The Government has written to councils with revised guidance over the safety of aluminium composite (ACM) rain-screen cladding and announcing a new programme of large-scale testing.
This follows its appointment of an Expert Panel to advise on testing of cladding materials and additional measures to ensure the fire safety of tower blocks.
The Government’s new position is that ACM cladding could be safe to use on buildings if installed as part of a whole wall system that meets fire safety standards. The Expert Panel has advised a different approach to testing combustibility, which takes these wider fire protection features into account without the need for retesting those ACM samples already checked. Government says it will publish the results of the new tests being undertaken and that further guidance will be issued to councils in the near future.
Following the Grenfell disaster, the City Council acted swiftly, working with Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service to review the fire safety measures in the Evenlode and Windrush Towers and ensure they were safe. Under direction from Government, the City Council sent samples of the rain-screen cladding on, for the initial round of testing. As the samples failed those tests, the City Council committed to remove and replace the material - in compliance with Government guidance.
In the light of changing guidance from Government, the City Council will await the results of the new tests and further information from the Government’s Expert Panel before making the final decisions around cladding for Windrush and Evenlode. Meanwhile, work is already ongoing with contractors to consider alternative cladding options, put a schedule in place for the works and source materials. Lead times for the supply of non-ACM cladding materials and installation equipment have lengthened due to the high level of demand across the country currently. As a result it is expected to be some months before work could commence.
Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service reviewed the fire safety arrangements at Evenlode and Windrush, which include non-flammable insulation, sprinklers and heat and smoke alarm systems and the Chief Fire Officer confirmed the tower blocks are among the safest in the country. The cladding systems on the City Council’s other three tower blocks do not involve ACM and the refurbishment designs for all five blocks exceeded current Building Regulations requirements.
Councillor Bob Price, Leader of Oxford City Council, said: “Since the tragic Grenfell fire, Oxford City Council has acted swiftly in the best interests of our tower block residents. Their safety is paramount. We've consistently followed expert advice, and when we refurbished the Towers we went above and beyond the minimum requirements to ensure they are safe. We will now await the results of the new tests and the recommendations of the Expert Panel before taking the final decisions around cladding replacement. Meanwhile, we are continuing to put in place all the necessary arrangements to minimise the period of delay before work could be undertaken. Last month the Government committed to fund any necessary replacement works, and now it says this will not be the case. We would seek to recover our costs on the basis of their initial commitment.”