Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 36)

TUESDAY 20 JULY 1999

MR GLYNTON EVANS, MR JACK FORD, MR DAVID HARPER AND DR BOB MOORE

  20. So you have made detailed submissions?
  (Dr Moore) Yes, very detailed for all of it; but on this particular issue we raised a point that we actually needed a full-scale test—a room corner test, that type of thing which has been referred to already—and that should be included in the Approved Document B.
  (Mr Evans) Yes, we have made a detailed submission on the proposals for Approved Document B, but this was not one of the matters that was under discussion during the consultation process on Approved Document B. The last time that this matter was dealt with, on our understanding, was in 1991 when the Building Regulations were reviewed at that time. It was not a matter that was reviewed this time, if you see what I mean. The way the DETR put out their consultation papers—and in fairness to them many other government departments do the same—is they pose their consultees with a list of questions and sometimes with options as well. This matter was not a matter that was consulted upon. Therefore, as it was not consulted upon, we did not respond on it because it was not asked about.

  21. It seems to be a very strange consultation when you are dealing with Building Regulations which cover all aspects of the construction industry?
  (Mr Evans) The Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions Building Regulation Division has an advisory committee—the Building Regulations Advisory Committee, BRAC. They actually sit in perpetuity and periodically review the Building Regulations, roughly on a five-year cycle—although by the time the review of Approved Document B comes out this time it will be nearly seven years since the last review. They publish the matters they want to consult upon. If I may say, that is another concern we have. I am not saying it is impossible, and neither am I criticising any members of the Building Regulations Advisory Committee, but it is difficult to get matters into there. If something came up in this intervening period of approximately five years and we found a fire issue, or it was another issue pertinent to the Building Regulations, it is very difficult to get it in and get an amendment done.

  22. Have any representations ever been made to the Health and Safety Executive on this issue?
  (Dr Moore) Not that I am aware of.

  23. Is there any reason why it has not been done?
  (Dr Moore) It has not been a route which has been thought of as being a route in relation to fire safety. The DETR seems to be the main body dealing with these particular Regulations[8] for new buildings. Different Acts apply to buildings once they are occupied. The Fire Safety Act is for occupied buildings.

  24. Are you happy with the method adopted during the stages of consultation?
  (Mr Evans) I think we would welcome the debate in BRAC on some of these issues being far more open than it currently is. We would also like to see a better balance with fire service representatives upon the Fire Advisory Panel. At the moment the Fire Advisory Panel has nine members, only one of which is a fire officer.

Mrs Dunwoody

  25. One!
  (Mr Evans) Yes, one.

Mr Donohoe

  26. What about the other eight?
  (Dr Moore) Just to add a little to what has been said already: the problem we do find in this particular industry, particularly in terms of legislation, we have got this rather awful term "tombstone legislation"; it is a nasty term to use but that is what it means: you get a major fire and as a result you get some changes taking place. It is not done very much in a logical fashion. We have got, "Oh, we must revise these Regulations[9] or Approved Document B every five years"; and then we have got the other complication because they have different sets of requirements in Scotland and they may go out of tandem. You have England and Wales going perhaps every five years from 1990-1995, say, and then Scotland comes in the middle and revises theirs halfway through. There is no logical relationship between the two. What we would all like to see if it was possible, and I know devolution may have affected things, was a unified set of Regulations[10] for the whole of the United Kingdom, bringing it up to the same level of safety as expected in the various parts of the country. You do not want to downgrade safety, you want to go up to the higher levels, which might exist in Scotland or England and Wales in certain areas.

Mr Cummings

  27. What you are saying basically is there is a lack of co-activity?
  (Dr Moore) When we came to this issue we all tried to analyse what was said in the Scottish Regulations[11], as opposed to those in Approved Document B, and found if in effect they were saying the same thing it was very difficult to see that; and it was very difficult to interpret what they both meant in relation to these particular issues. I would like to see the coming together of these different areas, if we could do that.

