sprinklers are cost-effective for most blocks of purpose-built flats, all residential care homes, including those with single bedrooms, and traditional bedsit-type houses in multiple occupation, where there are at least six bedsit units per building and the costs are shared. The APPG has consistently asked why the Government have not reflected those changes in its guidance in approved document B. The intransigence is absolutely unacceptable.
I say again: the advice has been totally wrong. The APPG, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the London Fire Brigade, the Fire Protection Association, the National Fire Chiefs Council, the Fire Sector Federation, the Association of British Insurers and many others cannot all be wrong on this issue, but the advisers are still giving the wrong advice.
In March 2013, the Southwark coroner issued a rule 43 letter to the Secretary of State for the then Department of Communities and Local Government following the Lakanal House inquest, which stated:
“Evidence adduced at the inquests indicated that retro fitting of sprinkler systems in high rise residential buildings might now be possible at lower cost than had previously been thought to have been the case, and with modest disruption to residents. It is recommended that your Department encourage providers of housing in high rise residential buildings containing multiple domestic premises to consider the retro fitting of sprinkler systems.”
The response from DCLG was lamentable. It said that
“any fire safety measures which might need to be implemented or installed in any particular building will need to be determined primarily by a careful assessment of the life-risk to the residents and others in the building.”
We know that. The word used in the letter is “encourage”.
At the Lakanal House coroner’s inquests in March 2013, the London Fire Brigade commissioner was asked by the barrister assisting the coroner whether, if sprinklers had been installed, the lives would have been saved. The commissioner replied with an unequivocal yes. That is what happened at the inquiry. What happened at Grenfell is an absolute disgrace.
The National Fire Chiefs Council commissioned a research study by Optimal Research collecting data on five years of real fires that had occurred in the UK where sprinklers had been installed. Its findings, published last year, showed that, on 99.5% of occasions in all buildings and in 100% of occasions in flats, fires were avoided when sprinklers were installed. Sprinklers are not a panacea; they are only one of a package of measures. I am sure the Minister may make some remarks along those lines, but sprinklers can be used to make properties safe from fire.
Let me close by giving an estimated progress report on the retrofitting of automatic fire sprinkler protection in residential tower blocks. I am advised by organisations that manufacture automatic fire sprinkler systems that an estimated 1,000 towers have commenced or committed to installing sprinklers in existing tower blocks as a consequence of the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy. Already, Wales and Scotland are much further ahead in regulating for automatic fire sprinklers in their built environment. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister, who is a good and wise man: this nonsense can no longer go on and we will not accept it. We want action on this, and we want sprinklers to be installed retrospectively, particularly in all new school buildings.
I will try to keep my remarks brief, as there is a lot of pressure on time. I am delighted to participate in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Members for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and for Southend West (Sir David Amess) on bringing the debate forward. The Grenfell tragedy has brought the whole issue of fire safety sharply into focus and forced us all to re-examine and re-evaluate building regulations to ensure that they are fit for purpose and properly adhered to.
Building regulations are devolved, and the Scottish Government have responded extensively. The Scottish Housing Minister, Kevin Stewart MSP, has announced that amendments to the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987 are being brought forward. In addition to other fire safety measures, regulations will ensure that sprinkler installation is mandatory in flatted accommodations, large multi-occupancy dwellings and places that deliver care. We must do all we can on fire safety; there is no room for complacency in any part of the United Kingdom. We must make the improvements necessary and monitor them to ensure they are fit for purpose.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse, among others, made an impassioned case for sprinklers. The case was very well made. We know there is a correlation between sprinklers and reducing fatalities in fires. The fire at Grenfell taught us all a lot in many different ways, both about fire safety and about the kind of society we are trying to build. Most importantly, every single person is entitled—as a right—to the same high levels of fire safety protection. Homes, schools and hospitals must all be as resilient to fire as we can possibly make them. In Scotland, we have had the tragedy of the fire at the Glasgow School of Art—twice—which is still being investigated. There may be a public inquiry into it, so I limit my comments on that.
As we have heard, sprinklers are not expensive and are not an added extra. They are essential for building safety and public safety. We must all be vigilant on this issue. In the face of such a tragedy as Grenfell, we should all be humble and see what lessons can be learnt for the future, so that a tragedy on that scale is never allowed to happen again. I urge the Minister to heed the conclusion of the National Fire Chiefs Council:
“Standards in England must be enhanced and brought in line with national policy in Scotland and Wales with regard to water suppression systems.”
I take no pleasure in saying that. I believe that all people, right across the United Kingdom, are equally entitled to the highest safety standards. Today we have seen impatience in the Chamber at the lack of action. I look forward to hearing the Minister say that he will listen to the national fire chiefs and Members in this Chamber, and that all necessary improvements, especially sprinklers, will be implemented as soon as possible, so that the highest safety standards are reached and maintained for the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on securing this debate. He is a champion for addressing fire safety issues. With his lifetime of experience in this field, we should all listen very carefully to what he says. However, we should not be having this debate. Action to address the issues that we are raising should have been taken a very long time ago. A failure to do this has meant that lives have been lost and firefighters have been asked to take unnecessary risks.
