Cladding crisis front and centre of election campaigning

Government accused over its record on HPL cladding linked to Bolton student-housing block blaze.

Grenfell - Credit Guido van Nispen

The cladding crisis is front and centre of election campaigning, with the government accused of downplaying risks posed by high-pressure laminate (HPL) panels linked to the blaze that ripped through a student block in Bolton.

As reported by 24housing, former housing minister Kit Malthouse was accused in June of ‘misleading’ MPs over fire-safety tests carried out on HPL prior to June 2017.

Answering a written Commons question from Labour’s Steve Reed, Malthouse effectively admitted that MHCLG had been aware of another cladding type that failed a large-scale fire test.

Shadow Housing Minister Sarah Jones accused Malthouse of misleading MPs over a promise to remove any building cladding that failed fire tests in the wake of the Grenfell disaster.

Grenfell United has called for the declaration of a national emergency over the lack of action.

HPL panels, which can be made of compressed paper or wood fibre, have a variety of combustibility ratings, while combustible ACM panels were banned last year for use on new tall residential and public buildings following post-Grenfell investigations.

Since Grenfell, the government has issued no injunctions on cladding on low-rise residential buildings, instead focusing on high-rise blocks, partly on the basis they are harder to evacuate.

There has been anger among residents about the slow pace at which existing combustible panels are being removed.

A year ago, ministers gave councils the power to strip the materials and reclaim the multimillion-pound cost from landlords.

However, amid disagreements between leaseholders, freeholders, and developers over who should pay, there remain 169 private-sector residential buildings with cladding systems unlikely to meet building regulations.

In the wake of the Bolton blaze, it has been reported that officials were dismissing pleas for the removal of similar HPL panels as recently as a fortnight ago.

Just a month after the Grenfell disaster, shadow housing secretary John Healey called for government to widen its testing regime beyond ACM.

The then housing secretary, Sajid Javid, said it was important to prioritise, but that did not “preclude tests on other types of cladding”.

But it took until April this year for tests on HPL to start.

“It was always implausible that it was only this specific type of cladding that was at fault, when the whole system of building-safety checks had been exposed as failing, but ministers refused to act,” said Healey.

“The government still hasn’t passed the legislation needed to overhaul the high-rise fire safety system,” he said.

Over the weekend, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson tweeted he had written to all university vice chancellors asking that they – and their commercial partners – review fire-safety procedures and safeguards across residential, teaching, and research accommodation and report back as “swiftly as possible”.

Labour’s Angela Rayner responded to ask why this was not done immediately after Grenfell.

She asked Williamson: “Why have you waited until after a major fire at student accommodation to suddenly demand a review? This should have been enacted a long time ago – the government have been shockingly slow to react on the issue of fire safety”

Williamson did not respond.

In September last year, it was reported that as many as 54 student residential blocks had material similar to that at Grenfell Tower.

In August this year, owners of flats in high-rise blocks wrapped in combustible cladding in other parts of Greater Manchester asked the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, for help to find the money to strip their buildings of all kinds of combustible cladding.

After three months, they received a response saying money would be made available to remove only ACM and not HPL, with an official saying government intervention to provide funding for the removal of unsafe ACM cladding is “wholly exceptional and based on the unparalleled fire risk ACM poses”.

Fran Reddington, one of the residents who wrote to Jenrick, said: “We feel extremely let down by the government continuing to ignore our pleas to take the dangers of other materials such as HPL seriously.

“The recent horrific fire at Bolton clearly demonstrates that (HPL) cladding is as dangerous as ACM, and we urge government to reassess, retest, and provide much-needed funding to leaseholders in these blocks.

“We are relying on sheer luck – you shouldn’t have to rely on luck when your life is at stake.”

The government’s own fire-safety advisers have called for panels unless they are used with the least combustible insulation.

Block owners have told to take immediate action, with estimates of hundreds of high-rise apartment blocks believed to be covered in combustible HPL panels.

The government still has not completed testing of HPL cladding to fully determine the fire risk it poses and will not know how many thousands of residents are at risk from the material until March 2020 at the earliest, as the data collection exercise was only launched in July this year.

