EU Referendum

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.