On 14 July 2010, Wessex Foods—a large food processing factory on the south Lowestoft industrial estate—burnt down. No one was hurt, but 150 people lost their jobs. Nearby businesses were disrupted for days and weeks. Residents were evacuated from their homes and there were significant environmental impacts, such as the odour from rotting meat and 50 million litres of water being used to tackle the fire. It took 10 days to extinguish the fire, during which time almost every firefighter in Suffolk attended the scene. If sprinklers had been fitted at Wessex Foods, the firefighters from the nearby Stradbroke Road station would have been back there within an hour.
I first took part in a fire sprinklers debate in early 2011. My ask at the time was very simple: the overwhelming evidence and support for the widespread use of sprinklers should be taken into account in the review on part B of the building regulations, which was due to start in 2013. It is completely wrong that the review is taking place only now. The time for talking has gone, and we need action.
Back in 2012, the various property and professional bodies were not all fully engaged. They are now, and they speak with one voice. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, of which I used to be a member, the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Chartered Institute of Building are all calling for building regulations to be harmonised across the four home nations; for sprinklers to be installed in all new and converted residential buildings, hotels, hospitals, student accommodation, schools and care homes of 11 metres or above in height; and for retrofitting to existing buildings when refurbishment occurs as
“a ‘consequential improvement’ where a building is subject to ‘material alterations’”.
The insurance industry is also calling for action, proposing that sprinklers should be compulsory in warehouses under 2,000 square metres and in new-build schools and care homes.
We have kicked this particular can down the road for too long, with devastating consequences. We now need action, and I urge the Minister to acknowledge this and to provide a suitable roadmap in his summing up.
I will keep my remarks brief. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick)—as has just been said, he speaks with enormous authority on this matter and the Government should listen.
Like many of our cities, Sheffield has seen a huge growth in high-rise developments in recent years. They are largely privately owned developments, and many are for students. I am grateful that my hon. Friend highlighted the need to include purpose-built student accommodation in the requirements for sprinklers. Many of the developments are for other purposes—mainly for rent, although some are for owner-occupation. There are complex ownership arrangements between developers and the owners of the freehold, and there are complex leasehold and management agreements. The people who live in them look to the local authority to guarantee their safety, and it is a responsibility that Sheffield City Council is keen to respond to. It acted unilaterally, without financial support, to retrofit sprinklers in its own properties after the Grenfell disaster, and it wants to go further on private sector properties.
When the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government wrote to local authority chief executives in March 2018 to say it was
“vitally important that we identify any remaining private high rise blocks with potentially unsafe ACM cladding”
and to offer funding, the council was quick to respond. It put together a plan to compile a comprehensive register of all high-rise accommodation, set out ownership and management details, provide information on construction and materials used, and undertake a risk assessment and outline what was needed to make the property safe, including sprinkler systems. It would have cost just £740,000 over two years, but the Government offered just 5% of that cost from the money that had been set aside. Recognising that councils have faced disproportionate cuts—Sheffield has lost around 60% of its funding from central Government—does the Minister think that providing only 5% support for that work was adequate?
Sprinklers are key to saving lives when fires start, but we need to remove the risk of them starting in the first place. The Minister will be aware of the formation of the UK Cladding Action Group to voice the concerns of people who own flats in tower blocks with ACM cladding. It was reported in the last couple of days that only 10 of the 173 private buildings that were discovered to have combustible cladding have been fixed—this point was raised by the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) a moment ago. The barrier to action appears to be disputes over the funding and responsibility for the work.
Among the blocks affected is Metis Tower in my constituency. Residents there face a bleak future. One of those who contacted me, William Martin, summed up his situation in a plea to the Secretary of State:
“I’m a first time buyer stuck with a property covered in failed cladding. The freeholder is denying responsibility and the developers have ceased trading. I’m currently living out a nightmare and facing financial ruin. I and many others desperately need your help.”
A company called HomeGround represents the freeholder, Adriatic, and says that it is not the landlord and is therefore not responsible. It points fingers at the property management company, Fairways, which says that it is awaiting legal clarification on who is responsible. The suggestion is that the responsibility for the re-cladding will fall on those who own the flats, who face individual bills of upwards of £20,000 each. That is a disgrace—the residents cannot afford those sums. William says that he cannot get rid of the property or move on when he wants to, and that frankly, he feels trapped in a prison. That is not acceptable. If someone buys a dishwasher that is found to be faulty because of a fire risk, we put safety first: the product is recalled and the manufacturer takes responsibility. If that is good enough for domestic products, why is it not good enough for the homes that house them?
I recognise that some developers and freeholders accept responsibility, but others do not. The Government must act. We need first to make the building safe, and we need to make sure that the individual residents who own the flats do not foot the bill. The Government should hold the developers and freeholders to account. If the law is not currently up to the task, we need to change it. I hope that the Minister will outline what action the Government will take in that respect.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) for securing this important debate. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), I declare an interest: I was a member of the Fire Brigades Union for 31 years and I think I am a fully paid-up out-of-trade member as I speak.
Experience over decades has shown that sprinkler systems, whether stand-alone or as part of other fire protection measures, are designed to contain or extinguish fire, and are certainly adept at reducing the spread of fire, if not altogether preventing it. They are a valuable asset for buildings with high occupancy numbers and potentially protracted evacuation times. Those of us who have experience as emergency responders know that despite exit signage, calculations of flow rates, widths of exit routes and so on, public behaviour in an emergency situation is often unpredictable. Sprinklers are also a life-saving asset in domestic dwellings.
