Grenfell Tower: Government to consult on banning controversial safety testing shortcut that 'puts lives at risk'

Housing secretary considers ending use of ‘desktop studies’, which have been blamed for dangerous materials being used on buildings

Benjamin Kentish
Political Correspondent
Wednesday 11 April 2018 19:14 BST
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Cladding used on Grenfell Tower was found to be highly flammable, causing the building to be engulfed by flames within minutes
Cladding used on Grenfell Tower was found to be highly flammable, causing the building to be engulfed by flames within minutes (Getty)

Government ministers have suggested they could back down over plans to allow the continuation of a controversial method of fire testing that was widely criticised in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster.

Sajid Javid, the housing and communities secretary, announced a consultation on banning the use of controversial “desktop studies”, which manufacturers and construction firms use to potentially clear flammable products without the need for full testing.

It marks a major shift from the government, which just weeks ago suggested it would allow use of the tests to continue.

The Independent revealed last month that dozens of MPs had written to Mr Javid urging him to change tack and ban desktop studies, which they said were placing “lives at risk”.

At the time, the Ministry of Housing said the government was looking at tightening regulations but insisted desktop studies were a necessary part of fire safety testing.

However, on Wednesday Mr Javid said he had listened to a warning from Dame Judith Hackitt, who is carrying out an independent inquiry into existing building safety regulations.

In her interim report, Dame Judith said: “The government should significantly restrict the use of desktop studies to approve changes to cladding and other systems to ensure that they are only used where appropriate and with sufficient, relevant test evidence.”

Announcing the new consultation, Mr Javid said: “We have listened carefully to Dame Judith Hackitt and we are taking action to strengthen building regulations guidance, which could mean that the use of ‘desktop studies’ are either significantly restricted or banned altogether.

“This demonstrates the tough measures we are prepared to take to make sure that cladding tests are as robust as possible and people are safe in their homes.”

Although the government is consulting on the possibility of banning desktop studies, minsters’ current proposed changes to planning regulations would allow the continued use of the tests, albeit under stricter conditions.

The two options laid out in the consultation document are to “do nothing” or limit the use of desktop studies. There is no an option for a complete ban on desktop studies in relation to building materials, although respondents will be asked if they would support such a change. The consultation will close on 25 May.

Ministers said that, if they do allow the ongoing use of desktop studies, they will seek to improve transparency of the assessments, boost scrutiny of the results and ensure that only accredited bodies are allowed to carry out the tests

Grenfell Firefighter tells Sky News with better communication equipment more people could have been saved

David Lammy, who coordinated the letter to Mr Javid from almost 50 MPs from Labour, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party, said the use of desktop studies should be banned immediately.

He told The Independent: “I’m pleased that, after considerable pressure, the Secretary of State has announced what appears to be a step in the right direction, but I’m surprised that he feels the need to consult on whether desktop studies should be scrapped.

“It goes without saying that in light of Grenfell Tower our fire testing and building regulations regime requires an overhaul, and it frankly beggars belief that the Government would even consider maintaining a testing regime that would allow combustible materials to be cleared for use on high rise buildings without testing.

“I’m clear that regulations that could result in materials being cleared for use on tower blocks without an actual fire test taking place are not fit for purpose and I would expect that the Secretary of State to agree with this.”

Desktop studies use data from previous assessments to clear combustible materials for use on high-rise residential buildings.

Some experts have warned that this results in corners being cut and inadequate testing of potentially lethal materials.

The cladding and insulation used on Grenfell Tower was found to be highly flammable, leading to flames engulfing the building within minutes.

Construction firms have lobbied heavily for the continuation of desktop studies, which are cheaper and quicker than full fire tests, but firefighters and local councils have called from them to be banned.

The Grenfell Tower disaster, in which 72 people died, prompted widespread suggestions that current building regulations are inadequate.

Tests carried out on behalf of the government found that materials on hundreds of tower blocks that had been deemed safe were actually highly flammable.

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