The recent ban on combustible building materials by the government was for buildings over 18 metres – or six storeys high. The Cube student block in Bolton (providing student accommodation in a six storey block) which caught fire on Friday provides a stark reminder that the problem facing UK fire safety is the result of many issues and not just Grenfell style ACM cladding.

Although the final details have not yet been released, there are a number of key issues reported, all of which are relevant to the ongoing discussions around the current Building Regulations review:

  1. This was a modern building, designed and built using all of the latest rules, guides and expertise available. Yet, with two people injured, this must be classed as a near miss event. The high pressure laminate (HPL) and timber cladding components clearly played a large part in the fire’s progress, possibly in association with the insulation and cavity membranes present. Since Grenfell, HPL has been talked about to some degree, but no doubt thorough investigations and consideration have been hampered by it not being the focus of a major incident - until now.

  2. This was a risk in a building only six storeys high, where students sleep. Clearly, we should not limit regulations to the mere height of a building.

  3. Fire alarms are reported as being almost a daily event, so it is understandable that students did not assume Friday’s to be any different. Despite this, we know high integrity alarm systems exist which are tested for immunity for common ‘false challenges’. Despite countless calls for change over many years, they remain not legislated for.

Jonathan O’Neill, managing director of the Fire Protection Association, commented: 

“The fires at the Bolton student block, Worcester Park in London and the Beechmere care village in Cheshire, prove we cannot be housing people in buildings made from combustible materials. This issue needs to be addressed urgently; it simply cannot wait. We urge this issue to be a priority for the new government.

Fire legislation in the UK has always been slow to develop. It is reactive, and often requires a major incident or a prolonged statistical demonstration of emerging issues, during which time much harm may be done.

It is interesting to note now after years of lax regulation and the increasing use of combustible materials in the structure, insulation, and cladding of buildings, how quickly evidence of fault is currently being uncovered. It demands a similarly speedy response, faster perhaps than has happened since Grenfell.

Manchester’s fire community has been one of the most proactive in assessing and managing their multi storey buildings since Grenfell, and are to be credited for their response and actions which led to an amendment requiring a full evacuation policy.

We must ask again what fire and building regulations have got to do with height. More than two years on from Grenfell, we are still putting vulnerable people at risk.

Should this incident alone not demand the selection of non-combustible materials, deployment of a believable detection and alarm system and the installation of sprinklers to ensure the safety of those away from home in education? This scenario is no different to a school, care home or hospital. Risk is a combination of many factors, of which height is only one.

The Fire Protection Association, the UK’s national fire safety organisation, is calling for:

  • supporting the combustibility ban for buildings based upon risk rather than height alone

  • the mandation of high integrity alarm systems as a means to solving the false and unwanted alarms issue

  • a requirement for two means of escape from high rise buildings

  • for stay put policies to be used only after thorough intrusive inspection to the building to ensure it is capable of supporting it

  • the mandation of sprinklers in high risk environments such as schools and care homes