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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140 - 159)

TUESDAY 20 JULY 1999

MR NICK RAYNSFORD, MP, MR PAUL EVERALL, MR TONY EDWARDS AND MR ANTHONY BURD

Mr Brake

  140. Just to go back to the harmonised EU test. What input has the DETR provided to that process?
  (Mr Raynsford) I am not sure myself what input officials have made to the development of the test and I think I would ask officials to respond on that.
  (Mr Everall) Perhaps I could start and Tony might want to add a few words. We do work closely with colleagues in Europe and with the European Commission. There is a body called the Standing Committee on Construction at which officials from all the Member States discuss the implementation of the Construction Products Directive and an important aspect of that has been the work on fire regulations and fire testing in particular. There is a Fire Regulators Group in Europe where we discuss this and where the new single burning item test was developed. Tony Edwards is the Department's and the United Kingdom's representative on the Fire Regulators Group and no doubt he can answer anything further you like on that.
  (Mr Edwards) Thank you, Chairman. That is right, I represent the United Kingdom which includes Scotland at the Fire Regulators Group in Brussels. We meet about four times a year and basically give guidance or decide on the policy that filters back to the CEN technical committees. I also attend what is known as TC127 which is the CEN Technical Committee relating to fire safety. I am nominated by the British Standards Institution to be part of the United Kingdom delegation for that Committee.

  141. Could I just ask you whether your view is that this harmonisation is going to improve standards in Europe or is it going to be a lowest common denominator standard?
  (Mr Raynsford) We would certainly be opposed to anything that reduced standards. There is a very strong case for harmonisation in that there is a lack of consistency between standards applying in different countries. Indeed, within the United Kingdom there are different standards in Scotland to those in England and Wales. In the interests of greater clarity there is an obvious case for seeking harmonisation but we would certainly not wish that to in any way erode or reduce standards. On the contrary, we want to see more effective standards and tests in place that really do reflect the hazards that may arise.
  (Mr Everall) Fire testing has been very difficult because the French system is different from the English system is different from the German system and it took a number of years to develop this single burning item test which is a test which is not a lowest common denominator but one which Member States genuinely believe will serve the purpose. It may need to be adapted in the light of experience but at least it is a test which countries have accepted should be the one that is harmonised across Europe.

  142. Are you able to comment at all on where United Kingdom standards lie in terms of a European hierarchy? Are we up there with the best or down at the bottom with the worst?
  (Mr Raynsford) I am simply not aware of objective measures that would enable such a conclusion to be drawn but my officials who have had detailed experience of working in Europe may be able to comment.
  (Mr Edwards) I do not think you could draw that sort of comparison. First of all, we are talking about test methods. They are the harmonised standards and they are standards of tests. It would be down to each individual Member State or the regulators of each individual Member State to regulate as to what standard they want, so even though this is a common method of test we or a Member State could have a lower standard still than another Member State. That is down to the individual regulators and that is something we are still looking at. As Mr Raynsford has said, we are not setting out to lower standards. The problem we have is that the test methods measure different things to the British Standards methods of tests and this causes problems for industry and it causes problems for regulators. That is about where we are.
  (Mr Raynsford) In case there is any uncertainty about this the building regulations will still apply. There will be no question of any erosion of current standards.

  143. Can we return closer to home. Can I just ask you what representations did the Government receive regarding the fire safety of external cladding systems during the consultation of the forthcoming revision of Approved Document B? How many responses? Where did they come from? What was the main drift of the responses?
  (Mr Raynsford) I shall have to ask officials to give a response on detailed responses because obviously I did not see all the detailed responses but this was not a major issue because, as you know, changes to matters of fire cladding were not proposed as part of the revision. Perhaps I could ask Mr Edwards to comment.
  (Mr Edwards) Overall we got about 200 responses to the consultation which covered the whole aspect of fire safety. I cannot give a figure but there were very few on external cladding systems because, as Mr Raynsford said, it was not throwing itself up as an issue. The BRAC Working Group did actually look at cladding systems to see whether the guidance we gave needed changing and other than the review of the FRS Document (135 happens to be the number given to it) in support of the guidance on Approved Document B, very little came out of it. A little bit of tidying up and clarification.