A properly installed, acceptance-tested and maintained sprinkler system affords reliable protection for occupiers and, equally importantly, firefighters, in the unfortunate event of a fire breaking out, and brings reassurance to the insurers of the buildings and individuals. The difficulty in bringing the public and developers on board is the mistaken perception that sprinkler systems drive up prices to a horrendous level. That is not the case; it is a myth. Such installations account for a small percentage increase in the cost of a property—estimated at around 1%—but what is the price of life? Surely, lives are priceless.
There is also wariness about accidental water damage should the system fail and inappropriately discharge, but that is a very rare occurrence. A popular misconception is that all sprinkler heads in a building could suddenly activate rather than it being generally limited to the compartment of origin. In many instances, a single sprinkler head activates—perhaps with a neighbouring one—and the damage is minimal. We should bear in mind that fire water run-off from firefighters’ hoses—as my colleagues who worked in the fire service will know—has the potential to inflict much greater water damage, and has done so in the past.
Reliable and responsive installations are now seen as preferable to, or at least complementary to, large-scale offensive firefighting in buildings where, because of changes in construction methods and increased use of artificial materials, generated heat levels are absolutely unbelievable because of the additional fire loading, which is much greater than in my days of firefighting. A sprinkler system potentially reduces the heat release rate and the danger of flashover, to which all firefighters are vulnerable when they enter an ignited building. Sprinkler systems also prolong air quality by slowing down the accumulation of smoke—smoke alone can be the killer, not necessarily the fire itself. All that is particularly important given that the compartment of origin is frequently and sadly the locus where fire fatalities are found.
The future lies with investment in research and development so that fire engineering prevails as the first line of defence against fire to save life, with operational firefighting the last resort. There are many examples at home and abroad of sprinkler systems saving lives. In 2011, a building in Dubai became the world’s tallest residential building, and was referred to, oddly enough, as the Torch. It hit the headlines again in 2015 when a fire broke out and took hold on the 50th floor of the 79-floor structure. What an impossible task for the firefighters to deal with—it was quite unbelievable. The safe evacuation of that massive residential structure was down to passive and active measures, including the successful operation of a sprinkler system, which allowed containment of the fire and the safe evacuation of individuals.
Nearer to home, in Wales, the Building Regulations &c. (Amendment No. 3) and Domestic Fire Safety (Wales) Regulations 2013 introduced a requirement to fit automatic fire suppression systems in residences before first occupation. The regulations covered care homes and rooms used for certain residential purposes and dwellings. In Scotland, sprinkler systems are already mandatory in certain circumstances and will be extended to new flats in 2019. That is the welcome result of the work of a Scottish ministerial working group, which was set up after the Grenfell tragedy. Regrettably, England appears to be falling behind its neighbours
Most studies over the years have concluded that sprinklers lead to a much lower or zero death rate, particularly in residential buildings, and I urge the Minister to consider any measures that would reinforce such a reduction and support enhanced life safety. Sprinklers are a natural progressive partner to detection. We have seen the success of smoke detectors. As has been said, it is simply common sense that the natural progression is with sprinklers.
The need for sprinklers is not a whim; it an evidence-based common-sense approach. Let us act now to further reduce the risk of fire deaths and to secure a safer operational environment for our firefighters. Every fire authority has a responsibility and a duty of care for those people and we can make their high-risk job that bit safer. I ask the Minister to act now, in the light of the clear need for sprinklers, to drive that forward, for the safety of individuals and of firefighters, and to secure properties and allow businesses to avoid being badly impacted by the ravages of fire.
I thank and congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on securing a Westminster Hall debate on the critical issue of fire safety and sprinkler systems. He has shown that he is at the forefront of the pursuit of the matter. I do not say this to give him a big head, but the honest truth is that his expertise and knowledge have allowed him to express the key points that he feels need to be addressed. We are fortunate to have the opportunity to back him and further reinforce those points.
We do not have the legislation that I would like in Northern Ireland. We are similar to England in that respect. How I envy the regulations that were introduced in Scotland in 2006, and in Wales in 2016. I often say that Scotland very often leads the way in many things, and it has certainly led the way on this issue, for which we must give credit where it is due—Scotland deserves that. Unfortunately we have a difference of opinion when it comes to the referendum, but that is by the bye. None the less, I recognise good when I see it.
The key in safety is whether something will save lives. Will sprinklers save lives? Yes, they will. Should they be in every apartment block? Yes, they should, but they are not, and they should never be viewed as a “nice to have” or a luxury.
There has been a lot of discussion on that point today; some have mentioned that this debate has been going on since 2011. If there are to be new regulations and procedures, surely the role of this House is to fast-track any legislation, so that we will not be sat here in the same circumstances in another two or three years.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He reinforces a point made by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse, who said very clearly that we do not want to be sat here in a few years’ time having the same discussions, not having moved forward. As always, we look to the Minister and hope for positivity in his response.
