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AFTER the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower, the Government ordered an audit of high-rise social housing tower blocks across the country. At the heart of this audit are cladding tests. ESTEL FARELL-ROIG found out more about the tests.

PEOPLE across the UK woke up on Wednesday, June 14, to see images of a west London tower block being engulfed by flames.

The images shook the country, forcing the government to take immediate steps to understand why the disaster had happened and how to prevent similar tragedies. In an explanatory note about government building safety, issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government after the fire, it said: “Immediately after the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower, it was clear that the façade of that building had created risks to fire safety.

“Experts agreed that, from the information available, additional tests should be undertaken urgently on aluminium composite material cladding.”

Therefore, the department asked local authority and housing association landlords across the country to identify residential tower blocks – that is, properties of more than 18 metres in height – and to inspect them to identify whether the external cladding panels were made of aluminium composite material.

“We received advice that three types of ACM panels were on the market, each with a different core material, and that the core of only one of these would satisfy the definition for a material of limited combustibility,” it explains in the note. “The Building Research Establishment (BRE) was asked to develop a screening tests to determine which type of ACM had been used in the cladding.

“The test will show whether the core of the sample provided has flame retardant properties.”

No towers in Wales have the exact same cladding as the Grenfell block, but some did have aluminium composite material (ACM) – including three tower blocks managed by Newport City Homes. The three 11-storey towers are in the Gaer, St Julians and Ringland areas of Newport.

The housing association sent samples of cladding for testing and, a few days later, was notified that the four millimetres of external cladding had failed the test.

In a letter sent to residents, Newport City Homes, said: “The only element tested was the four millimetres of external cladding, which is only a small part of the whole cladding system.

“The buildings have a four millimetres layer of external cladding, then there is a 50 millimetres gap for ventilation.

“In the unlikely event of fire, the fire breaks between every floor expand to block off this ventilation and prevent the so-called ‘chimney effect’.

“Behind this is a 125 millimetres layer of fire retardant and non-combustible cladding insulation called Rockwool.

“Then there is a section of concrete and brick.”

After the results came out, the focus of the housing association turned to reassuring residents that the buildings are safe to live in. A spokeswoman said: “A failure in testing does not by itself mean that your building is unsafe. There would have to be a number of fire safety failures in a building, such as the lack of a fire break or using combustible insulation materials. That is not the case in our tower blocks.”

The spokeswoman also said that fire safety measures at their blocks include smoke/fire alarms, fire doors, fire breaks between every floor, as well as vertically, fire retardant paint, two stairways that act as evacuation routes, and emergency lighting.

She added that their board will meet this month and are expected to support the installation of sprinklers in each of the tower blocks. She also said the blocks of flats, which have a concrete framework and were built in the late 1960s, have between 84 and 85 flats each. The cladding was part of a wider refurbishment works of the tower blocks, she added.

“The refurbishment included new kitchens and bathrooms,” she said. “The whole programme of works cost £12.5million for the three tower blocks.”

The spokeswoman confirmed they are in conversations with the principal principle contractor since the test results came out.

However, Newport City Homes was far from being the only housing association whose samples had failed the tests. By Saturday last week, all 203 cladding samples sent in from around the country had failed the tests, raising uncertainty and criticism of the tests.

Earlier on in the week, a panel of experts recommended carrying out further tests on cladding and insulation.

The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) said large-scale tests will help establish how different types of aluminium composite material (ACM) panels behave in a fire, in combination with different types of insulation.

A spokesman for the DCLG said: “The results of these tests will help landlords make decisions on any further measures that may need to be put in place to make their buildings safe.

“The further tests will involve building a 9 metres tall demonstration wall with a complete cladding system – including panels and insulation – fixed to it, and then subjecting it to a fire that replicates a severe fire in a flat breaking out of a window and whether it then spreads up the outside wall.”

In a written statement last Thursday, Carl Sargent AM, cabinet secretary for communities and children, welcomed the UK expert panel’s announcement of ‘whole system’ tests. “They will be helpful in considering whether panels which fail the initial test can be used safely as part of a wider building external wall system, and therefore could remain on a building under certain approved circumstances,” he said.

The AM also said that Newport City Homes had confirmed to him all recommended interim fire safety measures advised have been implemented.

He added: “South Wales Fire and Rescue Service (SWFRS) has inspected and reported adequate fire safety provisions were found to be in place during its audit.

“The premises have been deemed compliant in terms of the legislation that SWFRS enforces.

“I am pleased that tenants’ needs are at the heart of this activity and that Newport City Homes is working very positively with the Fire and Rescue Service.” To view South Wales Fire and Rescue Service tips for people living in high rise buildings, visit southwales-fire.gov.uk/English/business_fire_safety/Pages/High-riseling.aspx