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Fire safety legislation

The fire safety of houses and blocks of flats is governed by different regimes:

  • During construction, the Building Act 1984 and the Building Regulations 2010 New buildings must be designed and constructed to limit the spread of fire and to help occupants escape in the event of a fire.
  • Once occupied, the Fire Safety Order 2005 It applies to communal areas in shared blocks of flats only, not to individual flats or houses. A building’s owner or manager, as the ‘responsible person’ for the premise’s fire safety, must regularly carry out fire risk assessments and, if necessary, put fire safety measures in place.

Building regulations and fire safety are devolved matters. This briefing focuses on England; section 7 covers the devolved administrations. 

Compliance and enforcement

During construction, it is the responsibility of those carrying out building work (for example, developers) to make sure that their work complies with building regulations. They need to obtain approval from a building control body, either the local authority or a registered private-sector individual or company.

A local authority has powers to force developers to fix non-compliant work and to pursue prosecution against those who violate building regulations.

Once a building is occupied, fire and rescue services can take enforcement action if responsible persons do not comply with their duties, for example, if they do not carry out fire risk assessments or put in place required fire safety measures.

Changes made following the Grenfell Tower fire

The Grenfell Tower fire in London in 2017 resulted in the death of 72 people and injured more than 70 people. It drew attention to the regimes governing the fire safety of high-rise residential buildings in the UK.

Following the fire, and in line with recommendations made by the Grenfell Tower Inquiry and the independent review of building regulations and fire safety (the Hackitt review), the government introduced:

  • The Building Safety Act 2022 which strengthened the building safety and control regime (and introduced a new regime for high-rise buildings, see below). For example, the Act gave local authorities further powers to take enforcement action against violations of building regulations.
  • The Fire Safety Act 2021 which clarified that, in shared blocks of flats, responsible persons must also consider a building’s external walls and flat entrance doors in their fire risk assessment. Responsible persons also have new duties, for example, to share information with residents and, in blocks over 11 metres, to carry out regular checks of fire doors.

A new regime for higher-rise blocks of flats

In response to the Grenfell Tower fire, the government also created a new regime for ‘higher-risk’ buildings. These are buildings which are 18 or more metres high or have seven or more storeys and have at least two residential units. It also created a new body, the Building Safety Regulator (BSR), to oversee the new regime:

  • Since October 2023, developers need to obtain approval from the BSR for the construction and refurbishment of high-rise blocks of flats.
  • Since January 2023, responsible persons for high-rise blocks of flats have additional duties, including to prepare floor and building plans for their building and to share information with their local fire and rescue service.
  • Since October 2023, high-rise blocks of flats also have an ‘accountable person’ who is responsible for assessing and managing building safety risks. The BSR will oversee whether they comply with their duties.

The ‘stay put’ strategy

Most purpose-built blocks of flats in England are designed and constructed to support a ‘stay put’ strategy. This strategy is based on the assumption that a fire is contained in its flat of origin and that only residents in that flat need to evacuate.

To ensure a fire does not spread, blocks of flats should be designed and constructed to achieve ‘effective compartmentation’. This means each flat and all escape routes are enclosed by fire-resisting materials. Residents are expected to be able to remain in their flats if there is a fire in another flat.

The National Fire Chiefs Council supports a ‘stay put’ strategy because, if all residents try to leave a building at the same time, they could impede access for firefighters (PDF). Residents might also move from a safer flat to a communal area with smoke or fire.

Plans for residents who cannot self-evacuate

Of the 37 disabled residents living in Grenfell Tower at the time of the fire, 15 lost their lives. Of all those who died in the fire, 41% were disabled.

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry recommended that the government should develop evacuation procedures for high-rise residential buildings to help residents who cannot self-evacuate or require assistance (such as disabled people) leave a building in the event of a fire.

In 2021, the government consulted whether responsible persons for high-rise blocks of flats should be required to prepare personal emergency evacuation plans (PEEPs) for residents who cannot self-evacuate. It concluded that “the evidence base for PEEPs is not sufficient to mandate their implementation”. In 2022, the government sought views on other ways to support these residents.

Disability rights groups expressed concern about the government’s proposals, noting that disabled residents should not have to wait to be rescued.

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