How fire-safe is Cardiff University student accommodation?

Climate emergency: Both the Students' Union and the University have now declared a climate emergency. Source: Jeremy Segrott (via Flickr)

By Charlotte King

On November 15, The Cube in Bolton, a private student halls of residence in Manchester, went up in flames and saw 100 residents fleeing the building. The fire damaged every floor of the accommodation but, fortunately, only two students were treated for “minor injuries” on site.

Up to 200 firefighters tackled the blaze, which quickly spread throughout the building. This event has again raised the issue of flammable cladding being used on the outside of apartment complexes, which first became a topic of debate following the tragedy at Grenfell Tower in 2017 which took the lives of 72 individuals. The Cube did not have the same cladding that Grenfell Tower was built with, but was instead built with High Pressure Laminate (HPL) cladding.

In light of this recent development, Gair Rhydd has looked into whether Cardiff University halls of residences and private student accommodation complexes in Cardiff are built with combustible cladding, and more generally how safe student accommodation throughout the city is with regards to fire safety.

Enquiring about the fire safety regulations adhered to by Cardiff University halls of residences and whether flammable cladding has been used on university accommodation, Gair Rhydd has been informed that following the Grenfell Tower fire, the University conducted a review of the construction and cladding attached to all of its buildings, and a spokesperson reports that Talybont Gate has a rainwater screen attached to partial elevations of the building, “this being of HPL material”.

However, the University goes on further to state that there is a variety of specifications of HPL cladding, all with different fire rating classifications and the HPL cladding used on the Talybont Gate residences “has a European Fire Standard rating which is the highest for this type of material.”

Behind the HPL cladding, Gair Rhydd has been told that the walls of Talybont Gate are “packed with Rock Wool fibre, a non-combustible material”. 

The Fire Protection Association, the UK’s National Fire Safety Organisation, has called for all HPL cladding to be “urgently removed”, stating that “thousands of people are at risk”. However, they also reported that when the cladding is used with non-combustible rock fibre insulation, as Talybont Gate is, the system “does not present a risk to public safety”.

A spokesperson for Cardiff University also said: “We have carried out extensive inspections of our buildings. This includes our high-rise and residential student accommodation.

“We take the health and safety of our staff and students extremely seriously and we remain confident that we have robust fire policies and procedures in place in University-owned properties. However, should there be any legislative changes or changes to fire and safeguarding which result from the review of the Grenfell Tower fire then we will work with the appropriate bodies to implement them.”

Speaking to Gair Rhydd about safety in the instance of a fire, a first-year student who lives in university accommodation, said: “I feel confident I can get out of the building as I live on the ground floor and the [fire] alarms are super loud, but I don’t think the staff get there very quickly and if something had happened to me that they would know.”

In response, the University said they do not comment on anonymous claims but encourage any student who has safety concerns to “raise them through formal university channels” so they can be thoroughly investigated.

They continued that all university residences have the highest category fire alarm systems, which are regularly tested and connected to security to prompt an immediate response. There are also fire action notices in all bedrooms, kitchens and landings and they have also installed emergency lighting and directional signalling in the case of a fire.

It appears that the discussion around flammable cladding and fire safety in high-rise buildings is back on the agenda following the blaze in Manchester’s The Cube. The Government has stated that in light of the recent event, they have provided councils with funding to find out the types of cladding used on high rise buildings and have tested various cladding materials, including HPL, to see “whether any further action is necessary”.

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