The government was told it needed to clarify official guidance to ban Grenfell-style cladding in 2014 but failed to act, minutes released to Inside Housing reveal.
Minutes of a July 2014 meeting held by the Centre for Window and Cladding Technology, show officials were warned guidance was “not clear” regarding the use of deadly aluminium and polyethylene cladding.
The minutes show the Building Research Establishment (BRE) agreed to draft a clarification to clearly outlaw the material – compared to solid petrol by experts – but this was not done.
The aluminium composite material (ACM) polyethylene cladding was fitted onto the outside of Grenfell Tower in a refurbishment which was completed in 2016.
In June last year, flames ripped through this cladding system engulfing the building in flames and killing 72 people.
The minutes, released to Inside Housing under the Freedom of Information Act, say: “There have been major fires in buildings in various parts of the world where ACM materials have been used for the cladding, with the ACM responsible for the external fire spread.
“It was stated that [official guidance] is intended to prohibit the use of polyethylene-cored ACM in buildings over 18m… This is not clear from the wording of the current clause.”
They add that the BRE agreed to draft a ‘Frequently Asked Question’ for the official website to clarify this point, but this was never done.
Taken from the minutes of the CWCT Fire Group meeting minutes, held on 2 July 2014, which government officials attended
Use of ACM on high rise buildings
"ACM refers to aluminium composite material. The normal material consists of two skins of aluminium approx. 0,5mm thick separated by a polyethylene core 2 to 5mm thick. This material generally achieves a reaction to fire classification of class 0 or class B s1 d0. There are versions available with a mineral core which can achieve A2 s1 d0. There are also similar materials available with other metals such as copper used for the facing.
"There have been major fires in buildings in various parts of the world including the Middle East and France where ACM materials have been used for the cladding with the ACM responsible for external fire spread.
"It was stated that clause 12.7 of ADB is intended to prohibit the use of polyethylene cored ACM in buildings over 18m as they are not classed as limited combustibility.
"This is not clear from the wording of the current clause. The current clause is preceded by a heading ‘Insulation Materials/Products’ which implies that it only applies to insulation. The wording of the main text refers to filler materials which could be taken to include the polyethylene core but this is not clear.
"It was suggested that clarification could be achieved by means of a FAQ. Approved Documents can be downloaded from www.planningportal.gov.uk. The page for each Approved Document also has a FAQ section related to that Approved Document. [a representative from the BRE] agreed to raise this with [an official at the Department for Communities and Local Government]"
Square brackets indicate redacted names, which have been confirmed through sources. The full minutes can be downloaded below.
Reacting, Edward Daffarn, a survivor from the tower and part of campaign group Grenfell United, said: “The more we learn about what happened before Grenfell, from council to government to industry, the more we believe 72 people would be alive today if those in power had done their basic duty.
"To see the government was specifically warned about the dangers of using of this type of cladding years before the fire, before the refurbishment of Grenfell, is devastating. It adds to the growing list of warnings that were ignored.”
He added that “there must be no more excuses” over the banning and removal of combustible materials from other towers.
Steve Reed, a Labour MP who has campaigned on cladding, added: “This is damning proof that the government knew their fire safety guidance was flawed and dangerous and yet they did nothing.”
They minutes show government officials believed Approved Document B – the official guidance on fire safety – banned the use of flammable ACM through a clause stipulating that ‘insulation materials/products’ should be of limited combustibility.
However, this argument was rejected by the industry figures present as ACM cladding has no insulation function (see box: the Class 0 debate).
The minutes say: “The current clause is preceded by a heading ‘Insulation Materials/Products’ which implies that it only applies to insulation. The working of the main text refers to filler materials which could be taken to include the polyethylene core but this is not clear.”
After the Grenfell Tower blaze, government ministers – including chancellor Philip Hammond – relied on the passages about ‘insulation’ to claim that the cladding on Grenfell was banned.
In a letter to social landlords, sent on 22 June last year, Melanie Dawes, permanent secretary at the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), wrote: “For the avoidance of doubt, the core (filler) within an aluminium composite material (ACM) is an ‘insulation material/product’, ‘insulation product’, and/or ‘filler material’ as referred to in Paragraph 12.7... of Approved Document B.”
David Metcalfe, director of the CWCT, who attended the meeting, said: “It may well have been the intention that that the clause prohibited those materials, but the simple fact is that’s not was written in the guidance – and that is the big problem here.”
Emma Dent Coad, the Labour MP for North Kensington, where Grenfell Tower is located, said: “'It is shocking but not altogether surprising that this very clear and prescient advice was totally ignored.”
A spokesperson for the BRE said: “We were part of an ongoing discussion around FAQs for the planning portal with CWCT and other experts. This discussion concluded when the online government consultation re Approved Document B (ADB) was launched in February 2016. This was based on the collective view that these issues would best be covered off in the subsequent revision to ADB.”
An MHCLG spokesperson said: “As we have said repeatedly, our view is that the limited combustibility requirements in the guidance cover the core filler of a cladding panel.
“We are consulting on a ban on the use of combustible materials in the external walls of high rise residential buildings.”
Read our in-depth investigation into how building regulations have changed over time and how this may have contributed to the Grenfell Tower fire:
In the days following the Grenfell Tower fire on 14 June 2017, Inside Housing launched the Never Again campaign to call for immediate action to implement the learning from the Lakanal House fire, and a commitment to act – without delay – on learning from the Grenfell Tower tragedy as it becomes available.
One year on, we have extended the campaign asks in the light of information that has emerged since.
Here are our updated asks: