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  • Sustainable Timber Under Threat from Combustibles Legislation

Sustainable Timber Under Threat from Combustibles Legislation

David Hopkins, Managing Director at Timber Trade Federation (TTF) discusses how new combustibles legislation from Westminister is threatening the timber industry and its ability to deliver sustainable benefits to the UK.

Sustainable construction, sustainable growth, and sustainable trade. All three are essential threads in the weaving together of a new and prosperous, globally connected post-Brexit Britain. In the timber industry I am proud to say we lead in all three while building beautiful homes across the UK.

The timber trade encourages the growth of forests around the world, with many more trees planted than harvested. The results can be seen in Europe where in contrast to the rest of the world forests grew in area by roughly 10% in the last 25 years.

Through sustainable trade with developing countries we are repeating this process to ensure that on lands which would otherwise be cleared, often for agricultural purposes, forests are able to keep standing. This is essential for combatting climate change.

Scientists both here and abroad support growing the use of timber. Studies in the UK show that for every cubic metre of wood in construction, one tonne of carbon dioxide is absorbed and stored, and using timber frame over masonry on average cuts the embodied carbon of buildings by around 20%.

This is why a core recommendation of the UK Climate Change Commission in their report, UK Housing: Fit for the future?, was to increase the use of wood in construction. However, the ability of Government and industry to take up this recommendation is about to be severely limited.

Recently the Government announced a review on the banning of combustible materials in external walls, and out of concern that some developers were simply sidestepping the legislation, they have proposed extending the ban down to 11 metres.

However, as the London Fire Brigade rightly pointed out the first time around, “a ban requires careful consideration to ensure there are not unintended consequences”.

The government’s survey on the impact of the legislation found 73.5% of the construction industry did not think it was clear which parts of the external walls the ban applied to – even as it results in increasing costs and delays, and the arbitrary prohibition of commonly used robust products.

For industry, the core problem of the legislation is clear  - it tars the entire external wall with the same brush despite there being no evidence that structural walls pose the same fire risk as the external cladding, and no justification for treating the two in the same way.

This penetration of the ban into the external walls itself is not backed by science, it does not make buildings significantly safer, nor does it match the common sense understanding of the legislation by public, of MPs we have spoken to, or the construction industry.

Banning combustible materials throughout the external walls of high-rise buildings, rather than focusing on external cladding, is a policy decision which comes at the expense of government targets on housing, modern methods of construction, and sustainability. Already we are seeing its effects.

While the UK has been a pioneer and world leader in building tall using mass timber, we are at risk of being left being left behind America and France, the latter of which recently announced plans for a sustainability law that will ensure all new public buildings are built from at least 50% timber.

An extension of the current ban down to 11 metres now threatens to severely damage sustainable construction by beginning to impact the use of timber frame. This comes at a time when we need to build more with wood – not less – if we are to solve the housing and climate crises.

As an industry, we supported a ban on combustible external cladding on buildings above 18 metres. This is unsafe. Such a ban put industry on notice and helps prevent another Grenfell, where fire spread as a result of combustible Aluminium Composite Material cladding, from being repeated.

We can further support the extension of a ban on combustible cladding on external walls down to 11 metres, as safety must be a top priority of Government. Scotland has already banned combustible cladding down to 11 metres.

However, there has been a key difference between the legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. Scotland focused on the external cladding - the high-risk aspect for fire spread - and did not treat the whole wall the same as Westminster policy makers have.

This is why in our response to the consultation, as a £10bn supply chain which employs more than 200,000 people, we will be calling on Westminster to employ the Scottish example. Let a ‘ban on combustible cladding’, as it is often referred to, be exactly that.

There is further work to do in the industry. As the Minister rightly noted, height is only one factor which contributes to a buildings fire risk. Which is why we support mandatory, comprehensive fire-risk assessments during the design process for buildings such as high rises, communities and schools.

We do not need to choose between safe and sustainable construction. Only sensible policy decisions will lead to safer buildings, and a better performing, more productive, and sustainable industry.

Make sure to check out our report with the APPG for the Timber Industries on How the Timber Industries can help solve the housing crisisand get behind our recommendations for Government and Local Government to increase the use of sustainable timber.

David Hopkins is Managing Director for TTF (Timber Trade Federation)

If you would like to view TTFs response to Government legislation, or wish to help, please contact lmacandrew@ttf.co.uk.

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