Why are combustible materials still being used in new buildings?

Eighteen months after the Grenfell Tower fire the government announced a ban on the use of combustible materials in the external walls of high-rise residential buildings. It was too late for the 72 people killed at the west London council block that was wrapped in plastics.

In the preceding years, a boom in building flats meant that thousands of other blocks were wrapped in similar materials, and the country is now enmeshed in a £15bn high-rise fire safety crisis, leading to rows about who should pay to replace the dangerous materials.

The government rationale for limiting the ban to residential buildings over 18 metres tall is that they represent the highest risk: if schools and lower apartment blocks burn, loss of life is less likely. But many wanted the government to go further, not least when some buildings below 18 metres went up in flames. So the government consulted on banning combustible cladding and insulation on residential buildings above 11 metres and asked what other buildings should be protected. Schools, hospitals and care homes, came the reply from many.

That consultation closed a year ago and no government response has been forthcoming. Informed sources suggest that ministers are reluctant to widen the scope of the already sprawling safety crisis by declaring many more buildings off limits for plastic insulation and combustible cladding.

The plastics-based materials industry is also a determined lobbyist and does not want more of the insulation market that it dominates to be placed out of reach.

After Grenfell, Kingspan, the Irish company that made some of the combustible phenolic foam insulation used on the tower, launched a Westminster lobbying campaign to “pull out all the stops to convince the government” that an outright ban was wrong, the inquiry into the disaster has heard.

Last month the lack of action on schools sparked community anger not far from Grenfell. Residents in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea noticed Kingspan foam boards on the building site of a new school project. They confronted the council’s deputy leader, Kim Taylor-Smith, expressing disbelief that the council was using materials from one of the Grenfell manufacturers. Under pressure, the council has now banned the use on its projects of any materials by Kingspan and others linked to the tower.

The council said that some of the evidence submitted to the inquiry had “brought into question the reliability of the safety certificates and the evidence on which they were based”.

But everywhere else, as the government ponders its next step, combustible materials continue to be used in schools. Last week the department of education began a consultation recommending some improvements in fire safety standards in schools, but proposing that combustible cladding could still be used on buildingsunder 18m in height. That is in line with current regulations, if not always with the views of parents and teachers.

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