Heat on McVey over release of building fire safety papers

Commons committee calls on housing minister to release reneged details of materials deemed too dangerous for new developments but allowed for old.

The heat’s on Esther McVey after the Commons HCLG committee was burned over the promised release of building fire safety papers by her predecessor.

And the committee wants that promise honoured, expressing its “disappointment” that the papers – listing products that would not be allowed on new buildings but that government is content to keep on existing buildings – have not been produced.

A letter from the committee was sent to McVey this week saying members would be “grateful”  for the request to be reconsidered.

The letter reads: “We believe that transparency is important and residents have a right to know if their buildings incorporate materials that the Government deems too dangerous for new developments.”

At a meeting of the committee in July, then housing minister Kit Malthouse agreed to provide members with a list of such products.

The record has Malthouse – now a Home Office minister – 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.

“I cannot be right that materials deemed too dangerous for new buildings should continue to be permitted for existing residences and other high-rise buildings,” said committee chair Clive Betts MP.

It was in July that the committee criticised the government for the slow pace of change since the Grenfell disaster.

The previous month, Malthouse had been accused in the Commons of misleading MPs over building safety fire tests.

Labour leapt on to an answer Malthouse gave to a written Commons questions from its MP Steve Reed, raising the fire safety tests carried out in the UK on High Pressure Laminate cladding prior to June 2017.

Malthouse effectively admitted that, for the last eight months, his department has been aware of another cladding type that failed a large-scale fire test.

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

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

In a written response to a Commons question from Reed, Malthouse confirmed High Pressure Laminate cladding (HPL) had failed a third party test when it tested with certain insulation in November last year.

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.”

Labour now wants 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.

As reported by 24housing, 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 minister said such circumstances would instead be considered on a case by case basis.

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