HC Deb 30 March 1976 vol 908 cc1269-80

11.19 p.m.

Mr. Keith Speed (Ashford)

I raise tonight a problem that has caused great concern in the town of Ashford, but the implications, financial and practical, go way outside the borders of Kent. For quite a few years expanded polyurethane ceiling boards have been used by local authorities. In 1970 one of the manufacturers claimed that the then Ministry of Housing and Local Government was a major specifier of the material and that it was being used directly by the Greater London Council and was specified on many overspill contracts in towns such as Andover, Huntingdon and Thetford.

The material is cheap and easy to install and has good thermal insulation. I should like to make it clear that I am concerned only about the special risks of polyurethane ceiling boards under a roof space, because the same kind of risk does not arise from other uses of the material.

The former Ashford Urban District Council used it for ceilings in 380 housing units in the early 1970s. On 27th November 1973 a fire occurred in a council house at Arcon Road, Ashford, fortunately without causing injury. The first-floor ceilings were constructed of polyurethane ceiling board. The extent and nature of the fire alerted the council and the local Press and there were some dramatic headlines.

The polyurethane ceiling in that house disintegrated and the roof collapsed. I believe that the Kent County Council fire brigade was concerned about the use of foamed plastic and the toxic gases produced as a result of the fire.

The Ashford UDC wrote to the Building Research Establishment in November 1973, and in January 1974 it had a reply about polyurethane ceilings and other materials. The Establishment said: Plaschem"— the name of the particular brand of polyurethane— with plaster finish is stated to have a Class 1 Surface Spread of Flame rating but is not intended to provide any degree of fire resistance when used as a soffit to a timber joist ceiling. Thus it would be expected that fire would penetrate into the roof space before burning through the door or walls, the time depending on the severity of the fire within the cupboard. The paper liner to the Plaschem on the upper face would decompose rapidly, allowing ignition of the polyurethane which would be likely to increase the rate of spread throughout the roof space, possibly substantially. The burning of the Plaschem in the roof will result in loss of support to the plaster below, which will fall. There is a strong possibility that pieces of burning Plaschem will fall with it, causing rapid involvement of the rooms beneath. I believe that that is exactly what happened.

The next event of note was a letter from the Director-General of the Greater London Council to the new Ashford Borough Council following local government reorganisation. In that letter, dated 16th May 1975, he told the Ashford Chief Executive Officer: In the course of continuing research into new building materials we have had occasion to look again at expanded polyurethane ceiling board. Recent experience and tests that have been made indicate that these boards respond to certain fire conditions in a way that had not been foreseen, especially when used beneath timber joists and in association with other constructions which leave cavities. As a result of tests, the Council is of the opinion that expanded polyurethane ceiling board beneath timber joists to first floor ceilings could lead to an increase in fire hazard over conventional materials due to:

  1. (a) allowance of more rapid penetration of roof space leading to greater rapidity of fire spread;
  2. (b) structural damage occurring at an earlier stage, and
  3. (c) greater rate of smoke production, representing a greater risk both to house occupants and firemen.
The Council has therefore decided to take remedial action in its own dwellings where the material has been used in conjunction with timber joists by removing the expanded polyurethane ceiling board completely and replacing it with plasterboard finished with an applied decorative paper and paint plus glass fibre bats to meet the required insulation standards. The Council has kept the Department of the Environment and the Home Office informed. That was obviously a matter of some significance. Ashford Borough Council is no longer using the material, but it had an estimate in May 1975 that it would cost?154,000 to replace polyurethane ceilings in 380 dwellings. I understand that the current estimate is much nearer?200,000. I also understand that it is costing the GLC more than?750,000 to replace ceilings in its dwellings.

On 19th August 1975 the Department of the Environment wrote to the GLC, telling the Assistant Director-General, among other things: On balance we consider that the use of this material may involve a slight additional hazard that might justify restricting its use in new buildings, possibly by requiring ceilings below roofs to have a resistance of fire similar to that achieved by the traditional ceiling. We shall be looking into this, and if a case appears to be established, an amendment to the Building Regulations will be made in due course. We do not feel, however, that the additional risk is such as to justify the replacement or modification of existing ceilings made of polyurethane boards. We believe that, on the most pessimistic view, this risk is minimal and does not warrant the expense and inconvenience of the work that would be required. The letter went on to say that the Department could not help to meet the cost of any remedial action.

In a report dated spring 1975, the Greater London Council gave condensed results—they had to be condensed for reasons of commercial confidentiality—of tests carried out comparing polyurethane ceiling board with conventional plasterboard. The council had the full co-operation of the manufacturer, who took a very responsible attitude.

