Brexit: we're on our own


I may have mentioned before how awful Andrew Marr is, but in yesterday's performance he excelled himself.

Interviewing foreign secretary Dominic Raab, he finally arrived at a point where one of the most important issues of the current Brexit debate happened to come up. "Could we leave without a deal?", Marr asks, to which Raab responds: "I think it's – no, it's not what we’re going to do".

An enterprising journalist, one might have thought, would have followed this up, asking how a new Johnson government intended to negotiate a deal in the eleven months ending on the last day of December 2020.

But this is Andrew Marr we're dealing with: "No? Okay, alright that's clear", he says. And just so that there is no misunderstanding, Raab adds: "I don't think it's remotely likely". And to that, the grand inquisitor simply remarks: "We'll move on to another subject then…".

Oddly enough, this isn't the first time Marr has addressed the issue of a trade deal, as one might expect. Back in February 2016, Marr interviewed David Cameron, when he asked about the possibility of the UK negotiating a Canada-style deal. Said Cameron, in this pre-referendum period:
Well, it hasn't been finished. It's been going for seven years … If we leave, seven years potentially of uncertainty. And at the end of that process you still can't be certain that our businesses will have full access to the market, so it could cost jobs, it could mean businesses, overseas businesses not investing in Britain. It would be a step into the dark, a real risk and uncertainty, and that's just the last thing we need in our country right now.
As he had failed to do so many times before, Marr didn't follow through, but the point had been made. And, in January 2017, there was an opportunity to revisit this issue, when Mrs May was a guest on the Marr show. It was then that the "no deal" rhetoric had been introduced by May but, when she was probed on whether she would walk away from a bad deal, she said:
…I have every expectation that we will be able to achieve a very good trade deal with the European Union. I think that, not just because it’s going to be good for the UK, but also it’s going to be good for the European Union too. So I want a trade deal with the EU which ensures that our companies have the best possible access to and opportunity to operate within the European single market in goods and services.
Needless to say, Marr didn't follow through on that either. As I remarked at the time - when we all thought that the deal would be negotiated within the two-year period – he could have asked how the prime minister intended to negotiate the deal in the time, when her predecessor had described it as a "leap in the dark".

Not unsurprisingly, I headed my blogpost at the time: "the uselessness of Marr" and, in these times of uncertainty and change, I suppose we could take comfort in Marr's consistency. Nothing has changed.

But, to prove that he never misses an opportunity to miss a point, yesterday Marr also interviewed Jeremy Corbyn. and it was then that he asked the leader of the opposition what the "leave option" that he had in mind entailed. Said Corbyn:
A leave option would mean a trade relationship with Europe and it would mean protection of rights. And obviously that includes that protection of the Good Friday Agreement. That will be put alongside remain in a referendum within six [months] – and my whole strategy has been to try and bring people together on both sides of the argument, 'cause actually there's a great deal that unites them about the inequalities and injustices in this country.
Corbyn is thus saying that, within six months of his elevation to prime minister, he would not only have renegotiated a new withdrawal agreement, but also a "trade relationship", notwithstanding that the latter can't happen until we've actually left the EU.

This remarkable claim though just begged to be clarified by a series of probing questions. On what grounds, for instance, did Corbyn believe he could negotiate a new trade relationship within six months, and how was this going to be done alongside talks on a revised withdrawal agreement.

It possibly won't come as a surprise that Marr didn't ask such questions, or anything like them. These details were of no interest at all to him. All he wanted to know from Corbyn was: "what your own personal view is about leaving the EU or not". Said Marr: "It's the biggest single question facing a lot of people in this country and they have a right to know the answer".

Now I may be out on my own, but if I even cared whether Corbyn personally wanted to leave the EU, it would most certainly not qualify as the "biggest single question" that I faced on Brexit. and I suspect I am not on my own. This is entirely the preoccupation of the Westminster/media bubble.

What effectively we saw yesterday, therefore, was evidence that there are currently two general election campaigns. One is being played out on the grand canvas of the national media – largely for the entertainment of politicians and journalists – and the other one in the country at large.

In terms of that second campaign, we got a small insight into what is going on from Deborah Mattinson, a founding partner of BritainThinks, a research and strategy consultancy.

She has been conducting a series of focus groups, where people were asked to describe Britain at the start of the campaign. The words chosen were "divided", "confused", "angry" and "broken", from which she concludes that "the electorate is weary". She continues:
Faith in politics and politicians – never high – is now at an all-time low. Just six percent say that politicians understand "people like me", Boris Johnson has poorer ratings as PM than any of his recent predecessors at a similar stage in their premiership, and Jeremy Corbyn has the worst opposition leader ratings since polling began. Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) now believe that our politics is "no longer fit for purpose".
When Mattinson asked a focus group of undecided voters last week, "What have you picked up about the election so far?", she found they had plenty to say about policies, parties and politicians. But their confident chatter died away fast. Eye contact was avoided. No one could think of anything that related to the campaign.

Says Mattinson, a recent poll found a similar lack of engagement. Four thousand voters were asked what "incidents, events, stories etc" they had noticed. The winning score, at 42 percent, was for "none". In second place came the five percent mentioning Jacob Rees-Mogg's Grenfell remarks. Just two percent mentioned Brexit and one percent "NHS funding".

While the consultants and pundits may need focus groups to inform them of public sentiment, most people outside the bubble take the temperature of their own communities every day of the week. And so far, outside the foetid embrace of the media and the hothouse of Twitter, this election has largely been a non-event. Most people, I find, do not even discuss it and, if the subject is raised, it is usually to offer some wry or ironic comment.

It is my view, though, that if the media – as exemplified by the Marr show – could step outside its bubble, to confront politicians with relevant questions, and demand real answers, the attitude to politics could be transformed. But so rare is it that that an interviewer or journalist puts a politician on the spot that, when they do, it is the talk of the town.

News addict that I am, I find myself switching off the television news, utterly frustrated by the superficial, venal content, and the prancing of celebrity journalists who think they are bigger than the stories they report, such as "look at me" Laura, political editor for the BBC.

But as long as the media reach down to us, in their patronising way, treating us all as morons – missing the point in every conceivable way – the dribble they produce will drive people away from a subject that is of vital importance to them. But then, when it comes to defining what journalism is for, the Guardian doesn't even place the need to "inform and explain" in any of its headings. When it comes to that, we're on our own.

Richard North 18/11/2019 link

Brexit: a huge misstep


Not since 4 June 1945 when Winston Churchill unwisely compared the Labour Party with the Gestapo (one of the factors which led to the Tory defeat in 1945) has a political leader launched such an ill-considered attack on his opposition in a general election campaign.

But, if had to be anybody, it was going to be Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson who today launches the Conservative Party Campaign "exclusively in the Telegraph" with a quote that takes the lead spot on the front page.

"The tragedy of the modern Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn", Johnson says, "is that they detest the profit motive so viscerally… they point their fingers at individuals with a relish and a vindictiveness not seen since Stalin persecuted the kulaks".

Whatever the manifest and very evident faults of the Labour Leader, to compare him with the genocidal Stalin and his extermination of the Kulaks is huge misstep. Through enforced famine and executions, Stalin was responsible for millions of deaths, marking a terrible period in history which cannot begin to be linked with the activities or motives of UK politicians.

Yet, so far gone is the Telegraph in its adoration of its favourite son that it frames an approving news story, reporting that Johnson "has compared Jeremy Corbyn to Stalin over his 'hatred' of wealth creators as he says the Tories will 'cheer, not sneer' entrepreneurs if they are returned to power".

Earlier yesterday, Jacob Rees-Mogg had been criticised for his "insensitive remarks" about the Grenfell Tower fire, the nature of which was considered to be damaging to the Tories. And, although this grabs its share of the morning's headlines. Johnson's intervention is in another league altogether. Yet the Telegraph isn't even aware of the implications or the outrage which must surely follow.

Perversely, on the first official day of the general election campaign, Jeremy Corbyn was reported as looking to switch the election focus away from Brexit, with the Financial Times noting that Labour's election campaign plan features Brexit on only two days out of 27. The Labour leader, the paper says, wants his party to campaign on issues such as rail fares, animal welfare, the high street, dentistry, NHS funding, social care and "cycling and walking".

The strategy was considered a gamble, "given that Britain remains convulsed by strong feelings on both sides of the Brexit debate", leading one sceptical Labour MP to remark that, "It's like we want to seal Brexit in 10 metres of concrete and bury it under the seabed", adding wryly: "Good luck with that".

Johnson's comments, though, may play straight into Corbyn's hands, as the highly inappropriate comparison is bound to deflect attention from Brexit and, if a sense of outrage does build, it could deflect the parties' campaigns into personality politics and bitter recriminations.

It may be, of course, that this is a deliberate strategy on the part of Johnson who, yesterday, took a serious "hit" from Michel Barnier who took it upon himself to deliver a corrective to the "fantasy Brexit" offered by the prime minister in office.

Speaking at the annual Web Summit in Lisbon, Barnier directly contradicted Johnson's claims that the post-exit future relationship talks would be "straightforward". Warning that they would be "difficult and demanding", he said that the UK and the EU in the summer of 2020 faced "a moment of truth" on whether to extend the transitional period.

Approval of Johnson's withdrawal agreement by the UK parliament was only the prelude to years more negotiations, Barnier said, making the obvious point that: "As long as we have not completed both negotiations [the withdrawal agreement and future talks] with the UK the risk of a cliff edge remains and we should all remain vigilant".

Stating that the current withdrawal agreement was "a necessary step" but not the "final destination", Barnier stressed that an agreement on zero quotas and zero tariffs on trade would be linked to respecting EU norms on environment, worker protection and state aid, in order to maintain a level playing field between EU and British companies. "The EU will not tolerate unfair competitive advantage", he added.

With the prime minister's official spokesman adamant that there will be no extension of the transition period, this has the makings of a front-page controversy, especially as we are reminded that MPs were promised an opportunity to vote on whether the transitional period should be extended. Johnson's spokesman now says that no such vote would go ahead because the government will have reached a trade deal by then.

So fragile is this assertion that Johnson has as much reason as Corbyn to take Brexit off the agenda, if not more so. Although Corbyn's Brexit policy continues to be incoherent, despite attempts yesterday to clarify it, Johnson has nothing to gain from having his withdrawal agreement subject to intense scrutiny through the election campaign.

Such thoughts have even attracted the attention of the great sage, Rafael Behr, who adds a typical Guardian spin to the issue, writing:
With a sustained display of incompetence, cowardice, delusion and ideological mania, British politics has created a situation so monstrous and writhing with venom that the public cannot bear to look at it. Brexit is like the mythical Gorgon that turns to stone all who meet its gaze. It must instead be stalked indirectly, using the monster’s reflection in their polished shield.

That is why the election will be only obliquely about Brexit. It will not feature rational evaluation of Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe. These campaigns never do. The referendum drove big red and blue buses down every social fault line in the country without arriving at a functional definition of Brexit. The 2017 election was more animated by fox-hunting and dementia care than customs unions and regulatory alignment. Even when politics appears to be about Brexit, it conspires to be about something else: jostling for position in a Tory leadership race; pro-remain guerrilla manoeuvres in the remote hills of Commons procedure.

With parliament dissolved, anything relating to the substance of negotiation in Brussels will fall off the agenda because it is a boring subject for most voters and always has been. Meanwhile, neither of the two candidates to be prime minister is going to offer an honest appraisal of why leaving has been so difficult and why it brings no material benefit to the country.
Of course, while Behr neglects to point out that it is actually his fellow hacks and commentators who find Brexit so boring – not least because they lack the competence and knowledge to report it properly - we will see the legacy media conspiring to assist the politicians in lobotomising Brexit. And Johnson's "Stalin" remarks may give them the opportunity they have been looking for.

The only thing is that, in 1945, Clement Attlee had been rather miscast. The voters looked at him, the timid, correct, undemonstrative, unaggressive ex-public-schoolboy, ex-major, and couldn't see an Adolf Hitler in him. Yet, he managed to handle Churchill's intemperance rather deftly, pointing out that the then prime minister had wanted to draw a clear distinction between Winston Churchill, the great War leader, and Mr Churchill, the leader of the Tories.

In this case, we have only the tawdry leader of the Tories, but then I suspect that Corbyn is not the match for Attlee – at an intellectual level, at any rate – while the mud sticks easier to Corbyn, a man who is on the extreme left wing of his party.

Nevertheless, it too early to judge whether this misstep is going to take off. The main newspapers had already gone to bed by the time the Telegraph dropped its bombshell, leaving no time to react. We will see today how things develop but, if this is not the excuse to drop Brexit and go personal, there will be another one not far behind.

Richard North 06/11/2019 link

Brexit: and so it goes on


Considering that most MPs had already made up their minds before yesterday's debate had even begun, it was hardly surprising that Johnson lost his third bid for an early general election. It would have saved a lot of time and energy if MPs had proceeded directly to the vote.

When it actually came to the vote, 299 MPs supported the election motion and only 70 voted against. But that was 135 votes short of what Johnson needed, 265 MPs having abstained. Undaunted, he's going to try again with a variation of the Lib-Dem idea of a one-line Bill. If passed, it will amend the FTPA and set us up for an election on 12 December.

The Lib-Dems and the SNP may be on board, although both parties have their reservations, especially as they still favour the 9 December as opposed to the 12th favoured by Johnson. The earlier date – breaking with tradition by being on a Monday – has the merit of catching university students before the term ends.

With that, the smart money is on the prime minister in office getting his way, especially as earlier in the day he had accepted the EU's extension offer, effectively fulfilling the precondition of taking a "no-deal" exit off the table.

That now leaves us with round two of this particular parliamentary soap opera, but we can be reasonably well assured that the torture will soon be over, one way or another. Mind you, getting the Bill through to Royal Assent by 6 November is going to be no mean feat, requiring the full cooperation of not only the Commons but the House of Lords as well.

Should we actually get to the stage where an election is finally declared, the nation will probably breathe a collective sigh of relief. As least we will now be spared the endless speculation about whether there will or will not be an election and will be able to get down to the task of deciding who we will vote for (if anyone).

Come the campaign, though, there is going to be an unusual dynamic. In the blue corner, we have Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson who may struggle with his failure to keep his "do or die" promise of leaving the EU on the 31 October. He will be constantly reminded that he once said: "I'd rather be dead in a ditch than delay Brexit". Going to the country while we are still in the EU could be a serious handicap.

In the red corner, though, we have Jeremy Corbyn, a man so "frit" that he has been running away from the very election he claims to have wanted. This is an opposition leader with a policy on Brexit so incoherent that he makes Johnson look like a tactical genius.

Gone are the days when the tabloids win elections, but it will not help to have The Sun refer to "Jeremy Corbyn and his cowardly MPs" having "denied Boris Johnson the chance for an election for the third time".

In what will inevitably be a personality contest – the media being incapable of playing elections any other way - the mantle of "coward" could be very hard for Corbyn to shrug off, especially when the Mail is proclaiming: "Labour bottles election AGAIN".

Teflon Johnson, however, shows every sign of intending to shrug off his broken promise, blaming parliament and Corbyn for his failure to extract us from the EU. His hallmark tactic of brazening out his critics may well serve him yet again.

We can see something of this in his letter to Donald Tusk accepting the extension. He writes of "this unnecessary prolongation of the UK's membership of the EU" and, in urging the EU Member States to make it clear that an extension after 31 January is "not possible", he accuses parliament of inaction "as long as it has the option of further delay".

What was interesting in yesterday's debate, though, was watching the DUP's Sammy Wilson dissect Johnson's deal, condemning its harmful effects on Northern Ireland. The prime minister in office has managed to convert an ally into a powerful enemy and, if the election campaign ever gets down to discussing issues, the detail of the deal is unlikely to work in Johnson's favour.

