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Policy Papers


Why red tape saves lives: the fire service, tombstone legislation and deregulating safety in Britain

Shane Ewen |

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Executive Summary

  • Recent fires, involving multiple fatalities, have raised urgent questions about the suitability of Britain’s fire safety regulations.
  • Governments need to act quickly when learning lessons from high-profile fatal fires or they risk further fatalities from similar incidents.
  • History shows that Britain’s fire safety laws have previously been reformed in reaction to high-profile fires involving multiple fatalities.
  • Tombstone fire safety legislation passed between the late 1950s and 1970s recognised that the law required greater prescription in order to regulate existing as well as new fire risks. Inspection, certification and enforcement of minimum safety standards by local fire authorities was integral to this prescriptive approach.
  • Local fire authorities’ powers over fire precautions controls have been eroded since the early 1980s due to successive governments’ deregulation of safety laws.
  • The fire service community’s historical response to high-profile fatal fires also reveals the significance of a partnership approach towards fire prevention: governments have historically consulted with partner organisations when framing fire policy, and now urgently needs to do so again to re-strengthen the fire safety laws.

Introduction

The fire at Grenfell Tower on 14 June 2017, which caused 71 deaths and over 70 injuries, has raised serious and urgent questions about the suitability of the country’s fire safety regulations, especially as applied to multi-occupancy high-rise housing. The tragedy has been cited as evidence of growing social injustice within Britain and there has been considerable disquiet at the government’s appointment of an independent public inquiry, chaired by Sir Martin Moore-Bick, for its failure to represent the communities most directly affected by the tragedy.

In addition to the public inquiry, an Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, chaired by Dame Judith Hackitt, was also formed to ‘urgently assess the effectiveness of current building and fire safety regulations and related compliance and enforcement issues, with a focus on multi occupancy high rise residential buildings.’ Its interim report, issued in December 2017, found that the system of building regulations was ‘not fit for purpose’ and was open to abuse by contractors putting cost savings above public safety in construction projects.

More widely, the Grenfell fire has been cited as evidence of the state’s failures effectively to protect public safety. Since the 1980s, successive governments have deregulated fire and building safety through the privatisation of fire research, the removal of powers of inspection and enforcement from local fire authorities, a blanket shift towards self-compliance in risk assessment, and the shrinkage of the fire and rescue service. In recent years a cultural shift within government and the mainstream media has attacked ‘red tape’ as being expensive and time consuming for business. The former Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced his intention in 2011 to lead the ‘first Government in modern history to leave office with fewer regulations than when it entered’ and promised a ‘bonfire’ of red tape over building regulations. However, safety groups and professional bodies, including fire service associations, criticised the plans as irresponsible, posing a risk to public safety by removing basic safety requirements and cutting back on important safety inspections. Tragically, the result has been a very different bonfire from the one Mr Cameron envisaged — but he was warned about it.

History shows that governments have taken a reactive approach to human safety by passing tougher fire regulations in the aftermath of high-profile fires involving multiple fatalities, and Grenfell is likely to be another example of this. High-profile fires historically occurred in factories and buildings of public amenity such as hotels, shops and nightclubs, which meant that legislation invariably dealt with fire safety in the workplace at an earlier date than in the home, where there remains a general opinion that the individual householder should take responsibility for fire precautions. Fatal house fires, often occurring in single properties, did not historically evoke the level of public anger and demand for change that has been generated by the multiple deaths in Grenfell Tower. This policy paper will trace the evolution of Britain’s post-war fire safety regime, by paying particular attention to the impact of high-profile fatal fires in producing reactive ‘tombstone legislation’. A series of Acts were passed between the late 1950s and 1970s, which dealt with risks on a sectoral basis. In the early 1970s, the law was rationalised, taking into account the changing use of premises, and empowered local fire authorities to enforce minimum standards of fire safety. However, since the turn of the twenty-first century, these regulations have been systematically watered down or rescinded, and replaced by a system of risk assessment that falls upon the occupier, landlord or employer rather than the fire brigade as the ‘responsible person’. Consequently the fire service’s ability to enforce effective fire prevention has been severely diminished by this hollowing out of the state’s responsibilities. It has taken another prominent disaster to ring the alarm bells for reform as British society and politicians have discovered that not all regulations are pointless ‘red-tape’, particularly fire safety regulations, which were designed to safeguard lives as well as property.

