The Notre-Dame Fire: safeguarding our historic buildings

18 April 2019

The sad news on Monday evening that one of the world’s iconic historical buildings was engulfed in flames caused many to question whether other historical buildings around the world are vulnerable to the same fate.   

On Monday evening, whilst undergoing renovation and restoration, the roof of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris caught fire causing significant damage including the destruction of the spire and most of the roof.   Translated as ‘Our Lady of Paris’, the medieval cathedral was built in 1160 and has a fascinating history; being damaged during the French Revolution; hosting the coronation of Napoleon I as Emperor of France and of course providing the setting for Victor Hugo’s ‘The Hunchback of Notre-Dame’[1].  It is understandable that the world wants to ensure the protection of historic symbols such as this.

This side of the Channel, on Monday evening, Labour MP Chris Bryant tweeted calling for assurances that ‘every fire precaution is taken’ in respect of works being undertaken on the Palace of Westminster.  Jeremy Corbyn also warned that the fire risk for Parliament was ‘huge’. 

A 2016 joint committee report entitled ‘Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster’ states:

The Palace of Westminster, a masterpiece of Victorian and medieval architecture and engineering, faces an impending crisis which we cannot responsibly ignore.  It is impossible to say when this will happen, but there is a substantial and growing risk of either a single catastrophic event, such as a major fire, or a succession of incremental failures in essential systems which would lead to Parliament no longer being able to occupy the Palace.

 The Palace of Westminster does not belong to MPs and Peers, it belongs to the people of the United Kingdom. Those who have the privilege of serving in the Lords and Commons are merely its custodians.  As such it is a vital part of our national heritage and it is important that this historic building is preserved, maintained and adapted for the needs of today and tomorrow for the nation as a whole."

In 2006, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 replaced the Fire Precautions Act 1971 and other fire-safety legislation in England and Wales. It covers general fire precautions and other fire-safety duties that are needed to protect ‘relevant persons’ in case of fire in and around most ‘premises’. Under the order, a fire-risk assessment must be carried out and, if an organisation employs five or more people (including unpaid volunteers) or premises are licensed, the significant findings of the assessment must be properly recorded.  It is generally recommended that a general fire policy statement and manual is compiled.  A person must be nominated to take responsibility for all aspects of fire safety.  Usually the person charged with the management and control of the premises will be the ‘responsible person’ under the Order. 

There is always a tension when considering fire safety measures and alterations in listed or historic buildings, however it is often possible to maintain the character of such buildings when ensuring sufficient fire safety measures are in place and, of course, ultimately the safety of the public is of paramount importance.      

About the author

Hannah Eales  is a member of the firm’s Health and Safety team and specialises in the field of Fire Safety Law. Hannah acts for those charged with fire offences as well as fire and rescue authorities conducting criminal investigations and prosecutions. She has appeared before the Court of Appeal in relation to the important issue of custodial sentences being passed in cases under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.

[1] The novel’s original French title is ‘Notre-Dame de Paris’

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