He would cast it as a great victory, securing something that his critics said could not be done but Wilson's criticisms could gain some traction. The DUP's Brexit spokesman complains that the agreement goes totally against the promises made by both the former prime minister and the current prime ministers, "that there would no impediments to trade between our part of the United Kingdom and GB, and that there would be no danger of the Union being imperilled".

Another thing that might weigh against Johnson is the amount of money wasted on no-deal preparations, estimated by some to be as much as £2 billion. This includes the highly visible £100 million set aside for preparedness advertising, which has now been put on hold.

Corbyn is certainly making a big deal of this, asking in the Commons, "How many nurses could have been hired, how many parcels could have been funded at food banks, how many social care packages could have been funded for our elderly?"

For all that, we are getting ahead of ourselves. Recent experience tells us to be very cautious about predicting anything connected with Brexit, and there is still room for the putative tryst between Johnson and the Lib-Dems and SNP over supporting his adopted one-line Bill to unravel. Should that happen, there is a significant chance that we could miss the slot for a pre-Christmas election.

Even with a 12 December election, getting the WAB ratified before 31 January might be challenging, given the Christmas break. But the earliest a post-Christmas election could be called is in February, which would put Johnson in the invidious position of having to ask for another extension, when he had already asked the EU to reject any further delay.

Then, of course, there is the spectre of a hung parliament – whenever the election is called – leading to more guerrilla warfare in parliament, and delays in the ratification of the WAB. Even if we get an election, therefore, Johnson is very far from out of the woods.

Going against the grain of a single-issue election, the media and some of the parties may broaden out the campaign to embrace other issues, such as public services, and in particular spending on hospitals, schools and the police. It is perhaps significant that some of both the Lib-Dem and Labour pre-election leafleting barely mentions Brexit.

Electorally, there may be some sense in this. Despite Johnson's promises, he is still weak in the battleground areas as none of the promised improvements will have materialised by the time we go to the polls.

A post-Christmas election is said to be especially dangerous for Johnson as, by the time the election is held, there is a high chance of the NHS having to deal with a flu epidemic, with the media headlines featuring a service under considerable stress. So significant might this be that it could explain his enthusiasm for going to the polls before Christmas.

In between then and now, however, there is another major event which will deservedly divert attention from Brexit – the Grenfell Tower report. For a few days, that is going to shunt Brexit off the front pages.

Whether that will allow MPs to focus on the essentials is moot, but with ten months of delays already in the bag, the next few days are going to be crucial in deciding whether we face still more delay at the end of January. But MPs should be aware that the anger at the current delays will be nothing compared to the reaction if we face another three months next year.

Richard North 29/10/2019 link

Brexit: Humpty Dumpty facts


Brexit: trying to make sense of the world On 6 July, the European Commission published a press release stating that the EU and Japan had reached agreement in principle on Economic Partnership Agreement.

This was accompanied by an explanatory note, offering the summary of the agreement, alongside this disclaimer:
The negotiations between EU and Japan on Economic Partnership Agreement are not concluded yet, therefore the published texts should be considered provisional and not final. In particular, the provisions which appear in brackets are still under negotiations. However, in view of the growing public interest in the negotiations, the texts are published at this stage of the negotiations. The texts are published for information purposes only and are without prejudice to the final outcome of the agreement between the EU and Japan. Any such texts become binding upon the Parties under international law only after completion by each Party of its internal legal procedures necessary for the entry into force of the Agreement, and after the final texts are submitted and approved by the legislators.
From this, two things should be very clear. First, the EU hasn't signed a trade deal with Japan. Secondly, the EU has not claimed it has signed a trade deal with Japan.

Strangely, even the Daily Telegraph understand this, headlining its report, "EU and Japan promise to commit to free trade deal", with scribe Tim Wallace writing: "Japan and the EU have reached a “political agreement” on a free trade deal in a sign that both parties will commit to negotiating an agreement to reduce barriers between the two".

Turning now to the dross in yesterday's Sunday Telegraph view (prop. Allister Heath), however, we see written": "Last week the EU excitedly announced a trade deal with Japan, but all that was actually unveiled was an agreement to talk".

That is a pretty good indicator of the degree of respect for that truth that the paper holds. But then it adds:
Speaking to the BBC, the Japanese ambassador to the UK said that it took more than four years to nail down the principles of an EU deal and will take yet more time to hammer out the detail. It is conceivable that a deal between Tokyo and London, which the ambassador implied ought to be straightforward, could be concluded before one with Brussels. Switzerland took just two years to do this, which underscores an important fact: bilateral trade deals are a lot easier than multilateral ones.
But in this, the art of lying flourishes to an extraordinary extent. For sure, the starting point for the Swiss-Japan free trade agreement was in January 2007, and the agreement was signed on 19 February 2009, together with an implementing agreement.

But what is rather germane to note is that, while the EU's last three major treaties (South Korea, Ukraine and Canada) have each been in excess of a thousand pages, the Swiss-Japan treaty was a mere 119 pages. The implementing treaty was a further 24. Furthermore, the agreements were the fruition of "bilateral economic consultations between the Japanese and Swiss governments" which have been held "on a regular basis" since 1995.

That has the Sunday Telegraph effectively lying by omission – putting it in John Mills territory when he made similar claims about the Norwegian free trade agreement – only this was with the EEC, taking only two years. That, however, was 113 pages.

In other words, we get "Humpty Dumpty" facts. They mean what people want them to mean. When it is important that the UK does a deal with the EU quickly, it can be done in two years because, in 1993, Norway signed a deal in two years.

When it is important that the UK does free trade deal with Japan quickly. It can be done quickly because in 2009, Japan signed a deal in two years (on the back of talks starting in 1995).

And those are just brief observations. I wasn't going to write anything at all for overnight - I'm too tired. This, then, is a starter for ten. Pete will pick up some more threads tomorrow, when we'll both continue trying to make sense of world. I'll do Booker and Grenfell as well.

Richard North 10/07/2017 link

Booker: Yeovilton and other matters


A very truncated Booker column is on the website – down to 750 words from the 1,300 normally allocated. What's more, in the print copy he's been moved from the main newspaper to the back page of the Sunday supplement, along with the fashion tips, the girlie comments and the cookery columns.

Thus, what in any sane world, what would be on the front page of the paper is consigned to obscurity, while the dross takes pride of place.

Meanwhile, I'm still in Bristol, having been at Yeovilton airshow all day – see pic from Pete (above) F-5s from the Patrouille Suisse display team – so I'm not in a position to write a review. What I've done is post the link and I'll pick it up for tomorrow's post. Then, I'll work it in with the other work I've done on the issue.

That will probably be the last full piece I write on the Grenfell fire (for the moment at least) as I've got about as far as I'm going to get with it. But at least, I've done what I set out to do, to establish whether there was an EU angle, and whether there are any lessons for Brexit – with an answer of "yes" to both questions.

As so often, that puts us streets ahead of the legacy media and most pundits, with some unexpected culprits coming out of the woodwork. The full analysis will have to wait until I get back to my desk, though. In the meantime, by all means use the comments as an open thread. I'll keep an eye on them and respond when I can.

Richard North 09/07/2017 link

Brexit: maintaining convergence


Those who venture off the beaten track, looking for alternatives to the failing legacy media may happen on the UK offshoot of BuzzFeed, the US internet media company, which takes as its mission the provision of "the most shareable breaking news, original reporting, entertainment, and video".

But it says a great deal about the way this country is governed that, when this media company sought to identify, "the complex web of companies and government agencies facing questions over the Grenfell tragedy", it makes just as big a mess of its explanation as the media it seeks to replace.

Publishing an interactive chart purporting to show all the key players – and their inter-relationships – the key features are not the information given but the most notable omissions. While you get a link to the Building Research Establishment (BRE, but now BRE Global), there is no reference to the British Standard Institute (BSI), to CEN/CENELEC – the European standards body - or the European Commission.

But even if these have been included, the list would not be complete. There should also be included other official bodies such as the European Organisation for Technical Approvals (EOTA), the Standing Committee on Construction (SCC) – part of the Comitology system and not to be confused with the Advisory Group on Construction Products - the Fire Regulators Group, and the Group of Notified Bodies.

All of these bodies played roles in the events which led to the Grenfell fire – some major and some minor. There is also the European Court of Justice, which in April 2013 ruled that the Federal Republic of Germany had breached EU law in requiring additional approvals for construction products, over and above those set under the (then) Construction Products Directive.

But all of this passes BuzzFeed by. As far as it is concerned, it is the BRE which "sets standards and upholds building standards while influencing building regulations". Also, we learn, "its tests are the ones that set the fire ratings for the products used in Grenfell".

The errors here would be obvious to those who have read the relevant threads on this blog, but if it is this which represents the perceived wisdom, then we have a serious problem. Crucially, though, if that is the general understanding, then one has point to yet another potential difficulty for our Brexit negotiators.

The point is that, if no-one in the UK actually understands how the product approval system actually works, it is very difficult to negotiate a continuum. And without that, as we launch off on our own path, how then do we ensure that we maintain the regulatory convergence necessary to secure access to the markets of the EU Member States?

Already, the government is getting itself into a terrible mess. In a knee-jerk reaction to the Grenfell Tower fire, it has been insisting on testing all the Aluminium Composite Panels (ACP) – such as Reynobond PE – used in high rise buildings.

But, rather than test to the EU harmonised classification, using EN 13501 and the Single Burning Item (SBI) test, it has chosen a different route. While the EN test is applied to intact panels and measures flame spread, the government has asked the BRE to test what calls the "filler" in these panels to ascertain whether or not it meets an entirely separate requirement for "limited combustibility".

A letter from the Department of Communities states that, on buildings with a floor over 18m above ground level, where ACM panels are identified, the "core material should be a material of limited combustibility or Class A2.1" in order to comply with Building Regulations.

Compounding the error is its panel of experts, which asserts that the procedure "is in line with the requirement of the Building Regulations guidance". And, on that basis, it declares that, if the panel core fails the test, the building owner should cause to be undertaken a laborious fire assessment and take action on the basis of its findings.

As aside, the experts do not recommend automatic removal of the cladding, although this can be a consequence of the fire assessment, and a number of local authorities are removing cladding from high-rise blocks.

However, other experts, though, are questioning the whole process. Says Stephen Mackenzie, a fire risk consultant: "The government is fundamentally flawed in its use of the BRE to conduct overly simplistic and limited fire test samples and not the complete cladding assembly". He adds: "The small scale tests on external panels need to be extended to a full disassembly".

Additionally – amongst other critical voices – an architect responsible for some of the projects where cladding has been ruled to have failed has asked: "What are they testing to what standard? This could be a massively costly and disruptive error to thousands of residents".  

The error itself seems to stem from a misreading of Approved Document B (Volume 2), where Section 12.7 on "Insulation Materials/Products" requires of a building with a storey 18 metres or more above ground level, that "any insulation product, filler material (not including gaskets, sealants and similar) etc. used in external wall construction should be of limited combustibility".

Where the expert panel and the Department of Communities are going wrong is in interpreting the core materials in Reynobond PE (and similar products) as insulating material.

In fact, as one of several Reynobond brochures indicate, Reynobond PE is a laminated product. The polyethylene core "adds strength and rigidity to the coil-coated aluminium panels", thus maximising "its flexibility and formability, while maintaining a light weight for easy installation".

While the polyethylene has low thermal transmission characteristics, this is entirely incidental to the functioning of this product, which is to add "strength and rigidity". There is no reference to insulation and no claims are made for the product in this respect – which is hardly surprising as the core thickness is only 2mm – compared with the 150mm of Celotex which has been found to be "more inflammable than the cladding".

Clearly, if Reynobond PE is neither marketed nor used as an insulation material or product, Section 12.7 cannot apply. As the UK Approved Document otherwise permits surface materials to be used if they conform with the Class 0 National Standard – equivalent to class B of EN 13510 – then by requiring additional testing for "combustibility", the UK government is potentially in breach of EU law.

What is clearly confusing people (and has been extremely difficult to work out) is explained in a COM(2016) 445 final, a report published in July last year, on the functioning of the Construction Products Regulation.

Unlike the more usual harmonised standards, it says, the construction standards "are expected only to outline the methods and criteria for assessing the performance of construction products in relation to their essential characteristics". In general, the report adds, "they are not setting requirements for products' performance itself".

Essentially, this refers to what the Commission itself days is the "division of powers between the EU and Member States". The EU, it says, deals with the single market access rules. The Member States are responsible for safety, environmental and energy requirements applicable to construction works.

If that can be taken as a baseline (and I'm not sure it can be taken entirely at face value), then it does help clarify issues. In respect of fire safety, for instance, the Member States decide on the standard required, while the EU decides how that standard shall be met in terms of the product testing procedures.

Thus, if the UK government decides on - in this case – flame resistance standard, it cannot then decide to assess conformity with that standard by applying a combustibility test. Nor, for that matter, where the EU specified the Single Burning Item (SBI) test, via EN 13501, the Member State cannot then require a system test (as in BS 8414) as a mandatory additional requirement.

But, with cladding having failed the combustibility test in over 180 buildings , the government seems intent on compounding its error by applying additional tests, based on BS8414.

The results of these tests, which are to be carried out by BRS, are supposed to "help landlords make decisions on any further measures that may need to be put in place to make their buildings safe following the Grenfell Tower fire". But, if BS8414 is used as the decision criterion for cladding safety, the UK will – on the face of it – most definitely be in breach of EU law.  Ironically, that the UK did not breach this law in the first place was the proximate cause of the disaster.

Interestingly, in events such as these, the Commission is usually quick off the mark with proposals to improve safety and, as we already know, it has a contract in place (partly executed by BRE Global) to develop "a European approach to assess the fire performance of facades". Not only is it strangely silent on this, nothing is being said about the UK running a cart and horse through EU law – although Brexit is undoubtedly partially responsible.

The crucial point, though, is that – if the UK government can't even secure regulatory convergence on this one issue, while we are still in the EU, where do we see it going with 318 committees on the comitology register, with thousands of meetings to monitor and tens of thousands of laws and standards with which to maintain convergence?

The idea that the UK can slot in with a "bold and ambitious" trade agreement that covers all these bases looks more and more absurd by the day.

Richard North 08/07/2017 link

Brexit: Barnier - "that is not possible"


In the wake of Mrs May's Lancaster House speech in January, I wrote that her idea of a "bold and ambitious" free trade agreement with the EU inside two years was not just difficult. "It is impossible", I said. "It cannot be done. And it doesn't matter how many times it is discussed amongst the chattering classes, it still can't be done".

Just to re-emphasise the point, in March, I wrote a whole post under the title "impossible means impossible", where I reminded people of my view, that the commitment to securing a free trade agreement (signed and ratified) within two years, was akin to a British commander addressing his troops on Salisbury Plain, telling them they were to invade Iraq the next day – but they had to walk all the way from the UK.

But then who am I? Just a mere "blogger", with the best part of 40 year campaigning under my belt and 14 years devoted to writing about the EU – with the most comprehensive published exit plan yet written under my belt. Clearly, I'm a know-nothing – not even an "expert" who knows so much more than us mere plebs.

Mostly, people like me, therefore, can either be ignored (apart from the inconvenient fact that we've had upwards of 50,000 people in a day on this site). If we persist, the bubble-dwellers excel in treating non-conformist views with utter contempt.

But then, some four years after we first started writing seriously that the "free trade" option for Brexit is a non-starter (only to have the wondrous IEA, along with Lord Lawson, reject the warning), we now have somebody else pop up and say more or less the same things.

