Caravan Sites (Fire Precautions)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th June 1971.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Humphrey Atkins.]

11.55 p.m.

Photo of Mrs Sally Oppenheim Mrs Sally Oppenheim , Gloucester

I am glad of this opportunity to raise what I believe to be a serious matter, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for his presence at this late hour. I am endeavouring to draw to his attention the need for improved and more easily enforceable fire precautionary requirements for caravan sites, and I realise that these could be applied only to residential sites and not to holiday sites or those occupied largely by itinerants.

My interest in this matter was first aroused by a tragedy which occurred in my constituency in which a man was burned to death in a caravan fire on an eminently respectable residential site. Although in this case most of the site fire-fighting equipment was faulty or nonexistent, nothing could have been done to save this man's life by the time the fire was discovered. Gloucester Fire Brigade, probably the finest in the country, reached the site within four minutes of being summoned, which was considerably faster than most brigades could have got there.

The number of caravan fires throughout the country has been increasing, and this tragedy has drawn my attention to the need in 1971 to review the 1960 model standards. I am particularly indebted to the Chief Fire Officer of Gloucester, Mr. Kenneth Harden, for his expert advice and the practical help which he is presently giving at caravan sites throughout Gloucester.

It is generally felt that the model standards appertaining to the Caravan Sites and Control of Developments Act, 1960, were not only inadequate but were issued in a general atmosphere of laissez-faire. In Section 5(1) of the Act local authorities are required to impose only such conditions as they consider necessary or desirable As I have pointed out in Questions, Circulars 42/60 and 2/62 advised local authorities that standards should not be applied too rigidly or automatically, even where this would seem appropriate. In addition, site owners were positively encouraged under the Act to appeal against any conditions they considered to be onerous. This has resulted in a great variation and inconsistency in site licences issued by various local authorities throughout the country, and many of them are in need of urgent review.

For example, I have heard of one site licence which specifies that 100-gallon water tanks should be supplied, though it does not specify that they should be filled with water. Although the Caravan Sites and Control of Developments Act refers in Section 5 (1) (e) to the need for fire-fighting equipment to be well maintained, the model standards do not.

If, therefore, site licences are inadequate in the first place, it becomes impossible to enforce the full conditions in the model standards or to find site owners who are in default. The model standards have come to be regarded as a maximum rather than a minimum requirement in the issue of site licences, and the implementation of the recommendations in the model standards depends to a great extent on the interpretation of the local authority.

Item 1 of the model standards specifies a distance of 20 ft. between caravans, but does not exclude the subsequent building of permanent extensions to caravans, and these might greatly diminish this distance. My hon. Friend will appreciate the importance of this point because of the risk of fire spreading by radiated heat. It would not, therefore, seem unreasonable to extend the required distance to 25 ft. The specification of 100-gallon tanks every two acres under Section 5 of the Act seems out-of-date in view of the fact that the latest wheel-barrow pumps deliver at the rate of 100 gallons a minute.

However, because tanks, water buckets and hand pumps are not conducive to quick action by either elderly or untrained operators, it is thought probably more effective, in terms of taking swift first-aid action, that three or four large fire extinguishers should be located at the fire points in place of the water pumps, but whatever equipment is provided must be properly protected from the elements. The main recommendation from many fire experts is that large fire extinguishers, ideally in each caravan, are the best form of protection.

The June issue of Caravan Industry and Park Operator, in a front-page story, refers to the problems involved in dealing with caravan fires swiftly before the fire brigade arrives. It points out that fire experts agree on the necessity for large extinguishers either in individual caravans or for communal use.

Another important consideration is the fact that not only is the danger of caravan fires greater than that of a permanent structure but the rate at which the fire develops is much faster. In an article in the Birmingham Post on 25th May this year, entitled. Only Five Minutes to Escape Death", attention is drawn to the recently published report of the Fire Research Station at Boreham Wood. The most important result of this was that it was found that, as caravans are constructed at present, if one does not get out of the caravan within five minutes of the fire starting one does not get out at all. Clearly, that is not sufficient time for elderly people or young families, especially if the fire starts, as it so often does, when they are asleep.

I feel, therefore, that improvements could be made to British Standard 3632/1970, which relates to the materials used in the construction of caravans. This could be done by Regulations under Sections 1 and 2 of the Consumer Protection Act, 1961. For example, British Standard 3632 states that the outer skin and internal linings, other than those dealt with in the code of practice, should not be less than grade 3, which are surfaces of medium flame spread, as defined by British Standard 476. But, once again, it is the opinion of fire experts that these linings should not be less than class 1, surfaces of very low flame spread, and that this standard should also be applied to the outer skin.

The other great problem of caravan sites is the storage of explosive and inflammable materials, for example, propane gas cylinders. Possibly the provisions of Section 3(1)(b) of the Fire Precautions Act should be applied here. Also the provision should be made that spare propane cylinders must be stored at all times in clearly marked fire-proof lockers which could be opened only from inside the caravan for security purposes.

