European Parliament discusses fire safety in buildings

It was against the background of the Grenfell Tower accident occurred in London that the European Parliament in its plenary session, on the 13th September 2017, debated the topic of fire safety in buildings.

Elzbieta Bienkowska, Commissioner for DG Grow, opened the discussion, pointing out that, while regulations on individual construction products is an EU-level responsibility through the Construction Products Regulation (CPR), it is each Member State which, through subsidiarity, is responsible for regulations on buildings. She said that there is no evidence that, in general, acceptable safety levels for buildings are not being met and that, therefore, there is no justification for EU-level intervention in national Building Regulations. She pointed out that the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), which required a 20 % improvement of energy performance, has brought in new types of cladding, indicating that the pressure has come from the perhaps unexpected consequences of the EPBD, rather than from a failure of the CPR.

Mrs Bienkowska added that product assessment under the CPR does not cover the toxicity of smoke emitted from burning products (the CPR assesses only the quantity of smoke production). She also highlighted that the CPR system does not cover any assessment of fire in facades. Both of these areas are being studied under DG Grow-funded projects which should report in October 2017.

She announced that the Commission will set up, with its first meeting on the 16th October 2017, a Fire Information Exchange Platform, the intention of which is to share experience and best practice related to, for example, fire accidents, fire safety practices, Fire Safety Engineering and experience of new products. In summary, she sees the Commission as a facilitator, rather than as a regulator, in efforts, outside the CPR, to address the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

The Council of Ministers took a similar position to DG Grow, i.e. that there is no current need for EU-level intervention in (national) building regulations, but he added that the Council would consider action should the Commission suggest it.

MEPs intervened for the remainder of the debate. Many stated that a Grenfell-type tragedy must not be allowed to happen again; although accidents can never be avoided by regulatory or any other type of action; the best that can be achieved is a reduction in the risk of accidents occurring and a reduction in their severity when they do occur. A number of common themes emerged:

  • smoke toxicity needs to be added as a regulatory requirement on construction products, and a mandate issued to CEN to develop standards for this,
  • the needs for a specific EU-level façade fire test, allowing products and systems to be tested in realistic end-use conditions.
There was some limited support for the use of sprinklers (already compulsory in some Member States for new buildings) and many positions in favour of the Commission’s Information Sharing initiative. There were a few calls for EU-level regulatory action.

Some MEPs pointed out the impetus to use new products created by the EBPD (stating that Grenfell Tower was originally built with inert cladding), others praised the fire brigades and some asked whether fire regulations are outdated/inadequate and whether existing regulations had been met.
A few individual positions were expressed regarding:

  • the problems of single staircases in high-rise buildings,
  • a request that high fire safety levels in Germany, Austria and Switzerland to be applied throughout the EU,
  • a few calls for the use of only non-flammable products, changed attitudes towards social housing in general, the interests of the disabled to be considered, and a rethinking of the contracting-out of maintenance operations by local councils.

    More information on the fire safety debate