Holt Supermarket Fire: Why Are ‘Critical’ Buildings Not Protected?

The wider impact of a fire which destroyed the only supermarket in a Norfolk town has far reaching ramifications for the community, especially at such a critical time when businesses such as these are an important lifeline for people. The building did not require sprinklers to satisfy building regulations as it was just under the 2,000m2 threshold for retail premises. But shouldn’t there be flexibility in the system to ensure that “critical” buildings such as these can also be effectively protected from fire?

On the 20th June, more than 100 firefighters tackled a large night-time blaze at Budgens supermarket in Holt.  The fire and rescue service prevented the fire from spreading to other buildings, but sadly the supermarket is beyond repair and will now have to be rebuilt. The business had served the community for 35 years and was also home to the town’s only post office. It was also doing hundreds of deliveries to people who were self-isolating during Covid-19. For Budgens, this will cause loss of earnings along with business disruption as their store will have to be rebuilt, a temporary store erected and staff will need to be redeployed.

In contrast, a bakery oven fire at a Sainsbury’s in Altrincham in December 2018 had a very different outcome, with an automatic sprinkler system activating and extinguishing the fire prior to the arrival of the Fire and Rescue Service.  The store reopened three hours after the fire started with damage limited to less than £500. This figure is minuscule when compared to the substantial cost of rebuilding the Budgens supermarket, the loss of business incurred and impact on the local community.

Under current building regulation guidance, the Budgens supermarket was below 2000 sq metres in size, and was not guided to have sprinklers, but the impact of a fire will be felt long after the fire was extinguished. When we protect property and halt the spread of fire we not only protect lives, we also protect businesses and jobs. A properly controlled fire can be the difference between a building requiring renovation or demolition.

Whether through greater ability to emphasise the criticality of a property through local powers or an improved national regime, we need to ensure that large and ‘critical’ buildings are protected. The Holt Budgens is an almost perfect example of a building the community can ill afford to lose.  Likewise, it could be a school, medical centre, hospital or sports centre, wherever the loss would have a large impact.

The fire in Holt reminds us of the innumerable impacts a fire can have on a local community. Whilst sprinklers are not required in all buildings, a focus on property protection in the regulations would mean that sprinklers would be installed in new buildings:

  • where there is the possibility of large loss of life and where firefighter safety is likely to be compromised; and:
  • where loss of a building would impose significant negative impacts and costs on a local community and/or on the public purse because of the loss of a public service facility, the loss of a workplace or because of significant loss of residential accommodation.

The contrast between two buildings with and without a sprinkler system in a fire can be quite stark. In the event of fire, many businesses with sprinkler systems suffer a minor interruption and find they are back up-and-running in a matter of hours. Those without can see five to six times the damage and suffer longer spells of interruption. These systems make buildings and businesses resilient to fire incidents because they control or extinguish a blaze before the fire and rescue service arrive. The impacted business can be operational within hours, avoiding the economic and social costs.