SHURGARD STORAGE FIRE: NO SPRINKLER SYSTEM – REGULATIONS NEED TO BE REVIEWED AND TIGHTENED AS MATTER OF URGENCY SAYS MP

The Shurgard storage facility in Croydon which was destroyed on New Year’s Eve had no sprinkler system – because it was not required under  fire regulations, the company has told MP Steve Reed.

In a House of Commons debate on fire safety and fire cladding, Mr Reed (Lab, Croydon North)  told MPs: “Shurgard has been very clear with me—I have met it to discuss this—that it has complied with all UK fire safety regulations.

“I do not know whether that is true, but that is the point it has made to me. “If what it says is true and it was fully compliant, those regulations need to be reviewed and tightened as a matter of urgency.”

(MPs would hear later in the debate that in other European countries there are regulations requiring a building of a certain size to have sprinklers, so the same company would have sprinklers in another country but not here.)

Mr Reed told MPs: “The fire at the Shurgard self-storage centre was massive. More than 1,200 people had stored their goods and possessions in that facility, which was one of the largest in London. When I was first alerted to what had happened, my first thought was, ‘I hope everybody is safe’, and it was reassuring to hear that there had been no loss of life.

But a couple of weeks later I had the opportunity to meet a group of Shurgard customers who had lost everything they had put in storage at that facility. The scale of loss, devastation and harm that that caused cannot be overstated. The losses were enormous.

As with all self-storage centres, the Shurgard facility was marketed as a safe place to store goods. It was even advertised as a place for those who had suffered a bereavement to store the belongings of a loved one.

Sarah Jones (Lab, Croydon Central):

Constituents of mine had their goods burnt in the Shurgard fire. I am sure that hon. Members will be interested to know that, having advertised as “safe and secure”, since the fire the Shurgard website has removed 35 mentions of that phrase. Its use is nothing short of mis-selling.

Steve Reed: It is telling that Shurgard saw fit to remove all the language about safety from its website after the fire. I hope that, during the debate, we will expose the fact that the facility was far from being as safe as it was marketed to its customers.

Chris Philp (Con., Croydon South):

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue in the Chamber. Like the constituents of my other neighbour, Sarah Jones, many of my constituents had possessions at the facility. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is essential that the London Fire Brigade carries out a full investigation to establish whether the operators of Shurgard had implemented all the relevant fire safety measures? It seems that the fire spread so quickly and so extensively that it requires a thorough investigation.

Steve Reed: I completely agree and am grateful for that intervention. Everybody who uses self-storage facilities needs to know that their possessions are safe when they put them in storage. We need to know that Shurgard and other providers of such services abide by the regulations, and that the regulations are sufficiently robust to provide the reassurances that customers deserve and need.

When I spoke to the group of customers, I found that the single biggest reason for storing possessions at the facility was being between homes. People were not just putting some spare goods into self-storage; they had left the place where they were living and had not yet moved into their new home, so everything they owned was stored at the facility. As a result, everything was lost; everything was destroyed in the fire. As one of them said to me, “It’s bad enough to lose a sofa, a bed or a sideboard, but at least you can replace those things. What about your keepsakes from loved ones who have passed away?” The company advertised its facility as a safe space to leave keepsakes for those who had suffered a bereavement. What about someone who has lost a lifetime of family photographs—all their memories of their family experiences and of the people they most love? A price cannot be put on that. It cannot be insured. If it is gone in a fire, it is gone forever and it is irreplaceable. The devastation, pain and stress of losing such things can be incalculable.

I met one family—a husband, his wife and their three children—who, because of benefit-system failings, had been evicted from the home that they rented just before Christmas. They had put everything they had into this Shurgard self-storage facility, and they were penniless because of the problems with universal credit, so they could not afford insurance. They have now lost absolutely everything that they owned. They have been left absolutely devastated, without any possessions at all, and they are living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. That family need help, and they need it urgently, because they are facing critical hardship as a result of what happened.

Responding to questions from fellow MPs, Mr Reed said people who have been left in severe hardship as a result of what happened have had nowhere to go for the help that they deserve. “I believe that in this particular case the investigation is in the hands of the police, because we do not yet know whether arson lay behind the tragedy at the Shurgard facility on Purley Way in Croydon.

Andrew Slaughter (Lab, Hammersmith):

At Shepherd’s Court in my constituency, there was an obvious cause—it was a tumble-drier fire—but the manufacturer denies liability and will not pay out. As a consequence of cases like that, people can lose everything and go for years and years without being able to replace their belongings.

Steve Reed: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am also interested in the insurance aspects of this case, including whether people were wrongly advised by the self-storage company about the level of insurance that they should have taken out and, indeed, whether there was mis-selling of insurance. I have contacted the relevant authorities—the Financial Conduct Authority and others—to seek their advice. I hope we can bring that issue back to the Chamber at the appropriate time, and I would be delighted to work with my hon. Friend on that, because he has an interest in it.

I return to my attempt to establish the extent of the harm that has been caused to people’s lives by the fire. I met another woman—a customer—who had stored in the facility her mother’s and her grandmother’s ashes. One simply cannot imagine what it would feel like for an individual to lose something of such enormous human value to them.

