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10.55 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) on securing the debate, and on her speech. She clearly takes considerable interest in the subject, not least because of local experience, and she also has great expertise. She has raised this important issue not just in written parliamentary questions, but in early-day motion 241.

I am concerned about the number of fires that occur each year in all buildings, not just those that occur on warehouse, distribution and storage premises. This is a serious matter. It is important to learn lessons from fires that have occurred, and important for us all to take reasonable steps to prevent losses—and not just those in relation to death and injury—through fires.

The last decade has seen a considerable increase in the number and size of single-storey warehouse buildings. However, when we consult the supporting fire statistics we note that the occurrence of death and injury has remained reasonably static during the last seven years, and, in comparison with those in other buildings, is thankfully very low. I refer to the last seven years because our fire reporting system was revised in 1994, and before that a separate category for warehouses did not exist. According to our provisional figures for 2000 there were 630 recorded fires in warehouse-type buildings in England and Wales, giving rise to 30 injuries and—I am glad to say—no deaths.

My hon. Friend raised a number of issues relating to potential fire hazards on single-storey warehouse, distribution and storage premises. As in her early-day motion, she called for the building regulations to limit the compartment size of such single-storey buildings, and to require the installation of sprinklers in buildings where compartments exceed 2,000 sq m and the use of only non-combustible cores in all sandwich panels.

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The building regulations—which are important in terms of the regulation of construction of such buildings—apply to most building work undertaken in England and Wales, typically the erection or extension of a building. The fire safety aspects of the regulations are intended to secure reasonable standards of health and safety for persons in or about buildings. However, they do not in themselves address economic loss or the effect of fire on the environment. The issue of economic loss is generally something that individual companies, in liaison with their insurers, are best placed to quantify. They are also best placed to establish what additional measures may be necessary to reduce the potential risk of property damage or business interruption from fire.

As my hon. Friend said, guidance on fire safety measures that will meet the requirements of the building regulations is given in approved document B, on fire safety. The guidance aims to ensure that buildings are as safe as can reasonably be expected, while giving designers as much flexibility as possible. The latest edition of approved document B, which came into force on 1 July 2000, includes a new provision limiting the compartment size of single-storey shops to 2,000 sq m, where previously there was no limit. The provision suggests, however, that where sprinklers are provided there should be no limit to the floor area of compartments. The need to restrict compartment size in single-storey shops was first proposed following a number of high-profile fires in large supermarket and DIY-type outlets, which led to concern about public and firefighter safety.

It is important to note that the definition of "shop", as given in approved document B, includes premises used

It therefore generally includes all single-storey retail buildings, including the increasingly popular discount warehouse-type stores that are open to the public.

The provision of a 2,000 sq m threshold was set after consideration of the comments that were received as part of a much larger public consultation on approved document B, which closed in March 1998. The original proposal was for a compartment size threshold of 4,000 sq m in single-storey shop premises. However, we considered that a threshold of 2,000 sq m would ensure an even greater level of safety for occupants and firefighters alike.

The decision to limit the guidance on the use of sprinklers in the 2000 edition of approved document B to single-storey shops, as opposed to other types of building such as warehouses, was based on the central fact that there is greater potential for loss of lives in fires in shops. That is because of the large number of people who will be present within a shop, the fact that they will generally be unfamiliar with their surroundings and the level of managerial control that can be placed on members of the public, which is somewhat different from that which can be placed on staff in, say, a warehouse-type building. The decision to provide such guidance on single-storey shops was arrived at following a full regulatory impact assessment.

Owing to the recognised fact that the level of risk to occupants and firefighters can increase with height, the approved document already suggests maximum compartment volumes, both with and without sprinklers, for multi-storey storage-type buildings.

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My hon. Friend suggested that only non-combustible core materials should be used for sandwich panels that are provided within single-storey warehouse and distribution buildings. The 2000 edition of approved document B offers guidance for the first time on the use of sandwich panels within buildings generally. The approved document recognises that the potential for problems in fires involving non-combustible cores is less than those for polymeric core materials and offers guidance accordingly.

