City Logistics is the occupier of a monster-sized warehouse in Northampton. The fire officer popped in one day to issue his fire certificate. He thought it best that City first install a sprinkler system. It would cost only a fraction more than half a million pounds. City balked. After all, there were only 30 people in the place, and there were 46 portable extinguishers in place.
The building itself had, of course, obtained a Building Regulations Certificate from Northampton council. When City put up all the racking for pallets, the borough didn't characterise this as a material alteration requiring Building Regulations approval, so the fire officer had no authority to demand structural alterations to the warehouse. Sprinklers are, it seems, a structural alteration, so the fire officer had no authority to demand sprinklers.
Well, said the fire officer, no sprinklers, no certificate. So City reached for its lawyers. Off it went to the local magistrates' court to appeal. No way, said the bench. Spend the half-million. So City's lawyers went to the crown court. Here it was argued that if a fire broke out in this building, the worst-case scenario would still result in the 30 people having time to evacuate. The fire officer's lawyers said that it was one thing to accept that people could escape, but surely the 1971 Fire Precautions Act was also about fighting fire. No, said the crown court judge. The act is about escape only. He reversed the decision. City could keep its money. The Northampton fire officer wasn't having that. So he went to the High Court to challenge the crown court decision and, would you believe, he won. City wasn't having that. So it went to the Court of Appeal, where three judges reversed the previous decision. City won.
In the Bradford stadium, on our TV screens, we saw an inferno develop in seconds. There wasn’t even enough time to jump onto the pitch
Just one moment please. If the Fire Precautions Act 1971, as amended in 1987, requires all this fathoming out by judges, do you agree with me that the act itself should be torched? When will parliamentary draftsmen begin writing acts of parliament for ordinary people in ordinary language? Send the confounded act back to parliament to be rewritten, will you?
The Court of Appeal judges interpreted this act for us. The duty of the fire authority when inspecting such buildings is to be satisfied that the means of escape in a fire is reasonably OK; and that this "means" is provided and actually works; and that the place is filled with warnings in case of fire.
The judges unanimously rejected the idea that the act went further than making the building safe for those inside. The court rejected the notion that a building must not endanger the lads who turn up to fight the blaze. It rejected, too, a statutory duty to install fire-fighting equipment to protect the stock or building. Nor did the Fire Precautions Act oblige the warehouse owners to install equipment to protect neighbouring people and property. It was not right that City had to put in sprinklers to avoid polluting the atmosphere in the event of a fire, nor to minimise the economic affects of a fire on the property owner's insurers. In short, this important act, which has been used year in year out by fire officers, was being used wrongly. There is one test only for the fire certificate: can the occupants escape? And if escape can be made by having 46 extinguishers dotted around the place, then heigh-ho, all's well.
Tony Bingham is a barrister and arbitrator specialising in construction. You can write to him at 3 Paper Buildings, Temple, London EC4 7EY, or email him on firstname.lastname@example.org.