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How Grenfell exposed Britain Both private and public sectors made lethal errors

72 people died in the Grenfell Tower fire. (Photo by Simon Dawson/Getty Images)

72 people died in the Grenfell Tower fire. (Photo by Simon Dawson/Getty Images)


June 13, 2022   6 mins

The Grenfell Inquiry began hearing live evidence four years ago, a year after the fire. This mammoth legal process is now coming to a close. Evidence will conclude in July, in an echo of how the process began, with an examination of the factual circumstances surrounding each death.

The inquiry turned out to be much more than a simple examination of a botched refurbishment on a West London estate. Instead it has given the public a rare glimpse of the various structures whose failures contributed to the fire. None of them ought to escape with reputation intact. Not the housing sector, not the construction industry, nor the fire service or central government.

What has emerged is a profoundly depressing portrait of a private sector with a near psychopathic disregard for human life, and a public sector which exists to do little more than serve or imitate it.

Sadly, though, pandemic, unending political turmoil, and a major war have pushed the revelations about defective building regulations, cost-cutting, and missed warnings away from the public eye. Aside from an excellent BBC podcast, there has barely been a ripple in the national media about these revelations.

The first module of the inquiry focused on the refurbishment work that took place at Grenfell. Architects, sub-contractors and surveyors took to the stand. The most important information regarded the way in which the tower’s deadly cladding was selected for use. Original designs had specified a zinc product for the system, which would not have been combustible.

But the council had only set a budget of ÂŁ8.5 million for the tower’s refurbishment — including cladding, new windows, a new communal heating system and the conversion of commercial units to new flats. The original contractor priced the work at closer to ÂŁ12 million.

The council was advised by its consultants to either increase its budget or abandon the project, warning that it would “fail” if it continued. That advice was ignored. Instead, the council’s management company (the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO)) procured a new contractor, Rydon, which agreed to take it on at the knock-down price of ÂŁ9.2m. This was still above the council’s budget — so KCTMO and Rydon held a secret “offline” meeting without minutes to discuss making further cost savings, going outside the normal procurement rules. A big money saver which appears to have been agreed at this meeting was the cladding — switching to a product called “aluminium composite material (ACM)” would save around ÂŁ300,000.

It would emerge that the savings were actually more substantial than this, but Rydon disguised the true value from KCTMO in order to maximise its own profits. “We will be quids in,” wrote one manager in an email.

ACM was widely used in the UK at the time, but its fire risks were no secret: it had been linked to several huge fires globally. The team who refurbished Grenfell all claimed to have no knowledge of this — although one did email internally to note that “the ACM will be gone very quickly in a fire” during a debate about the necessary strength of fire breaks.

Next, the inquiry turned to how the organisations which sold highly combustible cladding and insulation had tested and marketed them in the years before the fire.

We heard that the French arm of the multinational giant Arconic had tested its ACM cladding panels in 2004. These tests revealed that when bent into a “cassette” shape they burned 10 times as quickly and released seven times as much heat, and could not even obtain the minimum European fire classification.

Rather than removing this particular product from the market, they branded the test a “rogue result”. They kept on selling it. Internal emails warned of the risks, with technical staff warning “we are in the know” and that the true nature of the panels needed to be kept “very confidential”. One senior member of the team even speculated about a tower block fire clad in its panels killing “60 to 70” people.

Changes in fire regulations did start to limit the use of ACM in much of Europe. But due to a defunct fire standard which was never removed from UK guidance, it was able to keep selling the product here. It would be sold for use on Grenfell in the particularly dangerous cassette form. The manufacturers of the insulation boards which sat behind the external cladding — Kingspan and Celotex — also had testing which revealed a potential risk in systems involving their products.

Kingspan drastically failed a large-scale test in 2005, with a system containing its foam insulation described as a “raging inferno” in an internal document. Yet it was able to obtain certification to continue targeting high rise jobs for the next 12 years, without disclosing this test. A small amount of the insulation ended up on Grenfell.

A larger amount was provided by Celotex, which also failed a test in early 2014, before passing a repeat. This second test featured additional fire resisting boards placed around key temperature monitors, which were never disclosed in its marketing. One of its former employees accepted that this behaviour amounted to a “fraud on the market” when questioned.

One of the most shocking moments of the inquiry was within the third area of its investigation. This looked broadly at the many failures in the tower’s management. Grenfell housed 37 residents who had disabilities that hindered their ability to escape in an emergency. On the night of the fire, 15 of them died, several alongside friends and relatives who would not leave them in the burning building.

The inquiry heard that the management company had done nothing to identify these residents, or plan for their escape. In fact, when the London Fire Brigade asked if there were any disabled residents in their housing stock, the building’s risk assessor advised that KCTMO should “say you have nobody”, otherwise “questions like why were they not included in the building’s [risk assessment] spring to mind”.

