The history of fire safety legislation in the United Kingdom formally covers the period from the formation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801 but is founded in the history of such legislation in England and Wales, and Scotland before 1708, and that of the Kingdom of Great Britain from 1707 to 1800.
While much British legislation applied to the United Kingdom as a whole, Scotland and Northern Ireland often had their own versions of the legislation, with slight differences. United Kingdom legislation before 1922 remained in force in the Irish Free State after its independence in that year.
At the time of the creation of the United Kingdom in 1801, England, Scotland, and Great Britain had some legislation already in place dealing with the issues of fire safety.
As a result of the Great Fire of London, which started on 2 September 1666, it was soon clear that the wooden construction of London's buildings had added greatly to the spread of the fire. As a result, King Charles II issued a proclamation saying that all buildings were to be built out of stone and roads were to be widened.
The English government looked at legislation and introduced laws aimed specifically at fire prevention. The London Cooking Fire Bylaw 1705 specifically prohibited open fires in the attics of thatched buildings.
The Fires Prevention (Metropolis) Act placed buildings into seven classes, with the required thicknesses of the external and party walls stipulated for each of the classes. It also included provisions stating a maximum floor area for stores and warehouses. The Act brought into being the first legislation that dealt with human life and escape, rather than just building safety. The Act stated that London boroughs were to appoint surveyors and "every parish should provide three or more proper ladders of one, two and three storeys high, for assisting persons in houses on fire to escape therefrom".
Under the Explosives Act, many fire brigades took on the responsibility for the safe storage of explosives. The Explosives Act was partly repealed when the Manufacture and Storage of Explosives Regulations 2005 (SI 2005 No. 1082) was brought into being but the inspection and licensing remained much the same.
Under the 1928 Act, the storage of petroleum and petroleum products, whether in underground/above ground tanks or storage cabinets, required a licence issued by the Licensing Authority. In the metropolitan areas, this was the fire authority. In the county authorities, it was the local authority, but usually this was devolved down to the fire service. The Petroleum (Consolidation) Act 1928, as amended by Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002 (SI 2002 No. 2776), changed the licensing regime and now requires only that anyone operating a petrol filling station have a licence.
Under the London Building Acts 1930-39 powers were granted to make building byelaws and the first set issued in 1938 covered many of the constructional matters previously contained in the earlier Acts. Special powers in London (Section 20 Buildings) were also granted in respect of means of escape from certain new and existing buildings based on their height and use. Outside of London individual local authorities could make local building byelaws under the Public Health Act 1936.
However, these local building byelaws were not entirely satisfactory in that local authorities were not obliged to make or adopt them, and many did not.
The Public Health Act 1936 was therefore amended by the Public Health Act 1961 to permit the making of one set of national building regulations to replace the 1,400 sets of local byelaws. The first national building regulations for England and Wales were made in 1965. However, they required physical fire safety only for the structure of all new, altered or extended buildings.
In 1974 the fire safety scope (of the building regulations in England and Wales) was extended through use of the then new powers given by the Fire Precautions Act 1971, to include minimum safety provisions for means of escape in case of fire.
Thus the first building regulations (for England and Wales) to require general fire precautions for the safe means of escape in case of fire were made in 1974. In practice, these "m-o-e" building regulations drew in large part upon the design guidance and recommendations of the then rather oddly titled "CP3 Chapter 4 "Code of Practice for Means of Escape in Buildings", issued by the BSI (British Standards Institute) in 1971.
Building regulations (England and Wales) were not retrospective in their effect. Therefore, when minimum fire safety measures were improved in revised issues of the building regulations documents, existing buildings were not required to adopt these new minimum standards unless they were being altered or extended. Thus "as originally built" buildings were exempt from the new rules from 1974 until the advent of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. This order requires adequate and sufficient general fire precautions suitable for the current users and use, of any given building, to be provided by the responsible person for each building.
