Updated: Jun 25, 2020
This should not happen again...
[image courtesy of Sarah Rowlands - photographer]
I am campaigning for support to petition the UK Government to add Fire Safety to the list of Material Considerations to existing planning law.
At present, Planning Authorities do not have to consider fire safety of a building and its occupants when assessing a planning application. Even if the building has been subject to fire or concerns are raised through consultation, it is not considered relevant to planning. Instead, Fire Safety is assessed by Building Control – which is dealt with separately from Planning.
It seems, on the face of it, a very straightforward system to divide the responsibility between Planning and Building Control. I used to believe in this system. However, I am now convinced that we need to arm planning authorities with the ability to ask for applicants to demonstrate that a building will be safe for its occupants and neighbours.
Three years ago, I witnessed a fire in a building in my neighbourhood. 27 fire fighters attended and thankfully, the three young children left alone in the building were rescued. I read the LFB report on the fire and it stated that there were no working smoke detectors anywhere in the building and the design of the escape wasn’t adequate for safe evacuation.
I couldn’t sleep for days after.
A few weeks later, the owner of the fire damaged building made a planning application to reduce the number of fire escape stairs from two to just a single stair. I raised an objection to the layouts and reduction of escapes, on the basis of fire safety, and sent the Planning Officer a copy of the LFB report and an article in the local newspaper about the fire. The plans submitted did not comply with Part B, and I asked an Approved Inspector to verify this.
Despite objections, the changes were approved. I entered into lengthy email discussion with the LPA, and involved local councillors and my MP. The statement from the LPA “Fire Safety was not a material consideration” and therefore my objection could not be considered. I reassured myself that the safety net of Building Control would protect the future occupants.
As the months passed, it was clear that work being carried out at the property was woefully below standards.
This was my turning point - the realisation that many conversions and small projects are not subject to the scrutiny of Building Control, even if they are required to be. When one works in the profession, it is easy to assume that everyone works like we do, and that there is a professional duty of care. It is easy to assume that a Building Control Application will be made for all buildings and therefore all buildings and conversions will be made safe. I don't believe that all building projects required to signed off by Building Control, are signed off by Building Control.
My belief, in this case, was that the applicant was unaware of the regulations they were required to comply with. And the only recourse for this is Enforcement. The problem is that enforcement requires any would-be witness to be aware of the non-compliance and to also know how and be available to make a complaint.
For example – a tenant in a non-compliant building, would have to be aware of the complicated regulations and feel free to report their landlord, potentially losing their home in the process. Additionally, enforcement is pretty toothless.
Three years after the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, it seems very hard to comprehend that if a planning application for an exact replica of the tower were to be submitted, any objections or concerns on the basis of Fire Safety could not be taken into consideration, and would be ignored.
By adding Fire Safety into the list of Material Considerations, it would give Local Authorities the ability to ask the applicant to demonstrate that their proposals were safe in the event of a Fire. To me, this seems like a sensible idea.