The other point that I wish to make is that I believe that the issue of a site licence by a local authority should be subject to a fire certificate similar to that referred to in the relevant sections of the Fire Precautions Act, 1971, which under Section 35(b) gives power to apply this Act to movable structures. This would deal with two aspects of the problem at once. It would relieve the Public Health Inspectorate, which is not really appropriate, of the duty of ruling on fire precautions and carrying out inspections of them on caravan sites, and it would place these duties in the hands of the real experts, the local fire prevention staff, who could issue the fire certificates and carry out the initial inspections, which could subsequently be carried out by other officers of the fire brigade under Section 11(d) of the Fire Services Act, because, of course, regular inspection and testing of fire-fighting equipment is vital.

I have been assured by the Chief Fire Officer in Gloucester that this is well within the capacity of most brigades throughout the country. Indeed, following the recent tragedy in Gloucester, officers are not only carrying out such inspections routinely but are training caravan site residents in fire-fighting drill.

In contrast to the various technicalities that I have discussed, it might be helpful to my hon. Friend if I read a letter, one of many that I have received from all over the country, from a constituent of mine. The letter explains far more graphically than I could do the need for a greater distance between caravans. It reads as follows: My wife and I left Gloucester to visit our daughter … who is an owner-occupier living on a small caravan site … in Berkshire …At 4.30 early on Easter Sunday morning our daughter awoke almost stifled by heat and fumes and a glare through the French doors frosted glass. She quickly went to the kitchen window and saw that the next caravan, which was empty, was on fire from end to end. Luckily, she had a phone and dialled 999 to the fire brigade at Maidenhead, nearly four miles away, and then woke us up and told us to dress quickly, which we did. As we watched and wondered what best to do, the whole of the burning caravan disintegrated into one great mass of flame blowing in our direction by the wind. Then the cable overhead that supplies the electricity went with a great flash and was blowing about in the wind like a flaming torch.Then police patrol cars started to arrive, and we were strongly advised to get out at once owing to the danger from the butane gas cylinders. There was one in the fire and two attached to our caravan.The police tried to use the ½-inch hose nearby, but there was no adaptor to fit it to the water supply. More police arrived and two fire engines with their own water tanks arrived and were soon in action, but they could do nothing to save the burning caravan but saved us from further damage. However, all our windows were cracked, the spouting melted and the cedar wood sides scorched, and all the aluminium panels blistered and buckled. The damage to my daughter's caravan was £195.The firemen fixed an adaptor to the site hose before they left, but later in the morning I tried it out and it would only send a weak jet about 6 ft., not much use.According to the site manager, Cookham Council, who are responsible for Bray district where there are several caravan sites, specified the distance between vans needs to be only 20 feet", which is in accordance with the specifications in the model standards, but, as my constituent says— obviously not enough if we suffered nearly £200 damage. My constituent says also that the council specified: only … 100 ft. of ½-inch hose, which is practically useless unless it is a very small fire …We really had a very narrow escape and would not like a similar experience to happen to anyone, so hope some much more strict regulations could be passed to safeguard lives in the future. It is interesting to note that in the fatal caravan fire in Gloucester the next caravan was 21 feet away but was affected by the heat and would have become ignited but for the very prompt arrival of the fire brigade. I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider adjusting the model standards to include a new regulation as to increased distance between caravans at least in the issue of new site licences.

Finally, I thank my hon. Friend for his patience and consideration in taking part in this debate tonight. I hope he will feel able to recommend all or some of the suggestions that I have made for improvements in the model standards and other regulations to my right hon. Friend to safeguard the lives and the property of the many thousands of residents of caravan sites throughout the country.

12.3 a.m.

Photo of Mr Michael Heseltine Mr Michael Heseltine Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

I am grateful for the courteous way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim) informed me of some of the points that she intended to make and for the way in which she has presented to the House the very valuable contribution she has made on this subject.

I shall refer to a number of detailed points, but I assure my hon. Friend that I will study carefully all that she has said and write to her afterwards. There are a certain number of points that I want to make in reference to the whole question of fires in caravans and safety precautions and to the case which has prompted my hon. Friend's interest in this matter. I agree with my hon. Friend that the tragedy to which she referred probably was beyond the control of any safety regulations. Indeed, the alacrity with which the Gloucester Fire Brigade appeared is to be commended.

As I understand that situation, an elderly man went to bed and, it is presumed, smoked, and fell asleep with the cigarette still alight, and as a result the bedding caught fire. There is bound to be an element of conjecture about it, but one must say in all the regrettable circumstances of the tragedy that in regulation terms that sort of thing is uncontrollable. I wish that such things did not happen, but I doubt whether one could devise a form of protection which would absolutely eliminate the chance of such a situation occurring. Any comments one might make about precautions on the site are not relevant here. I do not think that in the circumstances more could have been done, and even if some discrepancies appeared during an investigation of the various precautions, I doubt whether if all the apparatus had been in tip-top condition, and available, it would have made much difference.