Sprinklers are not the panacea for fire safety, but the evidence base tells us that they can have an impact on fires as part of fire safety measures. They are part of the compendium of fire safety measures that we need. They protect the environment from large emissions, smoke and volumes of contaminated water. I am not the only one who watches many films on TV—others have mentioned this—but in films where an actor appears after the sprinkler system has been on, it looks as though he has dipped himself in a pool of water, and all the stock is ruined. The fact is, however, that sprinkler systems today are not like that. They use 90% less water than hoses, thereby reducing and preventing costly water damage. Sprinkler systems are therefore constructive and positive, and can do their job well. Sprinklers are not expensive if they are included at the design stage, costing as little as 1% of the total build. That is the time to put such systems in—not later on, but at the very beginning. According to the latest poll, the general public want them in their buildings, so we have to respond to what we are being told.
Where are we now? Self-regulation is the norm, but is clearly not working. The fire brigade has asked Government to step up and step in. Also, we cannot ignore the campaign of the National Fire Chiefs Council, which is asking for a new UK-wide regulatory system for sprinkler systems, which are essential. We should consider the know-how of the fire personnel whom we rely on to put fires out. The fact that this is their campaign and their initiative underlines its importance.
Housing developers are consistently ignoring expert advice on sprinklers, every year, including in large projects. In 2016, in the last survey of new or refurbished buildings, only two out of the 15 blocks checked had sprinklers fitted. Again, that underlines important shortfalls. The advice given to developers is apparently disregarded, so regulations need to be brought in and enforced, as my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse and others have emphasised. That is where councils and local authorities can fulfil an important role quickly.
In a briefing I received, an example was given of a balcony fire. It took hold of not just one apartment block, but five, in a very short time. This illustrates the importance of sprinklers: within the 19 minutes between the call and the fire engines arriving, the fire had been controlled by the newly installed sprinkler system. I thank the Lord for that; it illustrates what sprinklers can do in the right place—they did the fire brigade’s work. That is what they were tasked to do, and it went well.
What do we need? We need sprinklers to be fitted into all residential care homes and sheltered accommodation, and existing homes should be refurbished to include them. Often such flats or apartments house people with mobility or health issues, who could suffer fatal or life-changing injuries. That also applies to schools, because the safety of our children is important. We need stringent controls. A change to our rules and regulations is needed for hotels, student accommodation, warehouses, historical buildings and deep-base complexes. The debate has given us a chance to air the issues, and I am happy to be part of that. I look to the Minister for his response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and to follow so many Members who are experts in this field. In particular, I thank the all-party group, which I have been a member of for some years. I have learned an extraordinary amount, especially from the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) and my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick). I will do my best to follow those contributions.
As we have heard, there is a great deal of consensus not just in this Chamber but among experts with an interest in this field—the insurance industry, fire safety professionals, including the London Fire Brigade, local government in London and England, architects and surveyors. We have also heard about the good practice in the devolved Administrations, which are substantially ahead of England. This very much seems to be an English problem now.
The first point is that, as many Members have indicated, sprinkler systems work. According to the London Councils briefing for today,
“automatic fire suppression systems…operate on 94 per cent of occasions and when they do operate they extinguish or contain the fire on 99 per cent of occasions. They reduce fire injuries and fire damage by 80 per cent. They also reduce the environmental impact and the economic cost of fire.”
Also, as has been said, no one has ever died from a fire in a fully sprinklered building.
The relatively minimal cost—1% of build costs—of installing sprinklers has also been mentioned. In addition, as the London Fire Brigade reminds us, sprinkler systems on average use 90% less water than hoses, and can prevent costly water damage. Introducing such systems seems to be a bit of a no-brainer.
I can think of two examples from my constituency. In 2012, opposite the BBC Television Centre, we had a major fire in the Dairy Crest warehouse, which had a huge amount of combustible material in it—explosive material, too. It needed 15 fire engines and 75 firefighters. I think about the unnecessary risk to the lives of firefighters on such occasions. In 2016, a year before the Grenfell Tower fire, there was a major fire in Shepherd’s Court, overlooking Shepherd’s Bush Green. There were fortunately no casualties, but there was a full evacuation of the building. Six flats were substantially damaged by fire, but I think another 20 were substantially damaged by water. The consequence of fires, even when successfully extinguished without injury, is often huge costs and disruption to people’s lives over many years.
All that indicates the way in which we ought to be moving, and where we hope to see the Minister moving us. However, I have one other point to make, which is also made by London Councils:
“While…sprinkler systems are very important, it is important to point out that they are not a substitute for a holistic, whole buildings, risk-based approach to fire safety.”
The Royal Institute of British Architects makes four recommendations on where it thinks fire safety should be going. They will not be a panacea and cover everything, but looking at those four areas will go far towards reducing risk. No. 1 on the list is sprinklers—
“a requirement for sprinklers/automatic fire suppression systems in all new and converted residential buildings…and in all existing residential buildings above 18m from ground level”,
as already required in Wales.
The other three recommendations are equally or more important. One is alternative means of escape. Buildings, including in my constituency, are still given planning consent although they have only a single means of escape—blocks that in effect replicate Grenfell Tower: 20-storey blocks of flats with a single means of escape—and that is purely for commercial reasons. It should not be tolerated.
The third recommendation is for centrally addressable fire alarms. That deals with the stay-put policy and what happens when it fails. Is there a fail-safe method of warning people when a building needs to be evacuated?
