EC fire rules 'will cost pounds 6.3bn more than predicted'

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The Independent Online
THE COST of imposing stringent new European Community fire regulations on British businesses will be pounds 8bn - over four times more than the Home Office has estimated - engineering experts warned yesterday.

The District Surveyors Association said that the Home Office's interpretation of the rules massively underestimated the cost of fitting fire doors, fire escapes and emergency lighting in businesses as small as an artist's studio.

Kelvin Williams, spokesman for the association, which represents local government building inspectors, said that the owners of any business, however small, would face unacceptable costs because 'absurd overkill precautions' were being 'rushed in through the back door.

'The Home Office statement that these measures will cost pounds 1.7bn to implement is a ludicrous underestimate,' he said. 'We are talking about every business in the country. Even people who have offices in their own homes will have to comply with detailed regulations which could involve the installation of the most sophisticated and expensive fire precautions. '

A study for the Arts Council also suggested that the fire safety directive could cost pounds 8bn over the next 10 years. It warned that the proposed rules 'pose a financial and operational threat' to nearly everyone working in the cultural sector. Arts Council managers said that they would be delivering a 'robust' response to the Home Office next week.

Meanwhile, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), said the regulations were unnecessary and would create immense confusion because they contradicted existing laws and guidance.

The protests, which have been echoed by small business associations, have forced the Home Office to extend its eight-week consultation period into August.

It is Whitehall's actions, not the directive from the EC, which have created the furore. The Home Office said in its consultation document that it wanted to 'extend the (EC fire safety) directives to premises in which only self-employed persons work' provided that members of the public visit regularly.

Until now only businesses with 20 or more employees have needed fire certificates. From 1 January next year all new premises where the public could gather will have to comply with fire regulations. From 1996, the rules will apply to every office, shop, factory and meeting place.

The regulations require owners and occupiers to undertake a fire risk assessment. Included among the host of issues an owner must consider are means of escape from a building; whether fire resistant materials are needed; the width of staircases; and access to windows and balcony exits.

Fire brigades will check whether the assessments are correct and there will be criminal penalties for people who fail to abide by the standards. But, the RICS said, it is far from clear how an occupier will know if he or she has broken the law.

Mr Williams said that the Home Office rules conflicted with existing fire regulations. The owners of a sports ground could have different rules imposed on it by the local fire brigade, district council and county council.

The surveyors' association quoted examples of how different people could be affected.

Home workers: A self-employed person working from an office in their own home would be required to undertake a detailed fire risk assessment if he or she bought clients to the office, and decide whether fire escapes and other precautions were needed.

Churches: Meeting places could be treated as if they were always full to capacity, meaning big safety bills for large churches with small congregations.

Village halls: Council inspectors normally allow a village hall which puts on a play twice a year to escape the expense of installing emergency lighting or building additional exits. Under the new rules there would be no alternative.

The examples reflect the central objection of nearly everyone who has seen the Home Office plans: that they do not take into account the real dangers the public is likely to face.

Arts Business Limited, a consultancy employed by the Arts Council to study the implications of the proposals, said that everyone from a potter or artist who occasionally had studio exhibitions to the owner of a stately home who held concerts in the ballroom would face crippling costs.

A Home Office spokesman emphasised that the regulations were merely proposals. He said that just basic safety requirements would be imposed on small businesses if the plans were accepted. Businessmen and women would be required to take common sense precautions.