This time, though, it just happens to be Michel Barnier, speaking in Brussels to the European Economic and Social Committee. As the chief EU negotiator for Brexit, this man has a certain status – and in this man's world, status is everything. To get a hearing, you must have status (aka "prestige"), and once you have it (or been given it by the media), the media listens.

At this event, speaking "frankly and sincerely" on the theme of Brexit, M. Barnier pulls no punches, taking his line straight out of the Flexcit playbook. "There will be no business as usual", he says. "The UK will become a third country at the end of March 2019".

The number of times we've seen the Muppets on the Booker column comments and elsewhere deny this is legion. There is nothing quite so calculated to wind up the kippoid tendency as to point out this simple fact. I even wrote a post on precisely this point, but they still don't get it.

Anyhow, here we have M. Barnier stating the obvious (and not for the first time), but this time he goes further. The UK government, he says, has defined a number of "red lines" for the future relationship. Mrs May, Davis and the rest of the motley crew, want no more free movement for EU citizens, full autonomy over UK laws, autonomy to conclude its own trade agreements and no role for the ECJ.

This, says Barnier, implies leaving the single market and leaving the EU Customs Union – and he's not wrong in saying that. But he goes on to say that, "on the EU side, we made three things very clear". The particular point he and others have been making is that "free movement of persons, goods, services and capital are indivisible", on the basis that "We cannot let the single market unravel".

Not to put too fine a point on this, however, the doctrine of indivisibility applies only to EU Member States. It does not apply to Efta/EEA states, where both Iceland and Liechtenstein have modified the "four freedoms" without causing the Single Market to unravel.

Nevertheless, Barnier lays out his pitch: "There can be no sector by sector participation in the single market: you cannot leave the single market and then opt-in to those sectors. You cannot be half-in and half-out of the single market". He then adds:
The EU must maintain full sovereignty for deciding regulations: the EU is not only a big marketplace. It is also an economic and social community where we adopt common standards. All third countries must respect our autonomy to set rules and standards. And I say this at the moment when the UK has decided to leave this community and become a third country.
That is fighting talk if ever I saw it. It's also bullshit – but never mind, Barnier probably believes it. He is, at his heart, a French politician – and they have the ability to believe ten contradictory things before breakfast. They then rest until dinner, so the end of the day count is the same. But a pre-breakfast count is so much more impressive.

However, those are his red lines, and one can almost hear the echoes of Verdun: Ils ne passerons pas. These three points, he says, were already made clear by the European Council and the European Parliament. But, he says, "I am not sure whether they have been fully understood across the Channel".

That is something of an understatement, but deserves repeating: "I am not sure whether they have been fully understood across the Channel". This is what is known as diplomacy. Barnier knows full well that they haven't been "fully understood". All he has to do is tune into the drivel filling the UK media, day after day, after day.

Thus, he says: "I have heard some people in the UK argue that one can leave the single market and keep all of its benefits", to which he adds, with disarming frankness: "that is not possible".

He then says: "I have heard some people in the UK argue that one can leave the single market and build a custom union to achieve 'frictionless trade'", to which he adds, with disarming frankness, "that is not possible".

"The decision to leave the EU has consequences", says Barnier. "And we have to explain to them, the businesses and civil society on both sides of the Channel, what these consequences mean for them". He adds: "Let me be clear: these consequences are the direct result of the choices made by the UK, not by the EU. There is no punishment for Brexit. And of course no spirit of revenge. But Brexit has a cost, also for business in the EU27".

Rubbing the salt in the wound, Barnier says that, "Whatever the outcome of the negotiations, at midnight on 29 March 2019, the United Kingdom will at the present stage be a third State, which will therefore not have the same facilities and rights as a State Member of the European Union. It's its choice. Not ours".

This, apart from anything else, is as clear a statement as any that we will not have anything like the "bold and ambitious" free trade deal that Mrs May wants". All Barnier is prepared for is travail préparatoire, with no question of concluding a deal.

As to trade in general, he reminds us that Member States benefit from a "frictionless" trade for goods because they form part of the internal market. This, he says, has made it possible to harmonise the rules or to ensure their mutual recognition by ensuring that goods lawfully produced in one Member State can be sold in all the other Member States without further formalities.

He further argues that there is little use in having no customs duties if at the same time divergent national regulations prevent products from circulating freely – thus highlighting the problem of non-tariff barriers. Only the combination of the Customs Union and the rules of the internal market allows us to trade freely, "without friction". One does not go without the other.

By choosing to leave the Union, Barnier then says, the UK moves to the other side of the external border. This not only delimits the customs union, but also the space for the adoption and application of internal market rules. That is exactly the point I made in February, using the analogy of a medieval walled city. And, as Barnier says, it's our choice."

Inevitably, Barnier concludes, "a trade relationship with a country that does not belong to the European Union obviously involves frictions". For example, economic operators from third countries do not enjoy the same facilities as the Member States on VAT returns.

For another country, he says, 100 percent of imports of live animals and products of animal origin - and this is a former Minister of Agriculture who is talking - is and will be subject to controls. There it is – for the first time from a public figure, you get what I've been saying on this blog again and again and again. What price the racehorse industry now?

Barnier goes to some trouble to emphasise this point. The border of the European Union, he says, it is one of the challenges that we must face in Ireland's unique case, without recreating a hard frontier. He adds:
On the other hand, the general sanitary and phytosanitary conditions of such exports must always be established before the export of a product of this nature from a third country to the European Union is possible. We can clearly see, if I speak frankly, the constraints that are there, especially for the agri-food sector.
He then further reminds us that these constraints apply equally to all companies that derive their dynamism from the integration of production centres in Europe within the common market.

As to the "no deal", scenario, this says Barnier, means a return to the status quo. In the case of Brexit, "no deal" would be a return to a distant past. It would mean that our trade relations with the UK would be based on WTO rules. It would be a good idea to have the customs duties of almost 10 percent on an average of 19 percent for alcoholic beverages, and an average of 12 percent on lamb and also fish, for which the vast majority of British exports go to the EU.

While leaving the customs union in any case involves border formalities, "no deal" would mean very cumbersome procedures and controls, without facilitation. This would be particularly damaging for companies operating on a "just in time" basis.

In practice, he warns, "no deal" would worsen the "lose-lose" situation which is bound to result from Brexit. Objectively, he thinks, the UK would have more to lose than its partners. He is thus entirely unequivocal. "I therefore want to be very clear", he says, "to my mind there is no reasonable justification for the 'no deal' scenario. There is no sense in making the consequences of Brexit even worse".

Whether this sinks in, I don't know. But for many months, on this blog, I've been attempting to spell out the problems and consequences of leaving the Single Market, and going for the "no deal" scenario – only to be derided or ignored. Booker has had much the same treatment, with his own management undermining him in the letters pages.

Now, chickens are coming home to roost. Says Barnier: "Business should assess, with lucidity, the negative consequences of the UK's choice on trade and investment. And prepare to manage them". Of course, most of business hasn't. With some honourable exceptions, they've had their heads in the sand – or been pursuing a far more sinister agenda.

Ironically, one of my commenters yesterday posted on my article about Grenfell Tower some detail on Cameron's Damascene conversion to the Norway option. He prefaced it by saying: "to move away from Grenfell and back to Brexit for a moment…".

I can quite understand the point, but my response was that, in pursuing the truth behind Grenfell Tower, "we never left Brexit". Forces which brought us the Grenfell disaster are the key to understanding Brexit.

Note here that Barnier refers to the UK "red line" of "full autonomy over UK laws", reflecting the Vote Leave slogan of: "Let's take back control". But what we also have to recall is that Vote Leave was not a people's campaign. It was funded mainly by a small number of very rich business people, who saw in Brexit an opportunity to promote a "deregulation" agenda for their own commercial advantage.

It is no coincidence that these same people are inimically hostile to the "Norway option". In an attempt to stop it happening, they are supporting the Leave means leave campaign, the Tory "ultra" European Research Group" and, latterly, the secretive Red Tape Initiative.

These groups are supporting their paymasters who see in Brexit profit-creating opportunities which would be limited if we were still bound by the Single Market acquis represented by the Efta/EEA (aka "Norway") option.

Deregulation, of course, can be no bad thing (although I have long preferred the term "re-regulation"). But, as we've been seeing with Grenfell, the problem can just as easily be that existing regulation is not rigorous enough, with progress held back by the EU.

Thus, while returning control of the legislative agenda affords the chance to make our own laws (as long as they don't conflict with international standard-setting), this does not necessarily imply getting rid of laws. Many should stay, and be tougher – remember horse meat, anyone?

The thing is, "Let's take back control" never did mean restoring control to the people. Whether in the EU or supposedly as an independent nation, in Vote Leave's scheme of things, we don't get a look in. In the view of its wealthy business backers, control goes to born-to-rule Tories, who will look after their friends by reducing their legislative "burdens".

In this, Monbiot does have a point, except that he just wants the control to pass from "big business" to his green NGOs. He and his likes are no more interested in giving power back to the people than are the Tory right.

Thus – even if for the wrong reasons – Monbiot has correctly identified Grenfell Tower as a key Brexit battlefield. But if the question is: "who rules Britain" (or the UK) - as between business and unelected NGOs (his preferred NGOs) – he wants his green NGOs to take the prize. Nowhere in Monbiot's scenario do the people even feature.

Our battle, therefore, is in ensuring that we have a measured exit from the EU and that when powers are eventually returned from Brussels, they go back to the people, rather than just to a different set of masters. That is why Flexcit in its Phase 6, includes The Harrogate Agenda.

For the time being, though, the "mad deregulators" are driving the Brexit agenda up a dangerous cul-de-sac. It is that totally selfish agenda which is blocking a sensible approach to the Article 50 talks and is the real reason why the right is blocking the Efta/EEA option. But, as Pete points out , deregulation is not a viable option. It isn't going to happen. Thus, if we are going to make any progress, we are going to have to reclaim the agenda, and put the "deregulators" back in their box.

And that has to be possible, or Brexit will be a disaster. But then, readers of this blog already knew that.

Richard North 07/07/2017 link

Brexit: battle lines drawn


Monbiot was in the Guardian yesterday, ostensibly beating the drum for a more independent Grenfell inquiry.

With this disgusting man though, there is always a "hidden agenda" – although in this case it's scarcely hidden. He sees Brexit as a threat to the corpus of social environmental legislation to which he and his fellow travellers are so much in thrall. But, where Corbyn is so keen to put it down to Tory "austerity", Monbiot sees in Grenfell Tower an opportunity thwart the mad regulators.

These dark, satanic creatures, he will have it, are hiding in the shadow, biding their time to come leaping out to ignite their own bonfire of regulation, sufficient to burn a thousand more Grenfell Towers and incinerate their blameless inhabitants.

Already, under the chairmanship of Oliver Letwin, they have set up The Red Tape Initiative and such is their evil intent that they chose deliberately to hold a meeting to look at "EU fire safety rules" on the morning of the very day that the Grenfell Tower was burning.

This is a meme the Guardian is running alongside its friends in Greenpeace which recently ran what they call an "investigation" telling the world that the "Deregulation taskforce targeted building standards before Grenfell Tower blaze".

Unwittingly, this puts the Guardian in a somewhat schizoid situation, as the paper's official position is that, "regulations on building materials and fire safety are a matter for national governments".

Yet, as part of its case, we have Greenpeace complaining that on the list for the chop is the EU's Construction Products Regulation, "which sets standards for construction materials traded across the EU such as cladding", and "it also puts fire safety at the heart of its 'basic requirements for construction works'".

Failing then to keep in step with his own paper's line, Monbiot thus writes that the tasks of The Red Tape Initiative – in considering the effect of EU rules, "was to consider whether rules determining the fire resistance of cladding materials should be removed for the sake of construction industry profits".

The panel's task on 14 June, he adds, "was to consider a report that the Red Tape Initiative had commissioned whose purpose was to identify building rules that could be cut". Among those it listed as "burdensome", was "the EU Construction Products Regulation, which seeks to protect people from fire, and restricts the kind of cladding that can be used".

And there, after all the squeaking and gnashing of teeth from the Europhile tendency, and the expressions of outrage that I should dare to implicate the EU in the framing of UK Building Regulations, we have a High Priest of Europhilia squealing with rage at even the thought that this supposedly non-existent regulation should be abolished.

The dire games that these people play thus comes into high profile. At any suggestion that EU laws might be deficient, the Europhiles come rushing to the defence of their beloved construct, pinning the responsibility on the Member States and absolving the EU of any responsibility.

Yet, at the first hint that the EU's laws might be under threat and the likes of Monbiot come rushing in to tells us how this munificent EU "seeks to protect people from fire, and restricts the kind of cladding that can be used".

And then, just to prove how wicked and wrong-headed these deregulators are, Monbiot cites a Booker column from May 2014, in which Booker highlighted a particularly egregious flaw in the Construction Products Regulation. The inference, of course, is that if Booker opposes the Regulation, then it has to be all good.

But what is particularly dishonest about the Monbiot line is that, while he is willing to claim the EU has a role in protecting people from fire, he is never willing to concede that the object of his admiration could possibly fail to perform the function claimed of it. He could never, therefore, concede that Booker's driver is the fact that, so often, the EU is the sledgehammer to miss the nut.

As a result, on the one hand we have this little man squeaking about wanting an open, independent inquiry into the causes of the Grenfell Tower fire, the very last thing he wants, or will allow, is a free and independent inquiry if it then highlights any failings of the EU or – for that matter – his green agenda.

Back in February last year, when I was summonsed to give evidence to the Environment Audit Committee on the EU's role in the Somerset Levels Flooding, it was he who conspired with a Labour member of the panel to ensure that my evidence was not heard.

In this case, though, Monbiot has done us the unintended favour of acknowledging that the EU does indeed have a role in framing UK Building Regulations, and in particular fire safety standards.

We, on the other hand, are building an unassailable case that the process failed and, far from ensuring that UK tower blocks were safe, the EU was a major factor in preventing adequate standards being imposed.

The irony is – if that is what it is – that the EU was blocking a the more rigorous standard needed to ensure that cladding systems are safe, which puts Booker and myself in the position of wanting tougher regulations and seeing the EU as the obstacle to getting them.

We thus have nothing at all in common with this band of "right wing" deregulators, who are every bit as dangerous as the rabid left. In truth, there is not much to choose between left and right, neither of which group seem to have the public good as their objective. They are as bad as each other.

That, if you like, leaves the "moderate middle" very badly served. The Red Tape Initiative is being generously funded by "business donors" when the left has its own source of income – with Monbiot enjoying his income from his Guardian column. Yet those of us who have a far better grasp of the situation, are unfunded and ignored by the powers that be.

Even now, the Building Research Establishment (as BRE Global) is enjoying the fruits of an EU contract costed initially at €330,000 to come up with a better fire safety test (even though they've had one for nearly 20 years).

And yet, for all their knowledge and expertise, they were not prepared to rock the boat or call time on the never-ending flow of research funds and consultancy. When, in April 2016, with the cladding and insulation in Grenfell Tower already in place, with the benefit of (UK) government funding, three of their researchers in a joint report were able to reassure us that, "there is currently no evidence … to suggest that Building Regulation recommendations, to limit vertical fire spread up the exterior of high-rise buildings, are failing in their purpose".

Yet, this was the very organisation which tested the Celotex RS5000 product and gave the company the opportunity, without protest from BRE Global, to claim that the product was suitable for use above 18 metres.

Now, the Evening Standard has noticed that Celotex is has kept its "datasheet" on its website, still proclaiming its suitability – which is still the case, alongside its technical brochure (at the time of writing), with a claim that "the insulation was independently assessed by BRE Global, the accreditation company".