The report said: When a fire was started in the room with a conventional ceiling system the plasterboard acted as a fire barrier and restricted the progress of the fire for about 20 minutes. When a similar fire was started in the second room the foamed polyisocyanurate ceiling board offered no significant fire resistance and allowed the fire to penetrate into the roof space after 7 minutes. The roof of the building with the polyisocyanurate ceiling system collapsed 21 minutes after the fire was started whereas the roof of the building with the conventional ceiling system was still structurally sound when the fire was stopped after 25 minutes. The rate of smoke production by the fire in the room with the foamed polyisocyanurate ceiling board, was much greater than by the fire in the room with the conventional ceiling system. This was most significant at the stage when the fire broke through the polyisocyanurate ceiling board, into the roof space, allowing the polyisocyanurate foam, bitumen sarking and roofing timbers to become involved in the fire. It said that the expanded polyurethane ceiling board seemed to produce a greater rate of smoke production, representing a greater risk to both house occupants and firemen … a much earlier occurrence of smoke hazard … allowance of a more rapid penetration of the roof space, leading to a greater rapidity of fire spread … structural damage occurring at an earlier stage. It went on: "As a result of these conclusions it was considered that the use of the polyurethane board as a ceiling under timber roof construction constitutes an unacceptable hazard to occupants and that remedial work should be carried out in those dwellings where the system has been employed in order to achieve an acceptable performance. Obvious courses are either to fix plaster board to the underside of the existing ceiling by nailing through to the ceiling joists or to remove the polyurethane board, fit insulation in the form of quilt over the joists, or slabs between the joists, and fix plasterboard but, before recommending either action, it was considered proper to investigate any possible cheaper alternative. One such alternative was considered to be an inturnescent paint of known good performance. Those are dramatic words, representing a totally different attitude and emphasis after the tests were carried out from what the Department was previously saying.

Ashford by this time—and no doubt other authorities advised of this report—was very concerned. There was further correspondence with the Greater London Council last December. The GLC believes that every fire starting in a room with expanded polyurethane ceilings presents a risk of earlier spread and challenges the Department of the Environment's cost-benefit analysis figures, which sought to show that the cost of remedial measures to replace these ceilings was at least twice as great as the notional cost of the risk of death.

At the request of the Leader of the Ashford Borough Council, I wrote to the Minister on 30th January and received a letter dated 18th February. In that reply, the Minister said that any additional risks involved in the use of polyurethane ceiling board were minimal and that the Department could not give any financial assistance towards replacement.

Tragically, a week later, on 26th February, there was a fire in an old people's bungalow and one of my constituents, Mr. Stokes, died in the blaze. I should like publicly to extend my sympathy to his family. The ceiling of that bungalow was polyurethane. Of course, local residents, particularly the Orion Way Residents Association, expressed great concern, understandably, at having had a second fire within three years in the area, this one involving a fatality. I have visited the site and have photographs which were taken shortly afterwards by the fire brigade. The roof of the bungalow burned right through and there was clearly a fierce blaze.

Following this, Ashford Borough Council, acting with promptness and understanding, instituted an independent inquiry by the Royal Institute of British Architects into the general construction of the 380 houses, including 67 bungalows, and particularly including the use of polyurethane ceiling board and other aspects of construction. The council has insisted that the findings of that report will be made public. The council has agreed, following publication of the report, to implement any findings subject to the financial approval of the Department of the Environment.

Having outlined the facts leading to the present situation, I should like to put some questions to the Minister. First, can he give an indication of how many houses nationally have expanded polyurethane ceilings?—I understand that there are more than 1,400 in the Greater London area and I know that there are 380 in Ashford and I believe that there are very many more nationally in places as far apart as Birmingham and Manchester, quite apart from the GLC overspill towns.

Secondly, there is clearly a dramatic difference of view in the professional advice given to the Minister and the professional advice given to the Greater London Council on this material. I am not qualified to know which is right. However, I have read some of the factory inspectors' reports and I suspect that the advice given to the GLC is nearer to the truth at the moment than the advice apparently being given to the Minister.

Thirdly, if there is an increase in risk, and there clearly is, can we use just cash calculations? I appreciate the expenditure terms and I have been in the Minister's Department and know the arguments about accidents, but no deaths of injuries—and we are talking about particularly unpleasant deaths and injuries—can be accepted if in some way they can be avoided by expenditure which may amount to only a few million pounds. I guess that the GLC is the largest authority and its expenditure is about?750,000.

