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UK urged to speed up fire safety and cladding reform

Out-Law News | 26 Jul 2019 | 9:57 am | 3 min. read

The UK government must "pick up the pace" on reforming high-rise building and fire safety, a committee of MPs has warned, ahead of the closure of a consultation into proposals for reform.

The Communities and Local Government Committee described progress towards implementing Dame Judith Hackitt's recommendations for reform of the building and fire safety regime as far too slow, in a new report issued in response to the government's consultation on its proposals, which closes on 31 July. The committee also criticised the government's focus on replacing aluminium composite cladding (ACM) to the exclusion of other potentially dangerous materials, and the level of funding which the government has made available for remediation works.

James Brokenshire, who has since been replaced as housing secretary, told the UK parliament last week that ACM remediation in the social housing sector will be completed by the end of this year, "other than a small handful of exceptional cases". The government's expectation is for private sector building owners to put remediation plans in place by December 2019 and follow through by June 2020 or face enforcement action, according to his written ministerial statement.

The committee is recommending that the government set a realistic, but short, deadline by which time all buildings with any form of dangerous cladding should have this removed or replaced. Government policies and funding mechanisms should work to meet this deadline, with sanctions in place for building owners which do not comply.

Metcalfe Katherine

Katherine Metcalfe

Legal Director

The comments could be a further indication that building safety will become a new function of HSE rather than creating a standalone regulator.

Committee chair Clive Betts said that the government was "far behind where it should be in every aspect of its response" two years after the fatal fire at London's Grenfell Tower, which prompted Dame Hackitt's review.

"Further delay is simply not acceptable," he said.

"The government cannot morally justify funding the replacement of one form of dangerous cladding, but not others. It should immediately extend its fund to cover the removal and replacement of any form of combustible cladding – as defined by the government's combustible cladding ban - from any high-rise or high-risk building," he said.

The government announced in May that it would fully fund the removal and replacement of unsafe ACM cladding on private sector residential buildings 18 metres or higher, at an estimated cost of £200 million. Last week, it published full details to assist 'responsible entities' in their applications for funding. Applications should be made by the building freeholder, head leaseholder or a management company which has primary responsibility for the repair of the property.

The fund is only available to applicants which are replacing unsafe ACM cladding with materials of limited combustibility which have been classified as meeting European Class A1 or A2-s1, D0 safety standards. The government banned the use of combustible materials as cladding on new buildings containing flats, hospitals, residential care premises, boarding school dormitories and student accommodation of over 18 metres in height in England and Wales as of 21 December 2018.

Responsible entities will not be required to apply for planning permission before carrying out ACM cladding replacement works if the external appearance of the building will not be materially altered, Brokenshire confirmed in his ministerial statement. Approval will only be needed if the replacement work amounts to 'development' within the meaning of section 55 of the 1990 Town and Country Planning Act, or where this is required within the terms of a previous planning permission.

The government has published a new advice note on the use of high pressure laminate (HPL) panels as cladding, following testing conducted by its expert advisory panel. A cladding system comprising an HPL panel with five retardant (class B-s1, d0) with stone wool insulation passed government tests. However, the expert panel considers that any system with HPL panels of European classification C or D, or class B panels combined with combustible insulation, is unlikely to adequately resist the spread of fire. Immediate measures should be taken to remediate the system, according to the note.

Testing of other materials continues. In the meantime, the government has written to all local authorities asking them to gather information about the external wall materials and insulation on all residential buildings over 18 metres in height in their area.

The government published plans to overhaul the regulatory system for building safety in England for consultation in June. The new regime includes a new building safety regulatornew  duties for key 'dutyholders' involved in the construction, design and maintenance of relevant buildingsnew regulator approval 'gateway' pointsnew record-keeping requirements; and new duties for landlords and tenantsSome of the proposals will also apply to existing high-rise buildings.

Brokenshire said at the end of his statement that the government was "working closely" with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) on the establishment of the new building safety regulator. Health and safety law expert Katherine Metcalfe of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, said that the comments could be "a further indication that building safety will become a new function of HSE rather than creating a standalone regulator".