This did lead to a rather unsatisfactory mishmash of fire safety in the English and Welsh building stock. The Fire Safety Order 2005 now requires the responsible person for each building to carry out or commission from a competent person a fire risk assessment to ensure that the general fire precautions within a particular building are fit for the purposes that that building is being currently put to. The current use of an old building by today's occupiers and users has to be taken into account, in arriving at the appropriate general fire precautions. Thus both proportionate and appropriate remedial "fire safety" works may be necessary to discharge the responsible persons legal duty, to control or reduce the risk to life from fire in a building.
In 1937 the Factories Act 1901 was extended to cover means of escape in case of fire. The Act required that the factory owner have a plan of escape in case of fire and brought in the first rudimentary fire certificates.
Before 1947, issues of fire safety were in the hands of the local authority, and the legal enforcement of issues under the Factories Act and Office Shops and Railway Premises Act were dealt with by the local authority, having usually devolved this down to the fire brigade. The introduction of the Fire Services Act 1947 gave the fire brigade its first responsibilities for fire safety. Section 1 of the Fire Services Act defined the duties of a fire brigade and further went to say under section 1, sub-section 1 paragraph F, commonly referred to as 11(F), that a fire brigade must give advice and assistance on matters of fire prevention if so requested by any person. The Act did not however give any other powers to the fire brigade in terms of inspection and enforcement.
A fire at the Eastwood Mills, Keighley, Yorkshire in February 1956, in which 8 people died, resulted in the Act being further amended in 1959 giving the fire brigades the power to inspect factories for fire safety. Finally in 1961 the Act was re-written to consolidate all the changes. The fire certificates were also updated to include not only means of escape but also provision for fighting fire and structural fire separation.
On 1 May 1961, a fire occurred at the Top Storey Club in Bolton, which resulted in the deaths of nineteen people. Fourteen died in the building, and five were killed attempting to jump out of windows into the canal that ran alongside the building. The Licensing Act 1961 was almost immediately amended to update the requirements for safety in case of fire.
In June 1960, a fire broke out in the William Henderson & Sons, Liverpool department store. Ten people were trapped in the fourth floor and one man fell to his death whilst assisting others to safety from a window ledge.
This fire prompted the Government to amend the Office Shops and Railway Premises Act (OSRA) in line with the Factories Act 1961 and in 1963 a new OSRA was introduced
(Repealed, for England and Wales, by the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 on 1 October 2006)
On Boxing Day 1969, a fire at the Rose and Crown Hotel, Saffron Walden killed eleven people whilst seventeen were rescued. The fire prompted the Government to look at the whole structure of fire safety legislation and in 1971, the Fire Precautions Act was passed into law.
This act combined the fire sections of the Factories Act and the Office Shops and Railway Premises Act and brought in new premises like hotels. This was an open designating act, and it contained a wide list of premises types from which the Secretary of State could select specific premises types to be covered by statutory instrument.
The responsibility for enforcing the Act fell on the fire service, except in civil Crown premises, where Her Majesty's Inspectors of Fire Service (HMIFS) carried out the enforcement.
The Fire Precautions Act 1971 came into force in 1972, when hotels and boarding houses were the first class of premises to be designated. Under the Fire Precautions (Hotels and Boarding Houses) Order 1972, Statutory Instrument (SI) 1972 /238) (and an equivalent Order for Scotland), any premises where there was sleeping accommodation for more than six persons (staff or guests), or any sleeping accommodation above the first floor or below the ground floor, required a fire certificate issued by the fire authority.
The Fire Precautions (Factories, Offices, Shops and Railways Premises) Order 1976, (revoked in 1989 by SI 1989/76), further designated premises to require fire certificates for factories, offices, shops and railway premises:
The Fire Precautions Act 1971 was amended in 1987 by the Fire Safety and Safety of Places of Sport Act 1987, by laying down stipulations that the occupier of the premises must take into consideration. These were known as interim arrangements, and the occupier, having made an application for a fire certificate, now had a duty to ensure that
Premises that fell outside of these rules did not have to have a fire certificate but had to provide limited fire safety by virtue of Section 9A of the Act.
The 1971 Act gave power to the fire authority to apply to the court to prohibit the use of premises if they were dangerous and there was a serious risk of imminent danger from fire for persons in the premises (prohibition notice). This prohibition power applied widely to all manner of premises but excluded single private dwellings. One of the changes introduced in 1987 was for the fire authority to issue prohibition notices directly, without the need to apply to the court.