The fourth recommendation, which will come as no surprise to the Minister, is an extended ban on the use of combustible cladding. That is not the main topic today, but it is one that we return to time and again, because the Government’s measures are wholly inadequate. We have taken a long time to deal just with the issue of aluminium composite material cladding, and the Government are only now getting on to other forms of cladding, often more combustible than ACM, that are estimated to be on more than 340 high-rise buildings out there. Even the ban on use for new build or refurbishment projects is inadequate. It does not cover hotels, office buildings or lower-rise buildings used by vulnerable people, such as hospitals and care homes. Until we have a comprehensive approach not only to fire safety generally but to the removal and installation of cladding systems—not just cladding, but cladding and installation together—we are not seriously tackling the problem, or seriously dealing with the legacy of Grenfell.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Gray.
I thank all hon. Members who have spoken today. It is good to see such comprehensive agreement in a Westminster Hall debate that action must be taken, and on what that action must be. I was struck in particular by the comments of the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) who talked about “unacceptable” intransigence, “lamentable” action and all Governments failing in this respect. I urge the Minister to listen carefully to what everyone said this morning. It is absolutely clear that there is no difference of opinion among people whose differences of opinion are usually vast. Everyone has agreed on the action that needs to be taken. I will not diverge from that.
I pay tribute to the people affected by Grenfell; their strong reaction inspires us all to do more and to do better. The hon. Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad) spoke movingly on behalf of her constituents and urged the Minister to act on the evidence. We need to keep up the pressure and momentum. If we let people down, more people will die or be injured as a result of further fires.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), a former Minister no less, has great expertise on this matter and is diligent in ensuring that the House never forgets the risks of fire. I have never been a firefighter like some Members in the debate, but I served as a councillor for a while, with the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), on the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service board. In June 2007, it did a demo of how sprinklers could stop fires. I was struck by the damage of a burnt-out husk of a room, compared with the minimal damage from sprinklers.
The myths about the cost and how the systems work continue, but the evidence is that they cause far less damage and harm than a fire burning an entire house, room or building. We must take heed of the changing development of sprinkler systems, as the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) mentioned. They have developed over the years. They are not the same systems as once existed but are very sophisticated. There is no barrier other than willpower to get them into buildings as soon as possible.
The Scottish building regulations are robust; the Scottish Government took prompt action following the Grenfell tragedy to improve existing legislation. The ministerial working group on building and fire safety did not hang around; it got on with the job, looked comprehensively at everything and came forward very quickly with minimum standards for smoke alarms across all kinds of property.
The minimum requirements will be that at least one smoke alarm will be installed in the room most frequently used, such as the living room; at least one smoke alarm will be in every circulation space on each storey, such as hallways and landings; at least one heat alarm will be installed in every kitchen; and all alarms should be ceiling mounted and interlinked. That is a huge difference, and it will apply to all properties from 2021, including in the private rented sector and new build homes. It is important that that change is comprehensive, because if we leave one housing sector behind, that is where the risk will remain. Often, that means people in poorer accommodation, who cannot access their rights and are most at risk of dying in fires.
Our response has been far more extensive than what has taken place in England. We will make sprinkler installation mandatory in flatted accommodation, larger multi-occupancy dwellings and places that deliver care. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) mentioned that we need to look at single means of escape. We are looking at measures to improve evacuation procedures, including the requirement for sound alerts, two escape stairways in all new high-rise residential buildings, and creating specific fire safety guidance for the people in dwellings, because people need to know that the flat they live in now might be different from the flat they used to live in. They need to know how to react.
Building owners and developers will be required to prepare and maintain a compliance plan for transparency about the building’s inspection regime, to both residents and regulators. That will help to maintain monitoring. As Members have said, we do not want to slip into complacency. Once a building is built, that is not the end of the story. People will live in that building for many years to come, and they need to know how best to prepare themselves.
The hon. Lady’s point is massively important. It is not just about the cost of installation; there may be a sprinkler system in a brand-new, modern house, but that has to be maintained and checked, like any gas product or anything else. Insurance companies will be important, because most insurance policies these days include pipe work and other things, so the cost should not be prohibitive, but people—and local authorities—will worry about the ongoing cost of having a sprinkler system in their property when they have to pay for it. However, the savings will be as great as the cost.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman; I was coming to the point about insurance premiums. People’s insurance premiums can be reduced if they have a burglar alarm fitted, and we need the same incentives for sprinklers. That needs to be a part of the environment, as it is for retail and commercial properties.
There is an important point about the cost of sprinkler systems. The Scottish Housing Minister, Kevin Stewart, has called for VAT to be removed from cladding. We need to look at removing VAT for sprinkler systems, too. That would be a significant saving to help people to install these items. There would be significant savings for property owners and housing associations—the full gamut of people involved in the property sector. A 20% reduction in the cost of installing something is pretty significant, and it could allow programmes to go forward more quickly than otherwise. I urge the Minister to speak to the Chancellor to see what can be done, certainly ahead of the Budget later this year, as we are probably too late for the statement later this week. That would be a real win for this Government to incentivise people to take action on cladding and sprinkler systems.
The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock spoke powerfully about firefighter safety. That has been missing from this debate. When firefighters go into those situations, they need to be kept safe. Nobody wants firefighters to lose their lives. I was interested in what the hon. Gentleman said about engineering out issues and ensuring that when new buildings are constructed, their fire safety is part of the plans from day one.
As part of my work in the all-party parliamentary group on working at height, I was having a conversation about materials used in buildings that may test well in isolation, but when put in a building become more dangerous. I urge the Minister to consider doing more to ensure that materials are testing in situ, to avoid the situation of Grenfell, where the whole of the cladding on the outside of the building went up. Testing in situ and the appreciation of the impact on materials when used in a building must be taken into account.