MHCLG maintained it has not been slow to act and put the onus on building owners to ensure tenant safety by removing cladding systems – including HPL – that did not conform to safety standards.

The response referenced agreement with the Hackitt Review and subsequent commitment to implementing its recommendations in a new building-safety bill.

It has been reported that the government’s decision to prioritise tackling ACM cladding appeared to be driven in part by the potential additional cost of exposing a far higher number of affected buildings than the 436 found to be covered in ACM – with some £600m available to cover related replacement costs.

And dealing with ACM alone is already acknowledged as stretching resources.

Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said the Bolton blaze fire highlights the “complete failure” of the UK’s fire-safety system.

He said: “It’s deeply troubling to see fire spread rapidly up a building’s exterior again – a shocking indictment of the government’s shameful inaction after Grenfell.

“This is not how any building should react to a fire in the 21st century, let alone a building in which people live.”

“We need to end the deregulation agenda and the disastrous cuts to our fire and rescue service – it’s time for a complete overhaul of UK fire safety before it’s too late.”

In January this year, then housing minister Kit Malthouse told a parliamentary select committee material that failed a large-scale ‘British Standards’ fire test would be considered too dangerous to be left on buildings and be removed immediately.

By June, in his written response to Reed, Malthouse – now a Home Office minister – said HPL had failed a third-party test when it was tested with certain insulation the previous November.

Reed had asked whether MHCLG was aware of any fire-safety tests carried out in the UK on High Pressure Laminate cladding prior to June 2017.

In his reply Malthouse said: “We are aware of one BS 8414 test carried out in the UK in 2014 on High Pressure Laminate (HPL) panels in combination with a combustible insulation material.

“This test was commissioned by a private company, and the Department only became aware of the test in November 2018.”

He continued: “We understand that the arrangement tested failed to meet the criteria for passing the test.

“The Department’s Advice Note 14, first issued in December 2017 and reissued in December 2018, made clear that a wall system which did not contain materials of limited combustibility would only meet the requirements of Building Regulations’ guidance if it had passed a BS 8414 test.

“The Department has commissioned its own BS 8414 test of an HPL panel with non-combustible insulation as well as carrying out a programme to research the performance in a fire of non-aluminium composite materials, including HPL.”

At the time, Labour’s Sarah Jones said the response left Malthouse with “serious questions to answer”, as it appeared he had misled MPs.

“It is scandalous that six months after being told this cladding was lethal, the government has not made any effort to remove it, or even find out how many buildings are covered,” Jones said.

Labour wanted fire tests “urgently widened” to include all suspect cladding and give any building which fails a fire test access to the government’s cladding removal fund.

The government recognises concerns about HPL and included them in the new fire safety tests.

HPL is believed to be of particular concern, with the Building Research Establishment saying none of the cladding systems that had passed a standard BS 8414 safety test included an HPL.

Another study, released in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, found that HPL cladding materials released heat 25 times faster and released 115 times more heat than non-combustible products.

In July, the NHF advised housing associations to keep on with cladding reviews of their own while waiting on government “transparency” over tests.

This was a response to government expectations of Grenfell-style cladding removal being complete by June next year – with social housing blocks expected to be complete by the end of this year.

In a statement, the then communities secretary James Brokenshire confirmed high-pressure laminate (HPL) cladding had passed a safety test when combined with rock fibre insulation – but its removal is still recommended if combined with combustible products.

At the time, Victoria Moffett, NHF Grenfell Programme Lead, said it was welcome that the government has provided clarity on this particular type of external wall system.

She said: “But government have also alluded to the fact they could be testing other types of HPL cladding systems.

“Transparency on what tests are still ongoing, and when we can expect the results, would be very useful.

“In the meantime, we’re advising housing associations with other kinds of combustible cladding to continue carrying out reviews of their buildings, as set out in the advice note from government in December,” she said.

The new order for HPL to be removed is likely to fuel fears that further fire safety problems could yet emerge.