One major issue with the Act was that fire certification was only ever applied to the designated premises. Places of public entertainment such as cinemas, theatres and nightclubs were never designated so the powers of inspection and enforcement remained with the local authority licensing department.
In many areas, the fire brigade carried out the inspections on behalf of the licensing department, but had no powers other than those granted by Section 10 - Prohibition Notice.
The Fire Precautions Act 1971 and its "Fire Certificates" were totally repealed and replaced by the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, which came into full force on 1 October 2006 (in England and Wales).
The Fire Precautions (Factories, Offices, Shops and Railway Premises) Regulations 1976, gave some updates to the FPA and cleared several points about self-employed workers, the numbers of hours worked (part-time workers) and how aggregation of these could be used to bring some "grey" premises into the scope of requiring a fire certificate. It also brought in exemptions from the requirement to have a fire certificate in certain small premises.
(These regulations were revoked in 1989; see below.)
(Revoked by the RR (Fire Safety) Order 2005 for England and Wales; see below.)
Following several small fires in chemical plants and a major explosion and fire at the Nypro plant in Flixborough on 1 June 1974, the Government decided to require fire certificates for major chemical and other risks and to give enforcement to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). It issued the Fire Certificates (Special Premises) Regulations 1976 (SI 1976/2003), enforced by the HSE on a similar line to the Fire Precautions Act 1971.
These regulations were brought in to require premises having over a threshold quantity or using certain named hazardous substances to possess a fire certificate. The regulations applied to whole sites rather than the single premise or building approach used in the Fire Precautions Act 1971.
These regulations also applied to temporary buildings associated with construction work. Fire certificates were required for some of these buildings, and there were some fire safety obligations generally imposed in respect of those temporary buildings, which did not require a fire certificate.
(These regulations were revoked by the RR (Fire Safety) Order 2005 for England and Wales; see below.)
In England and Wales, the powers to make building regulations were consolidated and re-enacted in 1984. All building regulations made by the Secretary of State since then have included minimum fire safety measures (for both physical fire resistance and safe means of escape) for all new, extended or altered buildings. The current building regulation's fire safety documents were last revised and issued in 2006.
See Approved Document - Part B - Fire Safety Vol 1 & 2 (available to download free from the UK Government's "Planning Portal" website).
A major simplification and enlargement of the scope of the English and Welsh fire safety laws was implemented by the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (RR (FS)O 2005, in force 1 October 2006). The new Fire Safety Order again amended and extended the scope of fire safety provision within the Building Regulations 2000.
Building Regulation (Reg.16B) now require a developer or architect to hand over sufficient fire safety information to the building's future responsible person, so he may commission an appropriate fire risk assessment for the new building and its occupiers and/or users.
Note: building regulations and fire safety laws are different, but similar, in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
(Modified and partially replaced by the RR (Fire Safety) Order 2005; see below.)
Following a fire on 11 May 1985 at the Bradford City football ground in which 56 people died a committee was set up to examine the Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975. They recommended that the Act be rewritten as the Fire Safety and Safety of Places of Sport Act. The Act did not replace the Fire Precautions Act but gave more powers to the local building control authority and fire authority. These powers included the power to charge for the issue of a fire certificate.
(Modified and partially replaced by the RR (Fire Safety) Order 2005; see below.)
(Repealed and replaced, for England, in 2010 by regulations made under RR (FS)O 2005.)
These precautions followed a serious fire at the King's Cross Underground Station on 18 November 1987, which resulted in the loss of 31 lives, including Station Officer Colin Townsley of the London Fire Brigade.
The Fire Precautions (Sub-surface Railway Stations) Regulations 1989 (SI 1989/1401) were made under Section 12 of the Fire Precautions Act 1971 and were brought into effect on 18 September 1989.
(Replaced in 2010 by regulations made under RR (FS) O 2005.)
(Revoked by the RR (Fire Safety) Order 2005 for England and Wales; see below.)
