Firefighters demand law change to make developers fit sprinklers on new-builds

Firefighters are calling for a change in the law to force housing developers to install sprinklers on more new-builds, to help avoid a future Grenfell-style disaster.

The London Fire Brigade (LFB) wants all purpose-built residential blocks to have sprinklers fitted, irrespective of height, as well as buildings housing vulnerable people, including care homes and sheltered accommodation.

The Brigade says developers are “consistently ignoring” its advice and a check of new-builds in the capital had shown the industry “cannot self-regulate”.

Developers of only two out of 15 newly completed blocks, for which planning applications were made in 2016, had heeded Brigade advice to install sprinklers, LFB found in a spot check.

LFB Commissioner Dany Cotton said she hopes new legislation will be brought in after a Government consultation on building regulations ending in March, following concerns sparked by the June 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, which led to the deaths of 72 people.

The Commissioner said LFB is changing some of its own policies, procedures and equipment following the blaze, adding: “LFB are campaigning on vital things like sprinklers because we think that no community should ever have to suffer in the way Grenfell has.”

She said: “Sprinklers save lives, they’re not a luxury.

“We think they’re essential in every high-rise building, and in places where our most vulnerable residents live – places like care homes.”

Communities Secretary James Brokenshire said sprinklers were important but “one of many fire safety measures” that could be adopted.

In England, sprinklers are only a legal requirement in new residential blocks taller than 30 metres, while they are mandatory in all new domestic buildings in Wales and in residential buildings including care homes, sheltered housing and schools above 18 metres in Scotland.

The Commissioner urged England to join Scotland and Wales in taking “proper action”, and called arguments made by developers over sprinklers’ expense “shameful”.

“I think that some developers ignore our advice because they think that sprinklers cost a lot of money or cause potential damage,” she said.

“But that’s just not the case. When you start the building off the initial cost is about 1% of the build cost to fit a sprinkler.

“It’s a no-brainer. They save lives. What cost is 1% of building?”

The Brigade also wants the Government to “look urgently” at new regulations to require sprinklers to be retro-fitted in older residential blocks.

“We know that buildings that don’t have sprinklers now that house vulnerable people and people in high-rise are a risk to them,” she said.

“Last year, we had 27 people die in house fires. None of those buildings were sprinklered and people who are dying in places like care homes, those are the people we should be looking after.

“So, it’s really important those are the types of buildings that have sprinklers fitted.”

Grenfell Tower
Grenfell Tower

In December, shadow housing minister Sarah Jones told MPs that six in 20 tower blocks in Kensington, several within full view of Grenfell Tower, do not have sprinklers and only 4% of council blocks in London do.

She said at the time: “Sprinklers are mandatory in new tall buildings because they keep people safe, but councils do not have the funds to retrofit social housing blocks and Government has brushed away every single request for help as non-essential.

“Why does the Government continue to stigmatise and discriminate against social housing tenants?”

The Government believes an appropriate level of fire safety can be achieved without retrofitting sprinklers.

Responding to the LFB’s calls, Mr Brokenshire said: “There is nothing more important than ensuring people are safe and feel safe in their homes and I welcome LFB’s input into our consultation on fire safety regulations.

“I will be considering all submissions, including the LFB’s, carefully, in informing next steps.

“Sprinklers can be effective, but they are one of many fire safety measures that can be adopted.

“Sprinklers are already required in all new high-rise residential buildings.”

Clive Betts, chairman of the Housing, Communities and Local Government committee, said: “The fire brigade are the experts and we should act on their advice.

“The Government should take heed of their warnings and initiate urgent action to make the most vulnerable buildings more resilient to fire.

“When the evidence shows such a reluctance to provide acceptable fire safety for buildings, firm action is needed.”

He said a regulatory framework was needed for high-rise buildings “as a first step” before applying the principles more widely, to student accommodation, hospitals and commercial warehouses.