£200m fund provided by the Government to stimulate work on towers at risk due to fire safety

Residents in private blocks of flats have finally receive Government support, with a £200 million fund at last provided by the Government to stimulate work on towers at risk because of fire safety.

The Communities Secretary has finally made a clear statement that the scandal of unsafe fire risk cladding is a matter of Public Safety. In a major statement to Parliament on 9 May 2019 James Brokenshire announced a Government fund of £200 million to help remove and replace dangerous Grenfell-type cladding and insulation on the many residential towers under private ownership that are still considered at risk, almost 2 years’ after the Grenfell Tower fire.

There are many in the fire safety sector and in the residential and social housing sector who have been frustrated by the extended time it has taken for proper recognition of the serious situation faced by residents in tall residential towers who are challenged daily by thoughts on the fire risks that exist in external cladding materials of the Grenfell-type identified as a serious fire safety threat.  

Building owners and freeholders responsible for the buildings have failed in many cases to take action. James Brokenshire praised those that had.  But he focused clear criticism on those who had tried to shift financial responsibility unfairly on to innocent residents, who found themselves faced by unaffordable high remediation bills offloaded on to them through no fault of their own. The Minister said that too many owners had failed to take responsibility.  Now the Government has been forced to act, by providing a starter fund (from existing budgets) to remove the block on improvement work going forward.

The message from the Minister is clear.  The Government is “looking at measures to get building owners and developers to do the right thing.”  But the Minister has said that the fund should not be taken to absolve the wider construction industry from taking responsibility for high-risk materials being put on the outside of buildings which have been shown to be highly combustible, infringing building regulatory guidance to limit the chances of external fire spread ( Regulation B4 for England and Wales).  

This isn’t intended to be a free handout without strings.

Receiving money is conditional upon the building owner or responsible person in their stead agreeing a contract to start remediation work within a set period (not defined, however). Owners have three months to apply for funds.  And Government have said that they will look carefully at further steps where owners still fail to take action.

A condition of funding is that the building owner takes “reasonable steps to recover costs from those responsible for the presence of unsafe cladding” in the first place (from the Ministry’s press release). Clearly, this matter will not be allowed to rest. And as the Parliamentary session showed, there are several MP’s from all sides on the case to monitor progress and hold government to account.

Government records that work has yet to start on 166 private high-rise buildings (above 18m tall) to remove and replace at risk cladding and insulation materials.  That compares with 23 still in the public sector. Work on only 10 private residential blocks has been carried out in the last two years since Grenfell. The Government is already funding substantial work in the public local authority sector, by providing a further £400 million previously announced.

That’s £600 million in total, a significant commitment to underline the importance of fire safety.  At last there is a well-defined Government purpose, with evident intent.

433 buildings were originally identified as having unsafe cladding of the Grenfell type. There are questions over other cladding types as well, also under suspicion and to be evaluated in a new government test programme.  That illustrates the shocking scale of the issue, reflecting how low consideration for fire safety had been allowed to slip down the priority list in construction and design.

What are the overall signals for fire safety arising from the Government’s statements?

Personal responsibility cannot be evaded and simply passed on down the chain from one operator to another.  Fire safety means using products and installations that are robust and reliable in fire. The message is: Don’t take unreasonable risks.  Be sure about product capability to survive and last in fire, demonstrated from test evidence. Taking responsibility is fundamentally important.  That personal responsibility applies to anyone designing, specifying, approving and providing products with a claimed performance in fire. It cannot be simply sub-contracted on down the line to others. Fire safety is a matter of public safety, and several in practice have a responsibility to ensure that products, designs and constructions are actually in practice fit for the intended purpose.  

Building owners, developers and their representatives cannot evade their fundamental obligations.  As Justine Greening MP said in the Parliamentary Questions, as recorded by Hansard, “while those owners are quite happy to take the gains that come from owning a building, they must also take the responsibilities that it brings.”  

In summing up the Minister would note for everyone that fire safety ultimately in compliance with regulations is a requirement to be fulfilled under the Law. That should be sufficient reminder.

Ceramic Glass Limited has been involved in fire safety since 1982 as a dedicated supplier of integrity fire-resistant ceramic glass FireLite.  As a transparent ceramic FireLite has ideal properties to perform as a robust resilient barrier against fire. It has a softening point above typical flashover maximum temperatures in building fires and is specifically designed to be immune to thermal stress (as a result of an effective zero thermal expansion coefficient that avoids significant thermal stress generation).

FireLite is therefore ideal for use as fire-resistant barrier glazing.  Used in external glazing, the effective integrity performance can be effective in preventing fire break-out and break back in for tall buildings should fire spread up the outside of the façade. FireLite has the core property of being able to survive in fire resistance tests for longer than 4 hours, even resisting without change the impact of a cold-water hose stream at the end of 4 hours exposure to demonstrate effective resilience against thermal shock and stress.

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