Asked for a statement, BRE said: "Celotex has been tested as part of another cladding system - it can therefore only be used specifically as part of that system as tested", adding, "Celotex should not be claiming that their insulation product can be used generically in any other cladding system on a building above 18 metres".

Yet this is precisely what Celotex have been doing for three years, without any protest from BRE Global – and they are not the only company doing this. As a business, BSE will take their money, but do nothing to police the claims made on the back of the tests they have carried out (said to be in the order of £30,000 for each test).

In their own way, these "experts" are just as loathsome as the polemicists from left and right. Even Monbiot is honest by comparison, as you can see where he is coming from. But, either way, the battle lines are being drawn – and most likely, the truth is going to be the casualty - as always.

Richard North 06/07/2017 link

Brexit: beyond the capabilities of the media


An absolutely classic part of the media narrative on Grenfell Tower is how "foreign" fire prevention rules are that much tighter, thus demonstrating that this is a home-grown affair, permitting open attacks on Tory "austerity", without the complications that might attend a more complex problem.

In the case of the Guardian, the Germans in particular get the accolade for having the "tighter fire-safety rules for tower blocks", the paper quoting Frankfurt's fire chief, Reinhard Ries. He is said to be "appalled" at the fire at Grenfell Tower, with the paper having him saying that Germany's tighter rules "meant that a similar incident could not happen there".

Actually, at this particular moment and for quite a while previously, German and UK laws on insulation standards for high-rise blocks have been exactly the same. Both administrations require the materials to be non-combustible. Technically, the standard is "limited combustibility", amounting to Class A2, EN13501.

In the German instance, this actually enforced, as EN13501 is currently the only standard applicable (apart from the equivalent local standards). But that does not mean that Germany does not have an insulation problem – it certainly does. As a result of the huge emphasis on climate change and the push for better energy efficiency, the Germans have been suffering an epidemic of what they call "thermally insulated facade" fires.

Ironically, it is Reinhard Reis, fire chief at Frankfurt am Main, who is taking the initiative. After a major incident on his own patch in May 2012 (pictured), his department set up a website inviting reports from the rest of the country on this type of fire. So far, it has listed over 100 incidents, recording eleven deaths and over 100 injured.

So concerned are fire professionals that three of their leading bodies have recently got together in the wake of Grenfell Tower to issue a position paper, where they complain of the "extremely fast spread" of the fires, and the way the facades enable the flames  to spread into higher stories.

Reinhard Ries himself has made a statement, calling for Grenfell Tower to be treated as "a warning shot", hoping that fire safety "will finally be taken seriously". He is demanding better fire protection for buildings in Germany, but explicitly for houses below the high-rise limit, between 7 and 22 metres high.

But what is especially significant is that the Germans seems as unaware of what's going on as the British. They note that their Building Regulations require external walls to resist the spread of for a "sufficiently long" period – remarkably similar in phrasing to the British code.

As with the British code, "sufficiently long" is defined by reference to EN13501, with Class B sufficient for lower levels. But, as the Irvine experience told us in 1992, conformity with a materials test is not sufficient to indicate the resistance of the complete fabrication – which can be dangerously vulnerable to room fires breaking out of windows.

Going back, we see that, in June 1994, the Commission initiated the process of creating a single, harmonised standard for fire testing, based on the Single Burning Item (SBI) test, with expectation that CEN/CENELEC would get down to work by the November.

By 1999, the House of Commons Select Committee was settling on the need for a system test – what was to become BS8414 and, by May 2003, on the basis of a consultation which had started in 1999, the need at a European level for a large-scale (system) test had been established.

In the meantime, in May of the year 2000, the Commission had promulgated Commission Decision 2000/367/EC, setting up the "classification of the resistance to fire performance of construction products, construction works and parts thereto", locking in EN13501, the use of which became compulsory for all Member States.

From this time onwards, Member States could determine the performance levels of construction products in relation to fire only within the classifications adopted at Community level, as defined by EN13501.

For reasons that are very far from clear, although a new draft mandate published in 2004, it was never formally issued and in 2005 the Commission stopped work completely on producing a comprehensive testing process.

Further work on a Europe-wide standard was not to get under way until 2007, on the basis of the original 1994 mandate, after the publication of a narrative report on the workings of national systems. By 2013, it was further confirmed in a technical report by EOTA that a large-scale system test was needed. The existing testing procedure provided "no information on the fire-resistance behaviour of an exterior wall cladding system".

Yet, despite this – with the work for Grenfell House open for tender in 2013 - the discussions on a new standard were only just starting up again. By May 2015, preferences were being expressed for a single assessment method, leaving the Commission in August 2016 to offer a tender worth €340,000 for a contract to develop "a European approach to assess the fire performance of facades".

In January of this year, the contract was awarded - one of the contractors being the BRE – with the work expected to finish at the end of 2017. Thus, 23 years after the process of framing a harmonised fire standard had started, we are to see a final draft produced. It must then be adopted.

Meanwhile, tired of waiting for a new standard from the Commission, Germany – it seems – is jumping the gun. Draft, revised technical building regulations are to include a German version of the system test devised by the BRE, which became BS8414. Its version will be DIN 4102-2, ten times less powerful (in terms of heat load) than the British Standard. For that reason, it is being boycotted by the German fire unions. They want a more rigorous test.

The Germans do seem to have learned something from the UK experience, though. Users will be required to show why a system test rather than the EN13501 materials test should be used. Largely, though, the Germans, if they adopt this system, will be in a similar position to the UK, running two test regimes side-by-side – with the same potential pitfalls.

Earlier proposals had suggested a three-tier approach, with EN13501 used to approve materials used in low-rise buildings, DIN 4102 for medium-rise, and BS8414 for high-rise. That may be what we get for a European standard – 23 years in the making and coming into force just a year before we are scheduled to leave the EU.

If the effect is to make BS8414 mandatory for every single type of cladding installation used for high-rise buildings, it will substantially add to testing and approval costs, but it will only bring us into line with Dubai – and China, which is basing its high-rise approval on BS8414. Bizarrely, because the UK is inside the EU, it cannot rely solely on this standard, while China, because it is not in the EU, has no restrictions.

For all that, the UK media seems totally oblivious to these undercurrents, with The Times only just discovering that Reynobond PE has an Agrément Certificate - something we reported two weeks ago - without understanding the significance.

With The Times also citing Konstantinos Tsavdaridis, the associate professor of structural engineering at the University of Leeds, telling us that the UK needs to adopt system testing, when we have been using it for over a decade, and with the Guardian denying any EU involvement in UK Building Regulations, and misrepresenting the German situation, we have a huge chasm between reality and what is being reported.

As with Brexit and much else, it seems that reporting accurately and intelligently on the detail of this issue is beyond the capability of the legacy media. It's not so much that they won't do it properly – they simply can't. They can do the human interest, and emote with the best of them, but when it comes to the detail, they're not there.

Richard North 05/07/2017 link

Brexit: Grenfell Tower – blood on their hands


My recent evaluation of the Grenfell Tower fire has brought me back into the standards business with a vengeance – reminding me why I became a Eurosceptic in the first place, before the term was even invented.

The issue that turned me was the implementation of Directive 71/118/EEC "on problems affecting trade in fresh poultrymeat", a law which for the first time would require in the UK poultry carcases intended for human consumption to be eviscerated at the time of slaughter. This was so that the gut could be inspected for signs of disease, under the supervision (at great expense) of an Official Veterinary Surgeon (OVS).

This apparently arcane requirement had a profound impact on the poultry trade, banning the sale of what was called New York Dressed (NYD) poultry, the staple of the artisan poultry-producer and the small butcher. The prohibition made no sense from a public health point of view, as immediate evisceration was a sure means of spreading invisible contamination to every bird in the batch processed. The Directive itself was probably a major contributory factor in the Salmonella enteritidis that we experienced in the late 1980s and early '90s.

Then there was the personal impact. The 71/118 Directive was the first of a series of so-called "vertical directives" to take effect in the UK. It had the effect of downgrading the traditional role of local authority health officers, as responsible for food hygiene, and relegated us to the role of mere "assistants" acting "under the responsibility and supervision of the official veterinarian" – most of whom were neither trained nor capable of doing the work.

As a newly qualified environmental health officer (EHO), I had not gone through the rigours of training and qualification merely to be relegated by a Directive from Brussels to the role of a veterinary assistant. Nor did I agree to a measure which would have the effect of breaking up the British (and in my view superior) system of food control, in favour of the inferior system devised on the Continent.

With fellow EHOs, we formed a campaigning group called FLAG (Food Law Action Group) and it what through that – losing the battle – that we learned a great deal of this thing they called the European Economic Community, and the powerlessness of our own MPs and government.

Most of all, though, the experience provided a powerful illustration of how this alien entity was forcing on us systems which simply didn't work, and which were being imposed not for reasons of efficiency but simply to pursue regulatory harmonisation which in turn was being used as a tool for political integration. My personal status as a professional was being sacrificed on the altar of European political unity.

Over the years, we were to see many more examples of this phenomenon which Booker and I came to call the "sledgehammer to miss the nut". In purely practical terms, without any recourse to political ideology, we came to oppose the regulatory torrent pouring out of Brussels – all on the simple grounds that, when it came to framing regulations, the Community law-making machine was not very good at it.

You would think that, from the inception of the Coal and Steel Community in 1950, and the passage of 67 years, the "communities" – now under their new guise as the European Union - might have got better at the regulation game. But they haven't. And the Grenfell Tower fire shows us that the problem is in the very nature of the EU, preventing it ever becoming an effective law-maker in its own right.

And such is the nature of this inherent inadequacy that, as the EU gets more and more integrated into our systems of government, it will do more and more damage, causing – as is the case in Grenfell Tower – loss of life. Those who pursue the EU's regulatory agenda have, in a very real sense, got blood on their hands. With Brexit, we are getting out just in time.

I do not reach this conclusion easily, and it is only on the back of extensive research – much of which has already been published - that I offer my results. They are not black and while but rely on a combination of evidence and deductive reasoning, in the context of some knowledge of building construction and materials technology.

Here, unlike some, who are quick to mock and sneer, I don't call myself an expert. But, as an EHO – taking the diploma course – I have formal training in building construction and allied matters. Part of the course (and examination) was based on the HND building construction and technology syllabus.

Further, I have practical experience of enforcing Building Regulations, alongside building control colleagues. I've also been trained and have some experience in enforcing fire safety in houses in multiple occupation, and am therefore familiar with the concepts of compartmentalisation and protected means of escape. As a district EHO, I've had more experience than I ever wanted of identifying and resolving the problems of dampness in occupied dwellings.

Turning to the issues at hand, the relevance of such matters will become apparent. But first, we can take it as a given that the main (and very powerful) driver behind the Grenfell Tower refurbishment – focused almost entirely as it was on energy efficiency – was the European Union energy policy and its commitment to an energy efficiency target of 20 percent by 2020, based on 1990 levels.

This Europe 2020 strategy was well-established in 2010, reflected in Directive 2010/31/EU on the energy performance of buildings, amending the 2002 Directive. This, however – as we pointed out - did not specifically require combustible cladding to be used, but nevertheless the implementation of the Directive in the Building Regulations 2010 made the use of some form of insulation an absolute necessity, if thermal standards were to be met.

By then, government policy itself – with a range of inducements – made it inevitable that the tower block was going to be refurbished. Not least, under government pressure, improving energy efficiency had become a key part of Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation's investment strategy, it having adopted an energy efficiency strategy since August 2000.

The final pieces that made this disaster inevitable are then highlighted, albeit unwittingly - almost to the extent of being "smoking guns" – in two technical papers by a Croatian fire prevention research team. Much of the content in the first is repeated in the second, but I have included both for the sake of completeness.

In the introduction to the first paper, the authors note that the EU had defined its energy policy for overall energy efficiency and had harmonised this policy with the energy saving legislation and other Instruments, all of which was aimed at reviving the European economy (the reference to the Europe 2020 strategy).

The overall energy efficiency, the authors said, "implies reduction of energy consumption in buildings, since buildings account for 40 percent of the EU energy use and 36 percent of its overall CO2 emissions".

What they then go on to say is crucial, and goes to the nub of the whole issue. The energy performance of buildings, the authors say, "can primarily be improved through implementation of thermally enhanced building envelopes", using several possible technologies.

Thermal insulation materials, they add, can be either non-combustible or combustible. But, when applied on building facades, combustible thermal insulation materials, "can significantly increase fire load and risk of fire spread in buildings, because of reaction to fire of such materials".

Thus, they conclude: "It has become obvious that fire safety and energy efficiency of buildings are not mutually exclusive, and so stricter requirements for energy performance of buildings have to be applied, together with stricter requirements for fire performance of buildings".

It is that latter sentence which is the key. Given that combustible materials are used, stricter fire performance requirements should have gone hand in hand with stricter energy performance requirements. The two should have been locked together.

Arguably, non-combustible insulation material could have been used, such as rockwool - inert mineral fibre. This certainly would have been safe to use in Grenfell Tower and, in the manufacturer's brochure to which I have linked (which also advertises PIR), this is the only material recommended for high-rise blocks.

The question, therefore, must be asked as to why, when a perfectly safe material was available, it was not used in preference to something potentially (and in fact) more dangerous. To this, there are two answers. The first is that the polyisocyanurate (PIR) used in Grenfell Tower was 30 percent more efficient than the mineral fibre.

In this case, to meet current and expected future standards, the insulation was already six inches thick. To achieve the same standard using mineral wool might have added an unacceptable thickness to the covering on the building.

However, there was potentially a far bigger problem which would have militated against the use of rockwool – dampness and mould- a perennial problem in high-rise blocks. The problem with mineral fibre is that it absorbs water like blotting paper. The effects are now so extensive and serious that cavity wall injection is being likened in severity to the PPI mis-selling scandal. 

Although reports are mostly confined to retrofit cavity insulation, in principle high-level cladding systems are just as vulnerable to water ingress - with the added problem that inspection and remedies are more difficult and expensive. The problems, nevertheless, are well enough known for BRE to issue a cautionary note.

A partial fix is to fit a vapour barrier on the warm side of the mineral wool layer, but it is difficult to get a secure seal. Then, the need to prevent condensation on the surface requires a ventilated cavity, with all the problems that entails (something in common with PIR).

Thus, the technical problems with rockwool are such that the product is largely unsuitable for high-rise. As a result, specifiers had been adopting expanded polystyrene but, after a series of high-profile fires in China, Dubai, France and elsewhere, it was evident that this material presented unacceptable risks.

It was here that PIR came into its own. Not only is it a more efficient insulating material than mineral fibre, it is impermeable: it will not absorb water. When Celotex came up with an apparently new variant of PIR, claimed to be suitable for over 18 metres, it must have been treated as manna from heaven.

But what we see in the Croatian papers is a further acknowledgement that, to ensure fire safety when combustible materials are to be used, a new tougher fire safety test is needed. The research team recommended BS8414 for high-rise buildings.

So obvious and well-known was the need for a new test regime that the European Diisocyanurate and Polyol Producers Association - the trade body representing PIR manufacturers – was recommending this in 2003, when a new German standard (DIN-4102) was being investigated (currently blocked by the German Fire Brigade Union (since April 2016) as being too weak, a situation confirmed by the UK's Building Research Establishment (BRE).

