Peter Apps

Six ways the state failed to prevent the cladding crisis

Six ways the state failed to prevent the cladding crisis
(Photo: iStock)
Text settings

Talk to anyone for long enough about the UK’s building safety crisis and you soon will be asked: why are we in such a mess? Why, in one of the wealthiest countries on earth with a functioning planning and regulatory system, are thousands of people currently trapped in homes built with dangerous and combustible materials? How could we have allowed so many unsafe buildings to be built, signed off, sold and inhabited for all these years?

Like all questions of this scale, there are multiple answers which combine to form a complex picture. But while people are quick to draw conclusions about reckless builders cutting corners, there is less awareness of the role successive governments and their industry guidance have played in creating the crisis.

The story begins when Margaret Thatcher deregulated the building industry in the mid-1980s. Ever since, government housebuilding rules have been contained in non-mandatory ‘Approved Documents’ which are altered at ministers’ discretion.

In the ensuing decades, there have been numerous, specific warnings to tighten these standards for the external walls of high-rise buildings. Yet over and over again, a focus on cutting red tape and minimising burdens on industry meant these warnings were ignored.

Here are just some of those failures to act:

Permitting combustible cladding materials

Before Grenfell, official government guidance for high rises set the standard for ‘external surfaces of walls’ as ‘Class 0’. This was widely-understood to apply to cladding panels. But Class 0 isn’t a particularly tough standard, and is primarily focused on the spread of flames across a surface – which meant materials with a combustible core or packed with fire retardants could sneak through the test.

The government was warned about this as early as 1999, when a parliamentary select committee discussed the dangers of external cladding, following fires in Knowsley and Irvine.

‘Combustible materials, like plastic, wood, etc… can achieve Class 0 performance by adding fire retardant chemicals or facing the combustible material with a metal foil or sheet… This serves to undermine the integrity of the regulations and therefore reduces fire safety,’ warned expert witness Dr Bob Moore in his written submission.

The committee heeded this warning, and recommended the guidance require all cladding systems to be entirely non-combustible or pass a large-scale test. The tests were adopted, but the requirement for non-combustibility was not.

A further warning was made in July 2014, when a committee of experts warned a government official that aluminium composite material (ACM) ‘generally achieves a reaction to fire classification of Class 0’. The experts explained that ‘There have been major fires in buildings in various parts of the world including the Middle East and France where ACM materials have been used for the cladding with the ACM responsible for external fire spread’. But the standards were not toughened.

Since Grenfell, the government has denied that its guidance for the ‘external surfaces of walls’ applied to cladding – arguing that a higher fire standard should have been used. But this has been rejected by several industry figures and a number of the experts at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.

Not limiting the use of combustible insulation

Unlike cladding, combustible insulation was banned outright on high rises until 2005. But then a tweak to the guidance permitted its use in systems which had passed a large-scale test. Industry lobbyists had called for this change.

We have since learned from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry that this was used as a loophole by insulation manufacturers to advertise and sell their combustible products for use on high rises, even though the insulation would be combined with a vast number of different products – many of which had never been tested.

Emails from the Grenfell Inquiry have shown that a key government official was warned in summer 2014 that combustible insulation was being widely-used on buildings and ‘many of these were blocks of flats.’ But nothing was done to strengthen the guidance to stamp this out before the Grenfell Tower fire.

Permitting the use of combustible materials on balconies

Many buildings have been caught up in the latest safety crisis because they have balconies which are either built of timber or covered in a combustible cladding material.

This is not a small problem: the fact that people use balconies to smoke or start barbeques heightens the chances of a fire. Fires at the Cube in Bolton and Samuel Garside House in Barking started on balconies and almost destroyed the buildings.

But before Grenfell the official guidance did not consider balconies to be part of the external wall of a building – meaning they avoided combustible materials regulations.

A report commissioned by the government and written by the Building Research Establishment (BRE) in summer 2016, warned that balcony fires could ‘pose a significant life safety issue’ and pointed out that ‘there are no specific statutory requirements in respect of external fire spread for the incorporation of balconies to a structure.’

But the report stopped short of recommending a change to the rules and none was made.

Ignoring warnings about cavity barriers and building standards

Another official government report prepared by the BRE, this time in 2015, warned that while government guidance was appropriate for the barriers which sit behind wall cavities, this did not reflect what was actually being built.

The review concluded that the ‘largest single issue’ with fire safety when it came to concealed spaces was ‘poor workmanship with inappropriate materials.’ ‘Concerns have arisen about the design of cavity barriers in wall cavities. These are often found to be missing or incomplete or incorrectly positioned,’ the report said.

No tougher regulation or oversight was introduced. We now face having to remediate badly installed cavity barriers on potentially thousands of buildings.

Allowing a free-for-all on buildings below 18m

While there were substantial holes in the guidance with regard to tall buildings, at least some safeguards were in place. But when it came to medium-rise buildings, very little prevented combustible materials being used on external walls. The line drawn in the official guidance was 18m – a limit which has very little scientific basis. Someone in a six-storey building is still at risk of being trapped in a fire.

It’s particularly striking that while a ban on combustible materials for towers above 18m was introduced in 2018, calls for it to apply to buildings above 11m have not yet been heeded despite a consultation on the issue closing last May. Builders are still legally able to use the materials currently being ripped off high-rise buildings around the country on new builds up to six storeys high.

Not acting in the aftermath of the Lakanal House fire

As is well known, the government was served a tragic warning that there was something seriously wrong with tower block safety in 2009, when six people died in the Lakanal House fire in south London.

This underscored the particular risk of building failure in the UK – where sprinklers are very rarely used, fire alarms have been actively discouraged by official guidance, blocks generally have a single staircase, and residents are told to stay put when a fire breaks out. Whatever the merits of this system in a well-constructed building, it is a recipe for disaster when things go wrong – as the Lakanal House fire so tragically proved.

In 2013, the coroner of the Lakanal House inquest told Eric Pickles, then communities secretary, to review building guidance ‘with particular regard to the spread of fire over the external envelope of the building.’

This review could perhaps have uncovered and dealt with the many fire safety issues with Britain’s buildings. But this was a period when the government was focused on deregulation, and Mr Pickles instead kicked the problem into the long grass, only promising to publish a formal review in 2016/17.

Despite repeated chasing from the MPs in a parliamentary group on fire safety, the government took no action to improve the regulations. In September 2015, Stephen Williams, a junior Liberal Democrat minister in the Coalition government, wrote to the parliamentary group, saying:

‘I have neither seen nor heard anything that would suggest consideration of these specific potential changes is urgent and I am not willing to disrupt the work of this department by asking that these matters be brought forward.’

In reply, the Conservative MP David Amess wrote:

‘The group wishes to point out to you that should a major fire tragedy with loss of life occur between now and 2017 in, for example, a residential care facility or a purpose-built block of flats, where the matters raised here were found to be contributory to the outcome, then the group would be bound to bring this to others’ attention.’

Less than two years later, Grenfell Tower burst into flames and 72 people lost their lives. Now the country faces an enormous building safety crisis to which ministers have little answer and where leaseholders still may be forced to pick up the bill for the repairs. If they do, they will be paying for the failures of the British state for the last 20 years.