Mr Gray

  144. What else could we be doing to prevent fire spreading up through external cladding systems as described here leaving aside the advice of BRAC whose response you are currently awaiting?
  (Mr Raynsford) The issue takes us into the much wider area of high quality design which is very much part of the Government's agenda for regeneration and urban renaissance, as you have undoubtedly heard on many previous occasions in this Committee. So we are seeking a raising of standards generally in terms of quality of design. Obviously we want to ensure that designers are able to make use of guidance documents that are consistent, hence the wish to ensure greater consistency between Part L and Part B and that the guidance is clear and focuses on necessary standards which must be achieved in order to ensure proper safety.

  145. Would DETR with your responsibility for these matters make representations to the Home Office about the need for wider fire safety legislation for which there is quite a lot of pressure coming from fire fighting authorities?
  (Mr Raynsford) I am meeting with George Howarth in September to discuss matters relating to fire and in particular issues relating to sprinklers where this is a quite separate issue and we are also reviewing at the present time, and I will be reviewing the interface between our two Departments' separate responsibilities in respect of fire.

  146. Just to help you with that, the Committee has seen a letter from George Howarth saying that he is very, very keen on bringing in a Fire Safety Bill to bring together the 69 separate pieces of legislation that currently cover fire safety but at the moment he cannot see legislative time for it. Will you be adding to the pressure from fire fighting authorities to find time for that Bill?
  (Mr Raynsford) Obviously that is a matter for members of the Cabinet to discuss when formulating next year's legislative programme, but I will certainly be seeking to ensure that our Department's interests are reflected in discussions about the appropriate regime necessary to ensure fire safety.

  147. We have talked a lot about external cladding. What do you feel about infill such as that that caused the problem at Irvine?
  (Mr Raynsford) It is very important indeed that infill materials should meet the standards of non-combustibility particularly in the circumstances I described where the greatest risk is where you have buildings very close to adjacent buildings and where you have high buildings where it is more difficult for fire fighters to gain access. That is why the requirement for Class O surface spread of flame rating must apply in those cases.

Mrs Ellman

  148. What action are you planning to take about systems that were in force before the regulations were in place and not covered by them?
  (Mr Raynsford) I think this is a very important and a very real question because under existing regulations the replacement of existing cladding is only required to ensure that the new cladding is no worse than the performance of the previous cladding. Currently building regulations do not extend to improvements in existing buildings but we are reviewing that in relation to Part L of the building regulations on energy efficiency. There is an obvious read-across from that review to this part, in particular on the issue that you have highlighted where we are looking at older cladding systems that do not meet the standards that are currently in force where it would obviously be desirable if they were to be replaced for the standards to be improved not simply made no worse.

  149. But what are you going to do about systems where nobody is currently planning to have any replacement?
  (Mr Raynsford) That is a matter, as I say, we will have to look at in relation to any changes that are proposed to the building regulations. Currently building regulations do not extend to changes to existing buildings; they relate to new buildings. In our review of Part L on energy efficiency for obvious reasons we have been addressing the scope for extending the building regulations but there are difficulties with it. It may well require changes in legislation and it may not be possible without that. Until we have clarified that it would be premature of me to give any pledge of our ability to extend building regulations in respect of fire matters to existing buildings. The important issue is that we are reviewing it and there is a clear read across from the work we are doing on Part L to this Part, Part B.

  150. Is anybody responsible for identifying how many such buildings exist?
  (Mr Raynsford) That is a very interesting question and I am not sure how many buildings with external cladding systems do exist. That sort of information is difficult to ascertain.

  151. Is anyone responsible for trying to ascertain as far as you are aware?
  (Mr Everall) It is the responsibility of building owners and occupiers to ensure that appropriate fire safety measures are in place. There is no central government role at the moment, at least in terms of counting up the number of buildings with deficient or defective fire measures in them. Building regulations traditionally and indeed the legislation constrains us to dealing with building work, new buildings, extensions to existing buildings. If nobody is carrying out building work then the Buildings Act and building regulations just do not apply. There is other fire-related legislation to which reference has already been made under the Home Office for looking at fire safety measures in existing buildings but I am not aware that that extends to anyone in central government collecting information on the number of unsafe buildings.

Chairman

  152. If we do not know how many buildings there are in this category we do not know how many are badly insulated at the present moment.
  (Mr Raynsford) We obviously have estimates based on surveys which highlight the energy efficiency and performance of parts of the existing stock. That is something which has prompted the review of Part L that I referred to a moment ago. With regard to the combustibility of materials used for external cladding of buildings, we have a much more complex issue there because it will cover buildings going back certainly centuries and we are almost certainly in a building at the moment which would prove problematic if any such test were to be applied to it. This is just one of a very large number of historic buildings in the country. I think you appreciate the difficulty of trying to get a really comprehensive picture of the extent of hazards in the external surfaces of cladding of buildings.