Fourthly, can the Minister confirm that the fire-resisting properties of polyurethane ceilings are substantially less than those of conventional ceilings? I think that it is common ground between us that polyurethane burning produces isocyanates and hydrogen cyanide and that these are toxic fumes not only dangerous to the inhabitants of tthe premises, of course, but a danger and hazard to fire fighters and people in neighbouring premises because of construction methods which allow fumes to be earned through roof spaces.

Fifthly, will the Minister reconsider his refusal to give any financial help to local authorities for remedial action? It will be a heavy burden for Ashford if it has to undertake this remedial action and, along with the GLC and many other authorities, it was recommended to take this action by the Minister some years ago.

Finally—and this is not a totally hypothetical question—what will be the Department's attitude to the RIBA report, which it is hoped to publish in the not-too-distant future. Clearly, we cannot prejudge the conclusions now and I do not know what they will be, but they will be important for the ratepayers of Ashford. If the report follows the lines of the GLC view, will the Department be prepared to look again at the whole problem?

I do not wish to be alarmist, but many of my constituents are very anxious. One has recently died. I understand and share the anxiety of my constituents and others who are worried about this problem and I hone that tonight the Minister will frankly tell the House of the scale of the problem and will throw more light than has been shed so far on how dangerous the situation is.

11.33 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

The hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Speed) has performed a very valuable service by bringing this serious issue before the House tonight. I welcome this opportunity to say something about the use of Polyurethane boards in ceilings. A lot has been said and written recently about the risks to people who live in houses with ceilings made of this material. I assure the hon. Member that I shall carefully read what he has said. If necessary, I shall communicate with him. I assure him that such a serious matter is constantly under review and we shall consider the evidence and findings of the RIBA inquiry.

I ought first to explain that polyurethane board—sometimes referred to by a trade name, Plaschem—is used for ceilings in bungalows, and in the storey immediately below the roof in houses and flats because it provides a measure of thermal insulation at slightly lower cost than a conventional construction. We know from the GLC that it has been used in 1,414 GLC dwellings and 2,568 dwellings built by the GLC in expanding towns. I shall try to get the other information for which the hon. Member asked. I do not have it to hand.

I should also say that some of the criticisms of this material have been ill-informed or exaggerated.

Mr. Ronald Brown (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

That is rubbish.

Mr. Armstrong

Two main charges have been made: first, that polyurethane ceilings give rise to a more rapid spread of fire than conventional materials; secondly, that when polyurethane ceilings burn, they give off poisonous gases. There is, of course, some truth in both statements, but what we have to ask ourselves is whether people are less likely to escape from fire in a house or flat with these ceilings than if the ceilings were made of plaster board.

We have given very careful consideration to this problem, and we do not think the available evidence shows that there is any significant difference in the likelihood of escape. The matter was first drawn to our attention by the Greater London Council after a fire in one of its houses at Andover before construction was finished. The GLC concluded that the risk involved in using polyurethane ceiling boards was not acceptable, and it proposed to replace it in the other houses in which it has been used.

As many local authorities throughout the country were building houses with polyurethane ceilings, we asked the Fire Research Station to carry out some experiments to determine the extent of the risk. This research shows that fire can break through a polyurethane ceiling more quickly than through a conventional plasterboard ceiling, although not as quickly as some publicity has implied. But polyurethane is used for ceilings on the topmost floor of buildings and it is not always a bad thing if fire breaks through the roof quickly. This is because the greatest risk in the early stages of a fire is not from the fire itself, but from the smoke and toxic fumes it gives off. Most people who die in fires are killed in this way and not by heat or flame. If the fire breaks through the ceiling, this will sometimes have the beneficial effect of reducing the spread of smoke and fumes through the house when people are trying to escape. This can in some cases be more important in saving life than preventing the spread of fire through the roof space.

Then there is the question of the smoke and poisonous gases produced when a polyurethane ceiling burns. Of course, any significantly large fires produce lethal quantities of smoke and carbon monoxide and ceilings are not the only part of a room likely to burn; nor are they the part likely to catch fire first. Again much modern furniture is also made of polyurethane materials that produce other toxic fumes, and furniture is likely to burn before ceilings. By the time a ceiling catches fire, it will not usually add significantly to the danger that has already been produced by the burning furniture.

