The Fire Protection Association (FPA) has expressed its concerns over the new cladding testing programme announced by the government.
In February, the government announced it widened its fire testing regime to include other materials than aluminium composite material (ACM), which could mean ‘potential uncertainty for thousands more residents’. Housing Minister Kit Malthouse ordered combustibility tests on cladding panels used on high rise residential blocks, hotels and student accommodation ‘that differ’ from ACM panels used on 437 buildings ‘identified so far’.
Research suggests that ‘at least’ 160 high rises have been built with materials used in rainscreen cladding systems ‘that have not been accounted for’ in prior government testing. These include high pressure laminate (HPL) panels made from compressed wood or paper fibre, used to produce ‘colourful skins for new buildings’, and some of which are classed as combustible.
Mr Malthouse stated that fire safety experts had updated guidance for the government, adding that ‘we have commissioned the Building Research Establishment [BRE] to conduct a programme of testing on non-ACM materials and we expect that testing to start shortly’. He added that the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) had been ‘cajoling’ private building owners to remove ACM panels, and was considering ‘more assertive’ measures.
Later that month, it was reported that the tests would begin in March and results would be published in the summer, and now Inside Housing has reported on the ‘grave concerns’ expressed by fire safety industry experts over the ‘bespoke safety testing methodology’ devised by the government. This will mean the tests have ‘no success or failure criteria’, and they have been criticised as ‘less comprehensive’ than those undertaken on ACM cladding in the last two years.
In turn, the tests will not include insulation, will not test cavity barriers and ‘will have no legal standing’, with Labour MP Steve Reed expressing his concerns to Mr Malthouse. The latter wrote a letter to the former, in which he said: ‘There are no success or failure criteria, the findings will help determine, in consultation with the expert panel, any further action we should take. This could include further testing at large scale and/or advice to building owners.’
Mr Reed told Inside Housing: ‘The government has chosen to ignore existing safety tests with legal standing in favour of its own made-up methodology. It is doing this so it’s less clear whether materials that fail the test need to be removed from buildings. The government has been told to make the rules clearer, but instead it is making them even more confused. Despite the horrific loss of life at Grenfell Tower, ministers care more about evading responsibility than protecting people.’
In turn, Jonathan O’Neill, managing director of the FPA, commented: ‘The FPA has grave concerns with the new cladding testing that the government is proposing, as unlike the 8414 testing, it only tests the actual cladding, and does not include the structure and materials that lie behind it, such as insulation, cavity barriers, windows and vents. As we witnessed at Grenfell, they can be the difference between life and death.’
Lord Porter, chair of the Local Government Association, welcomed the tests but noted: ‘You have to test in the way it would be applied to a building in real life – you need to test it against different types of insulation, with a cavity behind it and fire stops, because those are all things which occur in real life.’