By Harry Scoffin
MHCLG, the ministry of housing, said on Friday that resolving the cladding crisis “remains a priority for the government” after Leasehold Knowledge Partnership reported concerns that the coronavirus emergency could halt remediation of unsafe apartment buildings.
It comes as government is feeling the heat from the Metal Cladding and Roofing Manufacturers Association (MCRMA) which, together with Grenfell survivors, has gone public with a new safety test of HPL (high pressure laminate), a mainstream cladding system used on buildings across the UK.
The government’s building safety update, published on Friday, insists that coronavirus restrictions should not impede the removal of combustible materials from blocks of flats:
“The government’s view is that this work is critical to public safety.”
It suggests that if contractors have to prioritise jobs because of coronavirus uncertainty, leaseholders of flats with Grenfell-style ACM (aluminium composite material) cladding should come first.
The new guidance follows remarks made by Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick, who told the BBC that “taking dangerous cladding off buildings … will need to continue” during these unprecedented times.
In spite of the coronavirus emergency, the government update claims that extra resources have been made available to ensure effective oversight of cladding remediation efforts:
“The government has now put in place additional project management support with construction expertise to help oversee remediation. The additional support will identify blockers to progress and work directly with those responsible for remediation to support individual projects.
“This new team will work with those responsible for remediation and the Department [MHCLG] to understand the impact of COVID-19 on remediation projects and identify ways to reduce the impact on pace.”
It is not clear, however, whether government intends to ease the paperwork for leaseholders and speed up the delivery of the £1bn Building Safety Fund, announced to much fanfare by Rishi Sunak in the Budget last month:
Campaigners say that dangerously-clad residential buildings will not be remediated for as long as there are questions over who should pay, an issue Friday’s guidance does not explicitly address.
Coronavirus delays will only send leaseholders’ service charge bills soaring due to continued “waking watch” patrols, they add.
On whether fire guards and related contractors can continue their work in the current climate, government says:
“Staff undertaking waking watch or other critical fire safety roles are providing vital public safety functions to keep homes safe. They may, therefore, be classified as critical workers for the purposes of childcare provision.”
Meanwhile, the Metal Cladding and Roofing Manufacturers Association has demonstrated that a standard HPL cladding system is highly flammable. Its intervention casts doubt on government’s sole test of HPL, which passed checks but involved a more fire resistant product that is less common in the market.
The industry body’s fire safety test – which found flames quickly climb up a nine metre test rig and temperatures rise to over 700 degrees centigrade in under 8 minutes – has been reported by a number of leading news outlets, with footage obtained by the BBC showing dramatic scenes:
The owners of tall buildings face pressure to continue removing dangerous cladding, despite coronavirus, after a new fire test showed how quickly flames can spread. Cladding previously deemed safer than that used at Grenfell Tower burned almost as rapidly as the aluminium and plastic panels blamed for the disaster.
MCRMA says the results of its controlled fire categorically disprove government’s long-held position that Grenfell-style ACM panels are “uniquely dangerous”.
Their latest contribution to the cladding crisis debate has won the backing of Grenfell campaigners who, over the last two and a half years, have found themselves articulating the concerns of leaseholders in dangerous privately-owned apartment buildings due to government inaction over cladding and other major fire safety issues in leasehold blocks.
Tiago Alves, a Grenfell survivor and member of the group Grenfell United, says: “We’ve been raising concerns about the risks of HPL cladding for over two years. But now we’re in the midst of a national health crisis which means thousands of people are being told to stay home, in homes that are covered in dangerous cladding, all because the government has taken too long to act. It’s a scandal.”
Dr Jonathan Evans, chair of the MCRMA’s technical committee, had originally set out to expose government’s “damaging obsession with ACM as the only dangerous material” in order to persuade ministers to commit to grant funding for leasehold blocks encased in combustible non-ACM cladding.
Despite £1bn of taxpayer money earmarked for remediating unsafe high-rise apartment buildings in last month’s Budget, the engineer says the recent BS 8414 test conducted at the Fire Protection Association and funded by MCRMA is still “a stark demonstration of the dangers of unmodified combustible cladding in ventilated systems at any height.”
One of the experts on the cladding test team assembled by government in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell fire, Dr Evans is calling on Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick to reduce the threshold of the combustible materials ban to 11 meters.