There are significant differences in how Scotland has defined “high rise”. The hon. Member for Kensington mentioned that it is 18 metres in England, and 11 metres in Scotland. Far more buildings will be caught by the regulations at 11 metres. Regardless of what we regard as high rise, it is important that people in bigger buildings can get out safely should there be a fire. There is a lot of student accommodation in my constituency—I was glad that the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) mentioned that issue. Students can be more vulnerable, living away from home for the first time, in accommodation that is new to them. Having sprinkler systems would be most useful.
A couple of hon. Members mentioned water damage as a result of fires being extinguished. That has been a significant issue in my constituency lately, because the O2 ABC was damaged hugely by the water from the fire being put out at the Glasgow School of Art. That water was not from the mains but from the Clyde, and had been pumped uphill to put the fire out. Extinguishing fires can cause significant damage to buildings, which in many cases could be prevented by comprehensive sprinkler systems. I urge the Minister to look at how sprinklers can be sensitively retrofitted in historic buildings. They are significant—we are in one now. We need to ensure that all buildings where the public go are well protected from fire.
There has been comprehensive agreement today. There are good examples from Scotland and Wales of how action can be taken swiftly. We should act without any further delay, before any more incidents occur and there is any further loss of life. The Minister knows what he needs to do; I very much ask him to get on and do it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on securing this debate. Given that the call for evidence on approved document B of the building regulations ends on Friday, this debate is exceptionally timely, and I hope that the Minister has listened carefully to the wise words of the secretary of the all-party fire safety rescue group. Hon. Members are clearly as one on the need for change, and that case has been made conclusively this morning.
The need for urgency percolated through everybody’s speeches. The hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) said that this “nonsense” must not go on, and the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) asked whether property is more important than people’s lives. My hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad) said that Grenfell 2 is “in the post”, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) said that we should consider the cost and that this issue is a “no-brainer”. The hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) said that we have kicked the can down the road for too long. We heard sensible arguments from all those who contributed this morning, including on the important need to protect firefighters as well as residents, and the fact that modern sprinkler systems can be installed at less cost and with less damage if they need to be used.
In 2019, we find ourselves in the sorry position of knowing that our fire safety and sprinkler regulations are woefully inadequate, and almost two years on from the Grenfell Tower fire, we are still waiting for the Government to act. Seventy-two people died in the Grenfell fire, and that fire and its aftermath exposed a litany of fire safety failures across thousands of buildings. Hundreds of blocks are draped in flammable Grenfell-style ACM cladding, and many more are covered in other types of flammable material that is as yet untested. There are tens of thousands of faulty fire doors, and a huge discrepancy in the provision of sprinklers. We also know that warnings came years earlier. The coroner’s investigation into the Lakanal House fire recommended in 2013 that sprinklers be retrofitted in social housing, and similar calls were made by members of the all- party fire safety rescue group in the same year. In 2016, a building regulations review was promised by the Government but never delivered. The London Fire Brigade stated:
“It is deeply concerning that on the two occasions in recent years when the Government has looked at reviewing sprinklers legislation or guidance it has been in the wrong direction—seeking to weaken rather than strengthen it.”
As has been said many times this morning, no one has died in a fire where a sprinkler system was installed, yet in England sprinklers are a legal requirement only in new residential blocks that are more than 30 metres tall.
Labour party research found that more than 96% of tall council tower blocks in London do not have sprinklers—a huge number. Although 3% of those blocks are now looking to install sprinklers, the vast majority have no plans to do so because they do not have funding. Installing sprinklers at Grenfell would have cost a few hundred thousand pounds. Croydon’s fully retrofitted stock post-Grenfell cost £10 million, and Birmingham has projected a cost of approximately £30 million to retrofit more than 200 blocks. Despite repeated calls from local authorities and the Prime Minister’s promise that the Government will do “whatever it takes” to keep our people safe, no funding has been provided by central Government for sprinklers. We do not pretend that these changes come without cost—of course they have a cost, but what is the price of safety? As we have heard, the rules in Scotland and Wales are more comprehensive, and a multitude of experts have called on the Government to reduce the height requirement for sprinklers, and to extend that requirement to other buildings.
The problem goes wider. Over new year, the Shurgard fire exposed our backward laws and regulations on fire safety across the board. Shurgard operates in Belgium, France, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, where sprinklers would have been required by law in a warehouse the size of the one in Croydon. In this country, however, there are no such requirements, and the property of nearly 2,000 people got burned.
I do not need to list the individuals and organisations calling for change. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith listed RIBA’s excellent four pillars for reform, including a requirement for sprinklers and automatic fire suppression systems in all existing residential buildings above 18 metres. In addition to the questions raised today, will the Minister listen to RIBA and implement its sensible set of policies? Will the Government extend their ban on flammable cladding to schools, hospitals and care homes, and introduce a requirement for sprinklers in schools and hospitals? Will they consider a fire safety fund that is available to help council and housing association landlords with the costs of retrofitting sprinklers and other urgent remedial work? Two years on from the Grenfell fire, will the Government understand the need for urgent action, get a grip on the situation and act, so that we can hold our heads up high and say that we have done what we could to stop such a tragedy happening again? There has been much talk in other places of the “Malthouse compromise”. If the Minister were to act today to prevent future deaths, we would call it anything he wanted, and we would thank him for it.
