Fire safety: Risk prioritisation in existing buildings

I hope you will not consider this submission to be tangential to your inquiry into what are, essentially, technical matters. I raise social, ethical and even political questions. But I submit that these issues will inevitably underpin your thinking. It would be wrong to pretend they do not exist or are outside the terms of your inquiry. They are not theoretical abstractions but the bedrock on which you will build your recommendations. Despite the focused task you have been given (largely about building height), and the very short timescale, I hope you have already considered many if not most of them, and plan to judge them systematically.

For example, you ask for advice on the approaches, tools and methodologies which should define your work to achieve appropriate fire safety levels in existing buildings.

Of course that depends entirely on what is considered ‘appropriate’.

As I say, my advice is limited to the approach you should take rather than tools or methodologies. I am a broadcaster and journalist, not a fire safety engineer. I can provide a rational and historical perspective, not a technical one. But I have two decades involvement with fire safety at the request of fire chiefs, have met successive government fire ministers to lobby for fire safety, and through my involvement with national bioethics and science policy, I hope the opinions which I offer can at least be regarded as informed ones grounded in moral philosophy and evidence-based problem solving.

Accordingly, I will essentially limit my advice to questions 3 and 4, on whether a risk-based approach should be taken, and what factors should be considered.

I should add that my principal concern is residential fire deaths.


“It is for politicians to decide whether England should continue to be middle-ranking for fire deaths among comparable advanced countries, or whether, like Wales, it should seek to be a global exemplar”


What is appropriate fire safety?

The call for evidence affirms that, ‘The Government is committed to make sure that people are safe and feel safe in their homes.’ But how will you interpret that? Whitehall has incongruous and unsettled views on safety and has never published a rationale for its inconsistencies.

For example, HMG has zero tolerance of civil airline crashes. In the UK investigators have unrivalled powers to seize evidence, even from private homes. This passion for air safety is more or less shared globally and has made flying easily the safest form of travel. Despite rapid expansion of flights and passenger numbers, deaths have fallen substantially and more or less consistently. Remarkably, in 2017 not a single airline passenger died anywhere in the world.

We see a stark example of what is considered appropriate in the two years that followed, after 346 deaths from the two Boeing 737 Max crashes. Almost 400 aircraft have been grounded since March 2019. Production of the top-selling model has been halted and the world’s largest aircraft maker has been plunged into crisis, losing $1bn in the last financial quarter, paying out an interim $100m to bereaved families ($144,000 per fatality) and setting aside a further $18.6bn reserves (equating to $5.38m per fatality). All this is in addition to other compensation arrangements for the victims. Collectively these events will have a measurable effect on the US economy.

The value of human life from fires is rather different, in the US as in the UK. In the first month of 2020, some 225 American civilians died through fire in their own homes, according to US Fire Administration figures. That is equivalent to 2,700 deaths a year, which is almost eight times the death toll from the Max jet crashes. Yet these 2,700 prompted little publicity, no cash set-asides and no public inquiries.

Air safety is not unique. For example, there is a similar intolerance of fatal train crashes, famously prompting a former deputy prime minister to pledge ‘whatever it takes’ to prevent another.

In fact, government policies on an appropriate value of life appear to track the public’s very subjective attitude to risk. There is a well-established literature on risk perception which suggests there are clear logical patterns beneath seemingly irrational perceptions. Two factors above all seem important: a sense of control, as in a car rather than in a lift or helicopter; and whether deaths are isolated and dispersed or, as at Grenfell, communal and simultaneous.

The tragedy for fire victims is that their deaths are usually solitary. It is only the shock of sudden and collective fatalities that rouses us from our torpor.

