Novar hit by 'devastating' EC plan to ban new cables over safety risk

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Novar, the UK conglomerate which agreed last week to a £780m takeover by GE-Honeywell of the US, is being hit by a European Commission ruling on new fire-safety rules for cable makers.

A new electric cable produced by British firms to help prevent fires such as King's Cross in 1987 is threatened with being pulled from the market by regulators in Brussels.

The latest moves will be felt particularly acutely by Novar. It is one of the main makers of the high-tech cable, called Enhanced Fire Performance Cable (EFPC), which manufacturers claim is safer than current cables on the market. They say it takes longer to burn and doesn't give off fire-effluent gases, unlike "zero-halogen cables".

But EU experts plan to ban Novar's safer cable from a new Construction Products Directive due to be adopted in the spring by MEPs. "There appears to be a lack of consultation with industry," said Scottish MEP Struan Stevenson. "There [is] debate over which product is the safer, but the Commission is ignoring that dialogue. The Commission needs to begin closer consultation before it presents the draft to the Parliament."

A Novar spokesman denied that the current talks in Brussels would have any effect on the takeover, but added that "there will be an obvious impact on profitability" if the Commission adopts the draft directive and shuts out EFPCs.

EC officials are still working on their proposal, which will allow fire and safety regulators in the UK to remove EFPCs from the market simply because they emit "acid gas" when on fire.

"The Government looks as though it is going to support the Commission," said Steve Prescott of the Cable Fire Research Group, representing the British companies. "This is devastating as this reference to acidity bears no relation to fire-safety principles," he added. "Firms will be left with zero-halogen cables, which are less safe".