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Housing minister was warned of poor fire regulations two months ago


Four separate government ministers were repeatedly told the government’s fire regulations were not keeping people safe, with the last warnings just two months before the Grenfell Tower fire 

A dozen letters sent by the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group, leaked to BBC One’s Panorama, show that fire experts had been concerned about the safety of tower blocks – including the use of combustable cladding – for years.

The group wrote to successive ministers from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), including then-housing minister Gavin Barwell last September, urging them to review the fire safety regulations following the 2009 Lakanal House fire in Southwark, in which six people died.

According to the BBC, the parliamentary group wrote in a March 2014 letter: ‘Surely… when you already have credible evidence to justify updating … the guidance … which will lead to saving of lives, you don’t need to wait another three years in addition to the two already spent since the research findings were updated, in order to take action?

Can we really afford to wait for another tragedy to occur before we amend this weakness?

Letter from Parliamentary fire safety group to housing minister in 2014


‘As there are estimated to be another 4,000 older tower blocks in the UK, without automatic sprinkler protection, can we really afford to wait for another tragedy to occur before we amend this weakness?’

In a December 2015 letter, the group warned Conservative MP James Wharton, a DCLG minister at the time, of the danger of combustable external cladding on tower blocks.

A number of fire safety experts have argued that the aluminium composite cladding installed at Grenfell Tower, which was reported to have a combustable polyethylene core, was partly responsible for the fire spreading so quickly. 

‘Today’s buildings have a much higher content of readily available combustible material. Examples are timber and polystyrene mixes in structure, cladding and insulation,’ the letter read. 

‘This fire hazard results in many fires because adequate recommendations to developers simply do not exist. There is little or no requirement to mitigate external fire spread.’ 

The all-party group wrote to the the then housing minister Gavin Barwell in September last year, who had committed to reviewing part B of the Building Regulations, which covers fire safety, in October 2016. The government had been promising to review the fire safety regulations since 2013, following recommendations by the coroner from the March 2013 inquest into the Lakanal House fire.

Barwell is now Theresa May’s chief of staff after he lost his seat in the recent general election. 

In April this year, Barwell wrote to the group to ‘acknowledge that producing a statement on Building Regulations has taken longer than I had envisaged’.

The group responded by saying it had been ‘given a similar response by three successive ministers since 2010’, adding that it ‘is now time to listen to what the fire sector is saying’.







Readers' comments (2)

  • MacKenzie Architects

    The photograph attached to this article is interesting. It shows that most of the insulation behind the void, is charred but intact.
    Also most of the sub-frame to create the rainscreen cavity has also survived, but that might have been a top-hat for the insulation thickness, and the rainscreen framing was isolated aluminium system outboard of that?
    The outer skin has obviously completely gone, and the air-space bracketry (and maybe rails) with it.
    The window frames have buckled but not melted.

    From that picture, you might ask what burned -what was the fuel for the external fire?
    Suggest the flat panels, since there don't appear to be any lying on the ground. Will be interesting to see the test data on the product when it is revealed.

    Properly fire-stopped rainscreen is an excellent solution for weatherproofing buildings.I would hope that there is not a knee-jerk reaction by legislators -who don't necessarily get the best advice- to ban it.

    I don't know if our profession is equipped any more to give convincing product and specification advice however, we ran away from such responsibilities decades ago.

    I suspect this disaster will encourage more and more architects to finish their involvement with projects as soon as they get planning permission, and our profession will get even more marginalised.

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  • Thatchspec Ltd
    Good observations from Mackenzie architects.
    Had the exterior cladding been secured tight to the main charred insulation without the 'ventilation' gap we probably would not have seen the fire spread be so intense?

    What past recommendations were given by organizations such as BRE to DCLG for the compiling of present building regulations, especially the introduction and need for ventilation behind cladding as ‘one shoe fits all’ for every exterior cladding product?

    Of course ventilation is meant to deal with condensation and moisture retention and not act as a chimney for accelerating fire spread, this ventilation makes sense when used with hard exteriors such as inflammable unit tiles with little thermal insulating properties, but makes no sense at all with exterior weathering, insulating and slow breathable materials such as thatch which are designed to be one unit that regulate any moisture on the outer surface.

    I’m not convinced the investigations will cover all aspects and dig deeper to find the culprits that gave bad advice in the first instance for this system (ventilation factor).
    My thatching colleagues on the continent are gob smacked when I explain what is in or not in our building regulations that appear to be nearly two decades behind their understanding of Passivhaus and moisture problems!

    I’ve only thatched the walls of one award winning commercial building (not high rise) in Norwich, it’s now doubtful this will be ever be repeated, but if asked to thatch a sky-scraper I would insist on no ventilation gap behind the thatch and would only consider a north wall with no windows or with barrier protected openings.

    Signing out now, back to conservation work!

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