David Stewart MSP tells us why he is bringing forward a Member’s Bill in Holyrood to mandate the installation of sprinkler systems in new social housing in Scotland.
Too frequently we are reminded of the devastation caused by fire. At the weekend just past the whole of Scotland watched in dismay as the iconic Glasgow School of Art was destroyed for the second time in four years, in a blaze that also ruined the neighbouring O2 venue.
This heartbreak also follows the one-year anniversary of the Grenfell Tower disaster; the tragedy in which 72 individuals lost their lives and a whole community was shattered. Last Thursday the victims were remembered and honoured by processions through London, memorial services, and a national silence. Despite the inspiring displays of unity, the impact of that night remains palpable and there are still many in mourning for all that was lost. Full restoration for the families affected will never be possible and recovery for the neighbourhood is still a long way off.
Towering over last week’s commemorations was the charred shell of the burned out high-rise, about which still so many questions are being asked. Who was responsible? How could it have been prevented? Why was this permitted to happen? Amidst all the grief, anger and slow Government action, what seems clear is that systematic failings in the building regulation system contributed to the tragic outcome.
Turning to Scotland, while it is true that we have a stricter system of building standards, these should never be taken for granted. Despite our tighter regulations, the risk of fire in Scotland remains higher than in other United Kingdom (UK) countries. In 2016/17 there were almost double the number of dwelling fires in Scotland, per million people, than there were in England .
The number of deaths and non-fatal injuries are also higher in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK. In 2016/17 there were 8.1 fire deaths per million people, compared to 4.7 in England and 6.1 in Wales. Moreover, 82% of Scottish fire deaths, as well as 88% of non-fatal casualties, occurred in dwelling fires, suggesting that the risk of harm is greatest when people are at home.
Scottish Labour believes that everybody deserves a home that is secure, affordable and, crucially, safe. This is why I have proposed a Member’s Bill in the Scottish Parliament that would require all new social housing developments to install fire sprinkler systems as standard.
Contrary to popular belief, sprinklers are not new technology; they have been in use for over 100 years and have a 99% effectiveness worldwide . Neither do they flood a whole house at the slightest spark or whiff of smoke. Rather each system is a network of sophisticated sprinkler heads which individually activate once the temperature nearby reaches around 68oC – which is still 11oC hotter than the highest temperature ever recorded in the Death Valley in California!
Importantly fire sprinklers act to control any fire outbreak, limiting the damage and allowing occupants extra time to escape. By containing the internal spread of flames, sprinklers can also aid efforts to tackle a fire and help protect the lives of fire fighters – important at any time but especially now with the service facing shortages in funding and resources.
Sprinkler systems are currently required by law in some specific residential buildings in Scotland, including care homes, high-raises built after 2005, and hospitals. However, despite this recognition of sprinklers’ important life-saving and asset protection capabilities, there is no requirement that sprinklers be installed in general Scottish housing. Those opposed to extending the use of sprinklers usually point to their cost and complain of the potential for water damage. However, installing sprinklers into new build properties should amount to no more that 1-4% of the overall build costs and research shows that they perform as expected in 96% of cases; accidental discharge due to manufacturing defects is a mere 1 in 14 million (per year of service).
When it comes to promoting fire safety for homes, in recent years the Labour Party have led the way. A trailblazing Labour Member’s Bill in Wales succeed in changing regulations so that sprinkler systems are now required in all new Welsh homes. In London, following the Grenfell disaster, UK Labour are continuing to hold the government to account and their “Make Homes Safe” campaign is demanding that the Government fund the fitting of sprinkler systems into high-rises.
Closer to home, although Scottish Labour may be in opposition in Holyrood, we can still effect legislative change. There have been at least seven Member’s Bills proposed by Scottish Labour MSPs in this Parliamentary session so far and James Kelly’s repeal of the Football Act has already successfully removed badly drafted legislation, forced through by the SNP government, from the statute books.
My proposed bill focuses on social housing as fire is more prevalent in this type of tenure and it often houses some of Scotland’s more vulnerable populations. The proposals were put out to consultation at the start of the year and the results showed 94% of the public were in favour of the plans . The next step, after the consultation results were published, was to gather cross-party support for the proposal to gain the right to introduce the legislation to Parliament. At the same time, the Scottish Government were given a month in which to decide whether they plan to take over the proposal and legislate themselves.
The response from MSPs has been overwhelmingly positive, both from my Labour colleagues and across the Chamber. Over 50 Members from all five political parties have signed up in support ahead of the deadline on Thursday, putting immense pressure on the Government to act.
As legislators we have a duty to ensure that our fire safety measures are as robust as they can be and my hope would be that this bill is just a first step towards seeing all Scottish homes protected by fire sprinklers. To help you can contact your MSP and ask them to support the proposed bill by Thursday 21st June.
The scandal of Grenfell was that the protection for those most in need was not present. I am determined that such a tragedy should never be the case in Scotland.
 Fire and Rescue Incident Statistics Scotland 2016/17: http://www.firescotland.gov.uk/media/1213019/incident_statistics_2016_17v1.0.pdf
 Optimal Economics, “Efficiency and Effectiveness of Sprinkler systems in the United Kingdom”, May 2017. Available at: https://www.nationalfirechiefs.org.uk/write/MediaUploads/NFCC%20Guidance%20publications/Protection/Optimal_Sprinkler_Report.pdf
 Proposed Social Housing (Automatic Fire Suppression Systems)(Scotland) Bill, Summary of Consultation Responses, May 2018: http://www.parliament.scot/S5MembersBills/Fire_sprinklers_summary_-_FINAL.pdf