Grenfell inquiry second phase concludes first week

Grenfell inquiry second phase concludes first week

THE INQUIRY heard refurbishers ‘knew cladding would fail’; witnesses threatened to ‘withhold evidence’; and a consultant was not sent a key safety report.

The second phase began on Monday, and will focus on decisions ‘taken in the months and years before the fire’, as well as its immediate aftermath and the government’s role. This phase is expected to last 18 months, while around 200,000 documents – including private emails, phone transcripts and commercial agreements – would be released.

Statements from lawyers for architects Studio E, builders Rydon, installers Harley Facades, insulation manufacturer Celotex and cladding manufacturer Arconic opened the proceedings, followed by Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RKBC) as it was owner and manager of Grenfell Tower at the time of the fire via the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation.

This week contained opening submissions for an overview of the primary refurbishment including cladding, the testing and certification; and fire safety measures including complaints and communications with residents. The opening day saw ‘key revelations’ including that ‘almost none’ of the clients, consultants or contractors during the refurbishment ‘are accepting much blame’, and ‘ignored pleas from the inquiry not to engage in a “merry-go-round of buck-passing”’.

The Guardian and BD Online reported on the first week, including that emails between the architects, builders and fire engineer for the refurbishment ‘knew the cladding system would fail in a fire more than two years’ before the June 2017 blaze, with staff at Studio E, fire engineers Exova, Harley and Rydon seen to be discussing this in emails in 2015.

An architect emailed a fire engineer that spring to say ‘metal cladding always burns and falls off’, and that it was ‘difficult to see how a firestop would stay in place in the event of a fire where external flaming occurred as this would cause the zinc cladding to fail’; while an employee of the cladding installer told a colleague that ‘there is no point’ in building fire stopping into the façade ‘as we all know, the ACM [aluminium composite material] will be gone rather quickly in a fire!’.

Another fire engineer said that ‘if significant flames are ejected from the windows, this would lead to failure of the cladding system, with the external surface falling away and exposing the cavity’, with Celotex’s counsel Craig Orr claiming that ‘each of Harley, Studio E, Exova and Rydon was openly acknowledging in these emails that the cladding would fail in the event of a fire with external flaming. That, tragically, is what happened’.

The inquiry also heard how Arconic’s cladding was chosen in 2014 to help cut £454,000 from KCTMO’s budget, the company stating it was not its responsibility ‘to decide if the product was appropriate to use on a particular project or in particular configuration’. Celotex claimed its insulation was sold as combustible and its use was down to a ‘myriad of failings on behalf of the designers, contractors, consultants and building control inspectors’.

Witnesses ‘threatened to withhold evidence unless they receive[d] an assurance that their testimony [would] not be used to mount criminal prosecutions’, which ‘threw the inquiry into confusion’. Lawyers for the firms wrote to chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick arguing clients could ‘claim a privilege against self-incrimination as a reason for not answering questions’, and adding that they would ‘speak openly only if the attorney general’ confirmed this would not be the case.

This resulted in ‘groans from the bereaved and survivors’, whose counsel Michael Mansfield stated that the ‘timing of this application’ was ‘highly reprehensible and highly questionable’, and had ‘caused immense anxiety, distress and anger’ because the community wanted to ‘get to the point of accountability’, with this move making them feel ‘almost thwarted at the doors of the court’. Sir Martin added himself that the move was ‘very disappointing’.

RKBC confessed to six mistakes by its building control department, and apologised ‘unreservedly’. These included failing to: ask for comprehensive details of the cladding system; request an up to date version of the fire safety strategy; and identify that the insulation was combustible and met regulations. It also apologised for issuing a completion certificate in July 2016 ‘when it should not have done so’.

It did not believe however that these failures meant it ‘should be held legally responsible for building regulations breaches, as ‘those financially affected should look to designers, rather than local authority building control services, for compensation’. Survivors and bereaved ‘responded angrily’ to the ‘far too limited apology’, calling it ‘insulting’ and RKBC ‘no better than all the companies we have heard this week, passing the buck and minimising their own role’.

KCTMO ‘made no admissions of responsibility’, claiming value engineering ‘could not be blamed’, and that it had been ‘failed by inspectors’ who had ‘never raised any concerns’ despite producing 35 reports about the refurbishment. In turn, Exova revealed it was never sent a report discussing the cladding, having been criticised for its 2012 assessment that combustible ACM ‘would have no adverse effects on the building’.

Its counsel Michael Douglas said that report ‘did not contain any reference whatsoever to cladding’ and was ‘concerned primarily with the revamp of the lower four floors’, with the later report mentioning the use of ACM ‘never sent’ to the company, and it was ‘simply not involved’. Survivors noted later that they had been ‘genuinely shocked at corporates seeking to defend the indefensible’, stating in turn that ‘all have blood on their hands’.

Internal emails were provided by counsel Stephanie Barwise from Celotex where an executive admitted it was ‘clearly wrong’ to use combustible insulation on any building, stating that ‘the fire hasn’t got a tape measure and if it starts at the ground floor it will love to race up’. Grenfell was also on a ‘must-win projects list’ provided by Celotex’ parent company in 2014, while Arconic ‘specifically targeted’ the project ‘as part of an attempt to double its sales in the UK’.

RKBC was later said to be ‘at the heart’ of the disaster, with its director of housing Laura Johnson stating in 2013 that Grenfell was ‘worth so little’ that anything spent on it was ‘money down the drain’. Another email from KCTMO director of assets and regeneration Peter Maddison stated that ‘value for money is to be regarded as the key driver’.

Finally, it was said by lawyers that many individuals who worked on the refurbishment ‘could face the threat of being jailed for life’, with the police investigations to ‘include gross negligence manslaughter where applicable’. This was revealed in the ongoing attempt to gain protection from prosecution for those giving evidence, with lawyers for the bereaved and survivors calling this ‘sabotage’.