The post-war fire service

The British fire service enjoyed a prominent public reputation at the end of the Second World War owing to its vital wartime work in protecting communities from the consequences of aerial attack. The service benefited from excellent leadership, in particular from the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), which was also hugely influential in the creation of collective bargaining during the War. Whilst the 1947 Fire Services Act returned the service to local authority control, it was subject to national standards through annual inspection and central government funding, and placed under the responsibility of the Home Office in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the Scottish Home and Health Department in Scotland. Before local government reorganisation in the mid-1970s, there were 125 fire brigades in England and Wales, two in Northern Ireland, and eleven in Scotland; these numbers were later streamlined to achieve economies of scale in service delivery. Pay and conditions were determined by a National Joint Council of Local Authorities’ Fire Brigades, comprised of representatives from the local authority associations and the trade unions. National policy was agreed following consultation between the Home Office and the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council (CFBAC), which included representatives from the service associations, the FBU and local authorities. This system remained in place until 2004, when the Fire and Rescue Services Act transformed the governance and operation of the service in order to recognise the diversified role of the emergency services in non-fire-fighting areas of work, and promptly abolished the CFBAC.

The emergence of fire prevention

The prevention of fires was given increasing importance after the 1947 Act compelled brigades to give fire safety advice ‘when requested’. Brigades formed fire prevention departments specifically tasked with this role, under the leadership of officers who received specialist training at the Fire Service College. The service associations, particularly the FBU, encouraged rank-and-file fire-fighters to regard training in fire prevention as integral to their career progression as well as the modernisation of the service in the 1960s.

From 1946, when it started collecting statistical information on all reported fire incidents, the Home Office pursued an evidence-based approach to fire policy. Organisations like the Fire Research Station (FRS), an industry body formed in 1935, collaborated with the government’s own Joint Fire Prevention Committee from the late 1940s to conduct fire safety research, which informed the work of the CFBAC’s influential Fire Prevention Committee. Several key trends emerged from the data. Most significant was a rising number of property fires (as distinct to fires in open spaces such as bonfires), with an 88 per cent increase from 1957 (50,694) to 1967 (95,447), and a further 24 per cent increase to 1976 (118,786).[1] More than half of the total number of fires occurred in private dwellings and unoccupied private premises. More than three-quarters of all fire fatalities occurred in the home, as did approximately 60 per cent of non-fatal injuries, including burns; the young, the elderly and the disabled were disproportionately found among the victims. The most common causes of fires were children playing with matches and other lights, carelessly discarded smoking materials (notably cigarettes dropped into bed-sheets and onto combustible sofas), and electrical faults with consumer products, for example electric blankets, space heaters, ovens and television sets.

An emphasis on fire prevention thus emerged in the 1950s as a concerted effort by government, the insurance industry through its public-facing organisation, the Fire Protection Association (FPA), safety charities like the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) and the fire service community. All shared resources in tackling the growing problem of fire across the country. Whilst research bodies like the FRS and the Building Research Station (these were merged in 1972 to create the Building Research Establishment) were more concerned with structural fire safety and a fire engineering approach, safety organisations like RoSPA and the FPA, as well as fire brigades, sought to increase public awareness of risks more generally. The Home Office operated a partnership approach towards fire safety, drawing upon the expertise of such bodies through the CFBAC in order to generate an integrated approach towards safety through good design, education and, in certain areas, compulsion.

Tombstone legislation

Notwithstanding the important proactive work undertaken by the Home Office and its partners, it took a number of high-profile single-building fires, involving multiple fatalities, to force successive governments to develop a more prescriptive attitude towards enforcing safety. In the late 1950s and 1960s, policy-makers took a sectoral approach, responding to fatal fires as they occurred, and making retrospective regulations that dealt with problems in specific types of premises. This started in the traditional industrial workplace, before shifting into commercial and office premises, and then extended into places of amusement such as nightclubs and hotels.

The number of fatal industrial fires fell during the post-war period, owing to improved design and process as well as heightened worker awareness of acceptable risks. Large factories had been subjected to periodic fire safety inspections by the Factories Inspectorate since the early twentieth century, and some high-risk premises had installed automatic fire detection and sprinkler systems. Many large firms employed safety officers with intimate knowledge of workplace hazards due to their involvement in organisations such as RoSPA’s National Industrial Safety Committee. Whilst increased awareness amongst responsible employers improved public safety, irresponsible employers proved trickier to reach.

