Fire safety scandal (2): Cllr. Louise Mitchell responds to my statement at the December 2020 full Council about flat entrance doors, admits fraud may have occurred, but otherwise again fails to impress

Pasted below is a letter to me from LBWF Housing Portfolio Holder, Cllr. Louise Mitchell, responding to my statement about fire safety which was read out at the full Council meeting on 3 December 2020 (and was previously posted here, see the attached link).

What she writes certainly requires further comment.

Her letter concerns the 217 flat entrance doors (FEDs) which in 2017-18 were installed at Northwood Tower, Goddarts House, and three other sheltered housing blocks.

Readers will remember that initially, these were widely touted – including by Cllr. Mitchell herself – as FD60s, that is, FEDs which provided 60 minutes fire protection.

Now Cllr. Mitchell comes clean, and admits that two fire tests which LBWF organised in 2019 revealed the FEDs were not FD60 at all.

As to how such an extraordinary error occurred, Cllr. Mitchell states only that LBWF is pursuing a civil claim against ‘the previous maintenance contractor’, while its fraud team also is investigating.

However, from the safety angle the obvious question to ask is: if the FEDs are not FD60, what are they?

For Cllr. Mitchell, the answer here is not in question. The ‘testing results’, she writes, ‘confirmed’ that the ‘217 FEDs referred to’ meet the Building Regulations ‘statutory requirements’, that is, they ‘provide over 30 minutes fire protection’, in other words are FD30.

And, she adds, for that reason, and contrary to my statement, LBWF has never been involved in a replacement programme.

For the time being I’ll park the latter point, and concentrate on the former.

Crucially, is Cllr. Mitchell’s certainty about the FEDs being FD30 merited?

To answer this question, its sensible to start with some context.

As I reported to the full Council meeting, the 217 FEDs are a composite model coded SG08, manufactured by Masterdor Ltd. (a company that inherited the trade books of Manse Masterdor Ltd.), and made of Glass Reinforced Polymer (GRP).

And why this is important is that post Grenfell these doors were the subject of considerable official anxiety.

The sequence started in May 2018, when the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) wrote to all councils and warned them explicitly about six Manse Masterdor Ltd. door models, including SG08s.

Nine months later, MHCLG returned to the theme, circulating information about fire testing that it and other agencies recently had carried out, and highlighting not only that ‘there was a performance issue with GRP composite 30 minute fire doors across the market’ [emphasis added], but also that non-glazed SG08s – exactly the type installed at Northwood et al – had performed particularly poorly, failing in three different tests at 18, 25 and 26 minutes.

For many, that would be enough to damn SG08s for good, so is Cllr. Mitchell justified in taking a different view?

In her account, the key is what happened in the fire tests – indeed, she offers no other evidence – and so that requires some attention.

The two tests were carried out by the accredited and experienced Thomas Bell-Wright International Consultants [hereafter Thomas Bell-Wright] at its Dubai facility.

In June 2019, a single FED failed at 34 minutes, while in November 2019, a pair of FEDs failed at 31 minutes and 45 minutes respectively.

That seems conclusive, satisfying the Building Regulations requirement.

But closer scrutiny reveals a much less straightforward story.

First, it is relevant that LBWF opted for testing in the first place not in a spirit of neutral inquiry, but because, as an officer told MHCLG, it wanted to ‘progress a claim’ against a ‘contractor’ (presumably the same case as Cllr. Mitchell references).

Second, in similar vein, it is notable that while Thomas Bell-Wright looked after the practical side of the testing, the two named ‘sponsors’ in Dubai were Exterior Plas (which had installed the 217 FEDs) and Morgan Sindall (LBWF’s current housing maintenance contractor), and it was they that determined some of the test parameters, including the ‘choice and design and the definition of the specimen’, and exactly how the door leaf was exposed to flaming.

This is worth remarking upon because several features of what then transpired were surprising.

For example, since small differences in ironmongery – handles, hinges, screws and so on – could change the overall performance of a door in the event of a fire, it was crucial that the FEDs already installed and the specimens taken to Dubai should be absolutely identical.

Yet a comparison reveals in part they were not, suggesting that the detailing on the 217 batch itself was non-standard, either by design or because, for whatever reason, on installation components differed.

Likewise, in the June 2019 test, it is documented that Thomas Bell-Wright was instructed to expose only one side of the door leaf to flaming, though independent experts invariably advised that best practice was to test both front and back, individually.

But in addition, there is another piece of evidence that on its own settles the matter.

For in both their June and November 2019 reports, Thomas Bell-Wright noted that the test results ‘apply only to the samples as received’, and under the prominent heading ‘Limitation’ amplified as follows:

 ‘the results only relate to the behaviour of the specimen of the element of construction under the particular conditions of the test; they are not intended to be the sole criteria of accessing the potential fire performance of the element in use nor do they reflect the actual behaviour in fires’.

Thus, while it is perfectly legitimate for LBWF to claim that the tested specimens were FD30,  Thomas Bell-Wright International Consultants offer no conclusion at all about the fire-worthiness of the 217 batch as a whole, one way or the other.

In other words, on these grounds alone, Cllr. Mitchell’s confident assertion is incorrect.