Why this so firmly puts the ball in the EU's court is that the EU itself has created a situation where combustible material was going to be used – as a matter of necessity – to satisfy its energy efficiency demands. This is in the context where, as the Croatian team points out – there was an indissoluble link between energy performance and fire performance of buildings, when it was already known that the EU-mandated test standard was wholly inadequate.;

In fact, the sequence of events is damning. As far back as 1988, development of harmonised international and European testing approaches for "facades" was initiated, under the leadership of the Leipzig Fire Testing Authority. Discussions were begun to evaluate fire performance characteristics, with a mandate issued to CENELEC in 2004 (the precursor to a new harmonised standard). But work was stopped in 2005 and although the Commission later agreed that work should continue - with talks starting up again in 2007 - after a succession of meetings, discussions and reports, there has been no progress on a new standard, 13 years after formal instructions were issued to produce one.

Under these circumstances, with the European Commission fully aware that fire testing standards were deficient, it should never have made higher energy efficiency standards in buildings mandatory. To ensure safety, it should have addressed the deficiencies in the testing regime at the same time. Alongside making tougher thermal efficiency standards mandatory, it should have mandated new, tougher tests – based on system testing of the type pioneered by the BRE.

And as we have seen, contrary to some claims, it is not the Building Regulations, per se that are at fault, but the testing regime. and in the UK, that problem seems to have been emerging since 1991

Putting this together, had the EU made the use of enhanced insulation in buildings conditional on the application of tougher fire tests – which was within its power to do – instead of blocking national attempts to make such testing mandatory, then one can state, without equivocation, that the Grenfell Tower fire would not have occurred. The evidence is there for those that wish to see it.

As to why the EU did not act, one can see that it has been obsessed, to the exclusion of all else, with its climate change targets. As such, with so much effort going into pursuing the targets and creating the legislation and policy environment needed, it simply didn't have the resources (or the political will) to deal with the complex issues of fire safety at the same time.

Therefore, faced with this conflict, the EU appears to have done what it always does – it compartmentalised and focused on what it considered most important to it. It left member states to muddle on with fire safety in a system it had confused and undermined.

In the past, such a strategy has served the EU well. When the problems of its own making emerge (as they did with food safety and contaminated poultry), it could always claim that "more Europe" was needed, and make another power grab.

Following the Grenfell Tower fire, the Commission has been uncharacteristically quiet, perhaps in this febrile climate not wishing to draw attention to the extent of its involvement in framing building standards. It is this silence which enables the Guardian wrongly to claim that "regulations on building materials and fire safety are a matter for national governments".

So, the silence of the guilty prevails. But, after this long journey, I have no hesitation in saying that the EU created the conditions which gave rise to the Grenfell Tower fire, and then failed to take the necessary action to prevent it happening. To that extent, the EU is as guilty as any party for the fire.

Given the nature and the structure of the EU, it probably could have done nothing other than what it did – which is why it cannot be trusted with responsibility for making our laws. Only national government has the resources – and the need – to look at legislation holistically. The sooner we are back to a fully-functioning, national legislature, the better.

Richard North 04/07/2017 link

Brexit: in danger of being grounded


So, after a complex and lengthy piece covering Booker's article about Grenfell Tower, I'm able to turn to his shorter and simpler piece on the Efta/EEA (Norway) option.

As the great Brexit shambles continues, the issue that attracts his attention is whether our politicians have the faintest clue of what they are talking about. And one of the most telling hints as to their state of knowledge is their view on whether we can somehow leave the EU but remain in its "Customs Union".

The likes of Philip Hammond and Chuka Umunna, the leader of last week's Labour rebels, clearly haven't even got to square one in their failure to grasp that a country can only be in the "Customs Union" if it is a full member of the EU (under treaty rules laid down in 1957).

It really is quite remarkable how many politicians do fail to grasp that single, fundamental point, that the EU's customs union is so embedded in the core of its founding treaty that there is not the remotest possibility of the UK staying in it after Brexit.

Not a few of these politicians doubtless confuse the different concepts of customs union and customs cooperation, and by far the majority of those believe that the free movement of goods depend intrinsically on the customs union, rather than the Single Market.

Even those who have some dim idea about the role of the customs union in abolishing tariffs between members, fail to understand that, if tariff elimination is the issue (and only that), then a basic free trade agreement will achieve the desired effect, without having to buy into the common external tariff (CET).

Not subscribing to the CET does, of course, mean that we could have to deal with rules of origin (ROO), if we were then to diverge from the EU's external tariffs. But, since we intend to adopt the EU's WTO schedules of tariffs – for the time being – there will be no divergence. The UK will not become a back door to the EU, and ROO simply will not apply. It is a non-problem.

The crucial issues then are the free movement of goods and services, to which effect – says Booker - our gifted MPs should be focusing on the EU's sophisticated system of "Customs Co-operation”, set up in 1994, which is what allows 14,000 lorries a day to move effortlessly between Dover and Calais, as also across the Northern Irish border, and much else besides.

Free movement, though, does not just cover goods. The Single Market – even if with less efficiency – also covers services, including the massive financial sector, on which the City relies.

It's not commonly thought of in such terms, but air transport is classified as a service. Alongside tourism and related services, it is as important to our economy as financial services. Thus, our politicians should also be heeding the growing alarm over what could happen if we are excluded from the equally complex EU system that governs every aspect of aviation and air traffic.

Last week, Peter Fankhauser, the chief executive of Thomas Cook, colourfully predicted that unless our politicians wake up to these potential dangers, we risk being taken back to the "medieval age", echoing the rather plainer warnings of Michael O'Leary, the chief executive of Ryanair, that in Britain we could even find ourselves no longer entitled to fly our aircraft anywhere outside UK airspace.

It is all this and more, Booker advises us, we could have held on to if we had joined Norway in Efta and remained in the wider EEA (and therefore the single market). But it is this from which, by deciding instead to become what the EU classifies as a "third country", requiring the re-erection of the full panoply of border controls, we are choosing to exclude ourselves.

Booker thus concludes that, in this way only chaos lies; as David Davis and his fellow "ultra-Brexiteers" will soon very uncomfortably come to learn.

Interestingly, of the two main Booker articles, it was this to which the majority of comments were attached – with the usual diatribes but also some more considered responses. There is a sense of the mood changing, as more people are prepared to come out into the open and support the Efta/EEA proposition.

But it isn't only the ignorance of the politicians and the "ultra-Brexiteers" that we have to deal with. We also have the formidable ignorance of journalists, those such as Patrick Wintour in the Guardian who writes an illiterate piece about Efta "associate membership" and then goes on to tell us that this could become the settled position of the UK.

Alternatively, he writes, it could be a precursor to two further stages – either full Efta membership or even potentially rejoining the EU's single market through the European Economic Area. There is a certain ambiguity there, but are we really seeing a journalist write, "either … or"?

This, fortunately, isn't the only contribution from the Guardian. Running on its front page is the headline, "British officials drop 'cake and eat it' approach to Brexit negotiations", with the story having insiders saying that ministers will have to choose between economic interests or sovereignty.

The body text lays out the detail, announcing that British officials have quietly abandoned hope of securing the government's promised "cake and eat it" Brexit deal. They are increasingly accepting the inevitability of a painful trade-off between market access and political control when the UK leaves the EU.

This comes from "government insiders" and, in a welcome change from the euphoric "sunlit uplands" rhetoric coming from Davis, they report a "dramatic change of mood" at DExEU since the general election, with growing Treasury influence helping force ministers to choose between prioritising economic interests or sovereignty.

Civil servants are now said to be presenting ministers with a more binary choice: accept political compromises similar to aspects of the European Economic Area (EEA), or settle for a much more limited trade deal such as the recent EU-Canada free trade agreement (Ceta).

"We have a problem in that really there are only two viable options", one official told the Guardian. "One is a high-access, low-control arrangement which looks a bit like the EEA. The other is a low-access, high-control arrangement where you eventually end up looking like Ceta – a more classic free trade agreement, if you are lucky".

As to the "high-access, high-control situation" – outlined in Mrs May's Lancaster House speech - that remains the official policy position. But the author of that speech [reported to be Downing Street adviser Nick Timothy] is "no longer in an influential position".

Sadly, though, Whitehall still hasn't quite (or at all) got there. Full EEA-style participation in the single market is still seen as politically toxic, "due to its requirement to accept freedom of movement".

Thus, pressure is building for a rethink of opposition to a customs union with the EU. This, it is said, "would satisfy many business leaders, who are clamouring for ways to avoid trapping manufacturers behind an inflexible tariff wall but possibly still allow new international trade deals to be pursued in the service sector".

"What we've seen post-election is that business voices that had felt bullied into silence pre-election are recovering their voice", explained a senior official. "The economic arguments that had got lost in the last six months are now being heard again and those who had tried to railroad this by saying you are talking your country down are being given a run for their money".

This, though, is layering ignorance on ignorance. This is not so much the blind leading the blind, as the changing of the white sticks – a different set of ignoramuses leading the fray.

One again, the extraordinary lack of knowledge about the European Union and its systems is coming to the fore. I was pretty shocked yesterday to read the Architects Journal and he comment of Konstantinos Tsavdaridis, associate professor of structural engineering at the University of Leeds. Both are saying, in respect of Grenfell Tower, that the UK needs to adopt system testing. Both seem completely unaware of BS8414, much less the EU role in preventing its full adoption.

If you still think that people in high places necessarily know their stuff, or that the civil service and the higher echelons of business are filled with people who know what they are talking about, you need to disabuse yourself of what is a cruel illusion. The higher you go, the more ignorance you meet.

However, some civil service insiders are aware of the need to agree "which vision will prevail before the first phase of EU negotiations is concluded over the summer" (has it really taken them this long to realise?).

Our prescient senior official warns that, "there is still a fudge and before we get down to negotiating in October/November we have got to decide once and for all which of those two options we are going for". He then adds: "What you can't do is sustain a fudge because then you are going into negotiations without knowing what you want".

One is pleased that the message is finally getting through to the senior level but, if this is only the point that they have reached – a year since the referendum – then we will be seeing the turn of the century before they come up with a credible negotiating position.

We really haven't got time for this. We need our officials out of the crèche and into the real world. We're not paying them for Janet & John lessons.

Richard North 03/07/2017 link

Booker: the EU standard that failed


I'm really pleased with the Booker column this week as it features two blog-relevant stories, one on the Efta/EEA option and the other on the EU dimension of the Grenfell fire.

For me, that's made it a particularly hard slog this week and especially having to "lawyer-proof" the Grenfell article, sufficient to get it into the paper. They seem to apply different standards when it comes to Booker, demanding a much higher evidential standard from him than they  do the rest of their writers.

Anyhow, we've got the thrust of the story in – even if it's in the "Booker ghetto", to be ignored by the rest of the media and the chatterati. There's certainly enough to get the europhile tendency squealing with rage, and also more good evidence as to why we were right to vote for Brexit.

Let me just say though, that getting out is a necessary move towards improving our public administration, but it isn't sufficient. There is a rider to the EU dimension which puts the ball right back in the court of the British system. It shows up some disturbing weaknesses that are entirely indigenous.

As this bit is wholly new work, I will deal with it after Booker's account, which begins as I did: the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee report on the potential risk of fire spread in buildings via external cladding systems, after a fatal fire in a multi-storey block of flats in Irvine, Ayrshire on 11 June 1999.

Before he comes to that, though, Booker notes a point of considerable significance, that the real cause of that disaster was not simply the "cladding". In this particular case, there are grounds for the view that the intensity of the fire – which gave it its particularly lethal character – was attributable to the polyisocyanurate (PIR) insulation, rather than the cladding.

It would help if journalists and other commenters were more careful with their terminology. There is a tendency to use "cladding" as a catch-all term which includes the insulation, confusing the issues and blurring the emerging fact that each component made its very separate and distinct contribution to the fire.

What is equally disturbing is that members of the government don't appear to understand the difference. Its public focus, it seems, has been entirely on the cladding, with a demand for testing that some experts fear is inappropriate and giving misleading results.

The testing programme, concentrating as it is doing on the cladding, is quite evidently flawed. It cannot be used as a determinant of conformity with Building Regulations, as the Approved Document offers several paths by which compliance can be achieved.

On the one hand, the individual components can be separately assessed for conformity with material test standards – using BS476 or the European Standard EN13501. But, on the other, builders are entitled to assess the installation as a whole, using the test regime specified by BS8414 – the so-called "exact system test". By this means, components which do not pass the material tests can, as part of an overall system, be deemed to comply with Building Regulations.

From this, it would appear that the Government (and especially the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government) doesn't understand its own legislation.

That is ironic. In March 2013, the Coroner reporting on the Lakanal House fire in in 2009, which killed six people, wrote to the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Frances Kirkham noted of the Building Regulations, in relation to Approved Document B (AD B) that it was "a most difficult document to use".

Further, she wrote, it is necessary to refer to additional documents to find an answer to relatively straightforward questions concerning the fire protection properties of materials to be incorporated into the fabric of the building.

Kirkham thus recommended that the Department review AD B, to ensure that it provided clear guidance in relation to the Building Regulations, and that it was expressed in words and adopted a format where were intelligible to the wide range of people and bodies that had to use them, and "not just the professionals who many already have a depth of knowledge of building regulations and building control measures".

There is no evidence at all that the Government responded to those regulations and, for other reasons as well, the document remains just as impenetrable as it was then.  And that brings us to Booker and the beginning of the "real story" in 2000, when a the select committee held its inquiry into the fire in Irvine. 

 At the time, the MPs had been particularly impressed by the evidence of Peter Field from the Building Research Establishment (BRE), who told them that the existing fire standard, EN 13501, was seriously inadequate, because it required only a "single burn" laboratory test of each separate material used in cladding.

It was quite possible, Field averred, for all the materials separately to pass the tests, yet the installation in which they were used could still be unsafe. What was needed, said Field, was a much more realistic test of how all the materials involved might behave when installed together.

This, writes Booker, is crucially relevant to Grenfell and many other towers because, contrary to what everyone tends to assume (even down to the government, it was not the thin outer skin of external decorative cladding by itself that caused the fire.

The problem was a combination of the 6in of combustible Celotex PIR foam insulation behind it, next to a void which, once the PIR was set alight, created an updraught, sending the flames roaring upwards.

In fact, the BRE had already devised a new test. It was to become British Standard BS8414, which the MPs recommended should replace the wholly inadequate EN13501. However, as I have already explained at length, because that was a European Standard, and the UK was obliged to make it the a mandatory requirement.

So, under EU law, therefore, the new British standard could only be a voluntary (and more expensive) option, leaving most materials manufacturers to rely on tests that no longer represented the risks involved (if they ever had).

Of course, we could have kicked up a fuss, sending delegations to the appropriate bodies to seek change. And the minister who could have gone to Brussels to call for a much more effective EU standard along British lines was John Prescott – no stranger to controversy.

The record shows, though, that he and his officials were concerned only with new regulations to improve insulation required under the EU's Energy Performance of Buildings Directive. This was designed to comply with the Kyoto Protocol on global warming (signed for the UK by Prescott in 1997). Fire safety was low down the list of priorities.

A further irony here is that Saint Gobain, the maker of Celotex, actually claims that the RS5000 insulation used in Grenfell Tower does comply with British Standard, BS8414, making it suitable for use above the 18 metre cut-off written into the Approved Document.

Its website gives details of its self-certified test, but this bears no relation to the context in which the product was installed at Grenfell Tower. The small print of its brochure even emphasises that its test is valid only when it is compatible with the "end use system", which its own evidence suggests it cannot show.

Booker concludes with the observation that, when John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn’s deputy, famously described the Grenfell victims as having been "murdered by political decisions", he clearly had no idea of the role his own party had played in this murky saga.

At least, says Booker, we must hope that the learned judge who looks into the causes of the fire will come to understand why, if only full compliance with the BS8414 standard could have been made mandatory, as the select committee intended, that fearful conflagration would never have happened.

This, though, brings us to our own unexpected conclusion, and one that has sinister overtones that not only Sir Martin Moore-Bick should be looking into but the police team who are investigating the potential manslaughter case.

