Sir Mike Penning calls for fire sprinklers for all new housing

12th March 2019

Speaking in a debate on fire safety and sprinkler systems, Sir Mike Penning calls for sprinklers to be installed in all new housing and retrofitted to tower blocks as a matter or urgency.

As always, Mr Gray, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I declare an interest as a former firefighter, a former member of the FBU—I think technically I might still be one—and a former fire Minister when responsibility for fire was first brought into the Home Office.

Not all of what we ask today is in the Minister’s gift. Personally, I think that the fire Minister should have much more control over building regulations. When the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and I were firemen many years ago, most fire prevention work was done in-house in the fire service; I remember quite junior officers going away for up to two years to become fire prevention officers. Long before the terrible Grenfell disaster, we spent years and years, under numerous Governments, discussing whether we should have sprinklers in the home. As the hon. Gentleman says, the people who die in fires tend to be the most vulnerable. That is a national catastrophe.

Sprinklers have changed enormously over the years, from the drenching sprinklers that swamped everything to get the fire out and destroyed nearly everything apart from people’s lives, to the very fine particulate sprinklers that we have now, which create more of a mist. The need to protect environments as well as lives is much more obvious now, and the new sprinklers do that.

I support all the calls being made. I do not think that we need to wait for this or that report, because it is blatantly obvious, as old-fashioned common sense tells us, that there is a strong correlation between sprinklers and lives saved. As we have heard, where sprinklers have been installed, no lives have been lost. I do not want to say too much about Grenfell, but there is a strong possibility that the fire started inside the building and then spread to the outside and the cladding. A sprinkler system is inside, not outside. Quite simply, if the fire had never got to the cladding in the first place, the situation would almost certainly have been very different.

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

May I make a tiny bit of progress first, because of the time constraints that we are quite rightly under? It is fantastic to see so many colleagues here.

It is obvious common sense to have sprinklers in all new housing. Interestingly enough, they not only save lives but make insurance premiums go down. As with other types of insurance, such as telematics in car insurance, we have driven the industry to say, “If you install this, things could be better and your premiums could be lower.” Sprinklers also matter to developers choosing to buy properties in a certain area. Surely they must be the way forward. I will come on to social housing in a second, but let me first give way to my hon. Friend.

I support the point made by my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) about the need for sprinklers. My right hon. Friend mentions the spread of fire. Does he recognise that the Grenfell tragedy could have been averted if the spread of fire by combustible cladding outside the building had been prevented? At current rates of progress, it will take five years to remediate all the private sector buildings in the UK. [Interruption.] The Minister shakes his head, but that is the current rate of progress. Where ownership or responsibility is unclear, does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government should step in and provide a fund to allow remediation work to take place more quickly?

I am sure that the Minister will respond to my hon. Friend’s point. Obviously we would like to see people sleeping in homes that are safe, and the faster that happens, the better. I am sure that the Minister feels exactly the same.

If the Government do not take action on sprinklers, they are really saying that property is more important than people’s lives. They may say that the costs are high or that the developers do not want sprinkler systems, but actually we have found that installing them in all new builds and major refurbishments would cost less than 1% of the build cost—not the retail value, the build cost. I cannot understand anyone in the 21st century arguing against installing sprinklers in all new properties. The insurers insist on it in most commercial and retail properties, and surely lives are more important.

As an ex-fireman and ex-Minister, I know the advice that the Minister has been getting, but he needs to turn round and say, “I am afraid that some of that advice is tosh.” The cost implications are there. New build could start tomorrow and refurbishment costs can be met. Now that we are building more social housing than ever—in my constituency we are building like wildfire, because we need more council houses—surely the Local Government Association could bring councils together to say that sprinklers should be installed.

I will not go into carbon monoxide and smoke detectors, but the successes in that area have caused a sudden drop in fatalities. We need to do more work on carbon monoxide, but this debate is about sprinklers. Sprinklers need to be in everybody’s homes as soon as possible.


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