It is a great pleasure to appear before you once again, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on securing this debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), and other Members, on the formidable platoon of people who they marshal on this issue on a regular basis. As our call for evidence on the technical review of building regulations fire safety guidance is closing, I welcome this opportunity to respond to the debate.
I hope hon. Members recognise that ensuring that people are and feel safe in their homes is a priority for the Government, and that includes all parts of the Government, both elected and non-elected. Notwithstanding remarks by a number of Members about the official advice that Ministers receive, I hope people recognise that officials in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government are as dedicated to the cause of fire safety as everyone else, and that their views and the advice they give are drawn from as wide a range of experts in the field as possible. As the former member of the London Assembly responsible for the constituency that contains Grenfell Tower, it is of particular importance to me that we reach a resolution on this issue quickly.
Before coming to sprinklers, I wish to update hon. Members about wider work that is under way on fire safety. In the immediate aftermath of the terrible Grenfell fire we acted quickly to establish the building safety programme, which worked tirelessly to identify and remediate buildings with unsafe cladding. Thanks to the testing and hard work of local authorities, we are confident that we have identified all social housing with unsafe ACM cladding systems in England, and we have made good progress in making those buildings permanently safe. Of the 158 social sector buildings, 125 have either started or completed remediation, and plans and commitments are in place to remediate the remaining 33 buildings. To help ensure swift progress, we have made £400 million available to social sector landlords to fund that remediation. I regret, however, that remediation in the private sector has been more challenging, with negotiations in some instances disappointingly slow.
Since Grenfell, we have worked intensively with local authorities to identify high-rise buildings with ACM cladding, and we have provided £1.3 million to assist them. Local authorities across England have assessed around 6,000 private sector high-rise buildings. They needed to take samples to test, and in some cases legal action was required to get owners to co-operate in that testing. We have taken strong action to give local authorities the support they need to enforce the removal and replacement of unsafe cladding. We have established a taskforce to oversee the remediation of private sector buildings, as well as a joint inspection team to support local authorities in pursuing enforcement action.
On 29 November, the Government went further and announced that we will back local authorities to take emergency action, including financial support, where building owners are not co-operating with remediation. As a result, we have made progress with commitments from owners to replace unsafe cladding. By the end of December 2018, 218 out of 266 privately owned buildings had either started, completed, or committed to remediation. Forty-eight private residential buildings remain where the owners are not currently co-operating, and that number has fallen from more than 200 buildings in June last year. We remain concerned about and engaged with leaseholders who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in a difficult and stressful situation. I recently met the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse to discuss the New Providence Wharf development in his constituency.
I am really pleased, and I think all hon. Members and people around the country will be pleased about the progress made on private leasehold properties. However, no matter how hard we try, and however many threats we make, a small group will fall through the net, particularly where developers have gone into liquidation. That is exactly where the Government need to step in, sometimes with the help of insurance companies—for example, when the situation with mesothelioma was terrible and many people did not get the compensation they deserved, we stepped in and put a tariff on those insurers. All these properties will have been insured, and people should get the compensation they need.
I recognise the point that my right hon. Friend makes; he is quite right. Of the remaining private sector buildings, there are some where there is a dispute about the extent or type of cladding—whether it is thin or decorative, and what percentage of the building it covers—but there are a small number where the situation that he raises will pertain, where for reasons of absence, insolvency or intransigence we may need to take more forceful action.
I have said that if local authorities assess that there is a category 1 hazard and a threat to life in a building, they have the power to enter that building, do the necessary work and we will support them financially in doing so. In the final analysis that can be the result, but we are considering what action we can take in the circumstances that my right hon. Friend raises. I would like to reassure everybody that the Secretary of State and I, as well as senior officials, are engaged in serious and intense discussions with building owners to try and resolve these situations.
Our timber fire doors testing programme is almost complete; there have been no failed tests to date. However, we had previous issues with glass-reinforced plastic composite fire doors and we stepped in quickly to ensure that defective products were removed. My Department has been working with industry to ensure that defective doors already in situ will be remediated. We have not stopped there. While the focus on aluminium composite material cladding following the Grenfell Tower fire was the right priority, we are now moving into a phase of testing a range of non-ACM cladding, such as zinc and high-pressure laminate cladding. Those tests are starting shortly.
We will take the advice of the independent expert advisory panel on these findings and take appropriate action. At this stage I am not able to say what that might entail. It could be further advice to owners, it could mean further testing or it could mean further remediation of residential high-rise buildings if necessary. I will ensure hon. Members are kept updated on this important area of work.
Alongside the focus on remediation, my Department is taking forward the recommendations in Dame Judith Hackitt’s report. We published our implementation plan in December, which set out the principles of our approach, and a more detailed consultation is expected later in the spring.
One priority, alongside the remediation work and the recommendations in Dame Judith’s report, has been to deal with immediate issues of concern. At the end of November we introduced new regulations implementing the ban on the use of combustible materials in the external walls of high-rise buildings. These regulations are now fully in force. In December we issued strengthened guidance on assessments in lieu of tests. We consulted last year on a clarified version of the building regulations fire safety guidance, approved document B. We received more than 1,300 comments on the draft, which we have been working through. We are working towards publishing the revised, clarified guidance later in the spring.
