Grenfell Tower inquiry: what we have learned since July

Grenfell Tower inquiry: what we have learned since July thumbnail

The Grenfell Tower public inquiry restarts on Monday, 28 months since it began with tearful tributes to the 72 people who died as a result of the fire. Hearings are expected to run into 2022, but the forensic analysis of how the high-rise homes were wrapped in combustible cladding has started to produce devastating revelations.

Day by day, the lawyers weave in new threads of evidence, but it is only when submissions and admissions are viewed together that a full picture begins to emerge. The bereaved families and survivors’ group Grenfell United recently summed it up in a letter to the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick: “We have witnessed shocking dereliction of care and professionalism … a total lack of empathy towards our loss and a focus on greed and profit at the expense of the wellbeing of residents.”

Here the Guardian draws some of the strands together..

“Pocketing the difference”

The pressures that led professionals to wrap Grenfell Tower in plastics that burned like petrol on 14 June 2017 could be seen as early as 2013, when cost-cutting began. The block’s landlord, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) – an arm of one of the richest councils in Britain – decided that its existing refurbishment quote was £1.6m too high. It wanted a cheaper builder using cheaper materials. Rydon, a Sussex-based contractor, saw an opportunity. It had already wrapped the Chalcots and Ferrier Point council towers in London in the same potentially lethal ACM cladding that it would use at Grenfell. “This one has ‘our’ name written all over it,” said Mark Harris, the commercial manager for Harley, Rydon’s cladding subcontractor.

The council landlord had to put tender the job publicly under EU-wide procurement rules “to ensure that the best contractor is selected and value for money achieved”. But the transparency of that process has been placed in doubt.

In March 2014, with bidding under way, Rydon renewed a long-held relationship with senior executives at the TMO at an annual housing conference in Brighton. Rydon sponsored a regular drinks reception to entertain prospective clients and as usual, the firm’s contracts manager, Stephen Blake, was able to spend time with the TMO. His relationship with the its assets director, Peter Maddison, “goes back a long way”, the inquiry heard. The contract interviews had still not happened, but Blake’s TMO contacts gave him the nod. “We are in pole position – ours to lose,” he emailed colleagues.

It turned out that Rydon’s £9.2m bid was far cheaper than their rivals Durkan and Mulalley, but that wasn’t enough for the TMO.

Maddison told the chief executive of Rydon, Jeff Henton, his firm was “in first place” and that “subject to a small amount of value engineering” – a euphemism for cost-cutting – he would recommend their appointment. In fact the desired cuts were far from modest: £800,000. Did the TMO give the other bidders a chance to make the same adjustment? Blake did not know, he told the inquiry. Was there, asked Richard Millett QC, counsel to the inquiry, “a secret understanding … that if you agreed to reduce your contract price by £800,000, you would get the job?” Blake denied it. Either way, the job was Rydon’s.

Now came the crucial switch of materials to cladding that spread the fire, a decision that became enmeshed in financial sleight of hand.

In 2013, when the TMO was worried about costs, its agents had asked the architect, Studio E, for “a radical rethink”.

The designers suggested switching from zinc to cheaper plastic-filled aluminium panels after being shown samples by a sales representative for manufacturer Arconic that had already admitted internally that the panels were “unsuitable for use on building facades” in Europe. The TMO in turn suggested the switch to Rydon, which found that it could save up to £576,000, but it told the TMO the benefit would be up to only £376,000.

Millett asked the inquiry: “Was the plan in Rydon to keep the TMO in the dark about the real extent of the savings on the ACM panels and then pocket the difference to make up the shortfall?”

The shortfall came from an arithmetic blunder that Rydon said it made in its initial estimate, which was £212,000 too low. “That could be the reason for it,” said Simon Lawrence, Rydon’s contracts manager.

“Essex boy patter”

Did Rydon know the safety implications of the cladding switch? Lawrence said the firm assumed “what was being proposed by the client, the design team, would be compliant”.

