BUILT ENVIRONMENT JOURNAL

The ramifications of neglecting fire safety

There will be harsh legal ramifications if you neglect fire safety measures, with one case providing a salutary reminder of developers' responsibilities

Author: Trevor Rushton

22 June 2020

The Grenfell Tower fire symbolises the woeful safety practices prevalent throughout the construction industry before June 2017. One would like to think that we are now all alert to the risks, and that sloppy development and construction practices would no longer be tolerated.

However, hindsight brings perfect vision; and although many would appreciate the appalling consequences of a single avoidable fatality, let alone 72, it is worth reflecting on the fact that simply permitting the risk of injury can also have very serious repercussions. Make no mistake, if you are guilty of placing the lives of others at risk, you can expect to be treated harshly you can suddenly find yourself in the criminal justice system with  the attendant costs, stress and reputational damage that ensue.

Take for example the 2016 student development at Trinity Halls on Woodhouse Street in Leeds, which comprised 94 bedrooms built over four floors in a gated community. The building was due to open on 19 September that year but was still incomplete, meaning students had to be placed into temporary accommodation. It is not difficult to imagine the pressures that this situation would have put on all those involved.

However, four days later, 27 students were moved to the new site. Residents found that they were entering a building site, with works in progress on the upper floors. On dropping his daughter off, the father of one student was so concerned by what he saw that he would not let her stay there. He contacted the Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service, who served a prohibition notice and required all occupants to move out. Chris Kemp from the fire service said the conditions on site were 'such that some of our senior officers have not seen such blatant disregard for the law and the safety of residents in 28 years'.

Legal action ensued, and the litany of defects heard by the court included:

  • a locked staircase to one of the two main fire escapes
  • no fire escape signage
  • self-closing devices missing from doors
  • the upper floors of the building still being under construction, with exposed timber
  • parts of the staircase covered in bubble wrap, and floors separated only by plywood
  • the fire alarms not connected properly, only be operable manually
  • the alarms ringing with only limited noise making it likely they would not have been heard in the event of fire
  • flammable material being stored in rooms on the ground floor
  • the boiler room lacking appropriate fire protection

The court also heard that some residents would have been 35m from the nearest fire escape — almost double the recommended 18m distance.

According to Judge Robin Mairs, the conditions at the building had the 'potential for catastrophe'. He added that all the companies had 'high culpability' and that 'the risks were so obvious that a member of the public spotted them — so they should have been obvious to the companies involved'.

Developer Trinity Developments Ltd and property manager Niche Homes Limited both pleaded guilty to four charges:

  • failing to make a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment
  • failing to take precautions to make sure the premises were safe from risk of fire
  • failing to provide an appropriate fire detection and alarm system
  • failing to provide an adequate number of fire escape routes and exits.

Trinity was fined £160,000 and Niche Homes £60,000. The design and build contractor, APP Construction pleaded guilty to a charge of failing to provide an adequate number of fire escape routes and exits and was fined £450,000. The amounts would undoubtedly have been higher had the defendants not pleaded guilty, but they nonetheless illustrate the likely order of costs  that will be imposed on those who ignore fire safety.

'RICS reminds firms and members to pay particular attention to sites under construction, and to agree the fire safety strategy at an early stage with fire and rescue services if such a building will be partially occupied' Gary Strong RICS global building standards director

Trevor Rushton is a technical director at Watts trevor.rushton@watts.co.uk

Related competencies include: Fire safety

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