LKP reported on the government’s “just below 18m” approach to approving applications for the new Building Safety Fund here:
In his March 26 letter to the Communities Secretary, Dr Evans stresses that HPL is at least as dangerous, if not more, than the material used on Grenfell Tower:
“From a fire and rescue perspective, the performance of a standard HPL system is practically the same as that of polyethylene-cored ACM – you’ve got just a few minutes to prevent a very serious fire from rapidly developing. Arguably, due to the higher fuel content, an HPL fire might be more difficult to fight than ACM due to the greater heat release rate.”
The engineer, who spoke powerfully about government’s highly defensive handling of post-Grenfell building safety issues at the January APPG cladding forum, goes on to suggest a culture of secrecy at MHCLG, even hinting at a concerted attempt to evade scrutiny and downplay concerns over the safety of non-ACM systems:
“At an MHCLG meeting in July 2017 shortly after the Grenfell fire I was asked: “what else should be done to ensure the safety of others who might be in a similar situation?”. I responded, and followed this up in writing, by saying that High Pressure Laminate (HPL) systems should be included in the ACM test program being conducted at the BRE [Building Research Establishment]. I felt these were of potentially equal danger but my request was flatly refused.
“… In is nearly two years since I attended a working group meeting on non-ACM material testing at the BRE and even those who participated in the early stages of the project have still not heard anything from MHCLG about the outcome. This is not the transparency that Dame Judith has called for.”
Dr Evans is by no means alone in putting forward such a view.
Telegraph columnist: this is a cover-up
Following the inferno in November at HPL-clad The Cube, a six storey university student block in Bolton, Manchester, Sherelle Jacobs, assistant comment editor at the Daily Telegraph, said on BBC Question Time that the government’s approach to the cladding crisis “reeks of a cover-up, potentially on an industrial scale”:
“I think that after Grenfell two and a half years ago, the government made a deliberate decision to only focus on auditing ACM cladding, which is the cladding that was used in Grenfell Tower – despite the fact that HPL is more combustible and is used 3 times more than ACM.”
Mr Jenrick, who was also on the Question Time panel speaking to the Bolton audience, rejected the allegation, repeating the line that ACM “is by far and away the most dangerous form of cladding on people’s buildings today.”
In his letter to the cabinet minister, Dr Evans criticises government for having drawn an artificial distinction between Grenfell-style ACM and non-ACM combustibles on apartment buildings. He adds that government was unable to produce the test evidence it was basing the policy on:
“For the next two and a half years, the foundation of MHCLG’s Independent Expert Panel advice has been the ‘view’ that Category 3 ACM (i.e. with a polyethylene core) presents a unique danger despite there seemingly being no test evidence to support this. This is not ‘expert advice’ – it is little more than wishful thinking.
“You either choose to find out in a controlled manner or wait long enough to experience a real-life event, which is what happened [with the Bolton fire].”
Despite having dropped this approach with the flagship Budget announcement of a £1bn Building Safety Fund, it appears that government has returned to it in Friday’s guidance:
“Making buildings safe, including progressing the remediation of high-rise buildings with unsafe cladding, particularly those with unsafe Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) cladding; and maintaining measures to ensure buildings are safe ahead of remediation, remains a priority for the government.” [emphasis added]
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Dr Evans is also calling for a clear-out of officials:
“Successive Secretaries of State have been advised by the same individuals who have presided over the regulatory mess and technical confusion that we now experience and they continue to make serious mistakes and misjudgements that put lives in danger.”
His recommendations to Mr Jenrick include:
- “The establishment of a nationalised facility for testing, research and development unburdened by commercial interests.
- “The creation of an MHCLG team based on strong technical and ethical principles that reflects the needs of society and can challenge the fire engineering community to provide robust guidance.
- “The bar needs to be raised to go just beyond that required for life safety. We’ve now experienced the miserable huge financial and personal cost to society caused by the chronic deregulation and clumsy cost-benefit analysis of fire safety measures.
- “The objectives of fire design need to be re-stated to reflect MHCLG’s overall aim to provide ‘great places to live and work’. Delivering housing where people have a high chance of escaping a fire with their lives but lose everything else in the process, should not be considered acceptable.
- “There needs to be a fresh approach to fire design thinking. Historically, this has been founded on the absolute limits of fire and rescue capabilities in a best-case scenario. The Barking Riverside fire, where the FRS apparently ran out of water due to the scale of the fire and couldn’t find a nearby/working fire hydrant, shows the futility of that approach. Fire “Prevention” should be the priority. Only then after “Containment” has failed should the fire and rescue services be relied upon. Accordingly, the fire and rescue services should provide valuable input to building design, but they should not lead it.”
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