You will be aware of the precedents. It took 11 dead in a Christmas blaze at the Rose and Crown in Saffron Walden in 1969 to pave the way for building regulations in the Fire Precautions Act. The hotel had no proper alarm, no fire doors, no emergency exit signs, no extinguishers. It took 56 dead at the Bradford City Football Club fire in 1985 to inspire a raft of safety features for stadiums. It took 31 dead in the King’s Cross fire in 1987 before we finally invested in the London tube that had been under tight budget constraints for decades. On the other hand, too few perished at Lakanal House in 2009 to warrant a meaningful government response.

It is for politicians to decide whether England should continue to be middle-ranking for fire deaths among comparable advanced countries, or whether, like Wales, it should seek to be a global exemplar. But to a significant extent, politicians have now passed that hot potato on to you. Your instincts might strain to shy away from this moral conundrum, arguing that your role as an inquiry is to gather evidence, not to set a value on life. But appropriateness is at the heart of your deliberations. As you acknowledge in question 3, factors such as building height, fire suppression systems, escape routes or building materials can only be judged once you are clear about what we are seeking to achieve. It is impossible to set technical standards for fire safety unless you are clear about your objective.


“I believe we should take a risk-based approach in-line with recommendations in Dame Judith Hackitt’s Review”


Should more emphasis be placed on tall buildings than on low-rise?

This is another conundrum for ‘appropriateness’: should the risk of death and injury be the same for everyone, and in all circumstances? For example, high-rise dwellings pose the greater risk proportionately, but the greatest number of domestic fire fatalities in England is in low-rise. Thus, you will need to consider whether you will ration fire safety, applying higher standards where there are higher risks, or seek to raise fire safety standards for everyone.

This is a difficult decision, but I urge you to be honest with the public. For example, you might decide that all homes must have sprinklers, or you might prefer to ration high-grade safety features to, say, social housing or tower blocks. If you consider rationing is inevitable, or justified on grounds of equity (ie sharing risks so that everyone bears them equally), you will do a service to democracy by saying so unambiguously. There are precedents for such transparency, not least in healthcare. The NHS pretended for decades that rationing did not exist, until pressures forced it to acknowledge what at first it called ‘priority setting’, and what is now explicitly a value-for-money approach (not least through NICE, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence). If you could prevent more deaths and injury than you recommend, the honest approach would be to say so and explain why you recommend something less than the ideal.

Turning now specifically to questions 3 and 4 as posed in the consultation.

Do you agree that a case by case risk-based approach should be taken for existing buildings?

Of course every building requires its own fire safety assessment. But as discussed above, logic suggests you must first decide on principles.

Considering residential buildings:

  1. Should every occupier have world-class fire protection regardless of whether their home is urban or rural, high- or low-build, open-plan or not, owned or rented, private or public sector?
  2. Or should you ration fire safety, taking the grease to the squeak, in which case you should afford more statutory protection to tenants and allow private owners more freedom to make their own decisions; and prioritise residential buildings of four storeys or more.


If you were concerned with new-build homes I would urge option 1. I will explain why before turning to existing buildings.

Opponents of further regulation insist that, quite apart from interfering with personal liberty, all ‘red tape’ acts as a brake on economic growth. I draw on my experience in road safety to point out that, at least in ever-higher vehicle standards, history proved the Jeremiahs wrong. Car companies competed to sell profitable safety features and, until recently (and for very different reasons) sales volumes increased.

Those who say further regulation will restrain house building are wrong, or at very least cannot produce convincing evidence. The country faces a housebuilding crisis, but the overwhelming constraint is the planning system (which, despite reforms, the Home Builders Federation has long called ‘far too slow, bureaucratic and expensive’) and local opposition. The second constraint is lack of available land, especially in cities where demand is highest. A third issue is that developers themselves exploit scarcity, typically selling homes slowly so as to maintain high prices. Added to these, of course, is the withdrawal of the State from large-scale housebuilding.

The incremental cost of sprinklers in all new housing is so marginal that in Wales housebuilding increased after they became compulsory, to the second highest number since the 2008 recession.