Such was the case with a large fire at Eastwood Mills in Keighley, West Yorkshire, in 1956, where blocked fire exits slowed down evacuation and led to the deaths of eight female employees. There was no legal obligation to conduct safety inspections of smaller industrial premises. The subsequent Factory Act, passed in 1959 and consolidated two years later, made the provision and sign-posting of fire exits, alarms and fire-fighting equipment compulsory in all factories, and transferred the powers of inspection and enforcement to local fire authorities, who were considered more knowledgeable about fire safety than the Factories Inspectorate. Employers could also be prosecuted for breaching the legislation, as was the case following the deaths of 22 employees at a fire in a Glasgow furniture upholstery factory in 1968 after it was found that exit doors were padlocked on both sides. Prescription, and the threat of prosecution, inevitably brought greater safety to the workplace as, by the end of the decade, whilst the most costly fires continued to occur in the workplace, fewer fatalities were involved. The Robbens Committee’s 1972 report on health and safety in the workplace found that only 3.4 per cent of deaths from fire occurred in the workplace during the second-half of the 1960s.

The provisions of the 1961 Act were extended to other workplaces, specifically offices, shops and railway premises, in 1963. This too followed a tragic fire, in 1960, at Henderson’s department store in Liverpool, which cost the lives of eleven staff and customers. Having been subject to various modifications over the years, the store’s owners had neglected to invite the fire brigade to advise on safety requirements. The fire investigation found a litany of defects: the store’s automatic fire alarm failed to work, a number of fire-resisting doors were left open, and there was no enclosed staircase for safe escape. The fire originated in a false ceiling on the top floor of the store, caused by a fault with an electrical cable, which demonstrated poor building maintenance.

One year after this fire, a blaze at the Top Storey nightclub in Bolton led to the deaths of nineteen young adults, some of whom jumped to their deaths to escape the choking smoke and flames. The fire demonstrated the inadequacies of the existing precautions, which did not apply to buildings once they had changed from their original use. In this case, a nightclub had opened on the top floor of a two-storey factory, above a kitchen cabinet workshop. A goodwill inspection by the Bolton Fire Brigade raised concerns about the ‘totally inadequate’ means of escape via a single wooden staircase, but no powers of enforcement existed. The staircase proved worthless, acting as a flue for the ‘mass of flames’, which originated in the workshop, to quickly travel upwards, without meeting any resistance in the absence of suitable extinguishing equipment. The coroner’s inquest criticised the occupier’s nonchalant attitude towards public safety, and recommended tougher regulations to prevent similar avoidable incidents from occurring in other unlicensed premises such as bingo halls. A Licensing Bill was duly amended, authorising fire brigades to enter premises to ascertain and enforce suitable means of escape. As the Home Secretary, Rab Butler, explained in the House of Commons, ‘Its object is to try to deal with the sort of situation which arose with the fire in Bolton … in a licensing Bill we must do as much as we can about fire prevention.’ And so it did.

The Fire Precautions Act, 1971

In addition to illustrating the sectoral approach taken towards fire precautions, these examples reveal the inflexibility of this early tombstone legislation to cope with new risks posed by changed social habit or modifications to existing premises. The Home Office started to rectify this in 1962 when it established an Inter-Departmental Committee on Fire Prevention ‘to consider the principles on which fire prevention legislation should be based and the objects to which it should be directed.’ Its report, issued at the end of the year, criticised the reactionary and outdated provisions, which were ‘too narrow both in the classes of premises to which they apply and in the precautions which they impose.’ Specifically, the problem lay in the piecemeal development of safety legislation ‘to meet dangers on which public attention has become focused as the result of some major fire disaster, so that remedies have tended to be applied after the event.’ A miscellany of premises, including hospitals and hotels, remained unregulated, and the law was riddled with loopholes that irresponsible occupiers easily exploited; it was only ever in the case of fatal fires where such abuses came to light.