Neil O’Connor, director of the Ministry of Housing’s building safety programme, has already written to all council chief executives requesting they identify the external wall materials and insulation used on every high-rise residential building over 18-metres tall in council or private ownership in their areas.

He did the same with social housing landlords and said the government “continues to consider safety risks to high-rise buildings”.

MHCLG is undertaking a data collection exercise to create a complete picture of external wall systems in use on high-rise residential buildings with councils and housing associations, to identify external wall materials and insulation on all high-rise residential buildings 18 metres and over.

In July, a fire test in accordance with British Standard 8414 was carried out at the laboratories of the Fire Protection Association.

The test was commissioned by MHCLG on the advice of the Independent Expert Advisory Panel and involved a cladding system consisting of a Class B, fire retardant, high pressure laminate rainscreen with a non-combustible rock fibre insulation.

This is part of an ongoing, systematic investigation into the fire risks from non-ACM cladding systems.

In his subsequent statement, Brokenshire confirmed the system met the relevant pass criteria, with the Expert Panel satisfied the specific system did not present a risk to public safety.

LGA building safety spokesperson Lord Porter saw in the statement a delay to the testing programme that meant “another summer of uncertainty” two years since the LGA raised the need to look at High Pressure Laminate (HPL) with government, five years since an HPL system combined with combustible insulation failed a fire test, and 10 years since HPL panels helped spread the fire at Lakanal House.

Lord Porter said: “Panels helped spread the fire at Lakanal House where six people died – advice has only just been issued on the level of risk posed by HPL cladding.

“Given the Expert Panel’s advice that European Class C and D panels are unlikely to adequately resist the spread of fire and that any HPL panel when combined with combustible insulation is also unlikely to adequately resist the spread of fire, government needs to give immediate consideration to funding the removal of HPL cladding systems from high-rise residential buildings.

“It cannot be right when the building owners of blocks with ACM cladding are receiving financial assistance that we do not extend the same help to those with HPL cladding,” said Lord Porter.

“In addition, the government needs to publish the results of all the other tests it has conducted so far to reassure residents and help building owners,” he said.

“We have previously raised the need to fund the replacement of all forms of dangerous cladding with the government, and we are pleased to see the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee recommend that the government should do so,” said Lord Porter.

For some councils, the sheer volume of high-rise buildings makes the job of collecting data on cladding systems a mammoth task requiring additional staff – especially in cases where private owners are hard to trace or refuse to cooperate.

In September, as reported by 24housing, the Commons HCLG committee asked housing minister Esther McVey to a honour a reneged ‘promise’ made to members by Malthouse to release papers listing products that would not be allowed on new buildings but that government is content to keep on existing buildings.

The record has Malthouse  telling members: “We are more than happy to do that. I understand why you are pressing us on this issue, but we are going through a process at the moment to identify risk.

“We have said that there is a level of risk going forward, which, because we can prospectively say definitively, “You should not use X, Y, Z”, we can do that now.

“Retrospectively, given the thousands of buildings that are out there, we have to establish the calibration of risk, from ACM at one end to nothing at the other end.

“That is the process that we are going though at the moment. You are pressing us to try to make judgements about that calibration, and we just do not have the information to be able to do that.

“The point is that if we find something as bad as ACM, as we have said before, and it needs remediation, then it will have to done.”

However, following the evidence session, Malthouse wrote to the committee to say it would not be possible to provide a definitive list.

Instead, Malthouse referenced a list of materials which had successfully passed the BR135/BS8414 fire safety tests.

The committee’s view has long been that the government’s combustible cladding ban should have applied not only to new high-rise buildings, but also to existing buildings over 18 metres, as well as those under construction.

McVey has already seemingly hinted at ‘wriggle room’ for private sector building owners over ACM cladding replacement – with no blanket definition of what constitutes exceptional circumstances for work not being done to deadline.

And that came just a month the MHCLG committee warned that the £200m currently set aside for the remediation of private sector residential buildings with ACM cladding will not be enough.

Responding to a written Commons question, McVey  said such circumstances would instead be considered on a case by case basis.

Image: Guido-van-Nispen

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