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Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.

Preserving ancient buildings and sites, both in the UK and overseas, is essential to understanding the past, as well as the present, yet my research into fire risks – across all types of property – in the wake of Grenfell indicates that period properties are especially vulnerable.

Despite some high profile disasters in recent years and months, are lessons being learnt? It is too easy to forget that Local authorities are guardians of historic buildings, as well as the National Trust, English Heritage, and the Government, so what measures are they employing to protect these assets, employees and visitors?

Major fires which should be influencing policy include:

  • Windsor Castle in 1992, caused by a faulty temporary spotlight, installed during renovation works, setting light to a curtain in Queen Victoria’s chapel. Despite the fire starting mid-morning and a fire alarm triggering immediate action, 115 rooms, including nine State Rooms, were destroyed, but few artworks, furniture and valuable artefacts were lost due to a rapid response by people on-site and the fire service. It took 5 years and £36.5 million(£70m at today’s values) to restore, with the costs covered, in part, by the Queen opening up parts of Buckingham Palace to the paying public, and her £2m contribution. Although the event raised the importance of having fire precautions in heritage buildings, it didn’t prevent further disasters, which appear to have a common theme: building works and electrical faults. (The Notre Dame Cathedral blaze a few months ago allegedly followed a similar pattern.)
  • In 2018, the iconic Mackintosh building at the Glasgow School of Art was in the process of being restored following a serious fire in 2014, when it was further devastated by fire; this time it looks as if the damage may be terminal, with the shell potentially unsafe. A tragedy for the millions of people across the globe who were inspired by Mackintosh and a loss to Glasgow’s historic fine streetscene.
  • Described as the worst heritage disaster since the Windsor Castle fire, in 2015 Grade I Listed 80 room Georgian mansion, Clandon Park near Guildford in Surrey was completely gutted, and 80% of its treasures lost, in a fire caused by an electrical fault. Donated to the National Trust (NT) by the Earls of Onslow in 1956, Clandon Park was also home to the Surrey Infantry Museum, and a monument to the 15,000 local men who died in two world wars. There were no sprinklers, but the property is believed to have insurance for £50-100 million, and is open for tours until November, with the website rather insensitively picturing visitors smiling as they explore the roofless shell.

With over 300 historic buildings in its care, the public deserves answers on the National Trust’s fire policy and Clandon Park’s future, so I phoned five different NT press officers on the mobile numbers provided but all went to voicemail, so I emailed the following questions. After further chasing, I eventually received a response from Jo Dyson:

What plans are there to restore Clandon Park, or is it to remain a rotting shell?

The Trust’s plans for Clandon Park are to conserve the structure of the house, to restore the most important rooms on the ground floor and to adapt the two upper floors for contemporary uses, in particular as exhibition and learning spaces. The Trust is currently undertaking a feasibility study and master planning process with a world-class design team following a public architectural competition. The remaking of Clandon Park is one of the largest and most complex heritage projects in the UK. Core funding for the project will come from a significant insurance claim.

Why were sprinklers not installed at this property?

The property was fitted with a fire alarm and this was triggered by the fire. The alarm detects both smoke and heat. There were no sprinklers installed.

How many NT properties are not fitted with sprinklers?

Sprinklers are an option and have been installed in some of our places, but this approach isn’t suitable for all properties. The installation of sprinklers, or other fire suppression methods, is something we are considering as part of our review of our historic properties in the light of the fire report.

What is the NT’s policy on retrofitting sprinklers?

We have a planned programme for carrying out fire risk assessments on all of our properties, including annual reviews. Our assessments take into account the life safety of people and property protection, which may lead to passive and active fire safety improvements to be made. Our assessments include consideration being given to suppression systems.

What other fire precautions are policy at the NT?

The NT is a conservation charity which cares for hundreds of historic houses and other buildings across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Trust therefore takes fire safety and the protection of its historic places very seriously. We have a rigorous fire safety strategy in place at all our places. We do a fire risk assessment (FRA) at every property and these are reviewed regularly.

What plans are there for the 20 per cent of artefacts salvaged from the fire: where are they, what condition are they in, what plans are there for future display?

All collection items saved are currently in safe storage amounting to approximately 1200 objects. We’ve finished assessing the significance of each item and their condition, and high level conservation/restoration cost assessments are currently being carried out by specialist conservators. Once we have all potential costs and possibilities, we can make an informed decision on their future, including display in restored rooms, in exhibitions, and to support learning programmes. A small selection of salvaged items is currently displayed at Clandon.

The NT further clarified its actions following the fire:

“Although Clandon’s fire was caused by a very unusual electrical fault, which wasn’t detected by the numerous fixed wire tests which had taken place, we wanted to apply any lessons across all our NT properties. Subsequent to the fire we have audited mansions and key buildings to check that all electrical inspections, fire risk assessments, emergency plans, water supplies and training are up to date. We have also trialled, and subsequently introduced, an ongoing programme of thermographic inspections in our key properties to supplement traditional fixed wire tests.

“Whilst fire alarms were not at fault at Clandon, we have undertaken a specialist survey of fire alarms in order to manage a programme of system replacement. We are currently implementing a Trust-wide programme of works to ensure any existing holes and service penetrations are filled by third party accredited contractors and we have changed our service contracts to require contractors to suitably fire stop any holes or penetrations they make in the course of their works. Additionally, we have developed and introduced bespoke training for Building Surveyors on fire safety and general compliance.”

Unfortunately, the NT provided no clarity on the number of properties potentially at risk, without sprinklers! This was also the case when I contacted English Heritage press office, requesting information on its fire protection policies. Tom Jones, Corporate Affairs Manager, responded with the following assurances:

“English Heritage has a fire risk assessment for each of our buildings. Fire prevention is our priority and we invest in staff training, equipment, inspections and planned maintenance to reduce the risk of a fire starting in the first place. Automatic Fire Detection, compartmentation, suppression and fire fighting equipment is site specific. We work closely with Historic England, the Fire & Rescue Services, our Primary Authority Partner, and industry peers to ensure we are compliant with legislation and industry best practice for fire prevention, detection and fire fighting.”

Both the National Trust and English Heritage are highly valued public institutions, funded and supported by their hard-working members, who deserve to have all the facts – and the ability to question decision-making by the Boards through their elected representatives. With Brexit preoccupying Westminster, this means local authorities using their Scrutiny Committees to collate evidence, challenge and advise, together with regional Fire Services.

First, how are works managed to avoid accidental fire (or other) damage? The NT has addressed this by changing its service contracts; are other organisations adopting similar measures? Is good practice being shared across the public and private sectors? Are local authorities and private owners being encouraged to undertake similar extensive reviews of fire safety and implement new measures to protect people and assets?

We cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that local authorities throughout the country are also responsible for historic buildings, so they should be required to publish their fire prevention policies, including retro-fitting sprinklers, and annual safety checks.

In Ipswich, for example, the museum service is in partnership with Colchester: Christchurch Mansion is packed with artworks, including by Constable and Gainsborough, as well as fine furniture and porcelain collections – how are these protected? I discovered that Colchester Castle Museum’s recent £4.2 million refurbishment didn’t include sprinklers.

These assets not only belong to their communities, and the UK population as a whole, but are invaluable tourist attractions, making a vital contribution to the national and regional economy.

Local Authority Scrutiny committees should make this a priority for investigation, holding officers to account before there are further tragedies. It won’t be easy, but the solution could be cross-authority working.

28 comments for: Judy Terry: The lesson of tragic fires are still being ignored

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