Sarah Jones: On that terrible point, last weekend I met some people who were affected, and I have a constituent whose pictures of her deceased children were burned. These things are so irreplaceable and so sad. People really did believe that their things would be kept safe, and that everything would be okay. We cannot emphasise enough what a horror they have been going through.

Steve Reed: One really cannot exaggerate the pain that has been caused. When anybody puts their most beloved and treasured possessions in a facility and is assured that it is safe, they deserve to know that it actually is safe. I met an artist who had lost a lifetime’s artworks, which she had created. I met a DJ who collects first-edition reggae albums on vinyl. All of that is gone in the fire, all of it irreplaceable. No money can replace that.

Of course, many businesses today keep their stock in facilities like these, and many business people have lost their stock. Even if it was properly insured, the short-term loss of that stock means that they have lost a whole quarter’s trading, which is enough to put many small businesses under. I really do think that the Minister needs to consider what emergency support is available for the people facing real hardship and crisis as a result of the fire.

Many colleagues have raised concerns about fire safety at the Shurgard facility, and I share those concerns. When I met a group of customers, that was one of the biggest areas giving them cause for concern that they raised with me. A customer putting their possessions in a self-storage facility would assume that there had been some effort, when designing it, to prevent the spread of fire, should a fire take hold.

In fact, the walls in the individual units in this facility did not go right up to the ceiling—there was a gap between the top of the unit and the ceiling—so a fire that started in one unit could quickly and easily move into the next, and then the next and beyond. It seems to me shocking that these facilities are built without designing in measures to prevent the rapid spread of fire.

Customers using that facility reasonably assumed that a sprinkler system was installed in case of fire. In fact, there is no sprinkler system in that facility, and there is no requirement for self-storage units to have sprinkler systems. Another point is that Shurgard did not ask their customers to report or keep a record of what they were storing in that self-storage facility. Someone could put all their most treasured possessions in the unit they were renting, but the next-door unit could be filled up with barrels of oil or something equally flammable, and nobody would ever know.

If we put all this together, there were in effect no fire safety measures whatsoever in this facility. It was advertising a service as safe and secure for people to keep their goods in, but it simply was not. It was taking money from people, and then not providing the service that people expected. If things had gone wrong—and on new year’s eve in Croydon they went severely wrong—everything people owned would have gone: it would have been taken away, and they would have lost it. 

Shurgard has been very clear with me—I have met it to discuss this—that it has complied with all UK fire safety regulations. I do not know whether that is true, but that is the point it has made to me. If what it says is true and it was fully compliant, those regulations need to be reviewed and tightened as a matter of urgency.

Sarah Jones: At the meeting with customers last weekend, they made two really interesting points. One was that Shurgard in other European countries has to have sprinklers, because in other European countries there are regulations requiring a building of a certain size to have sprinklers, so the same company would have sprinklers in another country but not here. They also made the point—I do not 100 per cent know whether this is accurate—that, looking at storage in general, about 40pc of Europe’s storage is in this country. There is something about the nature of the cost of housing and the fact that people have to put so much stuff into storage, perhaps because of the value of land that means our country has a particular problem in this area and needs to look at the regulations for the storage sector in particular.

Steve Reed: I am sure many people who keep their possessions in such self-storage centres will be astonished to learn that the multinational companies, where they are multinational, operate safer and more secure facilities abroad than they operate in the United Kingdom. That seems to me entirely wrong. I hope the Minister, when he responds, will explain to the House what he intends to do about conducting a review of the levels of fire safety in these facilities, and whether he believes there is a case for tightening those regulations.

Many, many people use these facilities. They are very common all over London, and we all know about them and have them in our constituencies. The customers include people who are between homes—moving from one place to another—either as buyers or as renters. Many newly built flats are very small and are built without adequate storage, so people use self-storage centres instead. If people have suffered a bereavement and have lost a relative, they need somewhere to store their possessions; we do not all have the space in our home to store these things. All those people need to know that their possessions are safe, and if the regulations are not allowing that to happen right now, the regulations need to change.

My concern is that the fact that the regulations are inadequate has created a race to the bottom in fire safety standards, as self-storage companies compete with one another on price. The way in which they reduce price is to reduce staffing in the facility and reduce the level of security and fire safety measures that they put into the facility. They do so to minimise their costs, so that they may offer as low a price as possible. The only thing that will maintain minimum standards—and people need know what they are—is to ensure that there are adequate fire safety regulations for self-storage facilities. I am afraid that we do not have those at the moment.

Finally on this particular issue, does the Minister see the case, or the need for, providing specific help to people facing severe financial hardship—whether it be from the relevant public authorities, the Government, or even perhaps the company itself, which must bear some responsibility towards their customers for what has happened to them?

Kit Malthouse, Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government), responding, said: “I commend Mr Reed for recognising the importance of fire safety and cladding, and for securing this debate. “I am always grateful for the chance to talk on a subject of such importance as fire safety and ensuring that residents are safe, and feel safe, in their homes.

“I take this opportunity to express my sorrow at the obvious emotional distress caused to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and others by the Shurgard fire. “He spoke very movingly about the fire’s impact, particularly on families who are between homes, and I recognise the distress it may cause. “Although I am sure he will recognise that building regulations are largely focused on preserving life, I nevertheless recognise the importance of what he says.” (TheyWorkForYou 23rd January 2019 )

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