18-metre cladding threshold ‘completely arbitrary’, MP warns

The 18-metre threshold used to ban the use of flammable materials on high-rise buildings is “completely arbitrary” and driven by public fear, a Conservative MP has warned.

Following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the government changed fire and building rules to prohibit the use of combustible materials on the external walls of high-rise residential buildings above 18 metres, deemed high-risk.

Construction firms and property owners have scrambled to carry out remediation work, with the rule changes intended to ensure disasters can be avoided in the future.

But Conservative MP Sir Bernard Jenkin has argued that the 18-metre threshold is totally random as he accused the government of making rules that are led by “public preoccupation” rather than “real assessments”.

Jenkin, who was speaking during a debate on the fifth anniversary of the disaster, which killed 72 people, argued that those living in low-rise structures were at greater risk from fire, adding that some remediation work may have been carried out unnecessarily.

He said: “The 18-metre limit is a completely arbitrary distinction.

“Far more people die in fires in low-rise buildings, particularly homes of multiple occupation, than die in high-rise buildings and the 18-metre limit is a media-driven preoccupation. I could even say that the preoccupation with cladding is a media-driven preoccupation.

“This whole drive has been driven by public pressure, not by real risk assessment and that is what we needed.”

Jenkin also pointed out that some remediation work carried out on buildings higher than 18 metres in the direct aftermath of the disaster may have been unnecessary.

The MP for Harwich and North Essex said: “I guarantee that in the panic to designate certain buildings unsafe because of their cladding, a vast amount of cladding was removed at vast expense, which was probably unnecessary to remove because […] it was a blanket categorisation of cladding and height.”

Government guidance on new building regulations state that the 18-metre threshold was because of the higher risk to multiple households in buildings above that height.

It says: “Our approach prioritises action on buildings [of] 18 metres and above, because the risk to multiple households is greater when fire does spread in buildings of this height.”

The guidance adds that the government has taken action to protect all residents, including “reducing the height threshold for requiring sprinkler systems in new residential buildings”.

Jenkin also called for a total reform of building control, which includes forming a new, independent building safety investigation body. He said an independent body should be established to investigate failings that was not the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

“Investigations by the regulator can turn out to be conflicted, because the cause of the failure might be a failure of the HSE oversight and their regulation […] HSE and the new building safety regulator, which is part of HSE, should be precluded from any possibility of having to investigate itself, because it is inherently conflicted.”

The Building Safety Act, which became law in April, directly sets up the new Building Safety Regulator (BSR). It will oversee safety on buildings defined as “high-risk”, work to increase the competence of building professionals and have building-safety oversight. The BSR is headed by Peter Baker.

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