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Scrapped fire safety laws 'burdened' builders – official report

Scrapped fire safety laws 'burdened' builders – official report
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An official document drawn up five years ago urged ministers to slash ‘onerous’ fire safety requirements by repealing local acts that ’burdened’ the construction industry with extra costs

An investigation by the AJ’s sister title Construction News has uncovered a final impact assessment drawn up in 2012 by Brian Martin and Steve Kelly – officials at the Deparment for Communities and Local Government department (DCLG) –recommended repealing 23 local building acts across England.

The document was drawn up following a consultation by the coalition government in 2010 on proposed repeal of the local acts and was signed off by then minister and now House of Lords construction spokesperson Andrew Stunell.

Titled Removing inconsistency in local fire protection standards, the impact assessment said the repeal of the acts was an ’appropriate deregulatory measure that reduces procedural and financial burdens on the construction industry’.

It concluded that over a 35-year period, between £116,334 and £357,400 of capital savings could be achieved by not installing or maintaining sprinklers in a tall building, and between £195,300 and £600,000 could be saved from not installing smoke extractors.

The assessment estimated that sprinkler maintenance could cost between £300 and £800 per building.

Implementing safety measures held within the local acts was estimated to add up to £1.1m to the costs of a building over a 35-year period.

The assessment said: “A statistical review concluded that local acts have no statistically significant impact as far as life safety aspects are concerned…. for tall buildings, there was little benefit, as the inherent degree of compartmentation is sufficient to prevent most fires getting too ‘big’.”

The 20-page assessment outlined how, with a cost of only £1,300 per local authority, the local acts, which included the London Building Act, could be repealed and other measures put in place.

Fire safety experts told CN last month that the London Building Act, if it was still in place, could have averted the tragic fire that caught hold at Grenfell Tower in the early hours of Wednesday 14 June.

The capital-specific laws were drafted by Sir Christopher Wren in 1667 in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London and had been designed to prevent a similar catastrophe hitting the capital.

The act was amended over successive centuries until it was superseded by national Building Regulations in the mid-1980s.

Both Grenfell Tower, which was built in 1974, and Lakanal House, which was built in 1959 and suffered a major fire in 2009, were constructed under the London Building Act regulations.

In December 2012, the then communities secretary Eric Pickles announced the repeal of sections 20 and 21 of the London Building (Amendment) Act 1939.

The repeal came into force in January 2013. At the same time sections of 22 other local acts – including those covering Merseyside, the Isle of Wight and Berkshire – were also repealed.

Based on figures sourced from the Home Office on fire incidents between 1994 and 1999, the Martin and Kelly assessment conceded that there was a “possibility” of an increase in property loss or damage due to fires if the acts were repealed, and that Home Office figures noted that there could be an increase of 3 per cent in fires getting ‘big’ in areas where there were no local acts.

However, the report added: “While this is worth noting, this must be put into context as it relates to property loss/damage and bears no consequence to the risk of life safety.”

The report drew on evidence from a Building Research Establishment (BRE) report from 2005, which noted that for tall buildings “there seems to be little benefit from local acts”.

It continued: “The inherent degree of compartmentation is sufficient to prevent most fires getting ‘big’.”

Responding to questions from CN, Lord Stunnell said: “The impact assessment sets out clearly that the proposal was aimed at securing a uniform set of standards for new-build work across England, set at the level in current Building Regulations.

“As it appears that a very significant factor in the Grenfell disaster was that the cladding system didn’t meet the combustibility requirements set out in those Building Regs standards, it should be noted that the document I signed off specifically endorsed the application of those standards for high-rise buildings.” 

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