I now turn to three recent fires which have rightly caused some public disquiet, including that in the constituency of the hon. Member. May I first join the hon. Member in expressing sympathy with the relatives of his constituent, and with the other people who have suffered shock and loss which house fires always cause? House fires are frightening experiences and we all need to be vigilant at all times to minimise the risks. We always consider very carefully reports on fires of this sort, to see what lessons we can learn from them, and we have looked at the information available on these fires very carefully indeed.

We still do not think on present evidence that polyurethane ceilings now in use constitute an unacceptable risk. But we are never complacent about fire matters. We shall be looking very carefully at the position in the light of developments in the building industry and any further information that becomes available following the fire in the hon. Member's constituency. If we think there is any action that we can usefully take, we shall, of course, take it.

The first of these fires occurred last November in a bungalow at Wilmslow in Cheshire. The fire started when a pan of fat caught light. It had been put on the fire to melt while the housewife paid a quick visit to a neighbouring shop. She returned to find the kitchen on fire, but she was able to rescue her invalid husband from the living-room.

The second fire took place last month in an upper flat in a two-storey block at Harlow. Here, again, the cause of the fire was the ignition of a pan of fat. It had been left unattended while the tenant had a cup of coffee in the living-room. Again, although the flat was damaged, the occupants escaped without difficulty.

In both cases the fire started with a pan of fat—a burning pan of fat is a significant danger in a building of any construction. We do not think that on balance there was anything in either case which showed that the presence of the polyurethane ceiling boards in any way increased the risk to the occupants. Perhaps the only way of guarding against fires of this sort is by trying to convince people that hot fat is a dangerous substance, and encouraging them to handle it with the caution it demands.

I now come to the fire at Ashford last month. This was in some respects different, and our detailed inquiries into it are not yet complete. From the information at present available it appears that the house was a small terraced bungalow occupied by an elderly man and his wife. The wife was out when the fire occurred. It appears that, after working on his car, the man went down the road to collect some petrol. When he came back, he went into the house, leaving the petrol outside. In a case like this, where there are no eye-witnesses, it is very difficult to discover what exactly happened. His body was found in the living-room by an armchair, and it seems likely that the fire had been smouldering for some time and burst into flames when he opened the door to enter the room. It is not clear what caused the fire, but it is thought it could have been a cigarette end in the armchair.

I know that the Ashford Council was concerned about the use of modern building materials, including polyurethane ceiling boards, before this unfortunate accident. Indeed, the hon. Member wrote to me at the end of January about the use of polyurethane ceiling boards and the toxic smoke and fumes that are produced when this material burns. I note that the Council has asked the Royal Institute of British Architects to recommend an assessor to conduct an independent inquiry into the use of this material. We shall, of course, be interested and concerned to learn the results of any such inquiry, but I must emphasise that, as I have said, the evidence we have so far does not lead us to think that the use of polyurethane is unacceptable.

There is therefore nothing in these recent fires which throws doubt on the conclusions we have reached, in the light of the Fire Research Station's work, that the use of polyurethane ceiling board involves only a minimal increase in the risk of life. Where the houses and fiats belong to a local authority, it, like any other property owner, is concerned not only with risk to life but with the safety of its property. It may be that some local authorities will consider that the use of this material in new buildings should be examined and additional precautions incorporated to restrict the spread of fire, not just to protect the lives of their tenants, which is most important, but to protect their property. I must say, however, that for existing buildings we should not have thought that the advantages to be gained by altering or replacing existing ceilings would justify the cost in terms of money and disturbance. However, we shall constantly review the evidence.

I turn now to the question of financial aid for authorities which decide to replace this material where it has been used in their dwellings. There are two considerations. First, is there a real need to replace it? Clearly, there is no justification for financial aid if that need does not exist. I have explained that up to now, on the evidence we have, in our view it does not.

Secondly, even if the need had existed, it would not follow that specific Government aid should be given towards the cost of replacement. There is a category of work which does not qualify for housing subsidy. Subsidy is paid towards the cost of providing and improving housing accommodation, but not towards the cost of maintaining it. The cost of replacing defective fittings or materials is part of the cost of maintenance; it is not an improvement. It follows that a subsidy for the replacement of materials is not payable under the present system. I do not rule out the possibility that in extreme and near disastrous circumstances the Government might be prepared to help a local authority in dire need with some very large and unforeseen expense, but this would have to be quite exceptional. Nothing of this order is in question in the present case.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this very serious matter, and I assure him that I take it very seriously. This is a material which gives us great concern. We shall consider the results of the inquiry about which the hon. Gentleman has spoken, and we will keep this matter under constant review. If there is anything that I ought to let him know when I have read his speech very carefully, I shall certainly be in touch with him.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.