Proposals to make fire safety a planning consideration will require planners to have a better understanding of the issue, say Mike Straw and Barry McAllister

Q What is the current relationship between fire safety and the planning system?

A Fire safety is typically addressed through the building regulations rather than the planning process, though the Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations 2017 do refer to the need to mitigate for the risk of accidents and disasters for large and more complex applications. Currently, however, the planning system seeks to avoid duplication of controls under building regulations and planning conditions cannot be imposed that duplicate other regulatory regimes. Therefore, fire safety considerations really only come to the fore during a project’s detailed design and construction stages. However, in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy last summer, fire safety has become a growing public concern in both the pre- and post-planning stages of the development process.

Q What does the draft London Plan say about fire safety?

A The latest draft London Plan, for the first time, introduces a specific policy on fire safety. If adopted, the boroughs will need to comply with this policy when they review their development plans. Draft policy D11 seeks to establish a high standard of fire safety design in all developments by requiring applicants to consider pertinent issues such as risk to life, fire spread, means of escape and firefighting provisions at the outset of the development design process. The draft plan also introduces a requirement for all major development proposals to be submitted with a “fire statement” to address safety issues.

Q Are any other authorities considering introducing policies that would make fire safety a planning consideration?

A Greater Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, has established a task force to provide fire safety assurance to residents of high-rise accommodation in the conurbation. As part of this, he commissioned an independent review by the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service. A key finding from the review is that “the planning process needs to be changed, giving fire and rescue services statutory consultee status for certain development types”.

Q What does the Hackitt Review’s interim report say about planning?

A Following the Grenfell fire, the government commissioned the Hackitt Review to examine fire safety in the built environment. The review’s interim report, published in December, considers fire safety within the context of planning permission. It notes that planning officers often have no specific experience in fire safety and that building control and fire authorities are not statutory consultees.

Q What impact might the draft London Plan’s fire safety policy requirements have on local authorities?

A The introduction of the requirement to consider fire safety provisions as part of the planning application process and the need for a fire statement will require planning teams to become familiar with and understand what constitute high standards of fire safety. This skill may not currently exist in planning teams. It is likely to mean reskilling staff or seeking an independent assessment to ensure that they can fulfil the obligations imposed on them. Guidance will be required to clarify what is relevant for determining planning applications, including outline applications.

Q What implications might they present to applicants?

A The requirement to provide a fire statement at the planning stage would formalise the need for applicants to assess fire safety provisions earlier than is often the case at present. It would mean that fire safety details need to be negotiated and agreed at the pre-application stage of the scheme’s design process, not subsequently. This could lead to additional costs and potential delay for applicants because detailed drawings of, for example, internal arrangements and site layout issues relating to fire safety would need to be agreed in support of planning applications. It also remains to be seen whether these required fire safety details can form part of subsequent reserved matters approvals for outline planning permissions.

Q How effective are efforts to make fire safety a planning consideration likely to be in improving outcomes?

A Any initiative that has the potential to promote safer buildings should be viewed positively. The draft London Plan has the potential to confront some of the most fundamental fire safety considerations early and to make fire safety an integral part of good design. To be successful, however, a coherent approach to fire safety  from the key statutory authorities, including the local highways authority, building control and the Environment Agency, will be key before planning applications are determined.

Mike Straw is director of business development for planning and Barry McAllister is a fire engineer at RPS Group

Source: Planning Resource, 18 January 2018