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Timber Framed Houses

Volume 591: debated on Thursday 22 January 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Wallace.)

I am very pleased indeed to have the opportunity to bring this matter to the House. I raised it during the Christmas Adjournment debate, when I dropped a heavy hint, and I am absolutely delighted that I have the opportunity to speak on it today.

Before getting into the detail, perhaps I should declare not so much an interest as a certain amount of knowledge. For 20 years, I worked in the building industry, designing and supervising the erection of buildings, including timber framed homes, so I have some practical, on-site experience. I was also for two years the Minister in charge of building regulations, and I am absolutely delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams), is at the Dispatch Box today, carrying on that work.

I am here today not because of either of those experiences, but because I am representing some very concerned residents in my constituency who live in Kennett Drive, Bredbury. Kennett Drive is an estate of new homes that was built 10 or 11 years ago, consisting of two and three-storey houses in blocks and terraces.

In June last year, a fire broke out in an empty home that was having what is called hot work carried out in it. This involved workmen using blowtorches and other hot equipment. The fire took hold and subsequently spread not only through that house but through the two adjacent ones, and the whole block of three homes was burned to the ground. The fire was attended by the Greater Manchester fire and rescue service. I am sorry to report that one firefighter was injured, although fortunately not seriously. There was no loss of life.

The matter of real concern is the way in which the fire spread from home to home. We are aware, of course, that fires break out in homes. House fires are by no means unknown, but it is extremely unusual for a fire in a modern-built home to spread rapidly to the neighbouring properties. The residents of Kennett Drive are understandably concerned about the rapid spread of the fire and they are asking legitimate questions. They want to know whether this is something that could happen to their home, and whether there is something wrong on the estate that could lead to more problems.

The homes are of timber frame construction. From the outside, they look like conventional brick-built houses, but they are not. The outer skin of the building is indeed brick, but behind that there is a cavity, and behind that something called a vapour barrier. This is material that hangs down behind the cavity and, as the name suggests, prevents vapour from penetrating the building. Behind the vapour barrier is the timber frame, which forms the actual structure of the house. On the inside of the timber frame is the plasterboard that we see when we stand inside the rooms—so from the inside we see plaster and from the outside we see brick, but between the two are the timber frame and the vapour barrier.

The risk involved in using timber construction methods has been recognised, and is accounted for in building regulations with measures intended to prevent fires from spreading. A compellingly named method known as fire-stopping is used. It normally involves placing vertical and horizontal barriers within the cavity, so that if a fire gets into the space it cannot spread either sideways or upwards. It is clear that something went wrong in this case, and it is worth considering whose job it was to get it right. The primary responsibility lies with the contractor who built the houses. The contractor has a responsibility to build them according to the design it has been given, and to ensure that the buildings conform to the regulations and are finished off properly. A secondary, but important, responsibility rests with the inspection authority that approves the design and casts an eye over the construction. On this occasion, it was a regulatory body known as the National House Building Council. It is the NHBC that offers the much quoted 10-year guarantee, which is offered on homes whose construction it has supervised.

So, what went wrong, and could it happen again? I have had a meeting with the Greater Manchester fire and rescue service and talked extensively to its fire investigation officer. Indeed, I checked at the beginning of this week to ensure that the information he originally gave me was still in date, and it seemed that it was. The fire investigation officer has received reports from those who were on site at the time, and he believes that the fire originated as a result of a workman using a hot tool or flame and accidentally setting fire to part of the timberwork. He has also noted that the fire-stopping rules were not fully observed, particularly those relating to the horizontal barriers that were supposed to prevent the upward spread of flame. In at least one case, those barriers are believed to have been missing, which meant that instead of having a barrier, a chimney had effectively been created.

Another important factor was that the vapour barrier was flammable. In other words, in the presence of flames and heat, the barrier burns. The fire officer showed me a graphic video of what happens when a sample of that material comes into contact with fire. The material is capable of sustaining fire and burning. In effect, it is like a wick going up the cavity, all the way to the top.

The officer also showed me information from Greater Manchester fire service on the fires that it has tackled inside the area and elsewhere. There is a common set of circumstances that lead to fires in timber frame buildings, particularly residential buildings. First, there is the hot work problem, which seems to have been the case on this particular occasion. In any situation where there is a pipe, particularly a metal pipe, penetrating the wall, problems can arise. If heat is applied to one end of the pipe, it will transfer along the pipe and can quite easily set fire to the timber on the far side. Several of the fires that were brought to my attention by the fire service were caused by quite small things, such as cutting holes in the plasterboard to put in an electric socket. To most people that sounds like a simple DIY job, but it is not if they finish up by breaking through the fire protection of the timber frame, because then there is risk.