The point at issue is that the lucrative Grenfell Tower refurbishment contract was agreed in April 2014, yet the insulation which was to be used in the scheme was only launched as a specific product in August of the same year.

At that point, it seems that Saint Gobain had branded RS5000 – identical in performance and all visible respects to its other PIR insulation blocks, specifically to capture the "over-18 metre" market. It advertised it specifically as "suitable for buildings above 18 metres in height", with a claim that it had "been successfully tested to BS8414-2 and meets the performance criteria of BR135".

Given the timing, Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) must have been the launch customer for the product, the first ever large-scale user to have installed it. As such, it would have been extremely valuable to Saint Gobain, which could then use the contract as leverage to gain many more in the growing refurbishment sector.

The company's claim, though, was misleading to the of being borderline deception. BS8414 is not a materials test. It is a system test, applicable to an installing as a whole, and not to any component in it. Any significant changes would invalidate the certification.

Only in the small print, however, did the company admit that, "fire performance and classification report issued only relates to the components detailed". But rather than state openly the effect of any changes, all it offered was the mild suggestion that changes "will need to be considered by the building designer".

In an industry that lives or dies by third party accreditation, however, Saint Gobain was not able to offer the industry "gold standard", the Agrément Certificate – an odd omission when all the company's other products have their own certificates.

Instead, the company went to LABC - the representative body for local authority building control teams. This is not a notified body within the meaning of the Construction Products Regulation and thus has no statutory authority to certify building products. Nevertheless, LABC issued Certificate No: EW491 offering an "assessment" of RS5000.

In terms of third party validation, this is legally meaningless, so one can see exactly what Saint Gobain is doing – seeking to give the impression that the product has been validated for use above 18 meters. Where many people are not familiar with the distinction between a materials approval and a system test, this would doubtless serve to convince unwary buyers that RS5000 could be used in high-rise blocks such as Glenfell Tower.

As to building inspectors, no doubt they would look favourably on a product which had been "approved" by their own representative body, which had issued its very own "certificate".

This is probably as close as it is possible to get to misrepresentation, and still stay legal. It can't hurt, though, to have Mark Allen, its UK technical director, a member of the Building Regulations Advisory Committee. He, with other members of the Committee, makes recommendations to Communities Secretary Sajid Javid.

But the people in this case who had to be convinced were the appointed material specifiers for the Grenfrell Tower project, the architectural practice Studio E Architects. Fortunately for Saint Gobain, the two directors, Andrzej Kuszell and David Lloyd Jones are self-declared eco-warriors, with the studio "founded on a commitment to holistic sustainability".

Formally it would have been this company which specified Celotex RS5000. Saint Gobain had exploited an apparent loophole in the Approved Document which would allow a product which could not comply with the materials standard, to slide in the back door with a BS8414 "approval". And Studio E Architects would need little convincing to specify a product of such high insulation value.

That "loophole", of course, would not exist had BS8414 become the sole standard by which systems – rather than products – were assessed, and the industry has become familiar with the concept of system testing. But to require to dissimilar standards to co-exist side-by-side – as does the EU – is asking for trouble.

Where the government seems to have trouble understanding its own legislation, it would appear that confusion is widespread. The Architects Journal tells us that, in the UK, products are tested on an individual basis, rather than in combination with other building components.

This contrasts, it says, with the testing regime in the Middle East. Following a series of serious fires in high-rise buildings there linked to cladding, the UAE has introduced a systems testing regime called NFPA 285. It will be followed up with site inspections to confirm that the same materials and systems are being installed on the building.

The Architects Journal, also picks up Konstantinos Tsavdaridis, cited in The Times, an associate professor of structural engineering at the University of Leeds.

He tells us that the UK needs to adopt system testing, declaring: "You may have very good material indeed. But if you install it as part of a system with gaps and voids, the smoke and the heat can pass through and create a chimney effect, funnelling flames to the floors above. That's what happened at Grenfell Tower".

Even for such "professionals", it seems, BS8414 and the last 17 years has passed them by. The impact of EU law isn't even on their radar. Thus. even though Saint Gobain had to go to extraordinary technical lengths to make its product "pass" the standard – with features that were most certainly not applied in Grenfell Tower – it was obviously worth its while.

One has to concede, therefore, that the need Coroner Frances Kirkham identified for "clear guidance" is all the more necessary – and the one thing we can't have as long as we remain members of the EU.

Richard North 02/07/2017 link

Brexit: trench warfare


In yesterday's post, I made a passing reference to a piece by Jenni Russell in The Times headed "Davis is a dangerous driver of the Brexit bus". Writes Russell, "The buccaneering optimism shown by our chief negotiator with the EU is deluded and alarming".

I noted that this rather confirms what we already know about David Davis, but there was far too much detail here simply to tack on the end of an already long piece about Grenfell Tower, especially as was behind the paywall.

I did promise that I would return to the article today, with a more detailed analysis. However, since then the article has miraculously appeared on Behind the Paywall, so it can be read freely from the link.

One also gets an overwhelming sense that there is nothing quite so dead as yesterday's news, especially when there is this piece which says that Davis is a jolly good chap really, and all the problems are down to the intransigence and lack of flexibility of Mrs May.

Just briefly dwelling on the Jenni Russell piece, she is reporting an upbeat presentation by David Davis at a CEO summit hosted by The Times earlier this week.

According to the Brexit Secretary, sunny uplands lay ahead, it would be simple to complete an EU deal by March 2019, giving us almost all the trading benefits we currently enjoy and, immediately afterwards, during a very short transition period, we would be free to sign glorious trade agreements with the rest of the world.

There is much to be said for confidence and hope, observes Russell. But there is nothing to be said for Panglossian fantasy, particularly when one man holds the future of our country in his hands. Further, she says: "It did not go down well with many of those in the room: one grim-faced CEO, until then agnostic on Brexit, turned to me to say that listening to Davis had been the most disturbing half an hour he had spent in months".

This much, as I said yesterday, it nothing particularly new to us on this blog. And the knowledge that things are amiss in the upper reaches of the government is responsible for much of the gloom that pervades my writing. If, for one moment, I had the slightest confidence and Davis and his prime minister were on top of things, my tone would be completely different.

Coincidentally, we saw on Thursday, six new position papers from the European Commission, setting out more details of the EU's negotiating stance.

Subjects covered were important, ranging from "Goods placed on the Market under Union law before the withdrawal date" to "Governance", "Issues relating to the Functioning of the Union Institutions, Agencies and Bodies" and "Judicial Cooperation in Civil and Commercial Matters".

Nevertheless, my heart sank. The excruciating detail, covering minutia to a degree unimagined by the wand-wavers in the Brexit camp, suggests that the Commission machine is going to grind exceeding slow and thorough. Such unremitting detail can but take time, and if this is the way the Commission is going to handle things, then just the first phase of the talks is going to last forever.

For all the detail, there are contentious issues here, so there is no sense that there is going to be any easy resolution. This is not so much Blitzkrieg as trench warfare, 1916-style.

Not entirely unrelated is this piece that has KPMG has warning that big businesses will need up to a year to prepare for new customs arrangements to prevent trade with the EU grinding to a halt after Brexit.

David Davis, the man for whom everything is a sunlit upland, has said that he did not envisage Britain's transition arrangements including a customs union with the EU or continuing with present arrangements. KPMG is this suggesting that the current Brexit timescale now looks "frankly unrealistic".

I really wish I had a tenner for every time I've written that, going back four years and more. But now, everybody is beginning to get the message – even KPMG – especially as EU officials believe that the second phase of Brexit negotiations, including the future trade relationship, will not begin until next year.

Bob Jones, head of customs at KPMG, is saying that even when there is clarity over customs arrangements - and that could be an awful long time coming - businesses would still need an additional year to design, build and test their systems.

This is because custom codes - which classify the product according to a standardised system - and tax information and certification will have to be fed into IT systems.

Jones adds: "The customs agreement the UK arrives at with the EU defines the requirements, but the systems themselves can take a year to design, build, test and approve. With potentially no transitional period around customs, the timescales are looking tight".

Put that way, however long it takes government to get its act together, it will take businesses at least a year then to update their systems. "If businesses and governments fail to implement the right systems by the time the UK leaves the customs union, we could see thousands of lorries being held up - already a frequent occurrence at the Turkey/Bulgarian border", says Jones.

KPMG once called me in for a "friendly chat" with a view to offering me a job. But once they'd talked to me, they changed their minds. Perhaps they shouldn't have. Then they might have someone better to inform their clients – someone who might actually know that leaving the customs union isn't the problem.

As it is, this idiot says: "While a decision on whether the UK remains [in] the customs union is important, equally essential is the timing of that decision [so we] have an orderly Brexit for the movement of goods". I wonder what his hourly rate is. Whatever it is, it's too much.

On the other hand, Jill Rutter at the Institute for Government – who probably gets considerably less - is worried by the absence of any informed proposals from Dexeu on how new arrangements for customs, immigration or the Irish border would actually work.

Businesses that have come to see Davis have been left aghast at the lack of detailed understanding. Pharmaceutical companies, for instance, are afraid of losing free access to the European medicines market.

Aerospace representatives talk about plans to leave the customs union, but at least they have the sense to add in single market. It is that which would destroy their ability to import and export parts freely, and that without that Britain’s aerospace industry would collapse.

However, back at the CEO conference, Davis fobbed them all off with vague assurances that none of this was a problem; it would all be fine. They were not reassured – and nor should they be, any more than we should find KPMG's warnings a cause for celebration.

Russell says that Davis cannot afford to ignore facts, whether political or economic. Britain's dealmaker needs a shrewd grasp of our strategic needs and our relative weakness. As the country's chief negotiator, his role is not to grandstand or cheerlead, but to be a tactful, wily, charming realist.

But, she says, "So far he is not up to the task". An ambassador from a senior member state, who has been briefed on how Davis is viewed by the EU now, has a crushing verdict: "He is part of the problem. He doesn't know the dossiers well. His style is arrogant, he is full of bluster".

From a "European insider", we get the view that Davis appears to have an inflated, jingoistic faith in Britain's influence which is not going to play out well. "He's going to be humiliated again and again by the EU, as he was in the first week. How will someone as vain as Davis explain that? ", the man says.

Sense might even be percolating the "Ultras", as a senior Tory peer and Brexiteer is worried also by Davis's performance. "I am, frankly, scared. I'd be surprised if it all went right now", he says – joining a very large club that's been saying exactly that, for a very long time.

Yet, there is nothing there which gives us cause for any optimism. There are not even straws afloat. All we can do is look over the parapet and gaze at the wasteland before. It is not a pretty sight.

Richard North 01/07/2017 link

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.

Richard North 30/06/2017 link

Brexit: a question of standards


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.

Richard North 29/06/2017 link

Brexit: the Grenfell dimension (reprise)


In now what seems a classic over-reaction, we seem to be getting to the stage in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire of having  cladding being stripped off buildings for no good reason.

The immediate points to make are that the Grenfell fire is attributable to a number of factors. For start, it is now known that the tower had a "multicomponent rainscreen cladding system", comprising at its core, Celotex RS5000 polyisocyanurate (PIR) blocks. These were covered by decorative cladding, in this case Reynobond PE.

Of these two products, we have already reported on Reynobond PE and, according to its Agrément Certificate, it passes a Class 0 fire rating under BS 476. In accordance with Building Regulations guidelines Approved Document B1 (Volume 2), it is therefore suitable to use as an external cladding material at all heights – even on high-rise dwelling blocks (see Diagram 40, page 95) – provided it was used within the limits set out in the Agrément Certificate.

However, Celotex RS5000 is a totally different matter. According to the Agrément Certificate to which it links, the product is not classified as non-combustible or of limited combustibility. The Certificate holder has not declared a reaction to fire classification in accordance with BS EN 13501-1.

On this basis, the product is suitable for use without height restriction if installed in a cavity that is between two leaves of masonry at least 75 mm thick. Otherwise, the use of the product is restricted to below 18 metres.

This, as far as the regulations go, is a slam dunk. The product is effectively banned for use in high rise blocks. That, however, does not get Philip Hammond off the hook, or indeed the idiot Marr who put it to him that the "cladding" had been banned elsewhere in Europe. Although Hammond responded by saying that the "inflammable cladding" is also banned in the UK, he is not right.

We are talking here of two different things. The Celotex is insulation and useless without weather protection. The Reynobond is the cladding that provides the protection and the decorative finish. This is the difference between a woolly jumper and a raincoat. They are very different things. Adults should know one from the other – this is just such basic stuff.

Given this situation, though, it could be argued that the European Union is off the hook. Ostensibly, with what appears to be a clear breach of Building Regulations, that is the case. But there are issues here which could have been fatal and still need addressing.

The thing about building construction is that the combustibility of the structure depends not only on the individual performances of the components, but on their behaviour as a system. Cladding will be influenced, not only by the materials used, but by the insertion of insulation, by the extent and nature of any cavities, whether there were adequate fire-stops and whether there are any breaches in the compartmentalisation.

It was that which brought me back into the fray as I continue to explore potential EU involvement, having already published two posts here and here. Before I'd settled the issue on Celotex, I'd already accumulated enough evidence to suggest that the EU had introduced a potentially fatal weakness into our building control system.

To put it together, we have to go back to the year 2000, when the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee reported on the potential risk of fire spread in buildings via external cladding systems, after a fatal fire in a multi-storey block of flats in Irvine, Ayrshire on 11 June 1999.

Interestingly on the basis of evidence received, the Committee took the view that the majority of the external cladding systems currently in use in the UK did not pose a serious threat to life or property in the event of fire.

At the time (and currently), the standards for external cladding were set out – in the general Building Regulations, and in the Approved Documents. This latter document gave guidance on the interpretation of subjective requirements, such as the need for materials to "adequately resist" the spread of fire.

The ambiguity is removed by reference to official standards, in this case either the European Standard EN13501 or British Standard BS476 (Parts 6/7). The Building Regulation guidance requires the material to pass the BS fire test with a rating of Class 0.

In the 1999/2000 inquiry, though, Peter Field of the Buildings Research Establishment (BRE), complained that the existing guidance was "far from being totally adequate". But the problem was not the standard, per se. The weakness was that it relied on small-scale tests conducted in laboratory conditions. These did not properly evaluate the performance of large, complete, cladding systems in a "live" fire situation.

The Committee accepted that point and recommended a new "Test for assessing the fire performance of external cladding systems", which had been submitted to the British Standards Institution for adoption as a British Standard. This, the Committee said, should be "substituted in Approved Document B for previous requirements relating to the fire safety of external cladding systems".

In its response, the Government accepted the point about testing and promised that as soon as the test had been adopted as a British Standard, the Approved Document would be amended to reflect its status. It was as good as its word.

However, what the Government did not do was implement the specific recommendation of the Committee. It did not replace existing standards with what became BS 8414, introducing a more severe testing regime of a complete structure, set up on a test rig to represent the finished structure.

The reason for that was simple. Under the EU system, currently implemented by Regulation (EU) No 1025/2012 on European standardisation, when a European Standardisation Body (in this case CEN) issued a European Standard, the national bodies had to withdraw any of their standards which conflicted with them – or amend them to bring them into line.

This, the UK's BSI acknowledges, with the details set out in the CEN/CENELEC Internal Regulations, made under the authority of Regulation (EU) No 1025/2012 and Directive (EU) 2015/1535 (replacing Directive 98/34).

Under this system, there is what is known as the "standstill", where the National Standards Body cannot introduce new standards in the areas covered by the European body. This is, in fact, a codification of the "pre-emption" doctrine.