  28. A test for assessing the fire performance of external cladding systems has been developed by officials of the Fire Research Station. Would the adoption of this test method be sufficient to prevent fire infill systems, such as that involved in the incident in Irvine?
  (Dr Moore) We within FSDG have no specific involvement in this but other people here may have. All I can say is that it seems highly likely that such a test would improve the situation. No-one knows the exact circumstances of the fire at Irvine, but it could have made a difference if that had actually been in place.
  (Mr Evans) As Dr Moore says, people following us are better placed to answer that. All I can say is, I guess any test that is an improvement on the existing test would be welcomed. I suspect probably that this proposal for a test I waved about a few moments ago is probably the outcome of the work you have just referred to. On the basis of what is proposed in this draft, I have to say we welcome this because it reflects the test of the materials as they are actually being used.

  29. There is a feeling expressed by the Fire Research Station that such a system would not have been successful in relation to the fire at Irvine. That being the case, what do you believe should be done to ensure the safety of systems such as this?
  (Mr Evans) We put in our report quite clearly that, above a certain height, cladding systems (whether they are infill, whether they are weather protection, whether they are decorative or whatever) should be inherently non-combustible; or should be fire-resisting to the standard of the internal walls of the building. There is a requirement for the internal walls of buildings to be fire-resisting—that is an option—and at a height at which we can actually get to them to pull them off. We would not be unhappy with a limited combustibility, but based upon a realistic test. It is the test that actually tells you what the material is going to do. The test has to be relevant to how that material is going to be used. Small-scale testing can give you a good idea, but large-scale testing will validate what the small-scale testing shows; and that, we believe, is a fundamental problem with this. The Building Regulations, with regard to cladding systems, is a grey area. They do not look at vertical envelopment of a building in fire, and the existing test, in our opinion, is fundamentally unsatisfactory. If you put those three together then you will improve the safety of the system dramatically.
  (Dr Moore) We are in a difficulty here because we have only had what we have seen in the newspapers to describe what went on in Irvine. As I understand it, I do not think it was quite what we have been talking about here, largely on overcladding system, which this particular test is designed to improve. We have two issues: one, can we improve the fire safety of overcladding systems? I think such a standard will. The other one is: what actually went on at Irvine? I think Irvine may well have been nothing more than an embellishment of a window with panels underneath it; which is not quite the same as an external cladding system. I think there are two different technical issues here. The new test would not relate to the one at Irvine, which I think may have been more simply a window problem, where they had window surrounds rather than a true external cladding system as we know it.

Mr Brake

  30. Why, in your opinion, are there no plans to adopt the Test for assessing the fire performance of external cladding systems as mandatory for all such systems? Is it, as you perhaps outline, because the test is not good enough, or is it because manufacturers of external cladding systems are worried at the costs that might be entailed?
  (Dr Moore) I think it is the first one, on the basis that the test is still in the development stage. I am not an expert in knowing how far the test got, the one developed in association with the Fire Research Station. Again, we might hear people talking about that later on. The test is still what we call a "draft". That is what is delaying it being put in place—more the fact of that than anything else. It is just a test which is not available but, hopefully, will be when they get to work on it.
  (Mr Harper) The test itself will be set forward in draft and then agreed; it will not become relevant until it is accepted within the Building Regulations Part B as a requirement. People do not insist on fire safety tests for products unless they are required to by Building Regulations.

  31. Are you aware of many systems that are up which were installed before the current Building Regulations, and is that a source of concern?
  (Dr Moore) If we are talking about overcladding systems, they have been widely used for a number of years. They run into two types: one whereby you apply something like the insulation directly to the wall; that could be a polystyrene, or it could be incombustible material like mineral wool; and then you have a different system which is called a "rainscreen cladding system", where it stands off from the wall, allowing a gap between the wall and the outside cladding. You have two separate systems. These have been in place and have been widely used throughout the UK, particularly in high-rise blocks more than anything else; local authority people like these because they are very good for improving problems in existing buildings. As far as I am aware, apart from the Knowsley Heights fire which was a rainscreen cladding system, that is probably one of the few fires that has occurred related to that sort of system. As I have already said, as a result of that Regulations[12] have been changed in England and Wales for quite some time. The other systems I have less knowledge of, apart from the fact they are widely used in Europe and, as far as I am aware, they are not posing any great problem in terms of fire, even though polystyrene is being used. In the longer term there could be a problem, because vandalism could affect these sorts of products and remove the surface coating put on some of these materials and lay it open to fire, which no-one would have expected 20 years before when the material was actually applied.