Before I draw several points to the Minister’s attention, let me just say that I have spoken to the NHBC, corresponded with its chief executive and met its senior surveyor, Mr Bamford, who not only visited me in my constituency office but inspected the site of the fire. The NHBC fully accepts that it was the regulating authority. It also points out that the homes are more than 10 years old and therefore just out of guarantee, but it is not flinching from taking what responsibility it needs to take. Representatives from the authority have a meeting with the fire service later this month to look at and assess the evidence. I am pressing them strongly to carry out a survey of other homes in Kennett Drive so that it can be established whether the missing horizontal fire barriers were a one-off omission or commonplace on that estate.

I do not think that the Kennett Drive fires will be a one-off. Last year, something approaching 60,000 timber framed homes were erected in England. I suggest that since Kennett Drive was built 11 years ago, there must be at least 1 million similar timber framed homes, and that is probably a serious underestimate.

I thank the Minister for the letter he sent me, because I have been in correspondence with him as well. I am pleased to hear that he has commissioned some work from the Building Research Establishment, and I hope that he may be able to say a word or two about that. I also have some questions and some asks. I want him to join me and raise the profile of the fire risk in timber framed homes. I hope that he will alert the regulatory bodies to the problem, especially the NHBC, the LABC—the Local Authority Building Control organisation—and local government building control officers. The risk of the fire-stopping going wrong is severe, and the need to ensure that it does not is acute.

I want the Minister to agree to change the building regulations to prohibit the use of flammable vapour barriers in cavities where there is a timber framed construction. Ensuring that we do not put flammable wicks in cavities in timber framed buildings strikes me as being a very sensible first aid move. I also want him to ask BRE to take quick action to ensure that there is always fire-stopping at the top of the cavity. It is all a bit technical, but the fact of the matter is that the fire will spread up the cavity until it stops. If it is not stopped by anything, it goes into the roof space and burns along the roofs. The evidence from Kennett Drive and elsewhere suggests that once the fire gets into the roof space, you’ve had it, so where the wall and the roof space meet is a crucial point.

Three households were burned out in my constituency in a fire that should have been impossible, and that would have been impossible if the fire-stopping had been effective and if the vapour barrier had been non-flammable. Perhaps it was a one-off, but Greater Manchester fire and rescue service says that it is not and has the videos to prove it. I am delighted that the Minister is already on the case, but I urge him to join me in getting contractors and regulators to understand the importance of proper supervision and workmanship in the first place. I want him to prohibit the use of flammable vapour barriers and I would like him to do that immediately. I want him to join me in warning the building industry and the DIY trade of the added risks of fire when alterations are done and plasterboard is cut open when people are not paying attention to the consequences. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Sir Andrew Stunell) on securing the debate and raising the issues on behalf of his constituents in Kennett Drive. I was aware that he brought some professional knowledge to his ministerial experience in the Department from 2010 to 2012, but I did not realise that it was so extensive and deep. I have learned something about my colleague this afternoon.

Fire safety, quite rightly, continues to be a priority for the Government. We have a continuing success story with regard to reducing not only fires but deaths and injuries from fires. The number of fires attended has fallen by 64% over the past decade and the latest fire statistics report that in 2013-14 there were 275 fire fatalities, 14 fewer than in 2012-13. Accidental fire deaths in the home in England, which account for three fifths of all fire fatalities, have decreased by 36% in the past decade.

The Government continue to demonstrate our commitment to fire safety through the Department’s Fire Kills campaign, which promotes a wide range of fire safety messages to encourage fire safety behaviour in the home. The campaign’s primary focus is promoting the installation of smoke alarms, as a person is at least four times more likely to die in a fire in the home if they do not have a working smoke alarm. The latest English housing survey, published last July, reported that the proportion of households with a working smoke alarm is 88%, up from 76% 12 years before. In 2011, Fire Kills collaborated with the UK Timber Frame Association, now the Structural Timber Association, on the “Living in a modern timber frame home” publication to educate the owners of such homes on the specific fire precautions they should take.

My right hon. Friend does not need this made clear to him, but I should make it clear for the benefit of anyone reading or listening to the debate that the building regulations are primarily concerned with ensuring that buildings are safe, sustainable and accessible. The building regulations are not about promoting, or banning, types of material or types of construction. Timber framed construction is a popular means of building new houses. It is also viewed by many to be more sustainable than some other forms of construction. However, I am aware there have been concerns about the fire performance of timber framed buildings. These first came into the spotlight in 2007 after a number of large construction site fires. In 2010, the Government took steps to address those concerns by working with the industry and the Health and Safety Executive. It was recognised that a large timber frame being erected near to existing occupied buildings could present a significant risk, and the HSE updated its guidance and the industry developed safer working practices as a result. On 29 October 2014, the HSE issued an open letter reminding the industry of its responsibilities and has recently prosecuted a firm of architects for safety failings in the design of a new timber framed care home in Hemlington near Middlesbrough.

