New cladding materials tests announced
THE GOVERNMENT has widened its fire testing regime to include other materials than aluminium composite material (ACM), which could mean ‘potential uncertainty for thousands more residents’.
The Guardian reported on the announcement that the government’s Housing Minister, Kit Malthouse, has ordered combustibility tests on cladding panels used on high rise residential blocks, hotels and student accommodation ‘that differ’ from ACM panels used on 437 buildings ‘identified so far’. Research has suggested that ‘at least’ 160 high rises have been built with materials used in rainscreen cladding systems ‘that have not been accounted for’ in prior government testing.
These include high pressure laminate (HPL) panels made from compressed wood or paper fibre, used to produce ‘colourful skins for new buildings’, and some of which are classed as combustible. The development follows pressure from the Labour party, with The Guardian pointing out that it has ‘the potential to dramatically increase the number of buildings that may require action to make them safe’.
Earlier this week in parliament, Mr Malthouse stated that fire safety experts had updated guidance for the government, adding that ‘we have commissioned the Building Research Establishment to conduct a programme of testing on non-ACM materials and we expect that testing to start shortly’. He added that the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government had been ‘cajoling’ private building owners to remove ACM panels, and was considering ‘more assertive’ measures.
This was because the latest government figures showed that only five of 176 privately owned towers identified as having combustible ACM cladding had seen panels replaced. An urgent question in parliament had been lodged by shadow housing and communities secretary John Healey, to which Mr Malthouse replied: ‘There remain 42 private residential buildings for which the owner’s plans are unclear, so we are maintaining pressure and rule out no solutions.’
Mr Healey responded: ‘It should be a cause for national shame that over 19 months after the Grenfell Tower fire I am having to drag ministers to the house because there are still buildings in this country cloaked in Grenfell-style cladding and residents who do not know whether their homes are safe.
‘It’s shocking that the government’s own figures show there were 437 high-rise blocks with the same Grenfell-style cladding, and 370 are yet to have this removed. It’s shocking that the minister knows every one of these blocks but won’t name the landlords and won’t tell the residents.’
The Independent also reported Mr Healey responded that ‘whatever the minister says he’s doing, it isn’t working’, and added that the government response has ‘simply been too slow, too weak and always under pressure from this House and from Labour. If the government can’t fix problems this serious and this urgent, what on earth is it in office for?’
Labour’s plan to tackle cladding issues would see it widen the testing programme for building materials, set a deadline for all blocks to be made safe, and to ‘make clear’ the legal duty to landlords to get the work done ‘and not pass the bill on to leaseholders’. It would also set up a loan fund for landlords to pay for works, name landlords refusing to make changes, and toughen sanctions ‘up to and including taking over blocks’.
In response, Mr Malthouse criticised him for making this ‘such an antagonistic exchange’, and that the issue ‘requires significant amounts of engineering and construction work which will necessarily take time’. He defended the government response to Grenfell, stating it had been ‘immediate and wide-ranging’, with ‘significant resource and effort [having] been injected into removing’ cladding.
He did agree however that ‘we will get to a small number of owners or contractors where we will need to consider more assertive measures, and they are under active consideration at the moment’, while a ‘significant amount of work has taken place’ to change building regulations.
Emma Dent Coad, the Labour MP for Kensington and Chelsea – where Grenfell Tower is located – said Mr Malthouse was treating the situation ‘like some sort of theoretical exercise’ adding: ‘People are genuinely afraid in their bed and just saying that the minister is satisfied is not really enough. Nothing has yet changed, the government is ignoring warnings, our constituents are going to bed afraid, current measures are not working, as one of the Grenfell survivors said, “Grenfell two is in the post”.
‘How many more must die before the Government takes positive action to keep people safe in their beds?’