Speech in the Scottish Parliament debate
23 November 2017
I thank the Local Government and Communities Committee for its excellent report on building regulations and fire safety.
Ensuring the safety of new buildings in Scotland requires strong and wide-ranging building regulations that are enforced without compromise.
In that regard, I welcome the committee’s recommendation that the power of verification should not be extended beyond local authorities.
Gifting that power to the private sector would open the door to potential conflicts of interest and unaccountability, as well as a loss of valuable local knowledge.
It is key that the verification process supports new building projects not only on paper but in practice.
It is clear that delays in processing applications have had a significant impact on developers and they can also undermine confidence in Scotland as an attractive investment prospect.
Sadly, such delays are a result of an age-old story with which we have become all too familiar.
Cuts to local authorities have left staff burdened with increasingly heavier workloads, and having to spend more time on admin and less time visiting sites.
For example, almost half of the respondents in Unison’s “Building stress” report stated that they had faced budget cuts in the past year, and another 20 per cent stated that the cuts had been severe.
The eventual losers are building residents and the general public.
Of particular concern are reports that, because of delays, builders are going ahead without the proper consents, raising questions of how compliance can ever be verified.
If delays are to be improved and safety guaranteed, the only solution is for local authorities to be adequately resourced. All other options are merely unsustainable sticking plasters.
David Stewart has just said that buildings are going ahead without consent. If any member has evidence of that, I want to know about it.
Following the terrible events of the Grenfell tower disaster, I commend the committee for taking the initiative to extend its inquiry to encompass the safety aspects of building regulations.
Fire safety has been a significant issue in Scotland, even prior to Grenfell, so I wish to focus on that.
Over the past decades, the number of domestic fires has been decreasing across the UK.
However, Scotland has consistently had the highest rate of fire outbreaks compared to the other UK nations.
In 2015-16, there were almost 46 per cent more fires per million people in Scotland than there were in England and Wales.
Indeed, during that period, one was more likely to die in a dwelling house fire in Scotland than anywhere else in the UK.
That is not to take away from the invaluable work of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, which operates under incredibly difficult circumstances.
Its efforts in assessing Scottish buildings and reassuring residents following the Grenfell tower fire should especially be praised.
However, budget cuts to the service are again a worrying trend.
When addressing issues of fire safety, it is crucial that we stay relevant to the situation in Scotland.
The reviews of the local government committee and of the ministerial working group have focused particularly on fire safety in high-rise buildings.
Although that is understandable in light of the circumstances at Grenfell tower, I encourage them to go further. If we look at the evidence, we see that in 2016-17, only 4 per cent of domestic fires were in flats of 10 storeys or more.
On the other hand, the effects of fire are not felt equally throughout Scottish society.
The risk of fire is much higher in areas of socioeconomic deprivation.
That is evident even in my home city of Inverness.
Regrettably, Scotland’s higher rate of fire death and injury is disproportionately carried by our most vulnerable populations.
With that in mind, I turn to a solution that has the potential impact of bringing about long-lasting change.
Fire suppression systems, often referred to as sprinkler systems, are a proven method of preventing the spread of fires and saving lives.
For example, despite Scotland’s high frequency of fire, there have never been multiple fire deaths where a working sprinkler system has been installed.
That is why, as members will know, I will introduce a member’s bill that will require installation of fire suppression systems in all new social housing.
Many fears around the use of sprinklers are unfounded urban myths.
Contrary to what we might see on television, whole properties are not drenched in streams of water at the appearance of a single spark.
Rather, heat-sensitive sprinkler heads operate individually to contain a fire.
The sophisticated technology actually limits the damage that is caused by the initial fire and the measures that are taken to fully extinguish it.
Studies suggest that, as well as being effective, sprinkler systems are reliable.
The most recent research from England concluded that sprinklers operated as expected in 94 per cent of all cases.
For those reasons, a 2015 cost benefit analysis that was commissioned by the Scottish Government accepted that :
“The evidence indicates that most of these deaths and injuries and much of the damage would have been prevented had the properties concerned been fitted with sprinklers.”
There have been improvements to Scotland’s existing approach to sprinkler systems, in relation to sheltered housing, for example.
As members will know, in 2016, following a successful member’s bill in the National Assembly for Wales, all new homes in Wales are being fitted with sprinkler systems.
However, despite the life-saving potential of such systems, Scottish building regulations require fire suppression systems only in high-rise buildings built since 2005.
The result is a postcode lottery, with older high-rise buildings and other domestic dwelling types not covered.
Across Scotland, some local authorities have embraced the use of sprinklers beyond the existing requirements.
The trailblazing councils in Angus, Fife and Dundee have adopted policies of fitting sprinklers into new social housing.
Their developments stand as shining examples of the housing that I want to see across Scotland.
I thank the committee and the clerks for their excellent work.
I flag up the point that the UK Labour Party is calling for all social housing tower blocks to be retrofitted with sprinklers, and I encourage the committee to scrutinise the deliberations of the ministerial working group on the subject.
It is crucial that we support the use of sprinklers in social housing. Lowering our high fire statistics in the future requires action now.
Our response to Grenfell should not be a mere knee-jerk reaction; it should be carefully considered and have a real impact.
It is time to invest in sprinkler technology and in the safety of all Scottish social housing well into the future.
As Walter Scott said, all that we need is
“The will to do, the soul to dare.”
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