Accordingly, for new-build, I would urge world-class levels of fire protection in all homes. England’s foot dragging, especially on installing sprinklers to new-build homes, is morally as well as economically unsound, and it is inevitable that in time England will fall in line with Wales and other leaders in the field.

However, it is a different matter when it comes to retrofitting safety to existing buildings.

Remediating existing weakness can be expensive, as we have seen in the drive to remove flammable external cladding. Installing new features can be challenging. Sprinklers, again a good example since they should be required in all homes, require new internal plumbing and sometimes larger external water supplies as well. Installing them is disruptive and in many buildings there will have to be surface pipework.

Accordingly, for existing residential buildings, like a majority of respondents to previous consultations, I believe we should take a risk-based approach in-line with recommendations in Dame Judith Hackitt’s Review. In short I accept there is a need for rationing. Or to put it more bluntly, and perhaps more honestly, at least in the short-term we should be prepared to accept some deaths and injuries as the price for focusing our efforts on the most vulnerable.

However, the call for evidence cites exclusively technical issues. I urge that you add a moral dimension: that tenants deserve a higher level of legislative protection than homeowners.

There are two reasons to propose this.

First, tenants are much more prone to fire fatalities than homeowners ( This is because tenants have little control over the safety features built into their homes. Private renters are especially vulnerable, and most especially those in properties built before the First World War.

The second justification is that tenants are less able to improve levels of protection than homeowners by virtue of the fact that they do not own the fabric of the building. Of course it is true that many homeowners are so cash-strapped that they will not or cannot upgrade their own homes. But it will be hard, if not impossible, to frame regulations that require people to do what they cannot afford, at any rate unless accompanied by subsidies or forcing some families out of their own homes.

What factors, aside from height, do you think should be considered when classifying building risk? Please provide evidence to support your answer.

Essentially: the owners and the occupants.

As I say, others are much better qualified than I to advise on issues such as flammability, fire spread, fire stopping and alarms. But technical experts must always bear in mind that, ultimately, whatever they design is for human use, or at least is vulnerable to human interaction.

Behaviours like cooking and smoking are the source of ignition in most domestic fires, and these behaviours have social and financial correlations. Poorer families are less likely to have newer and safer electrical equipment, more likely to be obese and smokers, and bear other risks which (not just in fire) reduce their life expectancy compared to their wealthier compatriots. Put crudely, it is disproportionately the poor wot get the flame.

This is a further reason to prioritise protection of tenants.

I mention one further criterion which I am sure you will consider: calamity.

There is a view that fire safety regulation exists at least as much to protect the authorities from blame as to protect the citizens. While that is unduly cynical it would not be human for officials or members of committees to ignore risks to themselves. Few people will blame you or hold your inquiry critically accountable if fire deaths do not drop substantially, provided those deaths are scattered in time and geography.

This is why no one recalls the ministers who ignored calls to require sprinklers in social housing and to routinely review and update regulations such as Approved Document B. [Those I personally lobbied included Mike O’Brien (Lab), Alan Whitehead (Lab), John Prescott (Lab), Phil Hope (Lab), Jim Fitzpatrick (Lab), Parmjit Dhanda (Lab), George Howarth (Lab), Brandon Lewis (Con) and Sadiq Khan (Lab) who as you will know has new fire safety responsibilities as Mayor of London.] Similarly, most people concerned with fire policy recall the name Dany Cotton, but not the dozens of other fire chiefs who declined to stick their necks out on issues like universal domestic sprinklers until after 72 people died in a single and spectacular inferno.

As I say, society does not pay much attention to most individual fire deaths. Even a whole family killed by arson does not always make a splash in the national press (at any rate not unless the victims are well-known or middle-class). But another Lakanal House, let alone another Grenfell, would shake public opinion. Hence, you will inevitably take greatest care where you fear simultaneous multiple deaths. But please also bear in mind all those people – more than 270 in the year of Grenfell – who die on their own. On any moral basis their lives are equally important.

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