Grenfell inquiry sees further delay
THE INQUIRY may not resume until 2 March due to the new attorney general requiring the time to make a decision on witnesses’ demands from immunity from prosecution over testimony.
The second phase began late last month with a focus on decisions ‘taken in the months and years before the fire’, as well as its immediate aftermath and the government’s role. It is expected to last 18 months, with around 200,000 documents – including private emails, phone transcripts and commercial agreements – to be released. Statements from lawyers for architects Studio E, builders Rydon, installers Harley Facades, insulation manufacturer Celotex and Arconic and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RKBC) opened proceedings.
The opening weeks contained submissions for an overview of the primary refurbishment including cladding, the testing and certification; and fire safety measures including complaints and communications with residents. ‘Key revelations’ included that ‘almost none’ of the clients, consultants or contractors during the refurbishment were ‘accepting much blame’, and ‘ignored pleas from the inquiry not to engage in a “merry-go-round of buck-passing”’.
That first week also heard that the refurbishers ‘knew cladding would fail’; witnesses threatened to ‘withhold evidence’; and a consultant was not sent a key safety report. Most recently however, hearings were delayed until late February due to the witnesses’ threat, which saw them ask for assurances that ‘anything they say will not be used in criminal prosecutions against them’.
Now, the inquiry has reported that it has written to core participants with an update on the application made related to the witnesses’ threat, which it submitted to the attorney general. With the recent reshuffle seeing previous incumbent Geoffrey Cox replaced by Suella Braverman, the inquiry pointed out that it had ‘received an indication’ that she will ‘aim to make a decision regarding’ the matter next week.
As a consequence, it ‘hopes therefore to be able to resume’ the hearings on 2 March, and will ‘provide a full updated Phase 2 timetable once it has been finalised’. Last week, it was also revealed that inquiry experts Professors Luke Bisby and Jose Torero attended meetings of the Modern Building Alliance, which discussed the UK’s combustible materials ban.
The two professors were among 11 ‘external representatives’ at a meeting of the Modern Building Alliance (MBA), an ‘alliance of trade associations and companies that represent the plastics industry in the construction sector’. That meeting saw discussions of the UK’s combustible materials ban for high rises, described as a ‘key commercial risk’ to the plastics industry within construction.
The two had previously advised the inquiry ‘against extending the combustibles ban’ before attending the meeting last November in Brussels, said to be the group’s first meeting for its advisory group on facade fire safety, set up to ‘build a roadmap towards safe and sustainable facades’. This was in light of what it described as the ‘real and significant’ problem of combustible facades.
Minutes of the meeting recorded that some participants felt the ban was a ‘key commercial risk’ to that would ‘harm the commercial interests of its members’, though human safety and property protection were identified as ‘top priorities’. Both professors attended the meeting after being invited to write short reports for Sir Martin on potential policy recommendations, released in October with the first phase report.
Professor Torero - of University of College London – urged against banning materials based on specific fire classifications, adding that ‘introducing further bans/restrictions on the basis of classifications that are a product of inadequate testing will not resolve the issue of “adequate level of vertical flame spread”’.
Professor Bisby, of the University of Edinburgh, in turn wrote that ‘it is my opinion that this approach (ie the ban) undermines the “outcomes based” approach to fire safety that is supported by the Hackitt Review […] while “a ban” may be politically appealing under the circumstances, I am concerned that, by promoting a regulatory approach wherein designers are discouraged from being competent and taking responsibility for their designs, the manner of its implementation could lead to unintended and negative consequences across the construction sector’.
In the recommendations made by Sir Martin, neither of the professors’ suggestions were included.