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Recent changes to fire safety regulations

23 January 2020

There have been several recent developments regarding fire safety and building regulations in England and Wales.

Following a High Court ruling in December 2019, external blinds, shutters and awnings on buildings over 18 metres have been excluded from the ban on the use of combustible materials, which was introduced in November 2018 as part of the Building Regulations changes made in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire.

The British Blind and Shutter Association, a trade body, had launched a challenge against their members’ products being included in the wider ban on combustible materials, claiming inadequate consultation, which the court upheld.

In a circular letter to local authorities, deputy director of Building Regulations at MHCLG Frances Kirwan advised that the offending section of the regulations should be treated as if it had never been included.

The amended regulation had included a "device for reducing heat gain within a building by deflecting sunlight which is attached to an external wall" in the ban of combustible materials.

In the judgement, the court found that no evidence had been put before it to suggest that shutters and awnings created a fire risk. But it was the consultation process, described as "so unfair as to be unlawful", that overturned the ban.

The circular letter reminds building control bodies that, when considering products to reduce heat gain, they should take account of the more general Building Regulations requirement B4: “the external walls of the building shall adequately resist the spread of fire over the walls and from one building to another, having regard to the height, use and position of the building”.

It also points to paragraph 10.4 in volume 1, and 12.4 volume 2 of the clarified version of Approved Document B, which states: “in relation to buildings of any height or use, consideration should be given to the choice of materials (including their extent and arrangement) used for the external wall, or attachments to the wall, to reduce the risk of fire spread over the wall".

Further changes to fire safety regulations and permitted materials may be on the way in 2020, following new consultation announcements

There is the possibility that the High Court ruling may ultimately be superseded by new legislation later this year. On 20 January, the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) released a new consultation on a Review of the ban on the use of combustible materials in and on the external walls of buildings, where they are seeking views on proposals to:

  • include hotels, hostels and boarding houses in the ban
  • reduce the height threshold to 11 metres
  • alter the list of exemptions (including reintroducing the ban on attachments such as blinds, shutters and awnings)
  • ban the use of metal composite panels in and on the external walls of all buildings of any height

In other recent related news, combustible materials amendments came into force in Wales on 13 January 2020. Kirwan’s circular was addressed to County and County Borough Councils in Wales as well as councils in England, so the same advice to ignore the prohibition of devices for reducing heat gain on tall buildings applies.

Wales has additional fire protection regulations to England, namely the requirement for all new and converted homes to have sprinklers installed. It became the first country in the world to make sprinklers compulsory when it introduced the regulation in 2016.

As in England, further reviews of regulations regarding combustible materials in buildings are on the way in Wales. The Welsh Minister for Housing and Local Government, Julie James, has said she wants to see greater clarity across the life cycle of a building for those designing and managing buildings, and will publish a White Paper setting out more detailed plans later this year.

This article was published on 23 January 2020.

Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas.

RIBA Core Curriculum Topic: Legal, regulatory and statutory compliance.

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