The legislation that requires the mandatory fitting of a sprinkler system in all new home build in Wales has been in force since 1 January 2016, making the country the first to introduce this simple yet effective fire safety measure.
The legislative journey began in 2007 after the National Assembly for Wales was granted additional powers. My name came top of the ballot for a Legislative Competence Order (LCO), which allowed for legislation to be drawn up around the original devolution settlement. This process required full scrutiny, at both the House of Commons and the Welsh Assembly, and led to this landmark legal measure.
Although the fitting of a sprinkler system to all new home build should have been straightforward, there was significant political and housebuilders’ opposition, despite evidence showing that sprinklers save lives.
I had to constantly remind assembly members that there was little likelihood that sprinklers would activate when toast was burnt and they would certainly not flood homes. The odds of a sprinkler system activating without a fire are 16 million to one, so you are more likely to win the jackpot on the lottery.
Throughout the scrutiny stages, it became clear that legislation was required to ensure that sprinklers were fitted in all new home build.
As a former fire control officer, I drew on the experiences of firefighter colleagues who would often return from a house fire and recall how, despite their efforts, the occupants would face an unsettling time coming to terms with the devastation of a fire.
Sprinklers are another, albeit important, tool in the safety box. Even when there are no fatalities or injuries, the loss of personal effects such as precious family photographs and belongings, the replacement of household items or the rehousing of a family are costly to the public purse.
Before the legislation came into force, fires caused around 20 fatalities a year, many of which were in single figures. It has been interesting to hear those who previously opposed this legislation so vehemently back calls for the introduction of such systems, post-Grenfell.
Community safety has always been important to me. I had campaigned to change the regulations on smoke alarms, replacing battery-operated ones with hard-wired systems. I had also insisted on the installation of sprinkler systems in all new schools and all large shopping malls. The next logical step was home protection.
The legislation ticks many boxes. Not only has it improved residents’ lives but it has also benefited local authorities that pick up the pieces after a fire – for example, rehousing families, redecorating and/or making structural adaptations and providing social care packages. It also relieves the burden on health services that care for individuals who have sustained injuries and require long-term support. Finally, there are the environmental benefits: preventing air pollution caused by fires and reducing the volumes of water needed by firefighters to contain a fire.
Throughout the legislative journey, I received support from three Welsh Fire & Rescue Services as well as the wider UK Fire Service, the National Fire Chiefs Council, the Fire Brigade Union Officials, the National Fire Sprinkler Network Association, the British Automatic Sprinkler Association and my research team at the National Assembly.
At times I felt we weren’t going to succeed. However, the end goal of saving lives has made me more determined to see this through. The challenge for the rest of the UK is – are you ready to follow Wales?