Where this strikes in respect of the cladding testing is that the Commission in 2000 issued Commission Decision 2000/147/EC, implementing Council Directive 89/106/EEC as regards the classification of the reaction to fire performance of construction products. This set out the test procedure in respect of EN13501, effectively locking it in stone.

Known as the Single Burning Item test, to EN13823 – this is a small scale test of exactly the nature Peter Field had complained. But, since the European Standard takes precedence, this means that it had to be allowed under UK law.

We end up with the absurd situation in the guidelines where builders are given the choice between using BS8414, illustrated at the top (right), the test blaze engulfing the test rig, or the very much more modest, material-specific test illustrated on the left.

The choice is very much up to the builder, as contracts of this size must be open to competitive bidding and thus come under the Public Procurement Directive. Bids must be invited, using the European Standards as the basis of the technical specifications. The builders could not be required to adopt the British Standard, which is completely undermined by the cheaper and less rigorous European alternative.

Much is made of the claim that other Member States can adopt their own standards, and they can do so on the same basis that we use BS8414. All other Member States have implemented Regulation (EU) No 1025/2012, and have adopted EN13501, together with EN13823. They may have banned PIR in high rise buildings, but then so have we.

But as of yesterday it was reported d that an 11-storey building in the German city of Wuppertal was being evacuated because it had similar cladding to Grenfell. The Germans, like us, are having to accept lower testing standards to conform with EU rules.

As for Reynobond PE, it was manufactured in France, but marketed globally – and to all countries in Europe. We could, as far as I am aware, strengthen the standard for cladding in the Building Regulations, and thereby exclude it (except that it has already been withdrawn from the market).

For any hike in standards, we would need to get the permission of the European Commission – as long we didn't fall foul of the mutual recognition provisions. But then, as we see, the standard isn't the problem. What we need to do is introduce a more rigorous testing regime, which we are not allowed to do. The only thing we can do is lobby Brussels to improve the EN.

In the particular instance of Grenfell Tower, though, we cannot say that the inferior European standard was a direct factor in this fire. But it can be said that if BS8414 had been a mandatory requirement, and enforced in the refurbishment contract, that particular construction would not have been approved and the fire could not have happened.

This stands as a reminder that in some areas we are still ahead of the game, and that there are good things to come out of Brexit. But the irony is that, on our withdrawal, we have the opportunity to tighten up our rules and make them stick. So much for the bonfire of regulation.

Richard North 28/06/2017 link

Brexit: a year of learning


Briefly less concerned with immediate events, I've been upgrading the First Year of Brexit, adding a front cover to it, designed by a reader (pictured) and trimming forty pages from the length. If anyone who has already bought a copy and wants the upgrade, drop me an e-mail and I'll send you a copy. Otherwise, you can buy one for £4 from the link on the sidebar.

Going back through the year was extremely useful, reminding me of half-forgotten events and, in particular, illustrating how much I've learned over the year.

There is an interesting dynamic at play here, in that you tend to think you know about many things until you start to write about them. It's then that you discover how little you know, making the process of writing the blog one of the most educative processes I know. If readers have learned a great deal – and many tell me they have – I have learned a great deal as well.

Speaking with other bloggers, I find they share the learning experience which one gains from writing. In the case of, though, there is the volume effect, and the sheer relentlessness of the coverage. In the space of a year, writing over 440,000 words on one subject (before editing) with a post almost every day, linking to over 2,000 references (from newspaper cuttings to reports hundreds of pages long), covering over 1,000 A4 pages, cannot but help make its mark.

Of the previous coverage, one post I edited yesterday I had posted in early July last year, drawing attention to a paper by the Robert Schuman Foundation, which explored how the UK could stay in the Single Market.

What was particularly interesting were the observations on the EEA, where it was suggested that the UK could explore the opportunity to revise the EEA rules so that the non-EU members of the latter have a right to vote (like Norway, for example) on policies in which they participate, notably those involving the Single Market.

This, as we now know (as recorded in Monograph 9), was the original intention of Jacques Delors, which had been articulated as early as 1987 and had begun to take form as the European Economic Space (EES), with "houses" in a European "village", each with equal decision-making rights.

In this scenario, the Robert Schuman Foundation says, "the UK would continue to participate in the internal market and apply the corresponding rules", adding that it would have to contribute to the EU’s budget, "but only for certain policies" – presumably to cover things like the decentralised agencies in which we continued to participate.

Almost as a throw-away line, the Foundation also said that freedom of movement would continue to apply, "but the EEA Agreement provides safeguard mechanisms that can be activated unilaterally".

After all the pompous, self-opinionated rubbish that I've had to read, this is so refreshing. Of course the EEA Agreement provides for safeguard mechanisms, and of course they can be activated unilaterally (by Efta states). If the Robert Schuman Foundation knows this, you can bet that the Commission knows it – and has as few hang-ups as the Foundation. The measures are a treaty provision and there to be used.

But what is also especially encouraging is the thought that this type of scenario, "might eventually lead to the realignment of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) with the European Union". Thus, we see the "greater EU" splitting into two parts – the one as a fully-developed economic entity called the Eurozone, and the other the EEA, which would offer an institutional framework for the single market.

This is very much along the lines of Flexcit, where Brussels no longer has the exclusive right to manage the Single Market, the functioning of which becomes the shared responsibility of all its members. Says the Foundation, a modification of the EEA Agreement would therefore allow to settle several difficulties facing the EU at present, whilst providing welcome clarification for citizens, as well as economic and financial actors alike.

It adds that this type of arrangement might also offer an alternative to candidate countries, which could opt to enter the EEA rather than the EU, as was originally mooted for the former Soviet satellites. And there is no reason why we should see it limited to candidate countries. The EEA should also open its doors to the Russian Federation and to non-aligned states.

Specifically, the Foundation says that the EEA would be open to States which want to take advantage of the internal market above all, without taking part in all of the other aspects of integration. It is highly likely, it says, that the UK would be tempted to join the EEA.

With simple logic, it says that this kind of arrangement would be advantageous to the UK in that it would offer it a compromise, thereby avoiding a brutal break from the EU. Crucially, it adds, it would also provide a solution to the Scottish and Northern Irish questions.

The UK would continue to participate in the internal market and apply the corresponding rules, which it would continue to help define. Of course it would have to contribute to the EU budget but only in certain policy areas (the UK would no longer take part for example in the common agricultural policy).

Bringing us up-to-date, yesterday Brexit Secretary David Davis was on the Marr show – about the only Brexit news in an otherwise thin day. But about the only things of even marginal interest was his assertion that he was "pretty sure" there would be a deal, and that the transitional period would run from one to two years.

Neither statement is particularly encouraging. There are many levels of deal potentially on offer and there is nothing to say that Davis can bring home anything that will be needed by our businesses. And, as to the "one to two years", this is so unrealistic as to be laughable.

One must remember though that Davis has a recent history of making unrealistic statement and then altering his position later one – right up to the "summer row" that never was.

What we continue to see is a poverty of vision and a generally response-driven strategy coming out of Downing Street. But, the closer we get to the crunch, the closer we get to the reality that there is no way on God's earth we can conclude a trade agreement in the time - "impossible means impossible". We must focus on a transitional agreement.

Here, reality hits us between the eyes. Following on from the Robert Schuman Foundation, we can use the EEA acquis and seek a sensible "modification" which could overcome the worst feature of the Agreement and give us something we could live with.

Even though the end product might look very much like the EEA Agreement, there is no reason why it should keep its name. Something like a European Enterprise Zone (EEZ) might be sufficient to calm nerves, which red-white and blue "bespoke" additions could tailor it for the UK. In fact, the EEA Agreement is already a series of bespoke agreements stitched together under one treaty roof.

At a domestic level, unless she is to be bogged down in the aftermath of Grenfell Tower, Mrs May has got to take the initiative. She must storm the high ground, or be seen to be reacting to the EU's agenda. In other words, we need a plan. But it needs to be bigger than that. We need to engage the EU, and make them feel they have a dog in the fight.

Given that it has been floated by the Robert Schuman Foundation, I'm sure there would be political support in Europe for a "modified" EEA. Oddly enough, 2019 is the 25th anniversary of the EEA Agreement coming into force, so there is some logic in tying in Brexit with EEA enhancement and merging the agendas.

In a nutshell, we buy time by agreeing a transitional agreement - leading up to March 2019 when, with the "colleagues" we jointly announce (alongside Efta) the commencement of talks to build a 21st Century version of the EEA, with a target for completion (say) of 2025.

We might even call it, "Agenda 2025", and the EU could also take in reform and rationalisation of its Neighbourhood Policy, building a "positive, forward-looking" agenda. That way, we all own a slice of the action and it justifies the political investment. It is no longer just about Brexit. UK withdrawal has become a catalyst for something much bigger and better.

And isn't it just amazing what a year of learning can do.

Richard North 26/06/2017 link

Brexit: another phoney Brexit


Chancellor Philip Hammond made his much-delayed speech yesterday. This is the man who thought that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower had been banned in the UK, provoking a swift denial from a lead firm in the renovation project. 

And now he has been giving us the benefit of his wisdom on "what we want to achieve from those Brexit negotiations". The Prime Minister's Lancaster House speech in January, he said, "had set out clearly the arrangements that the UK would like to agree, built around a comprehensive trade agreement in the context of a deep and special partnership that goes much wider than trade".

But, said the Chancellor, "we recognise that this is a negotiation, and our negotiating counterparts, while broadly sharing our desire for a close ongoing relationship, will have their own priorities". As to our own priorities, we must be "clear" about them. When the British people voted last June, they did not vote to become poorer, or less secure, but they did vote to leave the EU. And we will leave the EU.

But, Hammond declared, "it must be done in a way that works for Britain. In a way that prioritises British jobs, and underpins Britain's prosperity". He added: "Anything less will be a failure to deliver on the instructions of the British people". This brought us to the moment we'd all been waiting for: how we were going to achieve what the Chancellor called "Brexit for Britain".

Firstly, he said, we would secure "a comprehensive agreement for trade in goods and services". Secondly, we would negotiate "mutually beneficial transitional arrangements". These would "avoid unnecessary disruption and dangerous cliff edges". 

Thirdly, said our miracle worker, we would agree "frictionless customs arrangements to facilitate trade across our borders – and crucially – to keep the land border on the island of Ireland open and free-flowing".

To achieve this last miracle, "in the context of our wider objectives" would, said Hammond, "be challenging". It will almost certainly involve, "the deployment of new technology". Therefore, he added, "we'd certainly need an implementation period, outside the Customs Union itself".

To allow this, current customs border arrangements would remain in place until new long-term arrangements were up and running. And then finally, Mr Hammond had one big trump card. He was going to take a "pragmatic approach" to one of our most important EU export sector – financial services.

This would need "a new process for establishing regulatory requirements for cross-border business between the UK and EU". This would have to be "evidence-based, symmetrical, and transparent" and "reflect international standards".

Cooperation arrangements had to be "reciprocal, reliable, and prioritise financial stability". Crucially these had to enable "timely and coordinated risk management on both sides". Third, these arrangements have to be permanent and reliable for the businesses regulated under these regimes.

As far as migration goes, Mr Hammond would have us seeking to manage it. We would not seek to shut it down. But, beyond that, no detail was offered. This, though, was the tenor of the entire speech. One could not say it was "wishy-washy" – just "wishy". The speech was long on aspiration but entirely lacking in execution.

Yet, despite this, the Chancellor was "confident" that we could do "a Brexit deal that puts jobs and prosperity first". This would be a deal that "reassures employers that they will still be able to access the talent they need", one that "keeps our markets for goods and services and capital open" and one that would achieve "early agreement on transitional arrangements".

And in this lovely, fluffy, cuddly Brexit that Mr Hammond has invented for us, "trade can carry on flowing smoothly, and businesses up and down the country can move on with investment decisions that they want to make, but that have been on hold since the Referendum".

I seem to recall writing earlier about my aspirations for gaining the exclusive franchise for Lunar Green Cheese, with a quota of 1000 tons a week, beamed down directly from the Sea of Tranquillity by a matter transporter. But, it appears, Mr Hammond has beaten me to it. In Brexit terms, he's cleaned out the pool.

There is no going back from this. Either we have a minister here with hidden depths, a man who all this time has been sitting on a brilliant plan, the like of which the world has never seen, or we're dealing with yet another Walter Mitty character, living in a parallel universe, and not even the same one as Mrs May.

Particularly interesting is that Hammond too has joined the ranks of the "transitionals". Having caught up with the rest of the world, in understanding that we cannot conclude Mrs May's "deep and special partnership" inside the period allocated, he has embraced the idea that everything can be solved by "mutually beneficial transitional arrangements".

What nobody is admitting, least of all Mr Hammond, is that a transitional agreement is not quick fix. He, like the others, should have appreciated that the complexity is such that the two-year Article 50 period is barely (if at all) sufficient to craft such an agreement.

Looking at the most recent member of the European Union, Croatia, we see that it applied for membership in 2003 and was in negotiations from 2005 until 2011. The 116-page accession treaty was signed on 9 December 2011.

The essence of accession treaty is that it is (to a very large part) a transitional agreement, easing the entry of a joining nation into the Union. That is takes six years is a good indication of how long these things can take and it is not at all untoward to imagine a transitional agreement with the UK taking those two years that Article 50 allows.

The very fact that so many are leaping on this transition bandwagon is in itself and indication that they are little idea of what is involved. Having already wasted so much time, it is questionable whether there is even time to complete a basic agreement.

Hammond, coming to the party late, is playing games. There is nothing anywhere to indicate that his "ideas" have any more substance than the words in his speech, which were pathetically thin. He has joined the ranks of politicians selling their phoney Brexits. That is all these people have to offer.

Richard North 21/06/2017 link

Brexit: the Grenfell dimension


I have written before about the impact of the occupied field doctrine in EU law, and you can even find an informal definition if you look on the net. Broadly, it refers to legislative areas (or fields) which the EU treaties have defined as "shared competences", where both the EU and Member States have law-making powers (competence).

When these areas are first defined, and the EU (usually the Commission) has not sought to make any laws in that field, the Member States many continue making national legislation. However, once the EU legislates in the area, it becomes what is known as an "occupied field".

Then, in the precise areas in which the EU has legislated, the Member States are no longer permitted to legislate. In parallel or related areas, where the EU has no immediate intention of legislating, Member States may make their own laws, but only with the permission of the Commission, which – on notification of a request – may refuse and instead decide to legislate itself.

The basis of this doctrine is set out in Article 2(2) of the Treaty of the European Union (TEU), which states:
When the Treaties confer on the Union a competence shared with the Member States in a specific area, the Union and the Member States may legislate and adopt legally binding acts in that area. The Member States shall exercise their competence to the extent that the Union has not exercised its competence. The Member States shall again exercise their competence to the extent that the Union has decided to cease exercising its competence.
However, if you search the internet, will you not find very much written about the doctrine This is because, in the deep, arcane recesses of integration theory, they do not label it "the occupied field". It is known by the far more obscure title of "field pre-emption", alongside the related issues of "obstacle" and "rule pre-emption".

The doctrine itself is well known in federal structures, and is a facet of both the Indian and the US constitutions. In the EU context, though, from its original treaty base, it has been vastly expanded through ECJ jurisprudence and case law. Although the precise application tends to vary with different rulings, and between different areas of the acquis, it is a very real and important doctrine which has important practical effects.

It is upon this doctrine which I rely in my earlier piece when I asserted, in respect of the construction standards relating to the cladding used on Grenfell Tower, that the UK Government no longer has the authority to define its own standards (and has not had the authority since 1989 when the first Directive was promulgated).

