In 2010, the Scottish Government strengthened legislation requiring every new school building – including extensions – to install the fire-fighting equipment following concerns raised by MSPs.
However, new figures disclosed under freedom of information laws show that ministers have granted nearly 50 exemptions to a range of new classrooms and other school buildings in the last two years, largely on grounds of cost.
Only seven exemptions were granted between 2010 and 2012, but the figures show that the number has significantly escalated in the last two years as local authority budgets have come under increasing strain.
Last year, 23 were granted and the rate has increased again in 2013 with 24 in the first six months of this year alone. Almost all are for additional buildings in existing schools which do not have sprinkler systems installed. But last night, the Scottish Government faced calls to review the decisions, with a Labour MP warning that not installing the devices could put pupils at risk.
Gordon Banks, the MP for Ochil and South Perthshire, claimed the sharp rise in exemptions was due to ministers allowing local authorities and developers to “cut costs” in new school buildings.
To gain an exemption from the legislation, local authorities have to submit their case to the government, and both state and private schools were among nearly 50 school premises allowed not to install the anti-fire systems. Among them was fee-paying Stewart’s Melville in Edinburgh, which was granted an exemption last year for additional accommodation to the main building due to the cost of sprinklers being “disproportionate” to the overall construction cost.
Morrison’s Academy, another independent school, in Crieff, was also allowed a similar building extension without sprinklers for the same reason in 2012.
State schools granted exemptions include James Gillespie’s in Edinburgh, which was allowed to build an extension to its main building without a sprinkler last month.
Lochdonhead Primary, another state school on Mull, was also allowed to proceed with an extension without installing the device.
Banks said: “It would seem nonsensical at best for the SNP to tighten legislation to help prevent fire-related deaths, while at the same time ministers are exempting the very buildings they’ve just included in the new law.
“To decide that fire safety is ‘uneconomical’ would appear to be a risky determination by a minister and if the worst were to happen, what position would that leave the Scottish Government in terms of civil liability?
“For the number of exemptions to now be increasing dramatically would appear to be a response to ministers being seen to be more lenient. It would seem that this is an attempt to cut corners and costs which could have a far greater cost if the worst were to happen.”
Parents’ groups said they would be concerned if sprinkler systems were being rejected on grounds of cost. Tina Woolnough, Edinburgh representative for the National Parent Forum, said: “We’d hope and expect that local authorities consult the fire service and that all required standards are met.”
Fire safety laws in public buildings in Scotland were overhauled in 2004 following the Rosepark Nursing Home tragedy in Lanarkshire in which 14 elderly residents died when a fire broke out in a linen cupboard. A Fatal Accident Investigation found that the lack of sprinklers was a contributory factor.
School buildings were added to the existing list of buildings that require a sprinkler system in the government’s Building (Scotland) Amendment Regulations 2010. The regulations stated “every building must be designed and constructed in such a way that in the event of an outbreak of fire within the building, fire growth will be inhibited by the automatic fire suppressions system”.
The measure was passed after pressure from Central Scotland MSP Michael Matheson, now the SNP’s public health minister, who used a debate on fire safety as a backbencher in 2009 to lobby ministers successfully over the issue.
A Scottish Government spokesman said sprinkler systems should always be considered when extending an existing school. However, he defended ministerial exemptions, saying: “Ministers, after careful consideration, have issued dispensations to schools, mainly relating to facilities such as temporary classrooms and small extensions where the cost burden on schools would be unnecessary and unjustifiable.”