In the early 1990s, the government was required to implement several European directives including one on fire safety. This was at the height of deregulation and the government, architects, commerce and industry considered that fire brigades were too inflexible and demanded belt and braces solutions. They and the directive called for a new approach to fire safety and demanded a cheaper and more flexible system. They decided the prescriptive method used by the fire service should be replaced by a more flexible fire risk assessment approach and consequently the Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations 1997 (SI 1997/1840) was placed on the statute books using section 12 of the 1971 Act. They also wanted the responsibility of implementing the legislation to be removed from the fire service and placed on the employers, but the fire service would be the enforcing authority for the legislation. It was implemented using the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, 1992 (MHSAW) (replaced in 1999).
These regulations differed from the previous fire safety legislation in that they introduced the concept of risk assessment in a style similar to the Health and Safety at Work Etc. Act 1974.
The workplace regulations also brought in a new form of enforcement of the legislation. Under the Fire Precautions Act, Section 10 gave the fire brigade the power to close a premises if there was serious danger from fire; however, there was very little they could do to bring a premises up to standard. Section 4 of the Fire Precautions Act did give some limited powers to issue a 'Notice of Steps' to be taken to correct any defects.
The workplace regulations brought in a new enforcement method, the 'improvement notice'. This allowed the enforcing authority to serve notice of any defects and give a reasonable time scale as to when the work should be completed; failure to complete the work in that time could result in prosecution.
(Revoked by the RR (Fire Safety) Order 2005 for England and Wales; see below.)
(Repealed and totally replaced by the RR (Fire Safety) Order 2005; see below.)
The Fire Precautions (Workplace) (Amendment) Regulations 1999 (S.I. 1999/1877) were a result of European Communities Act 1972. They brought the UK legislation up to a standard that met the fire safety requirements of two health and safety European Directives, 89/391/EEC and 89/654/EEC, adopted in 1989. The amendments were laid before Parliament on 7 July 1999 and became law on 1 December 1999.
Unfortunately, they did not revoke sections 5 to 9 of the Fire Precautions Act, which required fire certificates; consequently, the legislation now ran in parallel with the Workplace Regulations but secondary to it. Employers or persons having overall control of the workplace were made responsible under the regulations to implement and conduct fire safety risk assessments, also produce a record if they employ more than five people. The Fire Brigades enforce the regulations and conduct limited inspections to ensure employers are carrying out their responsibilities.
(Modified by the RR (Fire Safety) Order 2005; see below.)
'Licensed premises' covered a number of types of establishment, including places where alcohol was sold or consumed, theatres, cinemas and places of entertainment.
Many of these premises fell outside the scope of the Fire Precautions Act 1971 but had their own legislation, such as the Theatres Act and the Cinemas Act, which contained within them, their own fire regulations. Most of these acts have now been amended or repealed and their fire precautions now fall under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2006 or Licensing Act 2003.
The Licensing Act 2003 introduced a requirement for licences to sell or supply alcohol, provide regulated entertainment or provide late night refreshment with the licence holder serving notice of application directly upon the fire and rescue authority. This amended or repealed much of the old licensing legislation, including Theatres Act 1968, Cinemas Act 1985, Gaming Acts 1968 & 1990 and Licensing Act 1964.
Laws such as the Local Government Miscellaneous Provisions Act 1976 were major legislation but contain sections covering fire safety of some outdoors events, private film shows, neon signs and some licensed premises that fell outside the scope of the 2003 Act. There were also numerous local Acts such as the Greater Manchester Act 1981, which give the fire brigade powers to control flammable stacks, night cafes and licence underground car parks.
The old acts (repealed by RR (FS) O 2005 1 October 2006) that controlled licensing caused much confusion as there were conflicts in who enforced the various parts of the legislation and where it was to be enforced.
Licensed premises (pubs, clubs, cinemas, theatres) were classed as providing a service, not as shops, and so did not normally fall within the designated groups in the FPA, so some never needed fire certificates. However, the local authority who issued the licence usually asked the fire brigade to inspect plans and carry out inspections, which led to confusion even by fire safety officers.
Coupled with all this, materials such as celluloid have been recognised as highly flammable since early days of its usage, and acts such as the Celluloid and Cinematograph Films Act 1922 and the Cinematograph Act 1952 gave the fire brigade powers to take samples of film and test them for flammability even though they were not the enforcing authority.
