Ministers accused of failure to act on safety for multi-storey car parks before massive Luton fire

18 October 2023, 05:13

As many as 1,500 cars were destroyed in the Luton airport fire
As many as 1,500 cars were destroyed in the Luton airport fire. Picture: Alamy
Charlotte Lynch

By Charlotte Lynch

Ministers have been accused of failing to act on fire safety measures which could have helped to prevent the major Luton Airport car park fire, following an almost identical blaze 5 years ago.

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The Luton fire, which broke out on level three of the airport's multi-storey car park, is thought to have started in a diesel car and spread rapidly, causing structural damage and destroying as many as 1,500 cars. 235 flights were cancelled, affecting around 40,000 passengers.

It was shockingly similar to a blaze which destroyed the multi-storey car park at Liverpool's Echo arena in December 2017, which destroyed up to 1,600 vehicles.

LBC has been told the simple installation of sprinklers, called for following the Liverpool Echo arena car park fire, would have made it a "non-news event", and could have contained the fire to one vehicle. The structure was built two years after the Liverpool blaze in 2019.

Read more: Dramatic footage shows the moment car bursts into flames inside Luton Airport car park, damaging 1,200 cars

Read more: Huge blaze rips through Luton Airport terminal car park

The wreckage of cars after the fire caused the car park to collapse
The wreckage of cars after the fire caused the car park to collapse. Picture: Alamy

The Fire Brigades Union described Luton as an "accident waiting to happen", and slammed the government and developers for failing to learn lessons from the 2017 New Year's Eve blaze, after Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service (MFRS) said it could have been stopped if sprinklers had been fitted in the building. They said it would have given crews a "much better" chance of limiting the damage.

Concerns were also raised about the structure of Liverpool car park because it's design should have been able to withstand fire for 15 minutes. MFRS said despite crews attending within eight minutes of the alarm, the flames spread so quickly they were not able to control the blaze. Luton Airport's terminal two car park was the same type of exposed-steelwork design.

Fire Brigades Union National Officer Riccardo la Torre told LBC it was "a fire of the exact same nature" and "lessons have not been learned". He said for as long as building regulations for exposed-steelwork multi-storey car parks remain unchanged "members of the public are at serious risk", and said no changes were made following the Liverpool blaze.

The Business Sprinkler Alliance, which is backed by the National Fire Chiefs Council, said it was "unsurprised" by the severity of the Luton Airport car park fire because sprinklers were not fitted in the structure.

Secretary Tom Roache told LBC: "Current regulatory guidance doesn't call for sprinklers in these buildings. It's based on thoughts and thinking from the 1980's and early 90's where cars were built very differently than they are today.

"More plastics in cars today means the propagation, the spreading of fire is more likely, which will lead to these larger configurations if there are no sprinklers."

He said if sprinklers had been fitted "we would have seen none of the disruption we're talking about, with all of those passengers, and to that local area and local community."

Mr Roache also warned of the dangers of a similar event happening in another multi-storey car park, saying: "What if that car park fire was in a building which was residential, with premises above where people are living and sleeping? We have car parks with shopping complexes and office complexes above - what does it mean for those?"

He called for the government to "think carefully" about protecting them, and urged ministers to order the installation of sprinklers in the structures.

Luton Airport said it was "too early to tell" whether a sprinkler system would have prevented any of the damage, as executives admitted it's highly unlikely any of the cars within the multi-storey will be recovered.

Director of Corporate Affairs Oliver Jaycock told LBC: "Underway now is a very large investigation that will examine every aspect of the fire, from how it originated to how it spread, and then ultimately contained. We'll await the findings from that investigation and take on any advice and guidance that's given."

He said the airport was supporting emergency services with the investigation and pledged to "see it through", but said customers with cars trapped in the structure have been told "the likelihood is nothing will be salvageable".

Burned out cars are pictured in a charred section of Luton Airport's Terminal 2 car park
Burned out cars are pictured in a charred section of Luton Airport's Terminal 2 car park. Picture: Getty

The government launched a major review of the fire safety guidance to building regulations, known as Approved Document B, following the Grenfell tower fire. It's being overseen by the Building Safety Regulator in the HSE and involves research in to the structural fire resistance of car parks.

It's currently for building designers, managers, and owners to determine whether particular circumstances of their building should go beyond the regulations.

A Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities spokesperson said: "Public safety is our absolute priority - which is why we’re undertaking a major review of the fire safety guidance to the building regulations, including research on the fire resistance of car parks."

It's understood ministers intend to take the "necessary time to properly consider the research" before committing to changes.