Nationalise BRE to fix ‘disastrous’ commercial ties, Fire Brigades Union says

Privatising the Building Research Establishment (BRE) was a “disastrous decision”, which should be reversed, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has said.

The building research and standards organisation, which was privatised in 1997, is responsible for testing building materials for safety features.

But the union claims the move to privatise the body opened “the testing regime to commercial pressures and commercial interests”, according to a motion passed at its annual conference last week.

“BRE’s private ownership has led to failures of competency, and BRE going too far to please the corporate clients whose products it tested and whom it relied on for income,” the motion added.

The union argued that the BRE should be renationalised, and oversight should be by a board that was representative of tenants, residents, local and national governments, trade unions in the field and the construction industry.

That would “ensure greater accountability, including a clear obligation to act in the public interest, and without pressure from business and commercial interest”.

FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said the decision to privatise had been a “complete disaster”.

“Corners have been cut and building safety compromised as the BRE bowed down to the building material companies which pay its wages,” he added. “There is even information that suggests that BRE failures may have had a role in Grenfell. It’s time to end this utter mess now.”

Senior figures at the BRE have been questioned at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry since the outset. In 2019, documents shown to the inquiry revealed that the BRE had warned the government of the risk of fire spread in buildings similar to Grenfell Tower as early as 2017.

But a witness from insulation firm Celotex, which was responsible for procuring some of the dangerous materials on Grenfell Tower, said in 2020 that a senior BRE staff member knew about attempts by his firm to manipulate a fire test.

However, the BRE staff member, Philip Clark, denied that was the case in 2021. When asked whether he had known about that, he accused the Celotex witness of “making it up”.

“This was a systemic deception, and they’ve kept it to themselves and a very limited number of people, and I would be the last person you would want to tell something like that, because I wouldn’t let it go,” he added.

He also denied that he had advised Celotex on how its products could pass fire tests, which would be against regulations within the UK Accreditation Standards (UKAS).

Gillian Charlesworth, who joined the BRE as chief executive in 2019, previously told Construction News that self-regulation was the best way to improve fire safety in the UK, as “the greatest expertise to get these things right lies within the industry”.

CN contacted the BRE and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities for comment.

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