The council department responsible for checking the safety of the Grenfell Tower refurbishment was “swamped” with work as austerity-driven cuts slashed staff numbers and the key surveyor was left handling 130 projects at once, the public inquiry in the disaster has heard.
John Hoban, senior building control surveyor at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC), said councillors had signed off substantial cuts to the building control department piling work on the remaining staff.
Hoban, the first person from the Conservative-led council to give evidence in public about the fire that claimed 72 lives, said he was forced to take on work from three other colleagues as well as his own as the refurbishment was under way between 2014 and 2016.
He was assigned Grenfell Tower, which was previously handled by a more senior officer, even though he had never worked before on the overcladding of a highrise block.
He resigned before the fire because, he told the inquiry: “I had had enough.
“I wasn’t able to do the job I was trained to do,” he said.
The inquiry has already heard evidence from the council-owned tenant management organisation, the architect, main contractor and cladding contractor that they relied on the council’s building control department to ensure the refurbishment complied with the building regulations.
But Hoban said he did not realise they thought that and admitted he did not know about a series of fire risks presented by what they designed and built.
The tower was owned by Hoban’s employer, RBKC, but he said “we wouldn’t give them any favourable consideration”.
Hoban approved designs for the tower in 2014 even though they did not include crucial details about the type of insulation or cladding panels to be used. Hoban admitted he should have either found out more or rejected the plans. He only saw the actual materials later when they were being installed on site. They would go on to fuel the fire.
Despite being in a regulatory role, he said he “had a confidence in the architects and other professionals”, adding: “I considered that architects would know and understand building regulations.”
This drew a sharp response from Richard Millett QC, counsel to the inquiry who asked: “Was it not your job to hold them to the highest standards of building regulations completely independently and ruthlessly?”
“In hindsight, yes,” Hoban replied. He said he had approved the plans with conditions but when pressed couldn’t recall what these conditions were or whether they were recorded.
At one point he broke down close to tears. “I was having difficulty dealing with things because of family matters going on,” he said.
Millett asked Hoban about his knowledge of key building regulation documents and what they said about fire risks in cladding systems.
He repeatedly said he had not considered their lessons, said he received no training in technical industry guidance and said reading professional magazines was considered as continuing professional development.
Hoban had not read a document about the fire performance of external thermal insulation for walls of multi-storey buildings known as BR135. It detailed a 1999 cladding fire in Garnock Court in Irvine, Scotland, and explained with pictures rapid fire spread through cladding.
“Did you understand at the time … that cladding systems can create the opportunity for rapid unseen flame spread causing an unacceptable risk to the occupants?” asked Millett.
“It wasn’t in the forefront of my thoughts,” Hoban replied.
Asked if he was aware of the guidance differentiating between non-combustible panels made from materials such as cement and combustible panels, including aluminium panels which may melt and create molten debris, Hoban said: “Not at the time”.
Hoban was asked about notes he filed to RBKC’s computerised records management system, known as Acolaid, which the inquiry heard were now missing.
He said he made handwritten notes and handwritten project sheets and remembered putting all his notes into the system, including coming in at the weekend to do so.
The inquiry continues.