But perhaps we can consider the size of the problem and see how many occurrences of this sort take place, because everyone realises that caravan touring and the growth of permanently licensed sites is an increasing phenomenon giving a great deal of pleasure to an increasing number of citizens.

Casualties in fires in caravans attended by the fire brigades for the years 1967, 1968 and 1969 were, respectively, 21 deaths and 56 injuries; 10 deaths and 52 injuries, and 10 deaths and 50 injuries. The number of fires in caravans which did not necessarily lead to injuries were, in the same three years, 883, 956 and 992. The growth in these figures probably reflects the increase in the number of caravans.

As my hon. Friend said, the relevant legislation is contained in the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act, 1960. This Act introduced a form of licensing control which has obviously greatly improved the situation which existed before then. Following on the Act, we also specified in 1960 model standards for services and facilities on caravan sites, and these were standards normally to be expected as a matter of good practice. Local authorities are required by the Act to have regard to these standards when imposing conditions under the site licences which they issue for private caravan sites.

Obviously the model standards are concerned with measures to prevent, contain and confine fires. They were drawn up in consultation with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and it is true, as my hon. Friend said, that they have not been revised since they were introduced in 1960. We consider that the most serious problem is not the review of standards but their enforcement, but will undertake that they will be looked at again by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

My hon. Friend made the point, with which I certainly would not disagree, that the local authorities are not bound to impose the standards on site operators, and some flexibility in the application of all the model standards has always been urged upon local authorities. There are various reasons for this, and one of them is the very wide range of caravans which may exist on a particular site. We felt that in view of the need for flexibility it would be wrong to have some sort of mandatory imposition of uniform requirements.

As to fire prevention and fire fighting standards, the Minister of Housing and Local Government in the previous Administration, again in consultation with the Home Secretary of that time, advised licensing authorities less than three years ago that they should keep fire authorities informed of plans to create new caravan sites, and applications for licences and the conditions with which they proposed to attach to them. This was, exactly as my hon. Friend would require, to enable fire authorities to advise on the nature of the proposed site, and the conditions and the various ways in which the standards were to be carried out, and generally to give advice on the best means of dealing with fire precautions at that time.

It is our opinion that the advice has been generally followed. Certainly we think that it was the right way to go about it. But my hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that we propose to supplement this advice by asking licensing authorities to review site licences which they have already issued to make sure that suitable conditions concerning fire precautions exist in them and to consult the fire officers if any new conditions need to be imposed. We also intend to remind licensing authorities about the need to ensure that site operators not only supply the equipment required but keep it in the right place and in good working condition.

The question of fire-fighting arrangements at a caravan site is distinct from the problem of fire precautions within the caravan itself. The Home Secretary keeps the question of fire safety in individual caravans permanently under review. In the vast majority of cases the single most likely contributing factor to increased safety is the personal determination of the owners and occupiers of caravans to behave in a sensible and practical manner.

My hon. Friend said that it took about five minutes to get out of a burning caravan. My figure would be less—between three and four minutes. But as somebody who every year spends a week in his caravan touring his constituency I can say that it would not take me more than three seconds to get out of my caravan, and that must be so in virtually every caravan that one has ever set foot. If one was fast asleep, it might prove fatal. But one has to consider the sort of causes of fire when one is fast asleep. In the overwhelming majority of cases, there would be personal responsibility for not having taken adequate steps to ensure elementary safety precautions.

We firmly believe that the primary need for caravan dwellers is a high standard of safe behaviour. It is not just a question of ensuring that the gas is out or that cigarettes have been extinguished. Things which, in a fit of enthusiasm for do-it-yourself, we might add can be a source of danger. We might allow towelling curtains or clothing to be placed too close to a source of heat which could cause fire. Obviously we are likely to do many things to our caravans which could be a danger, whatever standards are laid down.

The Home Office promotes fire prevention publicity, and there is a booklet which deals with the danger of fires in caravans. Standards have been drawn up by the British Standards Institution dealing with the means of escape, the fire resistance of linings, the safe installation of heating appliances, and so on. Most caravan manufacturers comply with them. A recent addition to them, included at the request of the Home Office, is a require- ment for a warning notice to be permanently fixed in a prominent place inside the caravan. This gives basic instructions on what to do in the event of fire and includes a few simple fire precautions which people with common sense would, I am sure, take themselves.

The British Standard also recommends the provision of fire extinguishers in caravans, although this is not a statutory requirement. Means for fighting fires are obviously useful for dealing with incipient fires and could well be a supplement to the fire-fighting appliances on the site. But extinguishers are no substitute for the good sense which should be exercised in a caravan and which would prevent the danger of fire breaking out.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to make these comments. I assure her that I shall look carefully at her detailed points and will write to her about them as soon as I can.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.