Ministers have been urged to reveal whether the type of cladding used at Grenfell Tower may have failed fire tests commissioned by the government more than a decade prior to the blaze that killed 72 people.
The inquiry into the disaster in June 2017 has been handed a document showing the results of tests on a number of different cladding systems carried out in 2002 following a fatal fire in an Ayrshire tower block.
The document, dated 2004 and marked “commercial in confidence”, is thought not to have been made public until it was leaked two months ago to the BBC, which reported that it showed all of the five cladding systems used in the tests had failed against “proposed performance criteria”.
Now a cladding testing expert has written to housing secretary Michael Gove to warn that the results of the test on one of the materials bears “strikingly similar characteristics” to those of tests carried out in the wake of the Grenfell fire on the aluminium composite cladding used in the building – which is believed to have fuelled the blaze.
In his letter, Dr Jonathan Evans displays two thermocouple charts relating to the two tests in 2002 and 2017 which indicate that, after a steady rise in temperature towards 300C in the first three minutes of the fire testing, the temperatures both “escalate rapidly” to around 900C.
This suggests “that another fuel source became involved in the test, which I can only deduce to be the cladding panels”, he said.
“There are very few cladding materials that can release that much fuel energy so quickly, and given the description that the cladding panels in 2002 were ‘aluminium based’ I can think of no other explanation than this 2002 test also comprised polyethylene-cored ACM, precisely as installed on the Grenfell Tower.”
Dr Evans, who sits on the British standards committee for large-scale fire testing, said that “without doubt, observing this 2002 test would have been a shocking experience and it should have been obvious to attendees and recipients of the report” that the material did not meet fire safety regulations.
He alleged that the 2002 test “shows that the state was specifically aware of how deadly cladding materials such as ACM can be” – describing it as “a clear forewarning of what would happen at Grenfell 15 years later”.
Responding to the emergence of the tests in September, the government described them as “experiments” which were carried out “to check the criteria for testing” rather than to assess the “intrinsic safety of building materials”.
This took place following an inquest and government select committee review into a fire at the Garnock Court flats in Irvine in June 1999, which ravaged nine floors of the building – killing a 55-year-old man and injuring five others.
Noting that the “experiments were not referred to in parliament” after being commissioned under Tony Blair’s Labour government, a Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) official said: “We are exploring next steps, which will be published in due course.”
The Grenfell Tower public inquiry is expected to examine the tests closely, and to ask the Building Research Establishment, which carried them out, what materials were tested, according to the BBC.
In his letter, Dr Evans urged the government not to wait for the inquiry’s findings and immediately start “a fully funded programme of remediation” for buildings over 18 metres high, and to prioritise those under that height which “have the capacity for rapid, life-threatening external fire”.
Approached by The Independent, a spokesperson for the DLUHC said: “We are taking action to improve building safety where successive governments have failed through our Building Safety Bill, which marks the biggest improvements to building safety in 40 years – with more rights and protections for residents and a £5bn investment to remove unsafe cladding.
“The new Building Safety Regulator will enforce a more stringent regulatory regime for buildings over 18m and oversee the safety and performance of all buildings, ensuring products are removed from the market if they do not meet regulation.”
Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s announcement of £5bn for the government’s Building Safety Fund sparked protests when it was announced in October, four years after the Grenfell tragedy, with those affected by the cladding crisis labelling the proposed levy and funds “a slap on the wrist” for developers and a “slap in the face” for homeowners.
Dr Evans described his letter on Saturday as “an attempt to convince the Treasury that it need not wait for the inquiry’s painstakingly detailed analysis and damning verdict” while people “continue to live in anxiety, fear and danger”, adding: “We cannot wait that long.”
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