Other licensing legislation such as the licensing of underground car parks by means of a local act such as the Greater Manchester Act applied where local acts existed so one authority licensed and the next one did not. There were also arguments about definitions of shops etc., further confusing the issues.
The Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 (England and Wales - see below) laid out in Section 6 what the fire service must do in relation to fire safety. It states that a fire and rescue authority must make provision for the purpose of promoting fire safety in its area not only by the enforcement of specific fire safety legislation but also by a proactive strategy targeted at all sections of the community by:
This meant that the service has had to change its fire safety strategies and now include public education as well as legal enforcement. All fire and rescue services today have specialist departments dealing with community fire safety education. The job of these departments is to educate by talking to school children and vulnerable areas of the community and to assist the public, with many FRS running campaigns, offering free smoke detectors as part of the drive to reduce deaths in the home.
This Act reformed (and expanded) the former narrow "unfitness standard", and gave (in England and Wales) all Environmental Health Officers strong enforcement powers, to inspect any dwelling (rented, leased, owner-occupied, or what ever) for the 23 defined "hazards". This is known as the "Housing Health and Safety Rating System" (HHSRS) toolbox.
An EHO may order the removal of any of these hazards where it is a "Cat 1" risk to the dwellings occupier(s). EHOs can enforce non-action and carry out remedial works, and recharge the dwelling with the costs. Owners of dwellings can also be prosecuted for any of the 23 defined hazards.
"Fire safety" is one of the defined hazards. EHOs may use their powers on single-family dwellings independently from the fire authority's powers under the Fire Safety order 2005, to require adequate and sufficient fire safety measures in existing dwellings.
This carries on the long British legal tradition, which started with the Housing Act of 1875, that owners and/or occupiers may not put anyone in danger by their actions or inactions, and must act to protect their neighbours. If they fail to so, the local council's EHOs have a duty to consider taking appropriate legal action to protect the community at large. (Womack and Bone LLP)
In 2000, the Government in the form of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (OPDM) set up a review of the fire safety legislation led by the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott MP and found that there were some 80 Acts of Parliament or parts of Acts which specified fire safety legislation. In order to revamp the whole thing and bringing it up to date, they decided to place all the odd bits of fire legislation under the umbrella of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, which became law in October 2006. It applies to England and Wales only.
The major change in the legislation was that it brought in the concept of risk assessment rather than prescriptive codes.
The Fire Precautions Act had relied on codes and guides for its implementation, and the Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations had changed that a little by introducing risk assessment as a way of complying, but because the requirement for a fire certificate was never repealed, the guides and codes were still used as a prescriptive means of applying the law. The RR (FS) O took this one step further and implemented fully a risk assessment based regime.
The Fire Safety Order lays out the foundation of the fire risk assessment by saying that the responsible person (employer, person in control of the building, or the owner) must take into account for the safety of their employees and anyone else who may lawfully be on or near their premises.
The following must be provided (to protect their employees and anyone else who may lawfully be on or near the premises):
The Fire Safety Order then tells the responsible person (employer, person in control of the building, or owner) how they must assess these items in order to protect their employees and anyone else who may lawfully be on or near their premises.
The Fire Safety Order 2005 now requires the responsible person for each building to carry out or commission from a competent person a Fire Risk Assessment to ensure that the general fire precautions within a particular building are fit for the purposes that that building is being currently put to. The current use of an old building by today's occupiers and users has to be taken into account, in arriving at the appropriate general fire precautions. Thus, both proportionate and appropriate remedial "fire safety" works may be necessary to discharge the responsible person's legal duty, to control or reduce the risk to life from fire in a building. (Womack & Bone LLP)
The Fire Safety Order 2005 applies to most buildings and sites, except for private dwellings, though the FSO does apply to communal areas/escape routes serving dwellings. The fire authority is the principal enforcing authority. However, there are other enforcing authorities - the Health and Safety Executive for most construction sites and on ships under construction, the Defence Fire and Rescue Service for defence premises, the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) for nuclear sites, and the local authority for sports grounds.
