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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)

TUESDAY 20 JULY 1999

DR STEPHEN LEDBETTER AND MR CHRIS BUNTAIN

  100. Would you have any reservations about it becoming mandatory?
  (Dr Ledbetter) In making it mandatory, we would have first of all to review the whole performance of cladding and consider which solutions were going to work and which were not within the new regulations. In my own written evidence, I have said that cladding performs many functions and one of the main criteria is to reduce energy loss in buildings which requires us to put a lot more insulation into buildings and therefore manufacturers will be required, to some extent, to modify their designs.

  101. Would you embrace such mandatory requirements with enthusiasm, taking into consideration your previous comments that there are responsible manufacturers and irresponsible manufacturers?
  (Dr Ledbetter) Given that we cannot develop a test that will cover all forms of cladding, I think it would be a reasonable move forward once we have developed appropriate test methods.
  (Mr Buntain) I do not think we necessarily have irresponsible manufacturers. All manufacturers that I know in the industry which I represent take a responsible attitude towards fire safety and towards the fire regulations and the recommendations that are contained within the Building Research defects action sheet. That is what they do at the moment and I do not see that as being a problem. There is a commercial side to this which is inescapable. That is if full scale fire testing is required for every single system that is likely to be marketed within the United Kingdom it will have a very serious impact on the number of people manufacturing these systems because many people will not be able to afford the full scale cladding test. Perhaps I am fortunate in that the company that I represent will be able to afford it but there are many who will not. The insulative overcladding market may therefore shrink because people just cannot afford it.

Chairman

  102. It could shrink just as much because it could be totally discredited, could it not?
  (Mr Buntain) It could be but to date it has not been discredited. There is no suggestion that the whole overcladding industry is discredited. It is providing much more enhanced living standards for many people. We are talking probably of 500 multi-storey blocks throughout the United Kingdom; we are talking of almost a quarter of a million houses within the United Kingdom which have been overclad with combustible and non-combustible insulation. The records of properties affected by this and situations which have arisen are not great. If they are great, they are not made public and perhaps if you suspect that there is a big problem out there then, please, get a perspective on it before you start going down that route.

  Chairman: That is the whole point of the inquiry.

Mr Cummings

  103. Have we got to wait until there is a catastrophe of significant proportions before we express concern?
  (Mr Buntain) No. Everyone is obviously concerned if any incident occurs, whether it is a Knowsley or an Irvine, but you have to see where it actually lies within the context of all the things that have been done in the building industry just now. For instance, would you be as excited if a window was sucked out in a gale and landed on top of somebody's head? That can happen. Would you then go round the window industry and look at every window?

  104. Would that not be a matter of fitting rather than of manufacture?
  (Mr Buntain) That is true but again it could be that the manufacture is inadequate. You do not know.

Mr Gray

  105. Surely that is what a Committee such as this would do. If a window was sucked out and landed on somebody's head, that is precisely what Parliament is supposed to be doing, finding out why, and if there were inadequacies in the manufacturing process we would take steps to close that manufacturer down or make sure he changed the process.
  (Mr Buntain) You have a serious problem here, for example, with the windows at Irvine. What do you do about these windows? Do you say every PVCU window that is manufactured and used in the United Kingdom has to come out because of its potential fire risk? What do you replace it with? Do you replace it with a timber window, which we all know is likely to be combustible and require a lot of maintenance? Do you replace it with an aluminium window which will melt in a fire?

Mrs Dunwoody

  106. Do you alternatively look at whether fire breaks could be used in relation to that existing window and provide a level of safety that was not provided at Irvine? It is not quite as simple as saying that Parliament does not have a responsibility because there must be a certain point at which the commercial interests of the manufacturing firms must be taken into account. Of course they must, but what is the formula? How many people do you have to burn to death before the commercial interest is not equal to the safety regulation?
  (Dr Ledbetter) There is not only a commercial interest; there is the cost of putting the cladding onto the buildings. At the time being, we have an economical solution for refurbishing existing buildings to the betterment of the people who live in them and to the energy savings in those buildings. Currently, we still have local authorities who cannot find the funding to overclad their buildings on anything like a reasonable renewal cycle. If we start to look at fire performance and make it mandatory and we invoke the proposed BRE method of test, we will find that, when we go to a building, every one will be unique. If it was built 20 years ago, we have got to look at how it was constructed. Do we do a fire test for every one? What is that going to cost? We could be looking at doubling the cost of cladding these buildings. I would ask that you look at it in the sense that we can deal with road safety and we can look for measures of road safety but we do not go as far today as having someone walking in front of a car with a red flag because, as a nation, it is not economically viable.

