Housing secretary announces consultation on ban on combustible material
Combustible cladding could be banned on high-rise buildings in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, the government has announced, despite a review of building regulations concluding it was not necessary.
James Brokenshire, the housing secretary, announced a consultation on a ban in a statement to the House of Commons about plans for new building safety rules that will reduce “buck passing” on projects and require builders to demonstrate they have taken “decisive action to reduce building safety risk”.
The consultation follows calls from survivors, architects, councils and MPs for the type of materials that spread the flames on Grenfell Tower last year to be banned outright.
Flammable insulation and cladding products are currently being stripped from hundreds of high-rise buildings in England and Wales.
The prime minister said on Wednesday the government would spend £400m to help councils and registered social landlords remove the cladding, suggesting to many that ministers consider it unacceptable.
But earlier on Thursday, Dame Judith Hackitt, who the government appointed to review building regulations in the wake of the disaster that cost 71 lives said a new standards regulator should be the centrepiece of a reformed system and that combustible materials did not need to be banned.
“Restricting or prohibiting certain practices, will not address the root causes,” she said.
Later Brokenshire told the Commons: “The government will consult on banning the use of combustible materials in cladding on high-rise buildings.” It was not clear if he meant just external panels or also insulation, both of which were combustible at Grenfell.
The Labour party said it wasn’t enough. John Healy, the shadow housing secretary, said it “beggars belief” that Hackitt had not called for a ban on combustible cladding and insulation and told the government: “Don’t consult on it. Do it.”
He said Australia and Dubai had banned such materials. “We must do the same. We owe it to the Grenfell residents and we owe it to residents living in other tower blocks with the same Grenfell-style cladding.”
Survivors had said they were disappointed and saddened that Hackitt had rejected their calls for a ban. David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham, described the report as a “betrayal and a whitewash”. Architects, councils and fire experts also condemned the approach.
Lammy said it was “unthinkable” so many people could die at Grenfell Tower and for combustible cladding not to have been banned. “I will continue to stand with the Grenfell families and will continue to call for an outright ban on any combustible materials,” he said.
Shahin Sadafi, the chair of Grenfell United whose family lived at Grenfell, said: “Worrying that a fire like Grenfell could happen again is something that keeps many of us awake at night. When we met Dame Judith Hackitt we asked her for an outright ban on combustible cladding. We are disappointed and saddened that she didn’t listen to us and she didn’t listen to other experts.”
Sadafi added: “We have another chance to make our case to ban combustible cladding. But we are disappointed that they haven’t just banned this dangerous material today. Survivors, bereaved and many experts have called for it and they need to listen. We also need to know when dangerous cladding will be removed from buildings. Today there are people in hospitals, schools and homes covered with dangerous cladding.”
Hackitt said a new building regulations system should at first focus on buildings of 10 storeys or more. A new regulator called the Joint Competent Authority should be made up of local authority building standards, fire and rescue authorities and the Health and Safety Executive officials. It will be independent of the building owner and it will approve designs before construction begins.
“We do not want to have to wait for a tragedy like Grenfell before we apply the full criminal sanctions of the law,” she said. “We have to get to a position where people putting lives at risk by what they’re doing gets picked up at the time and there’s sanctions applied there and then, not in the aftermath of a terrible tragedy like Grenfell.”
She continued: “If this had been in place prior to Grenfell, I do not believe the cladding that was put on Grenfell would have got through the system in the first place.”
At Grenfell Tower, which was owned by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the building regulations were checked by RBKC’s own building officers while works were already under way. The same thing happened on dozens of other buildings clad in combustible material nationwide.
Hackitt found rates of enforcement action against breaches of building regulations had fallen 75% in the last decade.
But she argued there shouldn’t be prescription about what materials can and can’t be used and the onus should be on the “construction industry to take responsibility for the delivery of safe buildings rather than looking to others to tell them what is or is not acceptable”. She said: “It will be important now for industry to show leadership in driving this forward.”
Hackitt said people did not bother to read regulations and when they did, they did not understand them. She said concerns were ignored during the building process because “the primary motivation is to do things as quickly and cheaply as possible rather than to deliver quality homes” and that some builders use the ambiguity of the regulations to “game the system”.
She also said people in the industry did not know who was in charge and that enforcement was patchy with penalties so small as to be ineffective.
She said the new regulatory framework must also address the fact that “residents often go unheard, even when safety issues are identified”.