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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 131 - 139)




  131. Minister, can I welcome you to the final session this morning on the potential risk of fire spread in buildings via external cladding systems and could I ask you to identify your team?
  (Mr Raynsford) Thank you very much. I am Nick Raynsford, Parliamentary Under Secretary in the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. I am supported by Paul Everall, who has overall responsibility for the building regulations, Anthony Burd and Tony Edwards, both of whom are involved in that section, looking at building regulations and associated fire issues.

  132. Do you want to say anything to us to start with or are you happy to go straight into questions?
  (Mr Raynsford) Can I make a very brief introductory statement, just to clarify a few points? Can I stress that building regulations in England and Wales are written in functional terms and are intended to secure reasonable standards of health and safety for persons in or around buildings. This includes others who may be affected by buildings such as fire fighters. The regulations are not intended to address property protection issues. The regulations are contained in part B. There are five elements in that. Part B1 deals with means of escape; B2 and B3, internal fire spread; B4, which is particularly relevant to external cladding, deals with external fire spread and B5, access and facilities for the fire service, which obviously is equally important. The key issue in front of the Committee particularly relates to requirement B4 which states that the external walls of the building shall resist the spread of fire over the walls and from one building to another, having regard to the height, use and position of the building. Guidance on fire safety measures that will tend to show compliance with the regulations, if followed, is given in approved document B. The guidance is currently under review but there are no significant proposed changes with respect to the guidance given on cladding systems as part of the current review—and I stress the current review. The BRE guidance document that is associated with energy conservation, which is "Thermal Insulation: avoiding risks", gives some guidance on the spread of fire in wall cavities and we have asked the Fire Research Station to update their report number 135 which is a document referenced in approved document B. In particular, we are asking them to give added guidance on fire stopping, which is made clear in the part L guidance but is less clear in the existing part B and we feel there is a need for improvement there. The following guidance that has a bearing on cladding issues is given in approved document B, firstly on external fire spread. The intention is to confine the fire to the building and to restrict the fire spread to neighbouring buildings. Secondly, on the flammability of external wall surfaces, it is necessary to restrict the combustibility of external walls of buildings that are less than one metre from the boundary and, irrespective of the distance from the boundary, restrictions also apply to the external walls of high buildings and those buildings that are used for assembly and recreation purposes. The high buildings significance is very much in relation to the needs of fire fighters who have particular difficulty above certain heights. Thirdly, on materials of limited combustibility, in high buildings the risk of fire spread is such that the combustibility of materials used in the construction of external walls, including insulation materials, needs to be limited. In a building with a height of more than 20 metres above ground level, any insulation material used in the external wall construction should be of a material of limited combustibility. Fourthly, on cavities, hidden voids in construction can provide a route for fire spread throughout or around the building and this is particularly relevant in the context of external cladding. As I have already stated, we have asked the Fire Research Station to review the BRE report that we refer to in approved document B, particularly with respect to the guidance given on fire stopping, to make absolutely clear that there must be effective stops between storeys. I hope this clarifies the ways in which the building regulations do cover aspects of fire safety relating to external cladding. As I have already stated, we have asked the Fire Research Station to update their guidance that is associated with the approved document. This will particularly bring it into line and expand on their more recent guidance document that is associated with energy conservation. I should in conclusion say that in addition to this most British Standards referred to in approved document B that relate to methods of fire test will be withdrawn when the new harmonised European standards are in place. My Department will therefore be working to produce supplements to the Approved Document which will take account of these changes and in many instances there will not be a direct correlation between standards. This will mean that we will have to review a number of sections in the Approved Document including that relating directly to external cladding systems to make sure that the guidance we give is compatible with the new harmonised test methods introduced by Europe.

  133. Could you tell us the timescale for those European regulations?
  (Mr Raynsford) We have not a precise timescale. I think the Europeans would hope that these could be all brought in within a year. I have to say our officials and officials in a number of other European countries are doubtful whether that timescale is feasible given the complexity of many of the issues and the need for a very thorough review.

Mr Donohoe

  134. Are you saying that all of the concerns that have been expressed because of the lack of regulations particularly of what is known as vertical infill are now covered and will be covered on the basis of your statement this morning?
  (Mr Raynsford) I am not saying that all the concerns are covered because I have highlighted the need for greater clarity, for example in relation to guidance on fire stopping. Obviously with the introduction of the new harmonised European tests there will be issues that need to be addressed that are not currently addressed. We also are awaiting the report on the Irvine fire which I know was a cause of real concern and as and when the report is available we will want to draw conclusions and even though there are different procedures in England and Wales to Scotland we will certainly want to learn from the evidence of that fire.

  135. The Chairman has asked earlier whether you can put any time on when you expect to receive the report from Irvine.
  (Mr Raynsford) We obviously cannot put a time on when we expect the report on the Irvine fire and we will respond as quickly as we can to that. On other issues we have already undertaken with the Fire Research Station work in relation to test systems for cladding which is currently out for consultation and subject to that that will become a British Standard and I think that will have an important impact. The guidance which relates to Part B will be harmonised with the document associated with Part L,and I would expect fairly speedy action on this.

  136. What are we talking about? Six months, a year?
  (Mr Raynsford) It is difficult to give a precise figure but I would certainly hope the harmonisation of Part B and Part L could be achieved in a reasonably short timescale. On the wider ones, the European ones, you will understand why there has to be a larger element of uncertainty but certainly on the harmonisation of Part L and Part B I would hope we could achieve that within a year.

  137. There was a programme known as Partners in Technology which your Department asked be undertaken by the Fire Research Station. What has happened to that programme and what was its purpose?
  (Mr Raynsford) That programme has devised a new fire test system which we believe is a considerable improvement on the previous test system because it is a test which covers the whole system rather than simply the material. That was a product of the Partners in Technology project which involves funding by the Department but also by the industry itself and this, as I have said, is something which has led to a document which is now out to consultation and which could well in consequence lead to a new British Standard.

  138. Do you accept that there is a problem with external cladding?
  (Mr Raynsford) I accept that there can be problems in circumstances where external cladding is not applied appropriately or where it has been applied to standards in the past which were not as rigorous as those that currently apply.

  139. Do you think it is sensible that there are flammable products put on the outside of buildings?
  (Mr Raynsford) The whole of our current building regulations seek to ensure that where there is risk, and I have stressed that is particularly significant in high buildings and also where buildings are close to boundaries with other buildings, there must be the highest standard of flammability and that is why Class O applies.

  Mr Donohoe: Thank you.

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