Last edited 08 Jan 2021

Fire at The Cube, Bolton

At 20.29 on November 15, 2019, Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) were called to a fire at the Cube, a 6-storey building providing residential accommodation for students on Bradshawgate, Bolton. The fire started on the fourth floor but quickly spread to the sixth floor, and around 200 firefighters and 40 fire engines and specialist appliances responded.

Fire officers at the scene said the blaze was fanned by the wind and spread “extremely quickly” up the exterior of the building. Witnesses said that what seemed to have been a small fire ripped across and upwards within minutes, “crawling up the building as if it was nothing.” Some students said that the fire alarms were not loud enough while others complained that they were falsely triggered very frequently.

Pictures taken from the top of Bolton parish church showed the sixth floor had been completely gutted by the blaze, while the fourth and fifth floors were visibly damaged. According to some commentators, the building may have to be demolished.

A GMFRS spokesperson said: “We’re pleased to say that contact has been made with the 220 residents that were registered to the building”. However, two people were treated by paramedics at the scene, including one person who was rescued by crews using an aerial platform.

The fact that there were no fatalities may have been in part due to the implementation of an effective rescue plan. Only the day before, Greater Manchester fire officers had carried out rescue training as part of a plan devised by Greater Manchester’s High-Rise Task Force. The plan was implemented for the first time at the Cube where one team fought the blaze while a second carried out the evacuation plan.

An investigation will be carried out to establish the cause of the fire and the impact cladding had on fire spread.

The Cube opened in 2015 and is managed by Valeo Urban Student Life (VUSL) which is not linked to the university. There are two buildings, Phase 1 is classified as a high rise building and Phase 2 (the building involved in the fire) is recorded as being under 18 metres tall and therefore it is not classified as a high-rise building - meaning it is outside the scope of many of the changes introduced following the Grenfell Tower fire.

GMFRS confirmed that they had inspected the building in 2017 following the Grenfell fire, and it had been established that the building did not have Aluminium Composite Material cladding (ACM cladding). They subsequently requested a review of the fire risk assessment and the materials used in the cladding system were identified and assessed.

It is thought that the building has High-Pressure Laminate cladding (HPL cladding). HPL cladding panels are typically manufactured by layering sheets of wood or paper fibre with resin and bonding them under heat and pressure. They sometimes include additional chemicals to provide fire-retardant properties.

Following the Grenfell fire, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) conducted a BS8414 test of a cladding system comprising an HPL panel with fire retardant (Class B-s1, d0) together with stone wool insulation. It was considered that HPL cladding should not be used in an external wall when carrying out building works on new residential buildings of 18m or more. However, the level of risk from unsafe HPL systems was not thought to be as high as the risk from unsafe systems using ACM Category 3 panels.

For more information see: HPL cladding.

Salford mayor Paul Dennett confirmed that the building was clad with HPL cladding, saying: “We were aware of the cladding system on this building and interim measures were in place but every apartment had a fire alarm and each floor had an air horn… At the moment, we have a cladding lottery: the government has made resources available for ACM, [but] this is high-pressure laminate so we will be asking government for more money and funding to deal with what is an industrial crisis that the UK is facing in terms of cladding on buildings. There is a lot of work to be done."

A spokesperson for the MHCLG said: “Building owners must ensure their tenants can live safely in their homes and this means all cladding systems, including HPL, that do not conform to our strict building safety standards must be removed.”

Both these statements ignore the fact that the Cube is not more than 18m tall and so many of the policy changes introduced following the Grenfell fire do not apply.

Fire Brigades Union general secretary, Matt Wrack, said: “This is not how any building should react to a fire in the 21st century, let alone a building in which people live,”

Following the fire, there were calls for the ban on combustible materials in the cladding of buildings to be extended. For more information see: Combustibility.

In January 2020, partly in response to the fire, the government launched a consultation into the combustible cladding ban, including proposals to lower the 18 metre height threshold to at least 11 metres. For more information see: Reform of building safety standards.

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