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Architects launch petition in bid to force planners to consider fire safety

Fire safety
  • 2 Comments

The husband and wife team behind London practice Stolon Studio has launched a bid to change planning law to lower fire risk

Robert and Jessica Barker have started a petition on the parliament website to define fire safety as a material consideration for all proposals.

The petition spells out that, because fire safety is at present a matter for building control, ’planning authorities do not have to consider fire safety of a building and its occupants when assessing a planning application’.

This means planning officers and councillors have no obligation to judge the effectiveness of measures in new developments designed to keep people safe in the event of a blaze.

‘Planning may be granted for a building that does not comply with fire regulations,’ the petition states.

‘In practice, this may lead to building work that contravenes either a planning consent or fire safety regulations – neither of which should be acceptable.’

The petition organisers add that flood risk is a defined material consideration, despite floods claiming fewer lives than flames.

‘Had the fire safety of the works to Grenfell Tower been considered at the planning stage, the deaths may have been avoided,’ the petition adds somberly.

A senior builder who worked on the Grenfell Tower refurbishment this month told the official inquiry into the blaze that killed 72 people at the block in the summer of 2017 that nobody at the design and build contractor had the technical expertise to know whether the scheme’s cladding designs complied with regulations.

Stolon is keen to raise awareness of its petition in the hope of getting towards the 10,000 signatures needed for a response from the government.

Grenfell forever in our hearts

Grenfell forever in our hearts

Comment: Jessica Barker

At present, planning authorities do not have to consider fire safety of a building and its occupants when assessing a planning application. Even if the building has been subject to fire or concerns are raised through consultation, it is not considered relevant to planning. Instead, fire safety is assessed by building control, which is dealt with separately from planning.

It seems, on the face of it, a very straightforward system to divide the responsibility between planning and building control. I used to believe in this system. However, I am now convinced that we need to arm planning authorities with the ability to ask for applicants to demonstrate that a building will be safe for its occupants and neighbours.

Three years ago I witnessed a fire in a building in my neighbourhood. Twenty-seven fire fighters attended and, thankfully, the three young children left alone in the building were rescued. I read the London Fire Brigade report on the fire and it stated that there were no working smoke detectors anywhere in the building and the design of the escape wasn’t adequate for safe evacuation. I couldn’t sleep for days after.

A few weeks later, the owner of the fire-damaged building made a planning application to reduce the number of fire escape stairs from two to just a single stair. I raised an objection to the layouts and reduction of escapes on the basis of fire safety and sent the planning officer a copy of the London Fire Brigade report and an article in the local newspaper about the fire. The plans submitted did not comply with Part B, and I asked an Approved Inspector to verify this.

Despite objections, the changes were approved. I entered into lengthy email discussion with the local planning authority, and involved local councillors and my MP. The statement from the LPA ’Fire Safety was not a material consideration’ and therefore my objection could not be considered. I reassured myself that the safety net of Building Control would protect the future occupants.

As the months passed, it was clear that work being carried out at the property was woefully below standards.

This was my turning point – the realisation that many conversions and small projects are not subject to the scrutiny of building control, even if they are required to be. When one works in the profession, it is easy to assume that everyone works like we do, and that there is a professional duty of care. It is easy to assume that a building control application will be made for all buildings and therefore all buildings and conversions will be made safe. I don’t believe that all building projects required to signed off by building control, are signed off by building control.

My belief, in this case, was that the applicant was unaware of the regulations they were required to comply with. And the only recourse for this is enforcement. The problem is that enforcement requires any would-be witness to be aware of the non-compliance and to also know how and be available to make a complaint.

For example – a tenant in a non-compliant building, would have to be aware of the complicated regulations and feel free to report their landlord, potentially losing their home in the process. Additionally, enforcement is pretty toothless.

Three years after the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, it seems very hard to comprehend that if a planning application for an exact replica of the tower were to be submitted, any objections or concerns on the basis of fire safety could not be taken into consideration, and would be ignored.

By adding fire safety into the list of material considerations, it would give local authorities the ability to ask the applicant to demonstrate that their proposals were safe in the event of a fire. To me, this seems like a sensible idea.

  • 2 Comments

Readers' comments (2)

  • Jessica, I absolutely agree. This is the intention of the new gateways in the Building Safety Bill for buildings in scope ie. High risk buildings usually residential but may be extended to other high risk but non residential buildings. This begs the question about what happens to other buildings that are considered low risk. A 2-tier "regulatory" system is evolving which is not ideal. Happy to support the campaign. Paul Bussey (RIBA Fire Expert Advisory Group)

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  • Richard Saxon

    The boundary between Planning Control (essentially political) and Building Control (essentially technical) is melting away as fire safety joins energy performance as considerations at Hackitt Gateway 1: Planning. Many other countries combine the processes of planning and building control. Perhaps we should do so too. Join the consultation on the Building Safety Bill.

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