Scotland's new smoke alarm rules epitomise SNP's 'something must be done' approach – John McLellan

After the fireworks of Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Boris Johnson’s fate moving to a slightly slower burner, continued speculation on whether the Scottish Conservatives are about to self-immolate by splitting from London, and the party whips accused of unnecessary zeal in trying to stamp out the flames of rebellion, fire prevention in politics is very much in vogue.

Homes are supposed to be fitted with smoke alarms and other safety equipment by February (Picture Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP via Getty Images)
Homes are supposed to be fitted with smoke alarms and other safety equipment by February (Picture Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP via Getty Images)

The non-metaphorical sort was on the agenda in Holyrood this week, with Housing Secretary Shona Robison rejecting opposition calls to delay the introduction of compulsory interlinked smoke and heat alarms for householders coming ten days from now.

The amendment to the 1987 Housing (Scotland) Act was passed in 2019 but the pandemic delayed introduction for a year until now, and the Scottish government’s instructions are clear. “Every home in Scotland must have interlinked fire alarms by February 2022,” says the official web page. “The new law has come about because of the Grenfell fire in London in 2017, and it applies to all Scottish homes.”

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The language is clear; you “must have a smoke alarm in the room you use most”, you “must” have a heat alarm in the kitchen and you “must” have a carbon-monoxide detector in every room with a carbon-fuelled appliance.

No room for doubt there and, being the generally law-abiding sort with a natural aversion to the house burning down, I decided to sort it out in good time, not least because the existing system was triggered by browning toast, resulting in doors flung open in the depths of winter and the family furiously wafting tea towels beneath the sensor. When the whole system started going off incessantly without reason, it was either disconnection, replacement, or bleeding ears.

Given the alarms were all the right places and wired to the mains, I reckoned replacement would be simple, so off to B&Q I went and, not having read the government’s guidance, the price came as something of a shock: £220 for three smoke alarms, a heat alarm and a carbon-monoxide detector, says the official advice, but that’s minimum.

We already have a carbon-monoxide detector but there still wasn’t much change from £250 and, while I can afford it, there is little financial assistance for home-owners who can’t.

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'No delay' to law requiring Scottish homes to fit interlinked fire alarms

Then I discovered that mains-wired alarms “must be fitted by a qualified electrician” which pushes the outlay to nearer £400 and, having fitted one of mine already, it appears I’ll have broken the law by not calling a sparky.

With the Consumer Prices Index hitting 5.4 per cent, and a 50 per cent leap in the energy price cap to £2,000 a year per household and the 1.25 per cent increase in National Insurance both expected in April, the fact B&Q doesn’t display the alarms suggests more than a few customers do not feel compelled to pay.

Grenfell might have been the trigger, and indeed official data indicates Scotland has a fire prevention problem, with 4,601 fires per million Scots in 2020-21 compared to 2,672 in England, but the trend in domestic incidents over the past 20 years is of dramatic and continued decline.

While Grenfell’s root cause was a dangerous fridge, we know the 72 deaths were caused by inflammable cladding, so a disaster in a badly constructed high-rise is not the best justification for imposing on people living in semi-detached bungalows.

Admittedly, the data also shows a worrying rise in fatalities from 27 in 2019-20 to 53, 44 of them domestic, but the 2020-21 rise might relate to lockdown because fatal fires from 2010 to 2019 levelled out at 44 while the total number of incidents fluctuated.

A device which tells you if you’re about to burn to death is obviously a good thing, but Ms Robison seemed to confirm there is no “must” about it. "I can be absolutely clear that there are no penalties for non-compliance, and no-one will be penalised if they need more time,” she said, but the majority of people will not be reading political news stories to the end and are much more likely to look at the official advice.

So who’s right? Is the guidance correct or is Ms Robison? Technically, and here we get into Sturgeon-Johnson territory, Ms Robison has arguably misled the Scottish Parliament because there is a penalty for non-compliance with legal “tolerable standards” to which smoke detectors and the other caboodle has been added.

“It shall be the duty of every local authority to secure that all houses which do not meet the tolerable standard are closed, demolished or brought up to the tolerable standard within such period as is reasonable,” says the 1987 legislation, meaning your council’s building standards officers could order the demolition of your house if you refused to comply.

It won’t come to that because councils don’t have the resources and have a big enough job dealing with their own properties ─ Edinburgh Council still has to equip 44 per cent of its 20,000 houses ─ but the principle is there.

Ms Robison is correct there are no criminal penalties, but clearly there is a financial price. At least one insurance company, AXA, has said they will not invalidate claims for non-compliance, but compliance will almost certainly be conditioned in new policies, and banks and building societies will be more reluctant to lend on properties which don’t meet legal safety standards. Problems will show up in home reports and, in the first instance, the onus will fall on homeowners to get the work done before a sale.

But none of this is being explained to householders or the industry, and like so much SNP legislation ─ hate crime, named persons, offensive behaviour at football, land and buildings transaction tax ─ it smacks of the worst “something must be done” approach without addressing the practicalities and implications. But as long as a fire burns in Westminster and support for independence is still stuck on halfway, I doubt they care.

John McLellan is an Edinburgh Conservative councillor

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