Building regulations set out a range of provisions designed to protect people from a fire, including alarms, escape routes, measures to prevent fire spread and facilities to support the fire and rescue service. Controlling fire spread requires that buildings are properly designed and constructed. This can sometimes go wrong, but building control bodies are there to try to spot errors. However, as my right hon. Friend will know, they cannot always find all of them. As he said, the ultimate responsibility rests with the builder to ensure that they are complying with the building regulations.

Fire statistics show that there is some evidence that fire spread is more common in timber framed buildings than in traditionally constructed masonry buildings. However, the number of deaths and injuries, which is primarily what we should be concerned about, is no different. The Department reviewed the available statistics in 2012. An analysis of fires in buildings of timber framed construction in England from 2009-10 to 2011-12 was published in December 2012. The report found that

“Fires in dwellings of timber frame construction experienced on average more damage than dwellings of no special construction”

In the last week, no doubt partly prompted by my right hon. Friend’s correspondence, officials have visited the latest statistics and confirmed that the trend is unchanged:

“Fires in dwellings of timber framed construction experienced on average more damage than those of no special construction. Of the 253 fires in timber framed dwellings in the last five years, 21% of these resulted in an area of heat and flame damage of over 100m2, compared to 12% (of the 6,603) for dwellings of no special construction.”

That shows that it would be wrong to say that problems exist only in timber framed buildings. However, there is a statistically significant difference in the proportion of fires that result.

I really appreciate the information that my hon. Friend is giving us. If his figure of 100 square metres, which is 1,000 square feet, is correct, that is about the size of a traditional house, so we are talking about a house that is completely burnt out. If I have got my figures right, that suggests that we have quite a problem.

I thank my right hon. Friend for bringing the statistics to life. No doubt he can think more quickly on his feet because he is more used to analysing such statistics than I am.

We have, of course, looked at the issue. For the most part, fire spread in timber buildings is within the construction. My right hon. Friend gave a good description of what a timber-framed building would look like to the layman. This presents challenges to firefighters trying to extinguish the fire, but it is much less of a problem for people who are trying to escape.

What are we doing? Poor building practice and its impacts on fire spread are not limited to the timber frame industry. A fire in any building presents a serious hazard to its occupants and challenges for firefighters. Preventing this type of error is not simply a case of changing a regulation; it is about working with the industry and experts to find the best ways of doing things and sharing that information as widely as possible. As my right hon. Friend acknowledged, the Government have commissioned the Building Research Establishment to explore the potential to develop better, publishable guidance, examine current practice and explore and assess alternative options. That is one part of a programme of research and analysis relating to fire protection in new buildings.

I am very pleased to hear that. Will the BRE look at the issue of flammable vapour barriers? That seems to me an important first step. If my hon. Friend cannot confirm that, perhaps I can encourage him to prompt the BRE to do so.

On a separate matter, I understand that building regulations in regard to fire are designed to avoid loss of life, but my constituents and the residents of Kennett Drive are not very reassured by the knowledge that although their life will be saved, their house will be destroyed.

My right hon. Friend makes entirely reasonable and understandable points. Whether property is damaged by fire or by flooding, it is an incredibly distressing experience. Although residents have escaped with their life, their possessions, photographs and everything that is personal to their family may well have been lost. I would not want to make light of that.

Let me describe the further measures that we are about to put in place, which I hope will reassure my right hon. Friend. The BRE research is due to be completed this year and we hope it will help to improve the quality of fire protection work for all types of building. As he knows, this stems from part B of the building regulations. The Government have a rolling programme of reviewing different parts of the building regulations, some of which he will have presided over and some of which I have been presiding over. We are committed to reviewing part B. When we do that, we will certainly look at the issue of the prohibition of combustible vapour barriers that he raised.

I can reassure my right hon. Friend and the House that we are fully up to speed with an analysis of the issues and are committed to highlighting the risk to the public. Once we have the research from the BRE, we will consider changes to part B. No doubt my right hon. Friend’s well informed suggestions, which he made in the debate and which he will no doubt follow up in writing, will form an important part of that evidence base and allow us to conduct a thorough and meaningful review of part B of the building regulations which, if necessary, will further improve the safety of timber framed buildings and the confidence of people who live and work in them.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.