EU Referendum

Brexit: failure of government


As things begin to build up, I need to tear myself away from Grenfell Tower, the issue of fire standards and the broader issue of post-Brexit regulation. However, they are starting to merge and it's difficult putting a clear structure to my thoughts – especially when one gets distracted by some of the comments.

Thus, I'm not quite ready to walk away just yet. I need to recap – and refocus at the same time – on the points of relevance to this blog in relation to Grenfell Tower.

Here, one has to make the point that Building Regulations in this country lay down only general guidelines in relation to fire safety requirements (and much else). The requirement in the regulations is for exterior surfaces to be able to "adequately resist" the spread of fire. There is nothing wrong in principle with that – it all depends on how it is interpreted.

Interpretation is provided by the Approved Document (B1, Volume 2), which interprets to ability to "adequately resist" the spread of fire by reference to third party standards in relation to the components making up the external finish. The insulation (above 18m) must be a "non-combustible" material, which equates to the European (EN) Standard Class A2.

The cladding, which provides the weatherproofing and improves appearance, is required to conform with the National Standard Class 0, as determined by reference to BS476, equating to European Standard Class B.

As far as we know, the materials used in Grenfell Tower were 150mm Celotex RS5000 foil-faced polyisocyanurate (PIR) blocks, with a 50mm cavity and then 3mm Reynobond PE aluminium composite panel, comprising 0.5mm coated aluminium skins bonded to a core of polyethylene foam – the so-called "rainscreen cladding".

On the basis of published specifications and the Approved Document standards, the cladding, as a material, satisfied the "deemed to satisfy" provisions in the Regulations. The insulation did not. Therefore, purely on the basis of the material specification, the installation as a whole cannot be considered to comply with Building Regulations.

However, the Approved Document offers an alternative path to securing regulatory compliance. This is based on BS8414 which adopts a different approach. Rather than applied separately to the individual components, it applies to the fabrication as a whole, exposing it to a much more rigorous challenge, which more closely replicates real-life fire conditions.

This was the approach recommended by a select committee in 2000, in response to a fatal fire in a tower block the year previously, calling on the government to make this test mandatory, substituting the existing European Standard and parallel BS476.

It was here that we see the European (EU) dimension. Although the government did include BS8414 in the Approved Document, it did not make it the sole test, as had been recommended. Under EU law, it could not do so, as the existing European Standard took precedence. Thus, we were in the position of having the EU insist on a weak test which did not represent real-life conditions, blocking us from relying solely on a more rigorous test.

As it happens, the insulation used in Grenfell Tower could not meet the Building Regulation standard anyway, and should not have been used. But the installation could not have passed the BS8414 test. Therefore, the single British Standard would have been an adequate control within the framework of the current regulations.

That is as simple as I can make the case, with all the relevant links in preceding posts. Perversely, BBC Newsnight has got the wrong end of the stick (as it so often does). Its policy editor, Chris Cook, has misinterpreted BS8414, apparently unaware that it was recommended in the wake of another fatal tower block fire.

An effect of testing the fabrication, as opposed to the individual materials – the so-called "exact system test", is that materials which might otherwise not pass, could comply with the Regulations when part of a system comprising other materials. This, Chris Cook evidently sees as a loophole and therefore a Bad Thing, even though there was no possibility that the installation used in Grenfell Tower would have passed.

From this, it would seem that the BBC line is that they would prefer an inadequate material test, where the components could fail when part of a system, rather than a more rigorous system test. The rejection of the latter is partly on the basis that the inadequate fabrication could be deemed to pass BS8414 via a "deskstop study", by "hiring an expert to say it is safe", without doing any further trials.

To me, the concept of a "desktop study" is entirely alien but even then it is not the easy option that the BBC would seem to imply. This article in Construction News suggests that "a suitably qualified fire specialist" has to be used, to determine whether a particular system could meet the BS8414 acceptance criteria.

But any report must be backed with the results of testing by a suitable accredited testing body, and should make specific reference to any actual tests that have been carried out, and provide relevant fire test data. The option, it is said, "may not be of benefit if the products have not already been tested in multiple situations/arrangements".

One could imagine that a compliant structure, with materials produced by one manufacturer, could be used as a valid template for an identical structure, made up with the same materials from different manufacturers. But, where there are any changes to the components, or to the construction method, there can hardly be any carry-over of results.

If nothing else, this is an example of what you can end up with when you are the BBC and can get away with low-grade research.

Nevertheless, Cook concludes that "the catastrophe at Grenfell Tower has showed up the weakness of the whole framework in which our building regulations sit". What he has been unable to do is identify the EU component of a broader failure. Instead, in typical BBC style, he speculates as to possible causes, while admitting: "We do not know when desktop studies get used" – or whether they are used at all.

If we want to be in the speculation game like the BBC though, what could just as easily have been a causal factor in Grenfell Tower is a confusion induced by Schedule 3 of the 2010 regulation, which allows cavity insulation to be self-certifying. Building inspectors could wrongly have assumed that they did not need to approve the installation.

This notwithstanding, the fact is that, had BS8414 applied as an exclusive and unambiguous requirement for composite insulation and cladding fabrications, it is extremely unlikely that this fire would have occurred. THE EU, therefore, is part of the confusion that led to the failure.

That, in my view, is as good a take-home message as any: we need a single, unambiguous standard, representing best practice, and it must be consistently enforced. And we are not allowed by the EU to adopt a single, "best practice" standard, even if we remain entirely responsible for enforcement.

But what is also highlighted is the complexity of these issues, and the difficulty in defining the regulatory system which applies in even this very narrow and specialist field.

In the Brexit process, we will not only have to redefine the building control system, but thousands of others, many of which are far more complex. In the light of the mess the government is making of the aftermath of Grenfell Tower – and the enormous resource required just to deal with that issue – it is entirely reasonable to start worrying (if we weren't already) about the broader government capability.

In this context, we note a piece by Jenni Russell in The Times headed "Davis is a dangerous driver of the Brexit bus". Writes Russel, "The buccaneering optimism shown by our chief negotiator with the EU is deluded and alarming".

This rather confirms what we already know about David Davis, but there is far too much detail here simply to tack on the end of an already long piece – especially as it's behind the paywall. I will return to the article tomorrow, with a more detailed analysis.

Suffice it to say at this stage, if Grenfell Tower represents – as such events so often do – a failure of government, Brexit is shaping up the same way. Where the two combine is in their both addressing the implementation of rational and effective regulatory systems which have been tainted by Brussels.

If we have a government that seems unable to handle the Grenfell Tower aftermath, the chances of it dealing effectively with Brexit seem increasingly remote.