The Committee recommended comprehensive legislation to strengthen the existing law relating to fire precautions at places of public amusement and resort and in certain kinds of residential premises (notably multi-storey flats). Risks were divided into two broad groups: high priority risks, which would be dealt with as a matter of urgency, which included some 254,000 hotels, hostels and boarding-houses and 80,000 places of public entertainment (e.g. nightclubs, bingo halls and sporting venues). Lower priority risks would be dealt with when the circumstances allowed. These included 80,000 blocks of flats, over 30,000 places of education, and approximately 18,000 hospitals and care homes.

Whilst there existed a cross-party consensus for reform, the Bill, which was drafted in 1964, was shelved owing to insufficient time. The Bill was again promoted, and postponed, during later sessions, due to delays with the publication of the Holroyd Committee’s Report on the Fire Service, which had been tasked in 1967 with taking a more holistic approach towards service reform. It took another widely publicised fatal fire for the Labour Government to prioritise the Bill. A fire at the Rose and Crown Hotel in Saffron Walden, Essex, in the early hours of Boxing Day in 1969, caused the deaths of 11 guests. The fire, which started in a faulty television set in the hotel lounge, spread quickly and silently throughout the hotel because it lacked smoke-stopping doors and a working fire alarm, and was again not subjected to existing controls. The incident prompted public outrage, not least because fatal hotel fires were becoming more frequent; the journalist, Bernard Levin, wrote in The Times that ‘the fire regulations in Britain … make Americans go pale and shudder … In all sorts of areas, the British are shockingly ill-protected.’

The Holroyd Committee finally reported in May 1970, but rejected the proposal to introduce a single comprehensive Act. Rather, building regulations, which were being revised following the Ronan Point tower-block explosion in 1968, would deal with the safety requirements of new and altered buildings, including multi-storey flats, while new legislation would strengthen fire precautions in existing premises. The subsequent legislation, the Fire Precautions Act, passed into law in 1971, but not before further reminders of its importance, including the New Langham hotel fire in Kensington Gardens in May 1971, which killed eight guests. The Act was designed to be flexible and adapt to future circumstances by empowering the Home Secretary to make designating orders for a variety of building types, thereby covering changing use of premises. The first Order, concerning hotels and boarding-houses, was designated the following year, and gave fire authorities responsibility for inspecting and certificating premises, which included powers to specify changes in order to make the premises safe.

Whilst there was some resistance to the 1971 Act, especially from small hoteliers who complained of the high compliance costs involved, there were noticeable results within a few years. In its annual report for 1977, the Home Office noted that, although the number of fires in hotels and boarding houses had not appreciably fallen (in fact, the average number of fires was higher in the mid-1970s than during the late 1960s), the number of fatalities and fire rescues had declined. Whereas hotel fires had traditionally involved fire and smoke spreading throughout the building, fires were increasingly contained within a single room because of improved safety measures that had been enforced by the issuing of safety certificates.

There was also criticism of the alleged burden placed on fire prevention officers by a growing workload under the 1971 Act. In 1978, for example, officers inspected 24,168 hotels and boarding-houses, issuing 19,237 certificates, and also issued 13,712 new certificates to factories, offices, shops and railway premises, which were designated under the 1971 Act in 1977. A 1977 Home Office review calculated that, at its peak, certification work accounted for 58 per cent of fire prevention officers’ time at an annual cost of £14 million. Inspection and re-inspection of smaller premises was a time-consuming and expensive method of regulation, which could be better spent on targeting more significant risks such as hospitals and care homes or issuing important fire safety advice to vulnerable communities.

The Home Office’s Green Paper, Future Fire Policy, published in 1980, criticised the escalating costs of enforcing the legislation, and recommended ‘greater selectivity in the attack on fire’, thereby targeting larger and more concentrated risks. A government inquiry into the administrative and legislative ‘burdens’ imposed on small businesses, published in 1985, also supported efficiencies in the application of fire precautions, whilst there were also difficulties in complying with the European Council’s directives concerning health and safety at work, which recognised a greater degree of employer self-compliance than was permissible under the 1971 Act. This marked the beginnings of the era of deregulation, when numerous regulations were rescinded in order to streamline government intervention in the economy by empowering individuals to take greater responsibility for workplace safety. A 1993 review of fire precautions, for example, was ‘carried out with the Government’s deregulation initiative very much in mind.’

