Government trumps Hackitt

“Insufficient” was MIMA’s first reaction to Dame Judith Hackitt’s report on Building Regulations and Fire Safety. The report should have gone further to ensure that residents of high-rise buildings are safe, and feel safe, by requiring that only non-combustible materials be used on mid and high-rise & high occupancy/high risk buildings.

The report didn’t offer a short to medium term solution whilst cultural changes take time to take effect and become embedded, whilst it did avoid calling for only non-combustibles materials in our schools, hospitals, care homes and other buildings where the most vulnerable in society are.

Jane Duncan, ex-President of RIBA and Chair of the RIBA’s Expert Advisory Group on Fire Safety, correctly said:

This was supposed to be a Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety following the tragedy at Grenfell Tower. It’s a thorough report on the current state of the regulatory system and construction industry, but it offers no changes whatsoever to the actual regulations or baseline guidance.

Focusing on just a small number of very high buildings is a major missed opportunity. By failing to ban the use of combustible materials and ‘desktop’ studies, or require use of sprinklers, the report’s recommendations will not deliver the immediate change that is needed to reassure and safeguard the public.”

However, with the anniversary of Grenfell fast approaching, what was clear was that Theresa May’s government needed to take an extra and braver step – to respond to the continued call for the use of only non-combustible materials and the banning of desktop studies for fire safety – on top of Hackitt’s suite of recommendations. The calls coming from all corners of the country and from a majority of wide-ranging stakeholders – including the Parliamentarians and the Government’s own backbenchers – simply left no wriggle room.

 

No sooner than Hackitt’s report was released and with the ink not yet dry, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government James Brokenshire, announced a consultation on introducing a ban on combustible materials and stated: “Having listened carefully to the arguments for banning combustible materials in cladding systems on high-rise residential buildings the government is minded to agree and will consult accordingly.” Probably the swiftest undermining of an independent review ever experienced in Westminster.

We must be cautious of Brokenshire’s announcement as the detail for the consultation is expected in the “summer”. We should also be wary given the UK government has already notified the European Commission about changes to the building regulation guidance which would “clarify the existing text and create new requirements for assessments in lieu of fire tests” but makes no reference to a potential ban on desktop studies for fire safety testing of materials, despite the new consultation.

On the other hand, we see Brokenshire seeking confirmation from bidders for the new funding pot of £400m to pay for the removal of dangerous cladding in the social sector to replace cladding with “materials which meet A1 and A2 standards” i.e. non-combustible (A1) or limited combustibility (A2 being non-combustible in most other countries including Scotland) in order to qualify for the funding.

What is more surprising is the Prime Minister, Theresa May’s own words at a recent Prime Minister’s Question time.  Not usually one for making emotional statements she said: “I think the deeply moving testimonies that we have already heard and will continue to hear from survivors and the bereaved this week leave absolutely no doubt that we must learn everything we can about what has happened and we must take the strongest possible action to stop such a tragedy from ever happening again.”

Dame Judith Hackitt’s recommendations did not include the banning of inflammable cladding. We are minded to go further by banning combustible materials in cladding on high-rise buildings. We are meeting our legal duty to consult on these proposals and we will not delay any necessary action.”

Labour’s Shadow Housing Secretary John Healey has also set a clear position for Labour saying that without a ban on combustible cladding the [Hackitt] report would fall “well short” of the necessary steps to boost fire safety and “The bare minimum of big changes in the system must be an end to any combustible material on the sides of high rise tower blocks”. Healey has also demanded an end to ‘desktop studies’ of fire safety.

Only an approach as an entire package – not taken in silo or piecemeal – and with both the ban on combustibles and desktop studies will have the desired outcome to protect the public and drive change within the industry. Government must lead from the front and cannot just leave industry to decide when and how it changes.

Designers, architects and installers need to know exactly what they can and cannot use in future buildings. Occupants need to know what is on their buildings, their homes, their schools and their hospitals. This should be mandatory, underpinned by legislation and effective enforcement and not left to unofficial industry guidance and subject to misinterpretation or ambiguity, in order to protect public safety.

The words of Local Government Association (LGA) chair Lord Porter say it all: “our immediate priority is to ensure that a fire like that at Grenfell never happens again, and to make certain the buildings which people live, visit and work in are safe today.”

“The Government should nevertheless act without delay to introduce a temporary ban on the use of combustible materials on complex and high-rise buildings and until we have a regulatory and testing system which is fit for the 21st Century. As the use and misuse of desktop studies has been at the heart of the problem, the LGA also remains clear that the use of desktop studies that attempt to approve safety compliance must also be banned.”

Sarah Kostense-Winterton is Executive Director of MIMA, the Mineral Wool Insulation Manufacturers Association, the industry trade body for non-combustible, breathable insulation which provides an authoritative source of independent information and advice on glass and stone wool insulation.

MIMA represents four of the leading insulation companies in the UK – Isover Saint-Gobain, Knauf Insulation, ROCKWOOL and Superglass.

For further details, please visit MIMA’s website at http://mima.info/info-centre/news/ or contact Sarah at sarah@mima.info

Leave a Reply