Grenfell Inquiry Begins with Blame, Immunity
The start of the second phase of the inquiry into London’s 2017 Grenfell Tower fire has opened with the blame game, according to reports.
All of the companies involved have pointed the finger at another, along with multiple witnesses threatening to withhold information unless promised that their testimony won’t incriminate them in the government’s ongoing criminal trial.
On June 14, 2017, Grenfell Tower—a 24-story, 120-home apartment building—caught fire and resulted in the death of 72 people. While the fire started in a fridge-freezer in an apartment on the fourth floor, the blaze then spread to a nearby window. The building had recently undergone a $12.73 million renovation designed by Studio E Architects that was completed in the spring of 2016 and is largely believed to be responsible for why the fire spread so quickly.
At that time, the building was refurbished with a system of polyester powder-coated aluminum rain-screen panels, insulated exterior cladding and double-glazed windows, as well as a communal heating system.
A Guardian investigation in 2018 revealed that nonflammable aluminum panels had initially been proposed for the refurb but were switched out to save money.
The publication found that, at first, under the local government’s preferred contractor, Leadbitter, subcontractor D+B Facades had provided a 3.3 million-pound (roughly $4.1 million) quote to fit a system of aluminum panels backed with mineral wool insulation.
A few months later, the council decided that Leadbitter wanted to spend too much on the refurbishment, and put the contract out to tender to save about 1.3 million pounds. It went with a different contractor, Rydon, which provided a lower bid, but fitted the tower with the combustible cladding that authorities believe contributed to the number of fatalities in the fire.
The Guardian found that the council had originally wanted to spend 6 million pounds on Grenfell, but later set a different budget of 9.7 million pounds, because it realized it needed to replace the heating system. Leadbitter was on course to spend 11.3 million pounds, which is why council says it put the contract back out.
Manufacturer Omnis Exteriors confirmed that they supplied the Arconic Architectural Product to Harley Facades—the subcontractor that Rydon utilized for the cladding work.
Around the same time in 2018, BBC News uncovered that the Reynobond PE cladding was subjected to European tests in 2014 and 2015 for “reaction to fire,” in which products are typically given an A to F rating, with A being the highest.
(Many officials believed that the legal standard for such towers was a B rating. While that belief had been contested among industry professionals, the legal minimum rating now, post-Grenfell fire, has been upgraded to A.)
The reports from the 2014-15 tests reveal that two types of the Reynobond, both of which were installed at Grenfell, had less than B ratings. One type, called “riveted,” received a C classification, while another, “cassette,” received an E classification.
The BBC obtained correspondence from Arconic to clients confirming the ratings.
Phase One of the inquiry was completed last fall, with the findings published on Oct. 30. This phase was to look at what happened on the night of the fire itself, and the 1,000-page report criticized not only the response to the fire but the 2016 renovation as well.
Arguably of most importance, inquiry chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick, a retired Court of Appeals judge, said that it seems that the refurbishment did not comply with the building regulations requirement to adequately resist the spread of fire.
“There is compelling evidence that Requirement B4(1) was not met in this case,” he said. “It would be an affront to common sense to hold otherwise.”
In addition to the preliminary conclusions on the 2016 refurbishment, the report also accuses the fire brigade’s response to the fire as having “systematic failures” with no contingency plan to evacuate the tower. It also criticized the brigade’s decision to maintain the “stay-put policy” even when the stairs were passable.
After the report, Dany Cotton, the London Fire Commissioner who was in charge of the response, resigned.
The second phase, which started Jan. 27, is to examine the refurbishment, including the installation of flammable cladding.
According to the Telegraph, this phase is said to be more complex than the first, which took 16 months to complete. Preparation for this phase has reportedly unearthed 200,000 documents and the phase will be split into eight “modules” with 21 companies and 600 individuals named as “core participants.”
Among the modules, the areas that will be investigated include the refurbishment itself, the testing of the cladding, complaints from residents prior to the fire, the management of the building and the aftermath of it all.
Some estimates say that it could take Moore-Bick until at least 2023 to publish a final report. Only then would police and prosecutors get a chance to review the findings and then pursue charges, if any.
In late December, changes to the second-phase panel had been made, much to the chagrin of Grenfell United.
Architect Nabeel Hamdi had been set to sit on the three-person panel, alongside Moore-Bick and Thouria Istephan, a partner and deputy head of technical design at Foster + Partners architectural firm.
Hamdi is an emeritus professor of housing at Oxford Brookes University, who qualified as an architect at the Architectural Association in 1968 and worked for the Greater London Council between 1969 and 1978.
The second phase of the inquiry, which started Jan. 27, is to examine the refurbishment, including the installation of flammable cladding.
A letter from Prime Minister Boris Johnson in late December, though, noted that Hamdi was “unable to proceed with the appointment” and proposed engineer Benita Mehra (who has 16 years of experience working with the British Airports Authority in areas such as risk assessment and property management) as a replacement, which Moore-Bick confirmed.
The move was criticized both because Grenfell United favored Hamdi and also because Mehra had been a former president of the Women’s Engineering Society, which received funding from the Arconic Foundation about three years ago. Mehra resigned from the post days before the second phase got underway.
Inquiry barrister Richard Millett delivered the opening statement, shaming the different witnesses, saying that mostly everyone’s written statements passed the buck to someone else.
“[With] the exception of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, not any single core participant involved in the primary refurbishment of Grenfell Tower has felt able to make any unqualified admission against its own interests,” said Millett.
“With that solitary exception, one finds in these detailed and carefully crafted statements no trace of any acceptance of any responsibility for what happened at Grenfell Tower. Not from the architects, the contract managers, the main contractors, the specialist cladding subcontractors, the fire safety engineers, or the TMO (tenants’ management organization).”
The pointing didn’t stop at who knew the materials were unsafe or who even decided on the materials change, but also extended to who was in charge of the design in the first place.
The TMO notes that Rydon was the design-build contractor, so they were initially entrusted to make sure the design was in compliance with all regulations. However, Rydon claims that it delegated numerous design responsibilities, and also noted that many decisions were made before it was brought onto the project. In its testimony Rydon also said that Studio E, the specialist cladding subcontractor Harley, fire specialist Exova, the council’s building control and the TMO were “all involved in the drawing up of the NBS specification or consulted about it.”
Manufacturers Celotex and Arconic distanced themselves from any design input at all.
Emails that were put forward point to early suggestions for the cladding switch by both Harley and Studio E.
Lawyers for Studio E, Rydon, the TMO and Harley wrote to Moore-Bick arguing that their clients could claim privilege against self-incrimination and not answer questions, noting that they would only speak openly if the attorney general gave an understanding that nothing they said would be used against them in criminal prosecution.
“The scope of self-incrimination is broad and extends not only to refusing to answer questions or give information that may directly incriminate the witness but also to answer or provide information which ‘might lead to a line of inquiry which would or might form a significant step in the chain of evidence required for a prosecution,’” the lawyers said.
Moore-Bick therefore paused the inquiry and is expected to make a decision on whether or not to request immunity from the attorney general this week.