Stripping Grenfell-style cladding puts blocks at more risk
The government has issued a warning that stripping suspect cladding from buildings following the Grenfell Tower blaze could increase fire risks, as it emerged that combustible insulation has been left exposed for weeks on Salford blocks that are home to more than a thousand people.
Dozens of councils have been removing polyethylene-filled aluminium panels like those used on Grenfell, but now the Department for Communities and Local Government has warned the buildings’ owners “not to create conditions which may worsen the integrity of the cladding system … [including] leaving material exposed which could reduce fire performance”.
The warning came as the Guardian established that insulation more combustible than that used on Grenfell Tower has been left exposed for up to three weeks on at least six blocks on the Pendleton estate in Salford, Greater Manchester, including at least one 22-storey tower.
Tenants of the recently revamped blocks have voiced alarm that their homes may have been left more, not less, vulnerable by the removal of the same panels that caught fire in the Grenfell disaster. One safety expert said the landlord’s actions led to a breach of building regulations and created “a known fire risk”.
“People in this block and the other blocks want the insulation taking out,” said Jon Smith, a resident for 20 years at the 22-storey Thorne House on the estate. “It is more dangerous in our opinion than the cladding that covers it because it is combustible. Now it is exposed, you only need some idiot after a night on the drink deciding to conduct their own fire test and the whole block goes up.”
Starting three weeks ago, the same panels as used on Grenfell were stripped from many of the flats in Salford by Pendleton Together Housing, which manages the properties for the council. They left exposed large areas of synthetic phenolic insulation, which is rated either B or C for reaction to fire in British Standard tests, meaning they are combustible.
Arnold Tarling, a chartered surveyor at Hindwoods and a fire safety expert, said: “It is definitely a fire risk now when it might not have been in the past. Exposed insulation on the exterior of a building is not safe because of the risk of the fire spreading over the surface. It doesn’t comply with building regulations … They have guaranteed there is definitely a fire risk.”
The government has been criticised for unclear advice about removal of panels that have failed new combustibility tests on 233 residential towers since Grenfell.
‘In our opinion, the insulation is more dangerous than the cladding that covers it’
Salford’s mayor, Paul Dennett complained this month that “councils are being left to make decisions about complex technical matters amid unclear government guidance, conflicting advice and information which changes by the hour”.
The latest government guidance states that “where sample panels are removed they should be replaced immediately with a suitable material” that ensures compliance with the fire regulations.
A senior Whitehall source said yesterday: “We have not recommended at any stage that rain cladding should be removed on its own. I am not sure why you would remove just the rain cladding and leave potentially greater risk of fire to the exterior of the building.”
Guardian photographs of the partially removed cladding in Salford show exposed panels of Kooltherm K15 insulation manufactured by Kingspan, which was used on a small part of Grenfell tower. Kingspan said it shouldn’t have been used on that project as it has never been tested with the Reynobond polyethylene-filled panels that were also used in Salford.
It said it “would be very surprised if such a system … would ever pass the appropriate British Standard 8414 large scale test”. It is rated C for reaction to fire, meaning it is capable of sustaining a fire on its own, according to Tarling.
Kingspan said it was not aware of studies that showed temporary removal of cladding exposing insulation could increase fire risk. However “each project should be the subject of an individual risk assessment by an appropriately qualified expert to determine the impact that the removal … will have on the performance of the insulation boards underneath”.
Also on the Salford homes is Xtratherm Safe-R, rated B, which Tarling said means it is susceptible to surface burning.
Pendleton Together said it is now planning to cover the insulation with temporary cement boards, which do not burn. They are widely used in the private sector but are said to cost up to twice as much as plastic-filled panels. A spokeswoman said: “We have put additional fire safety measures in place to ensure the safety of our residents and to provide reassurance.”
Government tests on full-scale cladding systems are expected to produce their first results this week. Ministers had faced criticism for only testing the plastic core of aluminium composite panels, resulting in a 100% failure rate.
Yesterday, the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, said those responsible for “social murder” at Grenfell Tower should be held to account. Asked on The Andrew Marr Show if he regretted having previously said people were murdered by political decisions, McDonnell replied: “No, I don’t regret that. I was extremely angry with what went on … Political decisions were made which resulted in the deaths of these people. That’s a scandal.”
Salix Court, one of the blocks in Salford that have had the cladding removed