Fire expert says government stonewalled sprinkler warnings, reports FELICITY COLLIER
A FORMER fire chief accused the government yesterday of ignoring warnings about the need to install life-saving sprinklers in schools.
And Ronnie King, who was appointed honorary secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on fire safety after 40 years in the fire service, said that with regard to public housing safety, urgent requests for meetings with ministers — including then housing minister
Gavin Barwell — were turned down, and a call for action on safety rules disregarded.
In the wake of this week’s Grenfell Tower tragedy, he warned: “[The government] seem to need a disaster to change regulations rather than evidence and experience.
“It was the same with the King’s Cross fire and the Bradford City Football Club fire. They always seem to need a significant loss of life before things are changed.”
Reports into a fire in south London in 2009 in which six people died and a coroner’s report led to urgent calls for action. But those calls were never acted on and a promised review of building and safety regulations never started. In October Mr Barwell told MPs: “We have not set out any formal plans to review the building regulations as a whole, but we have publicly committed ourselves to reviewing [fire safety regulations] following the [south london] fire.”
But the government was much more active in getting rid of safety “red tape.” After a consultation in 2016, the government dropped the requirement for new school buildings to be fitted with sprinklers, failing to take on board recommendations in reports it had commissioned.
The sprinklers policy had been introduced in 2007 by the previous Labour government. It was hailed as “a landmark in improving fire safety in schools,” and pointed out the low cost of fitting sprinklers in a school compared with rebuilding after a fire.
The Tories’ 2016 move was branded retrograde by teachers’ union NUT. And Fire Brigades Union (FBU) general secretary Matt Wrack slammed the decision as “irresponsible, dangerous and a false economy,” saying it put teachers’ and children’s lives at risk, as well as those of firefighters.
A spokesman for the Department for Education confirmed that sprinklers are no longer mandatory, but spouted: “All schools, like other public buildings, must adhere to stringent fire-safety legislation.”
Amid the Tory safety shambles, Chancellor Philip Hammond claimed on BBC’s Andrew Marr Show yesterday that the flammable cladding used on Grenfell Tower is banned in Britain, as it is in the US and Europe. He added that a criminal investigation would examine whether building regulations had been breached when the block was overhauled.
But John Cowley, managing director of CEP Architectural Facades which fabricated the rainscreen panels and windows for Grenfell Tower’s cladding subcontractor Harley Facades Ltd, insisted that the cladding is not banned in Britain.
“Current building regulations allow its use in both low-rise and high-rise structures,” he said.