As I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, we issued a call for evidence to inform our technical review of the fire safety guidance, which will close shortly. We have received 150 responses and I am grateful for the input of the all-party parliamentary group on fire safety to this work, which is shaping the debate. I cannot go into the full detail of what that call for evidence covered, because of time constraints, but it sets out a wide range of issues, across the full range of topics covered by approved document B, many of which have been mentioned by hon. Members today, although of course it was open to stakeholders to suggest other issues for consideration.
This debate has focussed particularly on sprinkler systems. I understand the urgency and passion with which hon. Members have expressed themselves today and I share their desire for the Government to address the issue quickly. The call for evidence asked for data and views on sprinkler provision. Current building regulations guidance sets provisions for sprinklers in flats in blocks of flats over 30 metres tall. I know that there is intense debate about what should be considered to be the right height threshold; that debate is taking place in Scotland at the moment.
I am also conscious that the Scottish and Welsh Governments have recently taken action or are about to take action on this matter. These are obviously important considerations for the position in England. Members will understand that at this stage in what is essentially a legal process, I cannot make any firm commitments beyond reinforcing the point that we will consider the responses to the call for evidence carefully. We will set out our plans for how we propose to respond to the call for evidence as soon as we can. I recognise the need for speed.
Building regulations only apply when building work is under way. There is a separate question about whether sprinkler systems should be retrofitted to existing buildings, and, if so, how and whether this should be mandated. Retrofitting of sprinkler systems into existing tower blocks may not always be the answer to ensuring fire safety. Members may have seen that there was an enormous Ocado warehouse fire in my constituency a few weeks ago. I understand that the warehouse had an extensive fire suppression and sprinkler system, and it still went up in flames. Happily, there were no casualties but nevertheless it has left about 800 of my constituents worried about their future employment.
Decisions on whether to install a fire suppression system should be informed by a robust analysis of the specifics of a building, in consultation with the fire services. It was with this in mind that my Department offered local authorities a significant package of financial flexibilities through the housing revenue account, if they undertook analysis and decided that the installation of sprinklers was the right way forward. No local authorities have taken up the offer of these flexibilities to date, but I am willing to discuss the issue with any of them who may be considering taking up the offer made.
In the future we would expect the safety case approach for existing high-risk residential buildings, as recommended by Dame Judith Hackitt and which we will be implementing, to be the vehicle for building owners to consider what risk mitigation measures, including sprinkler systems, they need to consider and put in place. In doing so, if there is pressure from residents in any particular building to provide sprinklers, then I would expect local authorities and landlords to be alive to that and consider their options carefully.
I thank hon. Members for raising this important issue and for all their contributions. It is a timely debate, given the stage we are at in considering the review of approved document B, and I can assure the House that we will consider the issues raised today very carefully. I recognise the passion and commitment Members have for this cause, particularly those in the APPG. I also recognise the concern across the country among residents who live in high-rise buildings and feel insecure, whether that is because of the cladding or the general atmosphere around fire safety. It is critical for us as a Government to get this right, and I can reassure everybody that we will give it as much energy and urgency as we possibly can.
I am grateful for your excellent chairing this morning, Mr Gray. Movers of debates usually get about 30 seconds to respond to contributions and we have several minutes. I will not take all that time, as I can see the mover of the next debate and the Minister both in their places, and they would welcome a little extra time.
On the warehouse fire the Minister mentioned, I know he will look very carefully at the report. From my understanding, the sprinklers worked and did the job they were supposed to do, but the nature of the building, the density of the packing, the depth of the warehousing and the fact the robots were still working while firefighters were there complicated the matter out of all proportion. I do not see that as a failure of sprinkler systems, which are supposed to operate for up to 90 minutes anyway. The fire took hold long after the sprinklers were turned off. I know the Minister will look at that.
I am grateful to all colleagues who spoke in the debate—we have had 12 speeches and a couple of interventions—and to the Front Benchers for their responses. I am very grateful that the Minister did not say no. I know there were a lot of qualifications, but he did not say no. The matter is complex and the Minister is highly regarded. He is a key figure in London politics and he saved Brexit single-handedly, with the Malthouse compromise, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones). It may not have been his most popular move among a number of colleagues, but none the less he takes credit for that.
The Minister is also doing sterling work on leasehold reform. I am grateful for the meeting I had with him last Thursday on the particular block in my constituency and the developer who was being intransigent. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) mentioned, we look forward to progress on cladding, remedial work, costs and protections for leaseholders in due course.
The Minister defended his civil servants, correctly. There is high regard for the civil servants in the Department and no criticism of them intended. They will give their advice on the basis of the evidence available. Support from all the key stakeholders and all the professional bodies mentioned by so many colleagues must have an impact on the advice that the civil servants give the Minister, and the Minister will weigh them up against all the factors that need to be taken into account. There has been support from across the Chamber, as well as from professionals and experts.
Most importantly, the public support the measures. The measures could be the lifesaving part of the Minister’s legacy. He is in the very fortunate position to be the one to bring forward the conclusion. If he brings these measures forward, he will be applauded across the House and by the whole fire-protection community. There will be hundreds of people whose lives will be saved by the measures he brings forward in due course. We look forward to him doing that as soon as possible.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered fire safety and sprinkler systems.