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Social Justice

Grenfell: A story of multiple failings

The Grenfell inquiry has been running for four years, yet no recommendations from the first published findings have been implemented to date. Kate Lamble has been following the testimonies of those involved

I’ve covered the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire for more than four years. Talking about my work, people’s first question is almost always, so what went wrong? They’re hoping for a simple answer, a bad decision or a secret meeting. I always seem to disappoint them.  

Grenfell isn’t the story of one man or one meeting. Instead the inquiry has uncovered profound failings across the construction industry. Six layers of protection were meant to sit between the residents of Grenfell Tower and a catastrophic fire, and there were failures in each. 

This is what the inquiry has heard.  

The designers

It was a refurbishment which placed combustible materials on the outside of Grenfell Tower. Insulation was meant to improve the energy efficiency of the building, covered by cladding panels to keep the rain
off and improve the look.  

Regulations demanded external walls “adequately resist the spread of fire”, but offered designers four ways to show materials complied. Despite these options, at Grenfell, there seems to have been no clear attempt to follow any one route. Instead the architects described any concerns they might have had about the compliance of combustible insulation as an “afterthought”. 

Other companies working on the refurbishment also seemed not to notice. Three fire safety strategies were written for the project, but none even acknowledged the refurbishment involved cladding the outside of the building. The author of these documents said he would have expected architects to have directly asked him to consider the safety of the cladding. They did not, so he didn’t. 

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When supplies of the specified insulation ran short, it was replaced with a different product, which was also combustible. No checks were made about whether this was safe to use as part of the design. The project manager of the specialist cladding company told the inquiry he felt “comfortable” because the material had been used on other high rise buildings.  

Building control

Building control have been described as “the last line of defence”. They’re meant to check whether a building complies with regulations.  

Grenfell building inspector John Hoban accepted his work fell below the standards expected. He didn’t notice for example that no cavity barriers had been designed around the windows – allowing flames to quickly spread out of a flat and into the cladding.  

 Hoban did however highlight that austerity cuts on local councils meant he was juggling up to 120 projects at a time. 

The fire risk assessor

Building owners and managers were legally required to complete “suitable and sufficient” assessments of fire risks.  

The assessor employed to work on Grenfell Tower, however, has been described at the inquiry as “professionally reckless”. Without documentary evidence, he informed the Tenant Management Organisation which ran Grenfell that the recently installed cladding was safe. 

The inquiry has also heard Carl Stokes’ assessments contained errors, including sections copied and pasted from reports about other buildings. Issues including broken fire doors and reports the smoke ventilation system was “beyond repair” were also not included.  On the night of the fire, the corridors and staircase out of the building filled with thick smoke.  

The manufacturers

The inquiry has heard there were issues with the way all three main products installed on the outside of Grenfell Tower were marketed.  

Grenfell was covered in aluminium panels filled with a combustible plastic, polyethylene (PE).  Numerous internal emails show the manufacturer of these panels, Arconic, knew polyethylene-filled cladding had been involved in fires around the world. Six years before Grenfell meeting notes said “even if we know that PE material in cassette has a bad behaviour exposed to fire, we can still work with national regulations who are not as restrictive”. 

Government guidance in England and Wales said panels like this were allowed if they achieved certain European standards in fire tests. Arconic’s product met this requirement when cut into flat sheets which could be riveted onto buildings. However when the same material was bent and shaped into so-called cassettes it performed “spectacularly” worse, failing the test.  It was cassettes that were installed on Grenfell Tower.  

The cladding was sold with a “thoroughly misleading” certificate which stated a standard panel achieved the required standard, the inquiry heard. When applying for this, Arconic only submitted the result of the successful test.  

The insulation installed on Grenfell Tower was made of combustible plastic foam. Guidance stated products like this would only have been permitted if they had been part of a large-scale fire test. 

Celotex was the manufacturer of the majority of the insulation. During their test the company added non-combustible boards to ensure flames did not reach the insulation. However the use of this material was not reported in the subsequent test report or even shared with Celotex’s own sales staff. Staff accepted they behaved unethically, dishonestly and the company lied for commercial gain while getting their product approved for use. 

Other insulation installed on Grenfell was made by the industry leader Kingspan.  Kingspan’s insulation was part of a successful large-scale fire test in 2005, but a year later the chemical formula of the product changed. Subsequent tests turned into a “raging inferno”, but Kingspan continued to sell its insulation using the 2005 test. This was eventually withdrawn in October 2020 after the company accepted it did not represent the product on sale.  When someone questioned the company’s approach to sales, Kingspan’s technical manager wrote to friends to say they had confused him “with someone who gives a damn”. 

The certification board

Confidence in manufacturer’s claims is boosted when they are issued a certificate by an independent body. However the inquiry has shown the certificates accompanying the three main cladding materials were marked by inaccuracies.  

One certificate produced for Kingspan’s insulation claimed it “could be considered to be a material of limited combustibility” – the standard suggested for unrestricted use on high-rise buildings. This was not the case. In the three years before this certificate expired the product was installed on hundreds of buildings.   

The regulators

At 8.30am on June 14, 2017, just 20 minutes after the last resident was evacuated from Grenfell Tower, officials in the Department for Communities and Local Government held a meeting.  

Four years earlier, a coroner investigating another deadly fire recommended the department review the building regulation guidance related to fire safety. They should check it clearly set out the requirement for external walls to adequately resist the spread of fire and the risks which could be posed by refurbishments. The government had not completed that review by the time of the fire.  

What the guidance did say was that on high-rise buildings, all insulation including so called “filler material” should be of limited combustibility. Government officials say this reference to “filler” covered the core of cladding panels, which would have outlawed the product installed at Grenfell. Yet the inquiry has heard evidence from many in the industry that this was not understood. Industry figures even raised the confusion surrounding “filler” with civil servants. Regulations were never clarified or tightened. 

One of the key civil servants in this matter, Brian Martin, told the public inquiry he was bitterly sorry, he felt there were a number of occasions where he “could have potentially prevented this happening”. He added successive governments’ attitude to regulation impacted resources and the way they approached their work. We know that from 2011 the coalition government adopted a one-in-one-out approach to regulation, for every new rule introduced another had to be removed. This later became one in three out.   

Kate Lamble is a senior journalist at the BBC

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