Oxford City Council to replace cladding at Hockmore Tower

Published: Thursday, 11th July 2019

Oxford City Council has made the decision to replace some of the cladding on Hockmore Tower while, with the fire service, providing assurance to residents that their homes are nonetheless safe.

The decision follows a partial clarification from the Government last week (1 July) about the use of cladding on tower blocks. As before, Oxford City Council will seek to recover the cost of replacing the cladding on Hockmore Tower, in Cowley, from the Government.

Immediately after the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, on 14 June 2017, Oxford City Council committed to remove the Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) rain screen that surrounded Evenlode and Windrush towers in Blackbird Leys. ACM was the type of rain screen used in Grenfell Tower.  

This was completed in June 2018, and Oxford City Council was among the first local authorities in the country to remove and replace ACM rain screens.

However, in May it emerged that a cladding system featuring a High-Pressure Laminate (HPL) rain screen and combustible insulation had failed a fire safety test carried out by a private company.

The Government, which sets building regulations, has still not yet carried out its own test on HPL rain screens – but last week (1 July) it confirmed for the first time that the owners of tower blocks needed to remove cladding consisting of HPL rain screens and combustible insulation.

While the insulation on Hockmore Tower is non-combustible Rockwool, the new Government guidance changes the interpretation of building regulations and Oxford City Council has taken the decision to remove and replace the building’s HPL rain screen.

In June Inside Housing reported that L&Q, Hyde Housing, Enfield Council, Notting Hill Genesis, Clarion, Metropolitan Thames Valley, Barking & Dagenham Council and Newham Council had all decided to remove HPL cladding from 10 blocks.

Research carried out by insulation manufacturer Rockwool estimated that almost 1,700 high-rise and high-risk buildings have potentially combustible cladding materials different to that used on Grenfell Tower, a large proportion of which are HPL.

Keeping residents informed

Members of Oxford City Council’s housing support team yesterday (10 July) visited Hockmore Tower to hand deliver letters explaining the decision, and answer questions from residents.

A dedicated email address and phone line have also been set up for residents of Oxford’s tower blocks to use if they have any further questions or concerns.

Fire service confirms Hockmore is safe

Oxfordshire’s Chief Fire Officer has also confirmed to residents of Hockmore Tower that their building is safe – and will remain safe during and after the work to replace the rain screen.

This is because in Hockmore Tower there is a comprehensive range of fire safety measures in place, including:

  • Sprinklers in all flats and bin storage areas, directly connected to a call-out system for the fire service 
  • Heat and smoke detectors in all communal areas, directly connected to a call-out system for the fire service
  • Upgraded communal area fire doors and flat entrance fire doors
  • Non-combustible insulation beneath the HPL rain screen
  • Fire breaks within the cladding system
  • Automatic venting system to stairwell to remove smoke
  • Upgraded fire seals to waste chutes
  • In the event of a fire, residents evacuate the building rather than staying put
  • Two flights of stairs available to leave the building

What is being replaced

The HPL rain screen – known as Trespa FR (Fire Resistant) – covers just 40% of Hockmore Tower’s façade. The remaining façade is covered by sheet aluminium, which is the safest type of rain screen on the market.

A small amount of HPL rain screen will also be removed from Evenlode and Windrush tower blocks in Blackbird Leys. The rain screen covers only the balcony panels – less than 10% of each building’s façade.

Oxford City Council will replace the HPL rain screen in all cases with sheet aluminium. The non-combustible mineral wool insulation beneath the rain screen will remain because this is already one of the safest types of building insulation available.

Foresters and Plowman towers are clad with sheet aluminium rain screen and non-combustible insulation. The rain screen and insulation on Foresters and Plowman towers does not need to be removed because it is already one of the safest cladding systems available.

Replacement costs and timeframes

The City Council’s Cabinet agreed yesterday (10 July) to allocate £1.5m to complete the five tower block refurbishment project, which includes the cost of the further fire safety works.

Residents – whether in City Council-owned or privately-owned accommodation – will not be charged for the work to their home.

Instead, the City Council will seek to recoup the estimated £1m cost of HPL replacement on Hockmore from the Government. The City Council has already recouped £1.2m from the Government for replacing the ACM rain screens that previously surrounded Evenlode and Windrush tower blocks.

The City Council aims to complete the work by January 2020. Fortem, which has been contracted to carry out the replacement, estimates that it will take three to four months to replace the cladding on the tower blocks.

Investment in Oxford's tower blocks

The cladding was installed on Evenlode, Hockmore and Windrush towers between 2016 and 2017 to improve the insulation of the buildings and reduce residents’ energy bills.

It was part of a £21m Oxford City Council project to improve fire safety systems, heating, insulation, waste recycling, entrances and landscaping – and secure the five buildings for another 30 years.

The investment included upgrading sprinkler systems, fire detectors and fire doors, and other upgraded fire safety measures, at all five tower blocks. The measures go far beyond what is currently required by the Government’s building regulations.

Sprinklers, for example, are not a legal requirement for existing tower blocks. However, the City Council, after listening to the advice of the fire service and Coroners’ recommendations following previous block fires, installed them anyway.

Councillor Mike Rowley, Oxford City Council Cabinet Member for Affordable Housing, said: “From the outset, Oxford City Council has put the safety of our tenants and residents first. We will not compromise on safety standards.

“We have gone above and beyond legal requirements at every stage to ensure an enhanced level of fire safety for the families living in our five tower blocks.

“Now that the Government has provided greater clarity on its requirements for tower blocks, we are acting quickly to remove and replace the cladding on Hockmore Tower.”

Simon Furlong, Chief Fire Officer of Oxfordshire County Council’s Fire and Rescue Service, said: “Oxford’s five tower blocks are safe to live in.

“Oxford City Council consulted Oxfordshire County Council’s Fire and Rescue Service for our advice before carrying out the refurbishment of the city’s five tower blocks, and they have been in constant communication with us ever since.

“When we assess fire safety we look at the building in the round. Hockmore Tower – with its fire alarms, upgraded fire doors, evacuation policy and, most especially, its sprinklers – far exceeds the standards required to determine that the building is safe.”