  153. What about concentrating on high rise blocks of flats?
  (Mr Raynsford) That is a key area and that is an area particularly where local authorities have a very important role in relation to their own stock to examine the safety and obviously the means of escape as well as the flammability characteristics of their stock. But it is something that is important and that is why the building regulations do distinguish between taller buildings and other buildings where there is a greater risk.

  154. Only for new ones. Surely we have a very substantial stock of those high-rise flats where the press and people's perception of them was pretty grim five to ten years ago. They have I think perhaps had something of a revival on the basis that perhaps children are no longer in them in large numbers, there have been various systems put in like concierges and it does appear that these blocks are having a second life, if you like. If there were considerable fears about fire safety then you could very quickly get a downturn in their popularity. What can you do to reassure people that the risk is minimal for people in these blocks from frightening fires outside if not risk to their lives?
  (Mr Raynsford) There are two obvious areas to pursue. One is for the owners of properties, and local authorities own a very substantial number, so for the local authority itself as part of the general management function to review the safety and the condition of its stock. But, secondly, when we come on to the improvement and modernisation of existing properties, as you have rightly highlighted, it has been shown that in some areas properties that were not very popular a few years ago can be made attractive to particular groups of people and where that is done it is likely that they will need substantial work including the possibility of cladding because it is the thermal insulation of properties which is particularly problematic. The external cladding systems must conform to building regulations and I have described the safeguards that are in place to ensure that those new cladding systems must meet the new standards of fire safety. There are I believe proper safeguards in place there. We are, as I said, clarifying the position in terms of consistency between guidance associated with Approved Documents L and B to make absolutely clear the guidance on fire stopping between floors on all such buildings.

Mr Gray

  155. We are told there are only 500 of them in the United Kingdom broadly. Surely the Government could make a systematic survey of tower blocks to make sure the situation that happened in Irvine does not happen again?
  (Mr Raynsford) The Committee may well wish to make recommendations on that particular line. I have been trying to outline the steps that are in place to ensure these issues are addressed by the owners of the property and where improvements are carried out they are carried out in a way that ensures proper standards of fire safety.

Chairman

  156. Are you encouraging us to make that recommendation or would you be disappointed if we did?
  (Mr Raynsford) We would look at the recommendation along with all your other recommendations very carefully and thoughtfully.

Mr Donohoe

  157. If it is proven there is a problem with infill it would have to be the case, would it not, that the Government would have to consider some form of funding of any renovation?
  (Mr Raynsford) I think it is premature to reach any conclusions on that. It would depend entirely on the circumstances. If it were the case that, let us say, in a group of up-market privately-owned properties it was a particular problem, I am not sure it necessarily follows that the government should meet part of the cost for renovating properties which have a very substantial capital value whereas it might be in urban regeneration areas with rundown properties that will require an injection of funds from the Single Regeneration Budget or the New Deal for Communities Budget. I do not think I can give a categoric answer but for certain properties in areas where there is a need for regeneration funding and government programmes already exist it would probably be appropriate for those to be available in certain circumstances, yes.

Chairman

  158. You think those programmes would guarantee to reduce the fire risk rather than increase the fire risk?
  (Mr Raynsford) As I have said, where there is new building work being carried out to existing buildings that involves installation of new cladding systems then all the safeguards that I have described will apply. There is the lacuna I have highlighted where you have an existing cladding system in place where the current provisions only require that any replacement is no worse than the current one. As I have already indicated, that seems to me not to go as far as it might. That is an area that bears further work.

Mr Donohoe

  159. Local authorities give grants, for example, for the removal of all lead piping. It could be something that could follow from that. Could there not be a regulation put in place that would suggest they have to give grants on the basis it was proven there was some problem with this cladding?

  (Mr Raynsford) I think if you are discussing grants from the private sector there are obviously a lot of competing issues about what the priorities are and except for the disabled facilities scheme the grants system is a discretionary one and the local authority itself would be able to determine to a significant degree what it regards as its priorities.

  Chairman: On that note, could I thank you very much for your evidence.





 
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