Questions have been raised over the testing of cladding on high-rise blocks amid calls to halt the process and disputed claims by the prime minister that councils have failed to follow building regulations.
All social landlords have been asked to send samples of cladding made of aluminium composite material (ACM) to the government for testing.
At prime minister’s questions yesterday Theresa May said her “understanding” was that the cladding that has failed the test “was non-compliant with the building regulations”. She said as well as identifying who was responsible for the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower, the public inquiry would also need to look at “why it is that over decades, under different governments and under different councils, material has been put up on tower blocks that is non-compliant with the building regulations”.
However, experts have disputed this claim.
Barry Turner, director of technical policy at the Local Authority Building Control, told LGC the document the prime minister referred to, Approved document B, was guidance, not a legally required regulation.
In addition he said Ms May’s comments left out a crucial part of the guidance that allows use of a flammable cladding if it passes a “composite” test that includes other components surrounding the cladding, such as insulation.
Mr Turner said: “Within [the government’s] own guidance they’re very conveniently forgetting the paragraph that appears before the one they are quoting which allows an alternative method of testing a complete cladding system.”
Mr Turner said it was not surprising that cladding on all 137 tower blocks tested so far had failed as the Building Research Establishment was carrying out a different test to the one specified in the guidance.
The tests being carried out for the government by the BRE are only testing cladding and do not take account of any other fire safety measures, such as flame retardant insulation.
A number of landlords, including Wandsworth LBC, have highlighted that previous fires in blocks where cladding has failed the test have been contained within the dwelling in which they occurred. Mr Turner said this was “exactly what the regulations are intended to achieve”.
He added: “Nobody’s pretending you can make something totally free from fire, the idea is that you contain it.”
David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, has also said that it is “possible for buildings to be safe with that cladding in certain circumstances”.
Interviewed on BBC Newsnight on Wednesday he said: “All of this cladding has been fitted according to the rules that were in place at the time, according to the rules that were presided over by government.”
However, he said that was “no longer the point” and called on the government to halt the testing process and focus on removing all ACM cladding to ensure people feel safe.
“I think we can now say that according to the tests that the government is carrying out this cladding is not fit for purpose. We don’t need to test anymore of it,” said Mr Orr. “Frankly, anyone living in a property that has got this cladding is not going to feel comfortable because of these results. There’s a lot of time and energy going into moving kit and equipment around the country to do the tests, let’s not do that. Let’s take a step back and prioritise exactly what we do.”
The Department for Communities & Local Government declined to comment on the specific question over whether cladding testing should be stopped.