Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140
TUESDAY 20 JULY 1999
RAYNSFORD, MP, MR
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
(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
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
(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
(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.
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
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.
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
(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
(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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.