Blaze deaths inquiry points to gap in fire escape rules

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AN INQUIRY report into a fatal fire in a house divided into flats warned yesterday that official guidelines no longer recommend external fire escapes, which might have saved lives in this case.

The local authority had tried to make the landlords install a fire escape in 1988, but the attempt had been 'well meaning' and beyond the statutory powers available to it.

The fire, at Easter, was started deliberately in a sofa on the ground-floor hallway between the front door and the foot of the stairs of a house in Hove, East Sussex, that had been divided into six flats.

The fire spread up the stairs and into a third-floor flat where a party was being held. Five people died, some in jumping from upper-storey windows, and the local authority, Hove council, commissioned Alan Alesbury, a barrister, to investigate whether it had fulfilled its statutory duty to ensure adequate fire precautions in the building.

Mr Alesbury said: 'The trend in national and local guidance on fire safety has been away from insisting on external escapes in buildings of this size, in favour of protecting the internal stairway as the escape route from fires which are presumed to originate within the units of accommodation, not within the common stairway and entrance hall.'

Such precautions included fireproof doors to flats and fireproof dividing lobbies.

'Such measures do not, however, provide a means of escape in the case of a fire maliciously started in the common stairwell,' he said, noting that the doors may well have been open at the time the fire started.

He concluded that more money and time should be spent by central and local government on enforcing fire regulations.

Hove council was not guilty of any breach of its legal responsibilities, and no council official was negligent, he said.

But there were failings in the council's system of inspection and enforcement of fire precautions at houses in multiple occupation. He recommended that greater urgency be given to the matter, with greater resources allocated. The council could only do this, he said, if the Government recognised the need to increase grants.

Bernard Jordan, leader of Hove council, accepted the 'broad criticism' of the report and said: 'Lessons to be learnt from this tragedy will be put in place at the earliest opportunity.'

Tony Baldry, the junior environment minister responsible for housing, said he could not comment on individual cases, but he added: 'We have given local authorities extensive legal powers to control houses in multiple occupation. We have produced comprehensive guidance describing best practice, to help authorities to use their powers in the most effective way.'

A 41-year-old man wanted for questioning about the fire died three days later when he was knocked down by a lorry. An inquest on him and the five victims will be held on 17 August.