  32. What about the Fire Brigades Union, have you any information about older systems which are a source of concern to you?
  (Mr Evans) The problem is, and we put this in our response, nobody really knows the extent to which these systems have been used. Obviously local authorities have used the product and developers have used them. The quick answer to your question is, nobody knows how many are in use. Some of the older systems, I guess, could cause problems. It depends how they are constructed; it depends how well they have withstood the test of time. If they are an overcladding system it depends very much on what has been used in the core of the insulant. If there is a fire in a room, and that fire comes out through the window and attacks that overcladding system, will the cladding system be able to withstand that thermal attack? There are a lot of imponderables in that. There are an awful lot of "ifs". I think the quick answer to your question is: nobody really knows, because these systems have developed over the years.

  33. Do you think that the risk is great enough to warrant local authorities conducting a survey of external cladding systems to see what is in there?
  (Mr Evans) We have put this in our response. We certainly feel it would be worth local authorities conducting an inspection of their existing systems to find out just what they have got pinned on the walls of their buildings. I have to say in fairness to local authorities, it is not just local authorities who use cladding systems.

Mrs Dunwoody

  34. One of the witnesses says, "There are approximately 3,500 tower blocks in excess of ten storeys, most are suffering some form of vertical envelope failure", and then he goes on to mention a particular large building firm and the problems that have arisen there. What are we talking about? If you are really saying the majority of tower blocks, particularly those that have been built recently, have some form of cladding then this is rather more urgent than would be indicated by a timescale of ten years between one Building Regulation and another?
  (Mr Evans) What you have to look at is what the systems are, and what standards they have been installed to—that is the crucial factor—and how well they have withstood the test of time.

Mr Donohoe

  35. Would you as an individual, with the knowledge you have, stay in one of these high-rise flats?
  (Mr Evans) I am not hedging, Mr Donohoe, but from my point of view it would depend very much on what was stuck on the outside walls.

  Mrs Dunwoody: I do not want to be depressing, but I am thinking of giving notice!

Chairman

  36. I accept you could look at what was on the outside and make a decision, but the problem we have is we do not want to alarm people unnecessarily. There must be people who will fairly soon hear what has been said this morning and some will be worried. Is there any simple advice, as far as people are concerned? First of all, living is actually dangerous, is it not, so how much more dangerous is it to be in one of these blocks? Is there some simple way in which people can make an assessment of what cladding is on the outside?
  (Mr Evans) Let me put it to you like this: the situation is that with tower blocks you will not burn them down. They were designed and built at the time to resist a total flat burn-out. Believe you me, my colleague and I have many experiences of fires in flats. You will not burn down a tower block. There are two things here: you will not burn down a tower block; you may very well have fire spread up the outside of the block from a fire in another flat. The tactic has always been, with multistorey flats, to leave the residents in the flats, on the basis that they are safer there. Provided the means of escape, the exit routes out from the flats to outside, are not compromised by the cladding, then there is no reason for residents to fear for their lives. Provided they can get out of their flats, reach an escape route then they will get out of the flats. What they need is an early warning of a fire and the ability to respond to that and get out of the flat, and to ensure that their means of escape are not compromised by the cladding. In other words, the fire should not be able to spread round the building and into a means of escape route. I can guarantee you will not burn one of those tower blocks down.
  (Dr Moore) The essential thing here is we must not be alarmist about this. To my knowledge, and probably the industry's knowledge, the number of fires in these sorts of cladding systems have not been large. I have already said that these materials are used in Europe; they are used in Europe probably ten or 20 times as much as they are in the UK—in France and Germany; and in those areas I do not believe there has been a major problem with these products. I do not think we should be alarmist. Nevertheless, we should take a view on this to see whether something as simple as vandalism could make the fire hazard worse than would have been expected when the product was first put up.

  Chairman: Gentlemen, could I thank you very much.





8   Refers to the Building Regulations (England and Wales). Back

9   Refers to the Building Regulations 1991 (England and Wales) Back

10   Approved Document B, Fire Safety to the Building Regulations 1991 (England and Wales) and the equivalent Guidance document in Northern Ireland. It also includes Part D Structural Fire Precautions of the Technical Standards supporting the Building Standards (Scotland) Regulations 1990. Back

11   Part D Structural Fire Precautions of the Technical Standards supporting the Building Standards (Scotland) Regulations 1990. Back

12   Approved Document B, Fire Safety to the Building Regulations 1991 (England and Wales). Back


 
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