The guidance suggests the type of core materials, including polymeric, that may be used in various circumstances, and recommends that where deviation from that guidance occurs, a risk assessment should be undertaken and appropriate additional fire precautions put in place. It also offers design recommendations in relation to the associated jointing and fixing systems that typically support such panel installations.

Given those amendments to approved document B, there are no immediate plans to introduce further amendments in relation to other single-storey premises. However, we are continuing to keep the issue under review. As with any new guidance within an approved document, any decision with regard to single-storey premises would need to take account of a range of views and expert advice, and be subject to a full regulatory impact assessment.

We shall consult in the summer on proposals for the reform of fire safety legislation for buildings in use, using an order under the Regulatory Reform Act 2001. The purpose of the reform is to rationalise and modernise fire safety legislation, which is currently spread over numerous different statutes. It would provide for a risk-based approach to fire safety allowing more efficient and more effective enforcement by the fire service. We shall also aim to remove legislative overlap where possible.

Under our proposals, warehouses in use would be subject to one fire safety regime, which will apply to all occupants, not just employees. We shall also be considering whether the regime may protect people in the vicinity of a warehouse in case of fire. I would stress that the reformed legislation will not be prescriptive, but require fire precautions to be provided on the basis of risk assessment. Employers will be free to arrive at their own fire safety solutions so long as they meet the basic and central fire safety requirements. The regulatory reform order giving effect to these changes will, of course, be subject to a full regulatory impact assessment.

In the mean time, and in order to address concerns that have been raised in relation to large warehouse-type buildings, my Department has supported and contributed to the development of a guide for fire precautions in large storage and distribution buildings. The working group that has produced the guide was chaired by a member of the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association, and the Fire Brigades Union is also a member of the working group.

The guide will provide information and advice on issues to be considered in relation to fire precautions and firefighting in large warehouse-type buildings. It has been

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written to assist developers, designers, property owners and managers in satisfying their statutory duties and aiding their commercial considerations.

In addition, the guide is intended to assist building control bodies and fire authorities to take an informed and consistent approach to the application of building regulations, firefighting precautions and the enforcement of fire precautions legislation, with respect to warehouse and distribution buildings. I understand that the guide is soon to be published by the Fire Protection Association.

My hon. Friend expressed concerns about ongoing fire safety in warehouses and the fact that even warehouses that are not frequented by a large number of members of the public often have poor escape routes. She suggested that that was a further cause for anxiety. In addition to guidance note B, there are fire precautions that are required in warehouses once they are in use. Those are normally governed by the Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations 1997 and, where the warehouse has been designated as a factory, by the Fire Precautions Act 1971.

The Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations apply to virtually all places where people are employed to work, not just to retail establishments. The regulations, together with the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, require employers, first, to carry out a fire risk assessment; secondly, to identify the significant findings of the risk assessment; thirdly, to provide and maintain such fire precautions as are necessary to safeguard those who use the workplace; and lastly, to provide information, instruction and training to employees about the fire precautions.

Where certain processes are carried out at a warehouse, it may be designated as a factory and may therefore require a fire certificate under the Fire Precautions Act 1971. The fire certificate will be prepared by the fire authority, which in practice will be the local fire brigade. Before issuing a fire certificate, fire brigade officers will inspect the premises and satisfy themselves that adequate fire precautions are in place including the means of escape in case of fire, the means of fighting fire, and the means of giving warning in case of fire.

As with the building regulations, fire safety legislation is concerned with life safety. The requirement for any fire safety measure, such as a sprinkler system, will be determined according to whether it is necessary for the protection of employees or other occupants of the building.

I hope that my hon. Friend appreciates from my remarks that we fully recognise the importance of fire safety in all buildings, including warehouse, distribution and storage premises. I can assure her that the merits of any changes to the fire safety guidance in support of warehouse-type buildings will be a subject for consideration as part of our regulatory reform order proposals, on which we will be consulting over the summer, and any future revisions of the building regulations.

Question put and agreed to.

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