Richard North, 29/06/2017  
 


If one was to judge from the cacophony during PMQs in the Commons yesterday, one would not believe that the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition were discussing an event in which over eighty people had recently died and where bodies as yet lie unclaimed and unburied.

When it comes to raw politics and the opportunity to score points, though, nothing is beneath these jeering, screeching denizens of the Westminster bubble. They neither know nor care what others might think. Theirs is the centre of the universe and nothing else matters.

And already, from their positions of profound ignorance, the blame game is starting, with Corbyn kicking off by blaming "austerity". Unable to resist joining in the tribal warfare, Mrs May then tried to pin some of the blame on the Blair era, leaving no-one any the wiser.

The one thing that won't find any room in the politicians' litany of blame is "Europe". I doubt this is because they are deliberately trying to conceal its role – rather they just don't "get" the European Union. None of them have ever understood the degree to which it has pervaded the fabric of our administration and, therefore, they would not even think to link Brussels to these events.

That is why they don't understand Brexit either. MPs are hardly going to acquire much of an understanding of what it takes to extract us from the EU if they scarcely have any appreciation of the degree to which the EU is embedded in UK administration.

But it isn't just a question of the EU. Most MPs have only the slenderest grasp of how a modern state works, and would not even begin to appreciate the depth and complexity of the building control system in the UK, much less the extent to which it has been hollowed out by EU law.

The idiot Corbyn puts it down to cutting local authority budgets, with us "all paying a price" as we see "fewer inspectors, fewer building control inspectors". Thus did he ,rail against the "terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners".

At least the Guardian managed to note that, while the number of building control surveyors in England and Wales has fallen by 1,000 to 3,000 during the past decade, "it doesn't seem to be relevant in the case of Grenfell Tower".

The building, it says, was inspected at least 16 times by Kensington and Chelsea council over two years while the £10m refurbishment project was under way, "but the checks failed to spot that the building was clad in material effectively banned by the government".

Here we confront the media showing the same inability to cope with the terminology of this disaster as it does Brexit. Journalists who are unable to distinguish between a customs union and customs cooperation show a similar inability to differentiate when confronted with the separate concepts of "cladding" and "insulation".

As far as I am concerned, the matter of the cladding is largely settled. The Reynobond PE as a cladding material was not in any sense "banned". It can be used legally, notwithstanding that the question remains open as to whether it was installed in Grenfell Tower in accordance with the conditions set by the Agrément Certificate.

However, the insulation used is an altogether different question. In yesterday's piece, I relied on a link made by the company between Celotex RS5000 and this specific Agrément Certificate referring to an apparently different product with the classification FS5000. On the strength of this, I concluded that the product was non-compliant. 

The website may now have changed, as I can no longer find it. But I think there may be an explanation for the apparent linkage, in that the two products are actually the same. Referring to 2014, Wayback Machine has the premier "rainscreen product" from the company (one used with external cladding) designated as FR5000.

In a comprehensive list of products from 2014 (all of which are claimed to have been third party tested) there is no reference to RS5000 as a product.

That notwithstanding, the company claims to have sold RS5000 for use in refurbishing the Grenfell Tower (as of 16 June), claiming that the product "has a fire rating classification of Class 0, in accordance with British Standards". But there is no Agrément Certificate referenced to it, seemingly indicating that the product is without certification – contrary to the assertion in my earlier piece.

The notwithstanding, while Class 0 fire rating is sufficient to indicate conformity with Building Regulations for cladding products, Approved Document B (volume 2) sets a more rigorous test for insulation. Section 12.7 makes a reference to a building with a storey 18m or more, where it recommends insulation materials to be of "of limited combustibility" – a separate fire category equivalent to the European Standard A2 – which Class 0 does not certify.

However, the Approved Document gives the option of either conformity with this standard, or meeting the criteria set out in BRE Report BR 135 "Fire performance of external thermal insulation for walls of multi storey buildings", using full test data from British Standard BS8414-2:2005 – to which I referred yesterday.

Here, we see an interesting development, in that the company actually relies on BRE 135/BS8414, claiming to be "the first PIR insulation suitable for rainscreen cladding applications above 18 metres in height".

Nonetheless, it takes a separate document to make it clear that the product survives the test, only when sheathed with non-combustible Magnesium Oxide Board with the cladding comprising Marley fibre cement board, both sheets of 12mm thickness (more then twice the thickness of the Reynobond cladding.

The BS classification, the manufacturer tells us, "applies only to the system as tested and detailed in the classification report". It goes on to tell us that: "The classification report can only cover the details of the system as tested. It cannot state what is not covered. When specifying or checking a system it is important to check that the classification documents cover the end-use application".

This "system" is so far different from the actual installation in Grenfell Tower that the product as used cannot in any way be considered comparable with the certified system. As such, it cannot be considered to be covered by the BS8414 test. And neither is there any conceivable way that the actual installation could have passed BS8414, had it been tested to that standard. The use of Celotex in these circumstances could not be said to have been compliant.

That very much begs the question as to what the building inspectors were doing when they approved the refurbishment works, and whether they were confused by the manufacturer's claims as to the suitability of the material for use above 18 metres. No doubt, this is something which the official inquiry will look into. The claims made seem to be couched in somewhat misleading terms.

In PMQs, we then see Jeremy Corbyn refer to the recommendations of a coroner’s report into the Lakanal House tower block fire in Southwark in 2009, in which it was recommended that building regulations should be overhauled – something which has not been done since 2005 in respect of fire precautions.

Mrs May, in response, wanted "to get to the bottom" of the reason why fire inspections and local authority inspections appear to have allowed non-compliant materials to have been installed. That is fair enough, but it should not obscure Corbyn's question as to why the Building Regulations were not overhauled – a need which had been clearly demonstrated.

It is my contention that the inflexibility in the EU system seems to have been at least in part responsible for the failure to update the regulations. They should have been put on a more modern footing of requiring the testing of actual structures for fire resistance, rather than looking at individual components - and it is very clear that the UK is not allowed to do that unilaterally.

Thus, there is a bigger question here than even Building Regulations, where the lessons learned will tell us a great deal about how the EU regulates, and in particular its use of "European standards" as a regulatory mechanism, and the failures of that system. It would be tragic here if multiple failures in fire prevention were not used to help us devise new, more effective regulatory systems for a post-Brexit UK.

After all, one of the reasons why we wanted to leave the EU was, supposedly, to take back control. The way we do that is by looking at the current systems and learning how to do it better.






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