Fire safety regulations: has the government delayed reviewing them?

21 June 2017
What was claimed

Former housing minister, Gavin Barwell, failed to give the go-ahead to a safety review, despite it having been delayed for years.

Our verdict

A review of the fire safety part of building regulations was recommended to the government in 2013. The government said it would conduct a review and publish updated regulations in 2016/17. The regulations remain unchanged. The government says the work is ongoing.

Following the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower in London on the 14th June there has been a lot of discussion in the media about the fire safety regulations in place for apartment buildings and whether or not the government has delayed reviewing these.

“Gavin Barwell, the Prime Minister’s new chief of staff, failed to give the go-ahead to a safety review during his tenure as housing minister, despite it already having been delayed for years.”

Independent, 15 June 2017

“Four years on and no review has been completed despite assurances from former housing minister Gavin Barwell, who is now Theresa May’s chief of staff.”

Telegraph, 16 June 2017

“The Department for Communities and Local Government said it was "simply not true" that a report has been "sat on".”

BBC News, 15 June 2017

In 2009 a fire took hold in flats at Lakanal House in London which saw six people die. Following an inquest into the fire the coroner made a number of recommendations to the government and to other organisations like the London Fire Brigade and Southwark Council for how similar fires could be avoided in the future.

The recommendations made to the government in 2013 included:

  • Publishing “consolidated national guidance in relation to the “stay put” principle and its interaction with the “get out and stay out” policy, including how such guidance is disseminated to residents.”
  • Reviewing the guidance on risk assessment for fighting fires in high rises;
  • Providing clear guidance on the inspection of flats in high rise buildings;
  • Encouraging housing providers to retro-fit sprinkler systems in high rise buildings, and;
  • Reviewing Document B (fire safety) of the Building Regulations to ensure that it is easily understandable and give guidance to those who are responsible for maintaining tower blocks as well as building them.

It is this last point that the newspaper reports were referring to in particular.

In its response to the coroner’s letter the government said it had “commissioned research which will feed into a future review of this part of the Building Regulations. We expect this work to form the basis of a formal review leading to the publication of a new edition of the Approved Document in 2016/17.”

This government says the work is still ongoing.  

Fire safety regulations

All buildings newly constructed or refurbished must comply with the 2010 building regulations. The fire safety element of these regulations (Document B) was produced in 2006 and amended in 2010 and 2013.

Landlords and building owners are responsible for fire safety in the communal areas of apartment blocks. They have “a duty to ensure that a risk assessment is carried out to identify hazards and risks, and remove and reduce these as far as possible.”

What has the government said about reviewing fire safety regulations since?

In 2015 a government minister in the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) was asked about reviewing fire safety regulations and said:

“Following the Lakanal house fire, to which my hon. Friend referred, the coroner called on the Government to simplify the guidance in approved document B of the building regulations. My Department’s Secretary of State committed to a review, which will deliver a revised document in 2016/17; the intention is to simplify the guidance where possible and update and revise the technical content at the same time.”

That document has not been revised yet.

In October last year Gavin Barwell, who at the time was Minister for Housing and Planning, said “We have not set out any formal plans to review the building regulations as a whole, but we have publicly committed ourselves to reviewing part B following the Lakanal House fire.”

In February this year the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service (at the time), Brandon Lewis, said that a statement about changes to fire safety regulations would be made “in due course”, in response to a question about progress on revising the regulations.

That same month the government published research into how usable the current fire safety regulations are, including Document B (on fire safety). It said the study was “not about their technical content nor the underlying policy decisions which determine the guidance given.” This was focused on who used the documents, what they used them for, and how the documents could best present information to these different groups.

The research concluded that the documents “deal with complex information and do not present it in a way that is clear to all”, recommending for example that the documents should provide more prescriptive guidance to avoid the need for interpretation.

Document B hasn’t yet been updated following this research and nothing has been published looking into the technical content of the fire safety regulations.

When asked about the review following the fire at Grenfell Tower the government is reported to have said "this work is ongoing – including with the publication of a survey in February this year – as our priority is to make sure we have the highest possible standards. The Coroner also asked Government to write to councils encouraging them to consider retro-fitting sprinklers, which we did shortly after."

It also said that:

“The final recommendation [by the coroner] concerned simplification of fire safety guidance, and this work was under way, with a consultation due to be published this summer.

“Fire safety requirements are complex issues and our priority has been that we have high standards. A great deal of work has been completed, including commissioning and undertaking research to support the planned consultation. Clearly, in light of this tragic event, we need to reflect on whether this consultation is the correct next step to take. We will confirm our approach shortly."

We’ve asked the DCLG for further information on the steps it has taken to progress the review and more generally on fire safety in the past few years.

The All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety Rescue Group also called for a review

Ronnie King, the honorary administrative secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety Rescue Group, has said “I wouldn’t say it’s [the government] done nothing but it’s certainly not reviewed the fire aspects of the building regulations, which is critical.”

The All-Party Group also reportedly called for a review of the fire safety elements of the building regulations.

The BBC reports that leaked letters from the All-Party Group to the government show that it repeatedly warned four different housing ministers that action needed to be taken on fire safety regulations.

One of the letters to the government says:

“Surely however when you already have credible evidence in 2012 to justify updating a small but important part of the guidance in the Approved Document, which will lead to saving of lives, you don’t need to wait another three years in addition to the two already spent since the research findings were updated, in order to take action?

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