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A blow by the Court of Appeal to the forces of statutory control

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Urban myth has it that the UK is one of the most expensive places for McDonald's to build its restaurants. This is not just because prime high street sites command high prices. The extra costs are incurred in complying with the UK's stringent building regulations and other statutory controls.

Apparently, other countries let their gutters drain into the gravel and permit storage areas, unseen by the public, to remain unpainted. In England, however, a raft of authorities ensures that this sort of thing does not happen. Some may applaud this degree of intervention, and the highquality buildings that result, particularly when they see harrowing pictures from abroad, of collapsed dance floors, catastrophic earthquakes or ruinous fire-damage.Others may resent the army of officials who seem to have carte blanche to impose their whim, whose involvement invariably increases the cost of construction - without any demonstrable benefit - and who bear no responsibility when things go wrong.

Those who sometimes find themselves overwhelmed by the forces of statutory control can take small comfort from the fact that the authorities are creatures of statute, and have no powers beyond the confines of the particular piece of legislation that spawned them. This point had to be spelt out by the Court of Appeal to Northampton's fire authority, when it refused to issue a fire certificate to a local company, for its large modern warehouse in Brackmills.

The case, City Logistics Ltd v County Fire Officer (22 July 2001) came to court because the fire authority advised the claimant that its fire precautions were inadequate and, instead of issuing a fire certificate, served it with a notice under section 5 of the Fire Precautions Act 1971, setting out the steps it required to be taken to bring the premises up to an adequate standard. Fair enough, you might think - is this not exactly what a fire authority is there for? Well, there is the rub.What exactly are fire authorities there for?

They are there as a result of the Fire Precautions Act which requires, among other things, that a building has 'the means for fighting fire'. In fact, the claimant had provided 46 portable fire extinguishers, but the fire authority considered this to be insufficient. It required the claimant to install a sprinkler system throughout the warehouse, at a total cost of some £500,000. The claimant claimed that the expense was unnecessary and questioned the fire authority's motives - what was it trying to achieve?

The Act, the claimant said, was concerned only with the safety of those using the premises. It was not concerned with the protection of property. It accepted that, when inspecting a building, the authority had to consider the availability of means of escape for those who might be inside if a fire occurred.

But, the claimant said, the fire authority had addressed far wider considerations, such as the protection of firefighters and of others who may be in the area at the time. The fire authority went further and argued that its powers under the Act needed to be considered in the light of factors, such as the need to protect and improve the environment by avoiding pollution, and the economic desirability of not allowing large and valuable buildings to be gutted by fire.

The court had to decide whether the words 'the means of fighting fire' in the Act were limited to equipment sufficient only to ensure that those inside could make good their escape, or whether they extended to fire-fighting equipment for all purposes.Did the fire legislation require 46 extinguishers or a sprinkler system? Did the Act favour the authorities or the individual?

The court found in favour of the claimant company and adopted a more restrictive interpretation of the Act. It held that the statute was concerned only with the protection of persons in premises in which fire might occur, and not with the safety of firemen, or the protection of the building itself, important though such factors were.

Thus the fire authority had no power to require the provision of a sprinkler system when the fire extinguishers were sufficient to facilitate the escape of those at risk. In short, it found in favour of the individual.

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