The reason for this is that the Construction Products Regulation (repealing Council Directive 89/106/EEC) extends the competence of the Commission into the field of construction standards, using its powers under Article 114 relating the functioning of the internal market. Article 114 creates a shared competence and, as the Commission has exercised its power in respect of construction standards and the internal market, this is why the Member States have lost their power.

The way that the Construction Products Regulation (CPD) works, though, is quite complex - to the point of being thoroughly confusing to those not familiar with it.

The system starts with what are known as European Harmonised Standards, with the Regulation (and the Directive before it) recognising the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN) and the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardisation (Cenelec) as the competent organisations for their adoption.

These standards are thus produced by Cenelec, in the form of EN standards. They take legal effect by being posted in the Official Journal as a Commission Communication within the framework of the CPR (Regulation (EU) 305/2011).

Once they are promulgated, adoption by the Member States becomes compulsory. They are obliged to remove or modify existing national standards to remove any conflicting requirements, in order to bring them into line with the EN.

As it stands, there are only about 450 harmonised standards, which include such delights as EN 15821:2010 on "multi-firing sauna stoves fired by natural wood logs". But, as yet, there is no harmonised standard for composite external cladding panels of the type used on Grenfell Tower.

This means that, where Member States already have their own national standards relating to such products, they are allowed to stay in force. And this explains why – even though standard-setting is an EU competence – different Member States (such as Germany, the Czech Republic and Denmark) still have their own standards.

However, that does not mean that Member States have the automatic right to continue framing their standards. Under the doctrine of "field pre-emption" (aka "occupied field"), they must seek permission from the Commission before they make any changes. In practice, this means that they must formally notify the Commission of an intended change, and if the Commission does not object, the new standard can take effect.

In considering whether to intervene, the Commission – even if Cenelec has no immediate plans for a harmonised standard – will be looking for a gradual convergence between the Member States and will not normally look favourably on proposals which magnify differences between regulatory regimes.

From that base, though, it gets even more complicated. Even where there is no harmonised standard, there is a second tier of standard-setting. This, rather than creating generic standards, allows individual manufacturers to certify their own products as conforming with regulatory standards, permitting the application of CE marking.

The way this works is under the aegis of a dedicated body, the European Organisation for Technical Assessment (EOTA), the function of which is to produce European Assessment Document (EADs).

These are harmonised technical specification for construction products, which apply where there are no formal harmonised standards. So far, 113 have been produced, each of them extremely detailed documents, setting out "essential characteristics" of a product, detailing "relevant assessment methods and criteria".

Once an EAD exists, a manufacturer can apply to a national Technical Assessment Body (TAB) and ask it, on the basis of the EAD, to produce a European Technical Assessment (ETA) in respect of their products. This becomes the basis of a formal Declaration of Performance (DoP) which then allows the manufacturer to CE-mark their product. This in turn allows the manufacturer to sell the product throughout the EU (EEA).

Interestingly, the very product said to have been used to clad Grenfell Tower has been given an ETA in the form of an Agrément Certificate issued by the British Board of Agrément (BBA) (pictured). This is the relevant TAB for certifying that the product is "fit for purpose" and conforms with UK Building Regulations.

This completely contradicts Chancellor Philip Hammond's assertion that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower, which has been widely blamed for spreading the blaze, is banned in the UK on (areas of) buildings above 18 metres. It is also at odds with the claim by the Department for Communities and Local Government, which has said that, if this cladding was used, "it would not comply with current building regulations".

The Agrément Certificate attests that, in relation to the Building Regulations for reaction to fire, the panels may be regarded as having a Class 0 surface – which is the standard set in Building Regulations Approved Document B1 (see page 95).

Now, going back to the purpose of this Certificate as the basis of the product CE Marking, this means that the product can be marketed anywhere in the EU/EEA for the use intended – as external cladding.

In the absence of a harmonised standard, Regulation (EC) No 764/2008 on the mutual recognition of standards applies. In the wake of the Cassis de Dijon judgement, this Regulation stops any national authority from prohibiting the sale on its territory of goods which are lawfully marketed in another Member State, "even where those products were manufactured in accordance with technical rules different from those to which domestic products are subject".

On this basis, not only is the cladding not "banned" in the UK (quite the reverse), it is difficult to see how its sale could be legally banned in Germany or any other EU Member State.

As to whether the product could be banned by the UK government, the answer is qualified. The Government could only apply the procedure set out in Article 58 of the CPR, implementing only those measures which the Commission considered justified.

Looking at all this in the round, in what is my second blogpost on this subject, it would be perverse to assert that there was not an EU dimension to the Grenfell disaster. But the extent to which the EU could be considered to have had a part in the disaster is a matter of judgement, and one can only speculate as to whether things would have been different had we been our own masters.

In the interests of completeness, one must say that all these provisions apply to the EEA, so that if the UK adopted the Efta/EEA route for Brexit, we would see no immediate relief from them. On the other hand, without these provisions in force, it would be difficult for the UK to market construction products on the European market (notwithstanding that Reynobond is made in France).

To that extent, not only does the Grenfell Tower disaster have an EU dimension, Brexit has a Grenfell dimension. When we consider how to prevent any repeat of such a disaster, we are going to have to consider very hard the nature of the regulation we carry over, and how we then modify it to restore any necessary functionality that we might have lost.

Richard North 19/06/2017 link

Booker: Grenfell – the EU dimension


Already, there have been mumblings in the shrubbery about EU involvement in the Grenfell disaster, with an article in the Express asking: "Did EU regulation mean deadly cladding was used on Grenfell Tower?"

The Express story focuses on EU regulations which "set out rules for buildings’ energy consumption with Britain signed up to the 2010 Energy Performance of Buildings Directive", telling us that:
Article 24 of the directive was cemented into UK law in April 2014 and a Government report says "bringing as many residential and commercial buildings as possible up to a high level of energy performance is a priority for the UK Government".
However, turning to Article 24 of Directive 2010/31/EU, it very clearly does not require cladding, deadly or otherwise, to be used on any building. In fact, one is hard put to see quite what the relevance of the article is to anything. Headed: "Revocation of the delegation", it tells us that: "The delegation of powers referred to in Articles 5 and 22 may be revoked by the European Parliament or by the Council".

Nevertheless, the Directive does have considerable relevance, its energy efficiency requirements for new and modified buildings having been enacted in the Building Regulations 2010 which came into force on 1 October 2010 (not 2014 as the Express asserts). Part 6 is the relevant code and would have applied to Grenfell House. Thus, the requirement to insulate the building most definitely has an EU dimension.

That said, there are no legal requirements as to the way the improved energy efficiency should be achieved – and therefore it cannot be said that there was any specific EU requirement to install combustible cladding to the exterior surfaces of the tower block.

The omission of any specific requirement has brought the likes of Frances Coppola and Steve Peers out of the woodwork, squeaking with rage. Tweets Coppola: "FFS. No. EU energy efficiency regulation did NOT mean flammable cladding had to be used. How low can Kippers sink?"

Steve Peers then tweets that: "the EU energy efficiency law does not override safety rules, as the preamble states expressly". The correct term here is "recital" – and you would expect a self-proclaimed expert in EU law to get that right. But never mind. Peers quotes the recital (No 8) in full, as follows:
(8) Measures to improve further the energy performance of buildings should take into account climatic and local conditions as well as indoor climate environment and cost-effectiveness. These measures should not affect other requirements concerning buildings such as accessibility, safety and the intended use of the building.
He's being a little bit precious here, as the recital does not specifically mention fire prevention, and nor does the need to maintain a high level of fire protection appear anywhere in the Directive. Nevertheless, if the Directive does not explicitly mention fire, the Building Regulations do. If one refers to Part L, this reads across to the "Approved Document L1B" on the conservation of fuel and power.

Under the heading, "Consideration of technical risk", it tells us that building work to existing buildings must satisfy all technical requirements, and that when considering the instalment of energy efficiency measures in dwellings, "attention should also be paid in particular to the need to comply with Part B (fire safety) …".

Ostensibly, this seems to support the Peers assertion, except that – as always – the devil is in the detail. But people such as Peers do not do detail (and he tends to run away and hide when challenged). In order to comply with Part B, one must refer to "Approved Document B". Either of the two volumes will do, as they both give the technical specifications for fire resistance for external cladding.

Now here it gets complicated. Products can actually comply with a variety of standards, including the relevant British Standards. But not defined by any standards institution is a specification specific to Part B, known as the "National Standard", in which context, the product must be conform to Class 0.

Defined in the Standard, this applies only to the surface of the material, in this case a composite made from an aluminium skin with a highly combustible core. Basically, the flammability requirement applies to surface propagation of flame, a test that the aluminium skin can easily pass.

That, then, would look to be the cause of the problem – a gravely deficient standard which did not allow for flames from inside a flat venting up the cavity between the cladding and the structure and setting fire to the combustible core, with the tragic effects we have seen.

As to this standard, the official test specifically excludes the "chimney effect" scenario, with the fire originating from inside the building. Even with the lethal defect, this cladding will pass the official test and thereby comply with Building Regulations.

But that is not the end of it. Although the fire safety requirements are set by the National Standard, this in turn takes its parameters not from the British Standard but from the applicable "harmonised standards". This is part of a system introduced by the Construction Products Directive, and revised by Regulation (EU) 305/2011. In the UK, it is implemented by our Building Regulations. 

In the specific case of external cladding, the UK applies a standard for blocks above 18 metres using EN 13501-1, class B-s3, d2. To all intents and purposes, the National Standard, while not directly comparable with the EN, is no more severe than it. Anything which passes the relevant part of the EN can be assumed to comply with the Building Regulations Part B requirement.

This brings us to the crux of the matter. The EN standard, in respect of fire safety in relation to external cladding is known to be deficient. Even the most rigorous application of material and individual component testing will not necessarily predict overall system performance, and cannot therefore be used as a valid or even useful indicator of its safety. The European standard is fundamentally flawed.

Arguably, this situation could be resolved by the UK taking unilateral action and defining a new, more rigorous standard of its own. But there we are hit by the EU dimension. Because of the Construction Products Regulation and its preceding Directives, in force since 1989, the definition of building standards is what is known as an "occupied field". The UK no longer has the authority to define its own.

Much is made of Germany having more rigorous standards, but my understanding is that the Federal Government had them in place before the first (1989) directive. It is allowed to keep its existing codes in place, as indeed are we, allowing the progressive implementation of European standards.

The way this works is that the standards are voluntary, unless they've been officially adopted as a European Harmonised Standard. The cladding standard is not an official harmonised standard, so different Member States are free to apply their own standards.

However, when CEN National Members (including all EU Member States) decide to implement a standard, they are obliged to withdraw any National Standards conflicting with it. In German states, adoption of new codes is now obligatory. And under EU law, once they've  adopted a standard (even though voluntarily), they cannot implement new standards which are more severe than, or conflict with, harmonised standards.

That is not to say that the UK would necessarily have introduced new standards, had we been an independent state. But under the current regime, there is no point in even trying. We are a passive law-taker and no longer think for ourselves.

What is fair to say though, is that the EU – having taken away our scope to act independently – has dropped the ball on fire prevention. Obsessed with its climate change agenda and the need to meet Kyoto commitments, it has channelled all its (limited) energies into "green" standards for buildings, and neglected other matters, particularly fire safety.

Reviewing the situation, one can see complaints going back ten years that complex structures are not covered by existing regulatory requirements. Before that, even, stretching back nearly 20 years, the fire potential of external cladding has long been a concern.

After a fire in a multi-storey block of flats in Irvine, Ayrshire on 11th June 1999, which killed an elderly man, the Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs set up an inquiry to review the safety of cladding on tower blocks.

Evidence offered to the inquiry published in July 2000, (including from the Fire Brigades Union,suggested that the "guidance" given in Approved Document B "may not be adequate for the purposes of ensuring the safety of external cladding systems in a fire". The Committee was also told by Peter Field of the Buildings Research Establishment, which had done a great deal of work on these issues, that the existing guidance was "far from being totally adequate".

Tragically, while the Committee recommended improvements to existing legislation and testing, neither it nor the Government acknowledged the EU dimension or the need to secure EU Commission approval for any changes. And no fundamental changes were made.

There is no record even of the Commission having been approached to review its own requirements, but it is a matter of record that, having deprived us of the power of define new standards, the EU has not stepped up to the plate and filled the regulatory void. It may not, therefore, be directly responsible for the fire in Grenfell Tower, but it cannot be completely absolved from responsibility. In any reckoning, it too must join the list of organisations that has had a hand in this disaster.

Enter now Christopher Booker who writes in today's column that it was certainly an ominous coincidence that 1974, the year Grenfell Tower was opened was also the year that Hollywood released what was arguably the most famous "disaster movie" ever made, The Towering Inferno.

But, on Wednesday, as we woke up to the horror of what was happening, he received an email that added another curious detail to this awful story. It was from the man who back in the Seventies sold to the local council the original cladding for Grenfell Tower. As he explained, it then consisted of Glasal panels in which were sealed white asbestos cement, so tightly compressed that no fibres could escape.

"It was totally safe", he told Booker, "and would certainly have stopped the spread of any external fire; unlike this new cladding, which contains combustible plastics which can spread a fire up a building so fast that in some countries it has already caused whole buildings to go up, and in others it has been banned".

A much more immediately relevant point, however, on which the forthcoming inquiry will certainly have to focus, Booker says, is what might be called the "European" dimension to this tragedy. So far wholly missed has been the fact that making construction regulations, including those relating to fire risk, is an exclusive "competence" of the EU. Britain has no right to make its own, without Brussels permission.

Furthermore in 2014 the Department of Energy and Climate Change issued its National Energy Efficiency Action Plan, setting out how it planned to meet its EU targets for reducing “carbon emissions” (and also those set under our own Climate Change Act).

In particular, it emphasised the need to comply with Directive 2012/27/EU on "energy efficiency". This explained that the top priority was to improve the insulation of buildings, responsible for 40 percent of all emissions. Local authorities were thus made aware of the section on renovating older buildings, adding an extra impetus to the growing body of climate change legislation.

When Kensington and Chelsea council chose the new cladding for Grenfell Tower it would, therefore, have known that top of the list was the need for "thermal efficiency". On this score, plastics such as polyurethane, polyethylene or polyisocyanurate rated most highly, despite their fire risk. There was even financing available under the government's Green Deal scheme.

Booker long ago took a personal interest in the estate on which Grenfell stands. He spent much of the Seventies investigating the disaster that had been inflicted on so many cities by the Sixties mania for massive "comprehensive redevelopment schemes" and giant council tower blocks.

When he began in 1972 with a book called Goodbye London: An Illustrated Guide to Threatened Buildings, listing all the demolition schemes then planned across London, it opened with a page of pictures showing the vast area of pleasant, human-scale 19th century streets in north-west Kensington shortly to be demolished for the estate that would include Grenfell Tower.

By 1979, Booker had been commissioned by the BBC to make a two-hour television film, City of Towers, which for the first time told the whole story of how the destruction of our cities had been inspired by the megalomaniac dream in the Twenties of the Swiss architect Le Corbusier; and how this led 40 years later to those vast dehumanised council estates, dominated by tower blocks like Grenfell, half of which have since been demolished.

The way our politicians, national and local, were taken in by this maniacal vision was yet another perfect case-study in the deluding power of groupthink. As so often, a beguiling dream had led in reality to a nightmare reality. Grenfell Tower stands today as the most chilling tombstone yet to that mad dream.

As Booker concludes his own piece with that thought, we can also conclude that the Tower stands as a monument to the breakdown of the UK system of government – both locally, when we observe the response to the disaster - and also at that European level where membership of the European Union has deprived us, in important respects, of the ability to govern ourselves.

Richard North 18/06/2017 link

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