The ongoing audit and 'enforcement' of both the required "Fire Risk Assessments" and the necessary 'General Fire Precautions' in any premise subject to the Fire Safety Order 2005, are the legal duty on the local fire authority.
Fire authorities should follow up on their audit and inspection of any premises and they may order additional fire precautions or even issue a prohibition notice, to prevent the use of a very dangerous building.
Fire authorities can also issue informal "action plans" or issue informal "notice of fire safety deficiencies" letters.
Failure of the responsible person to implement a Fire Risk Assessment's recommendations, or to follow (within the time limit specified by the fire authority) up on a fire authority's informal "Action Plan" or "NFSD" letter, will usually lead to a formal enforcement order being issued.
If the enforcement notice or prohibition notice is ignored, then court action for these criminal offenses will be taken by the local fire authority. Crown Courts may imprison the responsible person for up to two years for each breach of any of the Fire Safety Order's articles, and/or impose fines of up to £10,000 for each breach of any of the Fire Safety Order's articles, on individuals.
Crown Courts may impose unlimited fines on any company, breaching the requirements and legal duties imposed by the Fire Safety Order 2005. Fines of £300,000 to £400,000 have already been imposed on two major companies for their corporate fire safety failings under the RR (FS) O 2005. In addition, to these fines, the legal costs of bringing the successful prosecution may also be recovered from the convicted 'fire criminal'.
HHSRS - One should not forget the parallel powers of each local council's EHO (Environmental Health Officer) to enforce fire safety within both single dwellings and in blocks of flats and buildings providing 'Housing in Multiple Occupation' (HMO), under their Housing Act 2004 (HHSRS/"unfittness") powers. "Owners of HMOs may need a renewable licence to operate, from the local authority EHO."
Enforcement Concordat - A fire authority may and sometimes does pass a fire safety complaint over to the local housing authority.
"Beds in sheds" - English fire authorities have recently started to prosecute owners and operators of illegally built or converted "dwellings" in non-habitable buildings, such as 'domestic garages in gardens' and disused offices, public houses, factories, under the Fire Safety Order 2005.
Fire authorities in England and Wales are legally required to publish the (responsible person's) name and the premises address, for which they have issued an enforcement notice, an alterations notice, or a prohibition notice, under the powers given to them by the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. Many fire authorities have put these lists on their websites. Most fire authorities' "name and shame" lists also indicate which "notices" are "still outstanding" or "now complied with". For example, see the London Fire Brigade website. (Womack & Bone LLP)
Enforcement action has been taken by many fire authorities. Several owners, and landlords have been taken to court, and heavily fined. A growing number of landlords have been jailed, for persistent breaches of the Fire Safety Order.
Crown Courts may imprison the responsible person for up to two years for each breach of any of the Fire Safety Order's articles, and/or impose fines of up to £10,000 for each breach of any of the Fire Safety Order's articles, on individuals. Crown Courts may impose Unlimited fines on any company, breaching the requirements and legal duties imposed by the Fire Safety Order 2005. Fines of £300,000 to £400,000 have already been imposed on two major companies for their corporate fire safety failings under the RR (FS) O 2005. In addition to these fines, the legal costs of bringing the successful prosecution may also be recovered from the convicted 'fire criminal'.
Every "real" fire is now followed up by the local fire authority's fire safety inspectors.
The English Court of Appeal, on 16 June 2010, upheld a Crown Court's fine of £400,000 (with additional legal costs of £150,000) against New look Retailers Ltd. Following a major fire in the New Look Oxford Street shop, whilst no one was hurt, the building was lost and Oxford Street was closed for two days.
The equivalent legislation in Scotland to the Regulatory Reform Order is the Fire (Scotland) Act 2005. Its scope (in Scotland) covers what the RRO and the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 covers in England and Wales. Part 3 of the act deals specifically with fire safety. In October 2006, the Fire Safety (Scotland) Regulations 2006 SI 456 also came into effect. Legislation in Scotland relating to fire and rescue services and fire safety comes under the auspices of the Scottish Government.
In Northern Ireland, the equivalent legislation is the Fire and Rescue Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 SI No 1254 (NI9) (it is a statutory instrument).