The nationwide check on cladding on high rise residential tower blocks was ordered by the government in the wake of the fire at Grenfell Tower in London on 14th June, in which dozens were killed as fire from a Hotpoint fridge-freezer took hold and rapidly ripped right through the 24-storey building on the Lancaster West estate in north Kensington.
With the cladding on Grenfell Tower coming under immediate suspicion as a substantial contributory factor in the unexpected spread of fire, it was soon discovered that recently retrofitted aluminium panels had a flammable polyethylene core.
A combustibility testing programme for aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding has been running around the clock at the Building Research Establishment (BRE). The BRE has failed every single sample that it has tested.
Unsuitable cladding has now been found to have been used on at least 60 other tower blocks around England. Councils that have so had cladding fail BRE tests are:
- Barnet (3 tower blocks)
- Camden (5)
- Manchester (4)
- Plymouth (3)
- Portsmouth (2)
- Stockton on Tees (3)
- Sunderland (5)
- Wandsworth (2).
The Department for Communities & Local Government said that 27 other towers in 11 local authority areas had also failed cladding tests, but it has not yet named the councils.
Four of the five tower blocks in Camden were evacuated by the council on the advice of the fire brigade. A London Fire Brigade spokesperson said: "London Fire Brigade have been working at the Chalcots Estate with Camden Council. Following extensive joint visits and inspections the Brigade advised that there were a number of fire safety issues in the buildings and recommended that residents should not remain in the buildings until these issues are resolved. Camden Council have acted on this by evacuating and providing the residents with alternative accommodation so that remedial works can go ahead as quickly as possible. London Fire Brigade officers will continue to work with Camden to put in place measures to improve safety for residents in these buildings."
Camden council leader Georgia Gould said: “The Grenfell fire changes everything – we need to do everything we can to keep residents safe.”
In Plymouth, John Clark, chief executive of Plymouth Community Homes (PCH), said that the BRE had tested a sample panel of the outer layer of cladding of the city’s Mount Wise Towers. “It has been found to be aluminium coated with a polyethylene core, which has been rated as category 3 under the new controlled test conditions. The fire rating scale goes from 0 to 3 (with 0 being the highest safety score and 3 being the lowest).
“We know from previous inspections and fire risk assessments that the Rockwool insulation that makes up the inner layer of the cladding of the Towers is not combustible and has the highest fire safety rating (0 rated). This factor has not yet formed part of the government’s test.
“The system used at the Towers is not the same system reported to have been used at Grenfell Tower. However, in light of the new information and guidance we have received from central government, we will be removing the combustible elements of the cladding from the Mount Wise Towers as soon as possible.
“At PCH, we already have the majority of the fire safety measures outlined in the further guidance issued by Government this morning in place, which we have shared in our previous statement. We are taking some extra and immediate fire safety precautions outlined in the new guidance.”
In east London, a spokesperson for East End Homes and Tower Hamlets Council said: “Ongoing tests on residential buildings clad with ACM (aluminium composite material) panels in Tower Hamlets has identified that Denning Point, owned by Eastend Homes, does not fully comply with the requirements of the testing regime. The panel is a fire retardant (FR) version of the cladding panel and EastendHomes will be seeking further information on the results of sample of the panel supplied for testing.
“The Fire Risk Assessment (FRA) for the block was undertaken very recently in March 2017 and a further comprehensive joint inspection with the Fire Brigade took place this morning. All measures recommended by the Fire Brigade are in place and in addition Eastend Homes has immediately introduced further measures to meet DCLG recommendations and ensure the continued safety of residents: These include a 24/7 fire patrol service stationed at Denning Point to inspect communal areas throughout the night.”
Communities and local government secretary Sajid Javid said: “The fact that all samples so far have failed the tests underlines the value of the testing programme we have set up with the Building Research Establishment to get samples checked properly in the laboratories.
“It is therefore very important for local authorities and housing associations to continue to submit such samples as a matter of urgency.
“In the meantime, local authorities are contacting fire and rescue services in their area to conduct fire safety inspections of these tower blocks to inform them on what remedial works might be required.
“We expect that authorities and landlords are very sensibly giving the highest priority to buildings with which they have most concern. But we should not be in the position where buildings have such cladding on them. How this occurred – and preventing this from happening again – is likely to be a key question for the public inquiry.
“We are now rapidly identifying buildings of concern: samples are being tested very quickly; fire inspectors are checking the safety of the buildings as a whole; and we have issued interim safety guidance to help action that is being taken by local authorities, landlords, and fire and rescue services to mitigate risk and start addressing any defects that have been found.
“It is important to stress that cladding itself is not dangerous, but it is important that the right type is used. Also, a failure in testing of the cladding does not necessarily mean that a building will have to be evacuated; the decision by Camden Council to evacuate four of the five towers on the Chalcots Estate was because the failed testing of the external cladding was compounded by multiple other fire safety failures which the fire inspection team found within the buildings.”