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Claire is Director of Clarity Safety Solutions Ltd., an Oban-based health and safety consultancy. She has more than 17 years of health and safety experience advising organisations and is a Chartered Member of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, an OSHCR registered consultant, and an IFE registered life safety assessor. Since attempting to leave the rat race in 2008, and moving to the West Coast of Scotland, Claire has written hundreds of articles, reports, policies, papers, newsletters, and training courses. Nevertheless, she continues to help clients directly with their health, safety, and fire safety arrangements both within the UK and abroad.
June 27, 2013

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Eric Pickles Dismisses Lakanal House Advice

Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has hardly rolled over in the face of criticism from the Coroner’s Court.

His response has been described as “dismissive” of the recommendations made. Is that a fair comment?

Rule 43
On 28 March, 2013, Frances Kirkham, CBE, assistant deputy coroner, wrote to Pickles with her findings in the inquests of the fire at Lakanal House in July 2009.

The letter was written under Rule 43 of the Coroners Rules, which allows the coroner to send written recommendations for action to those it believes are in a position to eliminate or reduce future risk to life. Under rule 43A the coroner required a written response within 56 days, to contain details of any action taken or proposed.

What was DCLG asked to do?
The recommendations covered:

  • The need for consolidated national guidance for those in high-rise blocks as there was evidently a clash of messages between the “stay put” principle and the “get out, stay out” campaign
  • Reviewing the fire brigade’s generic risk assessment on high-rise fire fighting and the information to be collected during familiarization visits
  • Consideration of how information about occupancy of high-rise premises could be provided so that it was accessible to fire and rescue services
  • Revised or new guidance for the fire risk assessment of high-rise residential buildings
  • Retrofitting of sprinklers, thought to have become cost-effective with new technological developments
  • The need to improve Approved Document B, “a most difficult document to use”, to use words and a format, “which are intelligible to the wide range of people and bodies engaged in the construction, maintenance and refurbishment of buildings”

In progress
The response sent back on 20 May doesn’t carry the usual contrition of a rule 43 response. Pickles does, however, begin by extending his condolences to the families of those who died and his appreciation for the work of the coroner’s court.

He responded that guidance on fire risk assessments was already available in a document published in 2011 on fire safety in purpose-built flats, available on both the Local Government Association’s website and on the fire safety pages of the government’s website. (This might seem to be a good response, until you note that the coroner’s letter had acknowledged the availability of this and other guidance and asked for action “notwithstanding” its availability.)

Pickles describes the many merits of the document, which, he seems to suggest, addresses almost all of the points of criticism in the rule 43 letter, from lack of guidance for risk assessors, through to clarity on the stay-put policy. The only concession is that the Local Government Association, along with his department, is considering whether any of the rule 43 recommendations will require a revision to the guidance.

Further concessions
The Secretary of State also confirmed that his department’s generic risk assessment guidance on high-rise fire fighting is under review and will be informed by the coroner’s recommendations. He reports that it will also include advice to incident commanders to inform decisions on evacuation if it becomes clear during an incident that the stay-put principle is no longer tenable.

Mr Pickles was clearly not keen on some of the coroner’s advice. The idea of trying to collate and keep up-to-date information on occupancies he described as “unnecessary and disproportionate”. Instead, he hopes to rely on local liaison between fire and rescue services and individual building owners (he’s probably right that the idea was impractical, but, on the other hand, returning to the status quo, which has failed in the past, is not a convincing answer either).

Responding to the coroner’s call to make Approved Document B an easier read, Mr Pickles said that he had “noted concerns about the difficulties that some of those involved in the Inquests had with the interpretation of Approved Document B”. But he said, while his department was committed to a programme of simplification, “the design of fire protection in buildings is a complex subject and should remain, to some extent, in the realm of professionals.”

I don’t suppose he meant to be rude, but this bit didn’t come across well.

He then retrieves the situation with some comments about future review and a new “style guide” which will make it more easily understood as well as simpler guidance aimed at window installers — the latter point being made because of the incorrect use of UPVC to replace exterior fire retardant materials at Lakanal House.

Regarding the coroner’s comments on encouraging the retrofitting of sprinklers, Mr Pickles said his officials had recently written to social housing providers about this following the recommendation from the coroner at the recent inquests into the fire-fighter deaths at Shirley Towers in Southampton in 2010. (Despite the encouraging tone here, one wonders where he really stands on this, given his recent public opposition to plans for mandatory sprinklers of new houses in Wales.)

Those of us who have had any involvement in emergency planning, or accident investigation are accustomed to a particular way of analysing and learning from past events and mistakes — i.e. no blame, no defensiveness.

Mr. Pickles’s letter appears to present a robust defence of the actions taken by his department. I guess that what seems uncomfortable is the context in which it’s made.

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June 27, 2013 7:33 am

Advice to window installers?? From experience in a previous life, the uPVC window trade is best described as ‘shady.’ And surely it’s not the responsibility of a window fitter to address the fire safety properties of his installation- that should come from building control or equivalent at the point of specification??All very worrying  but then if as a government you operate a policy of laissez faire towards life safety, I’m not really surprised.

Rob Ratcliff
Rob Ratcliff
June 28, 2013 6:32 am
Reply to  gerry_dunphy

DCLG and Pickles in particular seem to have no interest in fire safety, in fact it feels to me like they’re actively interested in making buildings less fire safe with their attitude to the industry.

June 28, 2013 6:52 am

…salad days are over, Pickles. Get your finger out!

June 30, 2013 1:15 pm
Reply to  gerry_dunphy

:Good one Gerry . It’s high time to pickle things up

Bob Docherty
Bob Docherty
June 28, 2013 11:44 am

Its good to know that one of the staunchest supporters of sprinklers is the new Fire Advisor to the Government, Peter Holland.  I am sure that Peter, who has been at the forefront of national sprinkler campaigns will be disabusing Pickles of his view on sprinklers. I look forward to decisions made by government and their agencies on sprinklers being reversed in double quick time once the Governments Fire Advisor advises them correctly about the efficacy and benefits of sprinklers. Go Peter! Oh! and by the way, ADB is awful, you only have to look towards Scottish Building Standards and… Read more »

June 28, 2013 11:58 am

It’s also interesting to note the coroner making the observation that just having available documents in both print and online is not enough and that action is required. It was after all a very ‘quiet’ launch for a major piece of legislation in 2005. Perhaps it’s time to re-energise the message?