It would appear that either she has not read the Thomas Bell-Wright fire reports, or she has failed to grasp the detail.

Whichever the case, her statement to me – which I presume has been circulated to the full complement of councillors – needs to be comprehensively revised, and I will be requesting that this happens shortly.

 

walthamforest.gov.uk 

 Councillor Louise Mitchell 

Cabinet Member for Housing and Homelessness Prevention 

Waltham Forest Town Hall 

Forest Road 

London E17 4JF 

Telephone: 020 8496 4441 

Email: cllr.louise.mitchell@walthamforest.gov.uk 

17 December 2020 Mr Nick Tiratsoo By Email: ntiratsoo@btinternet.com

Dear Mr Tiratsoo,

Thank you for your statement to the Council meeting on 3 December 2020. The Council response to your questions are as follows:

1.In 2017-18, the Council replaced 217 flat entrance doors (FEDs) at Northwood Tower and four sheltered housing blocks.

2.The Council told residents that the new FEDs were certified FD60 (i.e., they would provide sixty minutes protection) and made the same claim repeatedly in public; while many of the FEDs carried F60 stickers.

RESPONSE 

The Council stated that the doors offered 60-minute protection because this is what the Council specified.

The specification given to the Council’s contractor was that FEDs must meet 60 minutes fire resistance.This is higher than the statutory requirement. The statutory requirement is that FEDs must meet a minimum of 30 minutes fire resistance.

The Council was supplied with the specification and testing results which evidenced that the FEDs were of 60-minute resistance.

3. In 2019, and for reasons that remain unexplained, the Council sent three FEDs from the 2017-18 batch to Dubai for fire testing, and they failed at 31, 34, and 45 minutes.

RESPONSE 

The Council has been carrying out a programme to test FEDs to ensure full compliance with regulatory standards.

The Council has responded in detail to you on several occasions regarding the position on front entrance doors, including most recently, a letter on 24th August2020 from the Divisional Director of Housing.

4. The Council subsequently claimed that since the three FEDs had withstood fire for more than 30 minutes, and the Building Regulations demanded that FEDs be at minimum FD30, there was nothing to worry about. 

RESPONSE 

The Council has advised that the testing results confirmed that the FEDs meet statutory requirements.

Action is being taken under contractual requirements regarding the failure of the FEDS to meet the specification required.

5. However, currently the Council is in the process of removing all 217 FEDs and replacing them, at a cost of c. £500,000 – thus revealing that, Dubai tests or not, it has little confidence that any are legally compliant. 

RESPONSE

This is not correct. The Council is not undertaking a planned programme to replace the 217 FEDS involved. They do not need to be replaced because they have been confirmed via test results to meet statutory Building Regulations.

6. It has also emerged that the 217 FEDs are a brand called Erewash, made by Masterdor Ltd., and coded SG08, the significance of this being that in May 2018, as a result of Grenfell, the government wrote to all councils and warned specifically about SG08s. 

RESPONSE 

You were advised on 24th August 2020 that the issue regarding the GRP Composite Doors Manse Master Doors installed at Grenfell was that they did not provide the statutory 30 minutes fire barrier. The 217 FEDs referred to in Waltham Forest do provide over 30 minutes fire protection and meet the statutory requirement.

You were further informed by the Council that MHCLG had been advised in February 2020 by the Council of the testing results outcome and that the FEDs did not meet the 60 minute requirement.

7. In the light of these facts, please will the Council: 

(a) publish the evidence that it relied upon at time of purchase to establish that the 217 FEDs were as the seller described;  

(b) state why it arranged the Dubai tests; 

(c) state whether it has reported the fake FD60 FEDs to the police as possibly fraudulent, and if not, why not; 

(d) state whether it has formally apologised to residents in the five blocks for misleading them over the course of two to three years about a vital element of fire safety, particularly since these same residents were instructed to ‘stay put’ in the event of fire; and 

(e) state what this episode has cost the public purse, including officer time. 

RESPONSE 

You have been sent the test results that accompanied the specification of the 60 Mins FEDs.

MHCLG provided national guidance to building owners in 2018 to inspect and replace Front Entrance Fire Doors which were not compliant with Building Regulations.

You were advised on the 28th August that action was being taken against the previous maintenance contractor under contractual terms and consumer protection legislation.

The Council’s Fraud team is also considering aspects relating to this issue.

The Council has met the statutory requirement to keep residents safe and held meetings with residents who had queried the test results to keep them fully informed.

The costs of complying with Government requirements and the Council’s obligations to keep homes safe is met from the Housing Revenue Account and Housing Revenue Account expenditure is formally reported to Cabinet. We do not disaggregate specific costs.

Yours sincerely 

Councillor Louise Mitchell 

Portfolio Lead Member – Housing and Homelessness Prevention 

Related Posts

Fire safety scandal (1): recently disclosed e-mail reveals industry expert’s warning that the LBWF specification for flat entrance doors on its estates prioritised ‘design’ over ‘compliance’, thus potentially ‘endangering lives’.

Statement submitted to tonight’s full Council meeting on the fire safety scandal in Waltham Forest

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