But in fact the client itself was concerned, at one point at least. In 2015, one of the TMO’s executives, David Gibson, started worrying about the 2009 Lakanal House cladding fire that killed six people and whether the panels would spread flames.

“Simon Lawrence assured us that this would create no problem because the materials used were completely inert and would not burn at all,” he told the inquiry. Lawrence denied saying this.

Earlier in May 2014 Lawrence tried to use “Essex boy patter” to persuade the TMO to use a cheaper version of the cladding system, saving Rydon £75,000. “I’m giving it my hardest sales pitch as we speak,” he told colleagues by email.

There were other concerning revelations about safety. Bruce Sounes, project architect at Studio E, admitted that he didn’t tell building control when the zinc panels were switched to plastic-filled aluminium. Rydon promised five times to appoint fire safety advisers, but failed to do so.

Its site manager, Daniel Osgood, was given the job of overseeing the cladding contractors’ work despite not knowing that cladding could be combustible or that cavity barriers were needed around windows to stop the spread of fire. “I just assumed that everything was 100% fireproof,” he said.

After a while he was moved from the project. Lawrence wrote in an email: “In my opinion he is just a chancer who wants to do as little as possible and not be responsible for anything.” Osgood said this was “very unfair” and that he had been applying himself 100%.

“Easier and quicker”

It was not just the cladding that burned. Combustible materials were packed around the new windows, which, the inquiry heard, “contributed to the speed at which the fire spread from the flat … to a multi-storey external fire”.

These, it emerged, were installed by a small put profitable subcontractor run from Gosport in Hampshire by a former Rydon manager, Mark Dixon. Lawrence, who let the contract, said, “We knew and trusted [Dixon] well”.

But the £120,000 contract went badly. Dixon complained that the works were giving him a “headache” and “I need to find ways of making it easier and quicker”.

The specification was to pack the gaps around the windows with non-combustible Rockwool insulation fibre. But Dixon’s company, SD Plastering, instead used combustible Celotex foam boards.

Lawrence told the inquiry that he did not read a bill of works that showed Dixon’s intent. Neither did Simon O’Connor, Rydon’s project manager. When O’Connor inspected the works, but there were missing finishes and gaps, he thought it was “a disaster”.

“Shoddy workmanship”

The project was undermined by “shockingly poor workmanship … allowed to happen unchecked”, the inquiry heard. Fire barriers in the cladding system were installed upside down and the wrong way round. Some were roughly cut and gaps were left.

When cladding frames rattled in the wind at night, keeping residents awake, the TMO’s project manager, Claire Williams, forwarded a complaint to Rydon of “shoddy workmanship … posing a great danger to everyone”.

David Collins, a resident in one of the flats, “found a part of the window installation hanging loose”. Rydon asked for it to be dealt with because that particular flat was “a problem property” and Collins would “shout this from the rooftops if not resolved promptly”.

Lawrence also described residents who questioned the quality of works as “rebels” and told the inquiry there were “several very vocal – dare I say aggressive – residents.” Among them he named Eddie Daffarn, a 16th-floor resident and co-author of the Grenfell Action blog, who predicted that a fire could devastate the block eight months before the 14 June 2017 blaze that killed 72 people.

Internally, Rydon had its own worries about quality. “At the moment we have a poorly performing site which is mainly (but not totally) caused by poor surveying and cheap, incompetent subcontractors,” Lawrence emailed a colleague in June 2015.

Neil Reed, head of project delivery at the landlord’s agent Artelia, complained in another email: “I have to say, I do not think I have ever worked with a contractor operating with this level of nonchalance.”

Rydon said: “We continue to cooperate with the inquiry alongside the many other parties that were involved in the run-up to and delivery of the Grenfell Tower refurbishment. We will act accordingly in relation to any recommendations relevant to the industry that come out of the phase two inquiry report. Our thoughts continue to be with all those affected.”