All 200 or so residents were evacuated and, while two people were injured, thankfully there were no fatalities. So why the widespread media coverage?
Last Friday’s blaze in a six-storey student block in Bolton was headline news. All 200 or so residents were evacuated and, while two people were injured, thankfully there were no fatalities. So why the widespread media coverage?
What shocked many was that, two years after Grenfell, another fire appears to have spread rapidly up the exterior of a residential building. An investigation into the causes is under way, but one thing is clear: fire compartmentation – containing a blaze in one part of the building – failed.
What’s more, this scheme, known as the Cube, was clad in high-pressure laminated panels (HPL). In the wake of Grenfell, the government has focused on removing aluminium composite material (ACM) and supplied funding to do so. However, there have long been concerns that this focus has been too narrow and cost controls have prevented the government from tackling other combustible materials used in cladding systems, including HPL.
The government did indeed test HPL over the summer. The material, when categorised class B for fire resistance, received approval provided – and this is the nub of it – the cladding system was installed correctly.
The government also warned that HPL would not be safe if used in combination with combustible insulation – it was tested with non-combustible stone wool. Other types of HPL have a lower fire resistance (below class B), so it said building owners should be aware of specified products being substituted on site.
As is the way, especially in the middle of a general election campaign, this issue has taken a political twist, with shadow housing minister Sarah Jones claiming ministers knew “this type of cladding was lethal for over a year and failed to act”.
Until last week public anger was focused on ACM; the Bolton fire changes that. Now the spotlight is firmly on HPL and other combustible cladding materials. This case also sounds the alarm for low-rise buildings under 18m, which are not currently considered high risk enough to warrant tougher safety standards. Expect the debate to rage well beyond polling day.
Chloë McCulloch, editor, Building