KCTMO staff defended not producing plans for the evacuation on the basis that they were following government guidance from 2011 which said doing so was “usually unrealistic”. This went against other legal provisions, but does appear to have become standard practice in the housing sector — with thousands of disabled people living in high rises with a similar lack of protection.

Startlingly, the Home Office recently announced it would not implement the inquiry’s recommendation that housing providers should be legally obliged to provide such plans.

Westminster has been consistently found out during the inquiry. The UK government department responsible for building regulations knew from cladding tests conducted in 2001 that ACM systems — like the one on Grenfell tower  — were flammable. The result of this testing was delivered to ministers in September 2002, along with a warning that the highly combustible cladding was, perversely, acceptable under standards included in official guidance.

But amid industry resistance to higher standards — which were said to “limit market choice” — the guidance was never altered. The testing which revealed the horrendous fire performance of the cladding was “deliberately covered up” to “avoid triggering a cladding crisis”. A former senior civil servant said he could “see why people might think that” but insisted it is not what happened.

Other warnings were missed. Eight years before Grenfell, an extraordinarily similar tragedy killed six people at the Lakanal House block in south London. The ensuing coroner’s inquest concluded in spring 2013 and recommended changes to building regulations. But the Government had strict rules preventing the introduction of new regulations (or “burdens on industry” as they were termed) and chose not to tighten the rules.

In July 2014, civil servant Brian Martin — who was responsible for the building regulations guidance — attended an industry seminar which specifically warned the guidance needed to be tightened to rule out the use of ACM on tall buildings. Nothing was done.

And in February 2016, a cladding contractor emailed him to express concern that “there are many such buildings [with ACM] and their numbers are growing”. But Martin did not pass this “red alert” warning on to his seniors, despite having personally assured them that an ACM fire could not happen in the UK. He was well aware of the risk of this product writing in one email: “It’s very rigid and makes nice shiny buildings. Sadly when it gets exposed to a fire the aluminium melts away and exposes the polyethylene core. Whoosh!” He never checked if the cladding was being used in the UK, or acted to remove the standard from the guidance which permitted its use.

The inquiry was full of bitter of lessons and terrible news. The evidence comes together to weave a tapestry of staggering failure across the public and private sectors. Sitting behind these errors is a story of decay that can be traced back to an absence of state intervention. Inadequate funding, hands-off regulation, and privatisation — all contributed to the deterioration of these sectors. At times, it is difficult to know how the inquiry can even approach making recommendations without telling us to rip up our entire political model and start again.

At the very least, degrees of change are needed. Testing and certification should be removed from the hands of private bodies. Deregulation should always be moderated by the need to protect life. Residents need more power to challenge their landlords (whether social or private), in order to hold them to account. Progress in all of these areas is slow and partial. Hearing ministers boast about the prospect of cutting red tape after Brexit suggests it may be short-lived.

The inquiry itself is still running: final expert evidence is being heard and it will move to what will doubtless be a painful examination of the circumstances of each death, in order to fulfil obligations under the Coroner’s Act. Then there will be a pause while we await the final report, and then, finally, the police investigation will take over.

Should anyone be taken to trial, the process will stretch out for years. The inquiry may have given us something approaching the ugly truth about what happened, but five years after the fire, the road to the justice and change that bereaved and survivors are desperate to see is fraught.


Peter Apps is the Deputy Editor of Inside Housing. In 2023, he won the Orwell Prize for his book Show Me the Bodies: How We Let Grenfell Happen

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Richard Parker
Richard Parker
1 year ago

“ On the night of the fire, 15 of them died, several alongside friends and relatives who would not leave them in the burning building” – dear God. Just trying to picture that provokes a visceral reaction. I am likewise pessimistic about the possibility of real change, let alone justice, as the result of this investigation.
As an aside, Private Eye magazine has been covering the Grenfell tragedy quite informatively; meanwhile, this piece is another valuable addition to the public consciousness of the matter.

Frances Frances
Frances Frances
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Parker

Friends will often stick around when common sense dictates that now is the time to vamoose, instantly. It is my understanding that – during 9-11 – friends stayed with their disabled colleagues and died with them.