Mr Cummings

  107. Obviously, the Committee has received suggestions from previous witnesses. I quote: "It appears that the real barrier to large scale testing is the question of cost rather than that of scientific prudence." How do you react to the suggestion that safety may be being sacrificed to keep costs down?
  (Dr Ledbetter) You can always make things safer by putting more resources into them, but that may be a question that has to be taken, I suspect, by a committee that takes the public interest and the national interest and we are here to provide technical information on which those judgments can be based.

  108. Would you agree that there should be a requirement for all cladding systems to be made of non-combustible materials?
  (Dr Ledbetter) It is currently the recommendation in the documents that my own organisation produces that materials involved should be Class 0 and therefore should not be ignitable.

Chairman

  109. How far does that put some of the materials which are competitors totally out of business?
  (Dr Ledbetter) We would make the recommendation that timber should not be used in overcladding systems. I do not think that is universally the case.

Mr Cummings

  110. Do you believe the industry itself is proactive to the many changes that are going to be required?
  (Mr Buntain) The industry will react to it.

  111. I was talking of proaction rather than reaction.
  (Dr Ledbetter) I think the industry has been proactive in that it has been involved in the development of tests. The issue has been that protagonists of particular cladding systems have gone off and developed particular tests to prove that their method of construction works, rather than there being a whole industry approach to look at all forms of cladding.

Mr Donohoe

  112. Mr Buntain, on your initial statement to us this morning, you gave the impression that Irvine was unrelated to the inquiry in so far as Irvine was in-fill and not cladding. If we take that to be the case, are we examining something that is unrelated completely to Irvine or is it the case that it is part of the family of what a person could conceive as being partial cladding?
  (Mr Buntain) Irvine is not overcladding, as such, in terms of the building industry's acceptance of the term "overcladding". It would not, in the mind of a building technologist, be a recognisable description of it. The Irvine windows were replaced presumably by the local authority. I do not know what criteria they used in the selection of these windows. In the tragic circumstances that there were, the windows exacerbated the fire and it spread vertically up the building. There have been a number of examples of fires bursting out of windows where things like the window situation at Irvine have not occurred, particularly windows which have a spandrel, a spandrel being that panel below the window which is of non-combustible material. That would certainly have helped the Irvine situation and the Irvine situation would not have spread if the panel below the window and above the window below it, the spandrel panel, were to be non-combustible and fire resistant material. Incidentally, the question of non-combustibility should not be taken as fire resistant. You can have non-combustible aluminium but it is not fire resistant.

  113. I will ask you the question again, Mr Buntain, in more specific terms. Are you telling us that we are here looking at something which is unrelated to the fire at Irvine?
  (Mr Buntain) I think you could be broadening this to a wider perspective of overcladding. Irvine has been described as overcladding. It appeared in the press and was described on television as overcladding and it was not. You, as a Committee, I think, as I understand it, have wanted to expand this remit to the whole question of overcladding which was not an element within Irvine. Overcladding has been used on something like a quarter of a million houses and probably 500 multiblocks in the United Kingdom at the moment without any real problems. We talk of Irvine and Knowsley but who can instance many more in between that? There are not that many that we know of. I cannot quote any and my experience goes back 20 years.

  114. Given what has happened in specific terms in Irvine, what changes, if any, are needed by the industry?
  (Mr Buntain) By which industry? By the building industry or the people who supply UPVC windows?

  115. By the industry supplying the in-fill, not so much the window producer. It is the in-fill that allowed the spread of the fire.
  (Mr Buntain) There are two things. The window was a composite unit which went from floor to ceiling. It was delivered as a composite unit presumably and it was installed as a composite unit. It was not two separate things. It was not a spandrel and a window; it was one big unit. It came from the window manufacturer who made the spandrel below the same material as the window above. It was all PVCU and the panel was also, in my understanding, of plastic.

  116. Should that manufacturer be taken to task?
  (Mr Buntain) I have no idea. I do not know what regulations apply to the manufacture of windows. I am not a window expert but that is what the situation at Irvine was confined to.

  117. Do you know if there has been any test done to a similar system as that installed at Irvine?
  (Mr Buntain) I do not know.
  (Dr Ledbetter) I am not aware of any such test.

  118. Do you think there should be an Irvine test done?
  (Dr Ledbetter) The test we have discussed to date would not have been applied at Irvine anyway because we would not, as an industry, have called that overcladding.

  119. Is there a regulation that covers Irvine?
  (Dr Ledbetter) Not that I am aware of.


 
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