Former housing ministers are drawn deeper into investigations over Grenfell, with the release of previously secret Whitehall studies from 2015 warning of fire risks to tower blocks.
As reported by 24housing, the House of Commons has already heard those former ministers could “potentially be in the dock for corporate manslaughter” with their inaction making the government “culpable” over Grenfell.
Neither Gavin Barwell, now chief of staff to Theresa May; Tory party chairman Brandon Lewis; and one-time Communities Secretary Sir Eric Pickles, have been called to give evidence to the Grenfell inquiry.
The three have previously been accused of not acting on a review of building regulations at tower blocks that uncovered serious safety failings following the fatal 2009 Lakanal fire in Camberwell, London.
Evidence to phase one of the Grenfell Inquiry raised questions over a need to examine prevailing political choices in the top-down application of social housing policy.
- Barwell has faced calls to account for “sitting on” the findings of the Lakanal Review – his avoidance of questions on this outside Downing St being a defining image of government’s Post Grenfell response
- Lewis has faced calls to account for passing responsibility to the ‘fire industry’ when told toughening regulation would hit housebuilding rates
- Pickles has faced calls to account for the rejection of sprinkler retro-fitting and the need for landlords to provide more information to firefighters
Now it has emerged that experts warned government two years before the Grenfell disaster that not enough was being done to prevent the risk of fire spreading through tower blocks – and that lives were in danger as a result.
Grenfell United says the reports showed “people and organisations that were meant to keep us safe knew the dangers and didn’t care enough about our lives and the lives of our loved ones to act”.
The Whitehall-commissioned studies produced in March 2015 exposed the danger of flames passing through concealed cavities.
Officials kept the findings ‘confidential’.
Experts believe the same process in the cladding at Grenfell helped spread the fire, with the Building Research Establishment (BRE) blunt in its assessment that fire barriers installed in the wall cavities of some buildings were not performing effectively and that builders needed education on the dangers of getting things wrong.
One of the studies presented to officials at the building regulations division at the then Department for Communities and Local Government said barriers intended to stop fires spreading were “often found to be missing or incomplete or incorrectly positioned”, which is what emerged later from public inquiry investigations into the refurbishment of Grenfell.
Another study warned that people had died because of fire or smoke spread in concealed spaces, and “the potential risks and the potential losses remain high”.
Again, inquiry investigations have also found that cavities and vertical channels in Grenfell’s new cladding system were probable contributors to the rapid vertical fire spread.
The reports went ‘public’ on the MHCLG website of the housing ministry on Friday.
They sparked anger from Grenfell United, which represents survivors and bereaved families. The group said the reports showed “people and organisations that were meant to keep us safe knew the dangers and didn’t care enough about our lives and the lives of our loved ones to act”.
“The scale of complacency is numbing,” said a spokesperson for the group. “It is deeply concerning that the government has held back information like this for over 18 months since the fire.
“This is vital safety information that needed to be in the public domain but seemingly was ignored or suppressed for convenience.”
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) said the reports were being released now to inform a review of fire regulations for buildings.
The studies reflected industry-wide concern in 2015 that construction methods were posing new fire risks, not just confined to the way Grenfell was reclad, and referenced 20 fires between 2003 and 2013 that involved inadequate, missing or badly fitted cavity barriers.
Over a year since the disaster, 437 residential buildings and publicly owned buildings over 18 metres have been identified with Grenfell-style cladding systems that the government says do not meet building regulations and must be removed – but neither was undertaken.
Their reports were submitted in the middle of the Grenfell refurbishment, but were treated as “commercial in confidence” and not made public.
One study said that “poor workmanship with inappropriate materials are the main reasons for the inadequate protection of concealed spaces”.
It said: “Whilst these concerns have not been disputed by manufacturers, there are no drivers to encourage more effective solutions to be developed.”
It warned that “inadequacies cannot be seen by the building users and will not be apparent during everyday use” and “will only become apparent during a fire”.
Building inspectors working for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea approved the £10m Grenfell refurbishment after making 16 site visits.
Grenfell United said it now expects all the officials involved in the report to be questioned in the public inquiry.
“We fully expect to see BRE and government officials explaining why dangers were known but action wasn’t taken, despite years of warning,” it said.
The studies were produced as part of a plan to update building regulations, but government officials conceded this took longer than planned and remained ongoing four years later.
An MHCLG spokesman said: “Our technical review will address the issues raised in the reports, and our overall plan for stronger, tougher rules on building safety will create a more rigorous system that delivers meaningful and lasting change.”
The emergence of the warnings will also raise questions about whether the London Fire Brigade and RBKC should have known more about the risks at Grenfell, with the reports overseen by a steering group of 23 organisations which included the Chief Fire Officers Association and LABC, which represents all council building control teams in England and Wales.
Last week in the Commons, Steve Reed, MP for Croydon North, said that a “string of housing ministers” had failed to act on advice over Lakanal given by the Inner Southern District of Greater London coroner – with its call for a review of building regulations.
Reed accused the government of being “culpable” for not preventing the Grenfell through its failure to respond to advice given after Lakanal.
He said: “The government failed to clarify regulations and guidance after Lakanal. It is no individual minister, it is a whole string of them…that have failed to take appropriate action in line with guidance they were given.
“I’m afraid to say the government is collectively culpable of what has happened, and failure to act when told action was necessary if they were going to prevent a repeat of Lakanal House.
“Of course, it was repeated horrifically in the disaster at Grenfell Tower.”