Over the past 10 years technological advancements and the green agenda have driven changes in the materials and techniques used to construct buildings. At the same time, use patterns of industrial and commercial buildings have also been changing: the internet economy has transformed retailing so warehouses which used to be full of goods ready for bulk distribution are often now also full of employees using sophisticated sorting systems to package and dispatch purchases for individual consumers; recycling warehouses increasingly use computerised machinery and large numbers of staff to sort waste; while factories and retail outlets are now often attached to large storage units as businesses become more concentrated and leaner to meet the demands of the global economy.
The fire risks have changed. Yet, none of these developments are reflected in the Fire Safety provisions of the Building Regulations’ (Approved Document B – ADB) because the provisions have not been comprehensively reviewed for more than 10 years. The ADB guidance is stuck in 2006 because the Government seems reluctant to undertake a review. This may be a consequence of inertia – but there is also a sense that the Government fears that the changes needed to address these new fire and life safety risks will be seen as new “red tape”. Worse still, the Government seems to believe that it doesn’t matter if a building burns to the ground so long as all the occupants have been able to evacuate safely beforehand.
These attitudes make no sense. They don’t help the build community, they don’t help business, they don’t help the Fire Service, they certainly do not help the economy, and they are potentially putting people at risk. The Government justifies its inertia citing the data that fire incidents have been on a constant decline. This was true until last year when incidents started to rise, but anyway the argument misses the more important point that over the past 10 years the costs of fires have been rising – notably those in industrial and commercial buildings.
Wholesale change to ADB is needed now. It is needed to protect people and property from fire and to help business and building owners better understand the threat that fire poses to their infrastructure and future. This education could not be more important as we now know from a recent YouGov survey that 69% of the businesses polled thought that following ADB guidance means that their business premises will be adequately protected from fire events. It doesn’t, but it should.
So instead of viewing this as “red tape” the Government should look at an ADB review as an opportunity for positive change. A comprehensive and broad review would allow the ADB guidance to complement the Government’s own economic and resilience agenda by adopting changes which ensure that both property and people are effectively protected in the event of a fire. The result would be a decrease of large destructive industrial building fires, and hence a decrease in the cost of fire to UK plc and a decrease in the cost of fire to the public purse and to communities.
This is why the Government should be working with the fire sector, the Fire and Rescue Service, insurers and the build community to comprehensively update the ADB guidance and so ensure that the buildings of tomorrow are sustainable, resilient and safe. Let’s hope it starts to do so soon.
Public Affairs lead for the Business Sprinkler Alliance