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Helen Jones (Warrington, North): I am pleased to have this short Adjournment debate on the question of fire safety in warehouse distribution and storage premises. My interest in the matter arose from a fire that took place in my constituency in premises that were used for food storage and distribution. However, it is fair to say that there are several constituencies such as mine which, because of their position on the way to a port or at the junction of several motorways, have acquired a large number of distribution premises, so we need to take a particular interest in ensuring the safety of those buildings and of those who work in them.
I visited the site of the fire in Warrington after it took place with officers from the Cheshire fire service. I wish to place on record my appreciation of those officers for the work they do generally and also for their patience in answering my questions on points that must have seemed to them blatantly obvious. The mistakes in what I am going to say are mine: the good bits are probably theirs.
What was obvious, even to someone like me, was the startling speed with which the fire took hold. The premises were not far from the local fire station and officers were on the scene in a few minutes. Nevertheless, the building had partly collapsed 15 minutes after the fire had started and the firefighters had to withdraw. Within 30 minutes, the building had totally collapsed. It was completely burned out, together with several lorries that had been parked nearby.
Cheshire fire service estimates that the immediate cost of the fire was some £30 million. Other costs are more difficult to quantify, but they include damage to business, loss of jobs and damage to the environment. Sad to say, fires in such premises are not rare. It is difficult to get exact figures because of the way in which records are kept, but an answer my hon. Friend the Minister gave me on 25 October 2001 showed that, in the nine years to 1999, there had been between 702 and 883 fires in storage and distribution premises. Many of those fires will, thankfully, have been small, with the damage resulting from smoke or late calls.
It is not unusual for blazes to occur in such premises. Indeed, the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association considers that the figures are much higher. It believes that some 25 per cent. of the fires that occur in the retail and distribution and industrial and transport categories are warehouse fires. It puts the number at some several thousand each year.
Many of those fires are serious. The Fire Protection Association estimates that there have been some 240 large fires in warehouse distribution and storage premises since 1990, leading to insured losses of hundreds of millions of pounds. Its figures are likely to be an underestimate, because it deals only with fires that cost more than £50,000 and it believes that insurers do not report all losses to it.
Although approved document B on fire safety recommends that sprinklers be fitted in single storey retail buildings, it does not do the same for single storey warehouse premises, which reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how the sector has developed. Single storey buildings may be very large indeed, covering up to 140,000 sq m, and may be up to 30 m high. The nature of the business demands that the most cost-effective use of space be made, so buildings are often densely packed and goods stored on high racking systems.
That in itself poses a danger to the people who work there and any firefighters who have to tackle a blaze. Fires can spread very quickly in such an environment. Indeed, research by the Building Research Establishment shows that fires started in a flue formed by boxes stacked on 10 m racking more often than not reach the top of the stack within two minutes. Multiplying that by the amount of goods and racking in big buildings gives some idea of the scale of the problem.
The problem is compounded by the fact that many modern buildings often have no windows and few doors, which makes it difficult for people to get out and extremely difficult for firefighters to gain access if there is a blaze. Once inside, they may find themselves dealing with fires that are above ground level, approachable only through a maze of unprotected steelwork and facing the hazard of that steelwork collapsing during the fire.
A further hazard is caused by the sandwich panels that are often used in such buildings to create a closed environment in which food may be kept chilled, although they are used for other food hygiene purposes as well. Such panels usually have an inner core sandwiched between sheets of galvanised metal, usually steel, and PVC fixing. That inner core may consist of several materials, usually polystyrene or a mix of polystyrene and rock wool. As such, it is highly inflammable.
Approved document B sets out the hazards of such a constructionit may cause toxic black smoke in a fire, it allows fire to spread unseen in the sandwich panels and it may create flashoversand a number of fire services have reported on the problems it causes. For example, the Norfolk fire service reported on a fire in 1995 that it believes started against the outside wall of a building. The heat transferred through the wall and ignited the sandwich panels. The fire then spread inside.
The cost of all those fires is hard to estimate because of the way in which we keep our records, but we ought to include in the equation not just the insurance costs, which, in the end, we all pay, but the cost of fighting the fires, the benefits paid to those who unfortunately lose their jobs, the revenue loss to the Exchequer when firms cease to trade and clearing up the resultant environmental pollution.
Set against those costs, the cost of providing sprinklers in these buildings is negligible. Cheshire fire service estimated that the cost of putting sprinklers into the building in Warrington when it was built 10 years ago would have been about £30,000, which is nothing by comparison with the cost of the fire.
I am not primarily making an economic argument, however, although I believe that it is a strong one. My argument is about the safety of the public. The people who work in these buildings, and the firefighters who have to go into them to tackle the fires, face unacceptable risks which could be greatly reduced. The theory has been that single-storey retail buildings required sprinklers where possible, because of the possible loss of life. The same did not apply, however, to single-storey warehouse buildings. I hope that I have said enough to make it clear that the situation on the ground is much more complicated than that.
These buildings are very large. They are often crammed with goods and can be difficult to get out of. The fire service knows that, in these circumstances, managers are often reluctant to confirm that everybody has got out of the building. If that happens, firefighters have a duty to enter the building and search it whenever possible. When they do so, they face hidden fires, toxic smoke and the possible collapse of panelling and racking around them. That is an unacceptable risk for any public servant to have to face when it is not necessary to do so.
In these cases, it is certainly not necessary, because we have known what needs to be done for many years. Committees have reported to successive Governments about what needs to happen with these buildings, but the measures have never been enforced. As far back as 1946, the post-war building studies that aimed to learn the lessons from firefighting in the second world war recommended that warehouses of more than 10,000 sq ft should have sprinklers fitted. I am not very good at converting feet into metres, but I think that that is about 940 sq m, a tiny area by comparison with the buildings that we are dealing with here.
In 1970, a departmental committee on the fire service under the chairmanship of Sir Ronald Holroyd drew attention to the fact that fires could spread unseen in this type of building, and recommended the installation of sprinklers and automatic fire alarms. A report produced for the Home Office in 1980 suggested that 90 per cent. of our industrial buildings could effectively be protected by sprinklers. Yet we have not legislated for this. We prefer the risk assessment option, but that option has clearly not worked. We continue to have a great many of these fires, and people continue to be put at risk.
It is time for the Government to act. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that I know many local authorities, including my own, that are very concerned about these buildings. They are afraid to act on their own, however, because they are afraid of chasing away jobs and investment. What is needed is Government action. We should, through our building regulations, be limiting the size of unsprinklered compartments to 2,000 sq m, and requiring the fitting of sprinklers in buildings such as these.
I hope that the Minister will also think seriously about ensuring that proper research is carried out into the use of alternative materials for sandwich panels and, if possible, about moving to require non-combustible cores to be used in them. I hope that, in any regulatory impact assessment that is undertaken, we will put into the equation not only the insurance costs but all the other costs that I have mentioned, which we, as members of the public, have to pay in the end.
The issue is about more than cost, as I have said. It is about whether we are prepared to put people's lives at risk inside these buildings. We hear a lot about reducing red tape, and I am not in favour of imposing unnecessary bureaucracy on anyone. However, I am not in favour of removing a single piece of red tape if it puts someone's life at risk.
I think my constituents who work in such buildings are being put at unnecessary risk, and I think that those in the fire service who have to deal with fires in them are also being put at unnecessary risk. I hope we will act to minimise that risk in the future. I hope we do not have to wait until, tragically, someone is seriously injured or killed before the necessity to act has been realised. We have seen that happen in the case of retail buildings; we should not wait for a similar tragedy to happen in a large single-storey warehouse before being prepared to amend the regulations to deal with such warehouses.