However, improved public safety outweighed the costs for many experts in the service, including the CFBAC’s Fire Prevention Committee. This prescriptive approach had both raised general awareness of fire and enforced minimum standards, which contributed towards greater fire resilience in the workplace, and a reduction in the number of fire fatalities in occupied premises. Moreover, the costs and time spent in issuing certificates had fallen appreciably by the 1990s, with officers now spending 40 per cent of their time on 1971 Act work. From 1987 fire authorities could also charge for the issuing or reissuing of safety certificates, shifting the costs of fire precautions from the taxpayer to the employer. The dangers posed by fires were increasingly seen as a problem facing individual employers or workplaces rather than a reflection of the failings of the state, which had shifted to an enabling model of governance by the 1990s.

Conclusion

The 1971 Act was eventually repealed in 2005 by the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order, which introduced a single fire safety regime that applied to all workplaces and non-domestic premises from 2006 in England, Wales and Scotland (from 2010 in Northern Ireland). The Order required every workplace to employ a ‘responsible person’ to take charge of fire safety and undertake a risk assessment that was shared amongst staff, thereby embodying the guiding principle that there should be a greater degree of individual self-compliance. Moreover, the New Labour Government was uninterested in consultation with its traditional fire service partners such as the FBU, swiftly disbanding the CFBAC in 2004 following the 2002-3 firefighters’ dispute, thereby ending direct connection between the fire service community and the government over policy.

Whilst the Order consolidated and rationalised the existing legal framework, it severely weakened the powers of local fire authorities to enforce safety in workplace premises. Fire prevention officers were accused of having costly ‘fire bias’ by sticking too strictly to the letter of the law, which politicians increasingly regarded as creating too much ‘red tape’ for businesses to operate. New Labour’s Better Regulation Executive, and the former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s 2011 campaign against ‘red tape’ in government, extended the earlier deregulation programmes of the Thatcher and Major governments. Between them, successive governments created a situation where the work of fire prevention officers was regarded as an unnecessary and unwelcome interference with businesses, rather than a useful public service designed to maintain a good standard of fire safety within the workplace. This was also the case with multi-storey tower blocks such as Grenfell Tower, which were transferred from local authorities to private tenant management organisations, effectively removing responsibility for fire safety from the state and weakening safety standards, as identified by the Grenfell Action Group in 2012.

The law on fire precautions was reformed to achieve efficiency savings at the turn of the twenty-first century. Whilst legislation made a significant contribution to the reduction of fire fatalities in those sectors to which it applied, successive governments refused to extend it to other ‘at risk’ sectors because of the state’s growing commitment to deregulation. In this respect, the fire service has been a victim of its own success, reducing the number of fatal fires since the 1970s through its prevention work and, as a result, having to endure systematic reductions in frontline fire cover, especially since 2010. However, recent high-profile fires like that at Grenfell Tower have raised public awareness of the human consequences of deregulation. Whereas once qualified fire officers exerted a significant influence over the standard of fire precautions within premises, this has been eroded over the past twenty years or more. Self-compliance may be cheaper for the taxpayer, but it comes at a much higher social cost, as Grenfell has tragically demonstrated. Fire authorities currently lack powers to do much about this. Yet again we have been reminded that Britain’s fire safety regime is the product of a reactive response to tragedy. Expect more tombstone legislation to follow.

[1] I have used data for 1976 because 1977 included significant industrial unrest, including the first national fire-fighters’ strike, which meant that there is incomplete data for that year. Data has been taken from the annual statistical reports, UK Fire Statistics, published by the Home Office.


Further Reading


Victor Bailey, ed. (1992), Forged in Fire: The History of the Fire Brigades Union. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

P. R. Edmundson and G. I. Hubbard (1993), A Review of the Fire Precautions Act 1971: A Home Office Report. London: HMSO.

Shane Ewen (2009), Fighting Fires: Creating the British Fire Service, 1800-1978. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Home Office and Scottish Home and Health Department (1970), Report of the Departmental Committee on the Fire Service. London: HMSO.

Home Office (1980), Future Fire Policy: A Consultative Document. London: HMSO.

Home Office and Scottish Home and Health Department (1985), A Review of the Fire Precautions Act 1971: A Consultative Document. London: HMSO.

R. E. H. Read (1994), A Short History of the Fire Research Station, Borehamwood. Watford: Building Research Establishment.

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