Simon T
Simon T
1 year ago

Sadly, I fear that this will effectively be a whitewash where nothing fundamentally changes and the victims, plus friends and family won’t get justice. By all accounts, there are a good many people mentioned who should at the minimum, never be allowed to work in this sector again and others who should be doing time behind bars for manslaughter. I had the experience (for want of a better term) of looking at Grenfell Tower before it was covered up when my football team were playing away to QPR a couple of months after the disaster. Against the backdrop of the local skyline, I will never forget how even then that blackened shell stood out in such an eerie way.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 year ago

A good informative article, but no need whatsoever to bring Brexit as only a negative into the discussion. There may be a desire to reduce “red tape” generally, but any fears around this should always be balanced with an acknowledgement that the U.K. government now has an enhanced ability to change its own regulations quickly – and its population has the power to change its rule-makers if they don’t act fast enough in situations like this.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ian Barton
Pamela Booker
Pamela Booker
1 year ago

Privatisation of our public services has not only brought the “business model” into most of the public sector but also a naked profit motive that over-rides all other considerations and corrupts -even once august bodies such as the Civil Service. Heads must roll, changes must be made and constant exposure must cleanse.
Pam Booker (H.A. board member variously since 1996)

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
1 year ago

J’Accuse!
The bankers who crashed the economy with sub-prime loans: the midwives who let young babies die; the social workers and police officers who turned a blind eye to rape gangs; the lawyers who sent innocent sub-postmasters to prison; the people who supplied and purchased cladding known to be flammable; the firefighters who told people to stay put in a blazing building, etc., etc. In short: the whole dismal bunch of criminally incompetent second-rate time-servers with which this country seems to be infested.
And for every single one of them there is a whole catalogue of ready-to- hand excuses which I will set out here to save them the trouble:
These are difficult and complex issues – of course in hindsight matters could have been handled differently – we must wait to see the findings of an independent enquiry – it would not be right to pillory individuals – lessons have been learned – we have already introduced changes – we were, and still are, inadequately funded – we take these matters very seriously.
I am not a vindictive person but I really would like to see at least some of these people named, shamed and sent to prison.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  Malcolm Knott

It is perhaps humanly understandable to want to punish someone. But who exactly? Middle managers in a private company? Relatively junior civil servants? Politicians, for paying far too much attention to their own careers and short term goals getting them a headline?. Those promoting Brexit, which it could be argued, has taken up far too much political and administrative bandwidth over years (and by the way doesn’t seem to have reduced immigration a jot). [That is not my view by the way, but it can be easily argued]. Even the voters, for electing successive governments who have sat on this issue, thought it was too expensive to address, or had many other priorities?
This is actually precisely NOT the way the approach which has led the airline industry has such an excellent safety record. Trying to find a few sacrificial scapegoats when there are ‘systemic’ failures just ensures a continuing culture of cover up, buck-passing and obfuscation. There are always calls for ‘someone to go to prison’, for example at Hillsborough. This is actually is also all-too-reminiscent of medicine which also has its successive scandals.
And even where we do imprison people, there is then a tendency to think ‘job done’. Instead, truly learn from the mistakes, fund (there is a thing!) and implement any recommendations competently. Bring real-life trade offs, which there will always be, into the open, as a grown-up conversation should. May be there are NO forms of retro-fitted cladding that are not to some extent combustible and worsen safety! In that case we have to accept colder buildings and of course having those pesky larger carbon footprints! Much of our housing stock is poorly insulated rubbish compared to the European average. If we have to re-build much of the high rise housing stock (which we would seem to need to do anyway if we take the Net Zero stuff seriously) then we might need to raise taxes, substantially. Are the population up for that, or do they (we!) want to just enjoy the feeling of uttering cost-free condemnations of other people and organisations?
Only in extreme circumstances, where an individual has actively sought to undermine current (not possible future) undermining health and safety procedures, should any individual be held criminally liable.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew Fisher
alister reid
alister reid
1 year ago

The main reason people died at Grenfell Tower was the LFB policy of telling people to stay in their flats until rescued by firemen. This policy, which as far as I am aware is still in place, is downright dangerous in any tall building where a fire ladder cannot reach above a certain height. If the fire brigade had immediately entered the building and escorted everyone out to safety, no one would have died. This does not excuse the contractors, building suppliers and the advisors whose faults are very well covered in this article

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
1 year ago
Reply to  alister reid

On the other hand, by leaving you could be moving towards the fire, which cannot be sensible. It was also said at the time there was rubbish blocking the stairs and fire doors were left open. I lived in a private block and it was impossible to get residents to keep the fire doors closed.

Barrie Clements
Barrie Clements
1 year ago
Reply to  alister reid

Article also doesn’t mention that the fitting of new windows (I believe they were uPVC) which weren’t properly fitted and firestopped allowed flames into the flats which should have been isolated. If that had been the case the LFB advice to stay in the flats would have made sense and there would have been time to evacuate the block.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  alister reid

It is completely logical, because the flats which are concrete boxes OUGHT to be much more fire and smoke secure than a stairway, which can act as a chimney. But that of course is what proved not to be the case at Grenfell.

Melissa Martin
Melissa Martin
1 year ago

They covered a chimney with oil.

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
1 year ago

Construction, contracting and subcontracting is an absolute racket. Principal contractors just about always insist their subcontractors “have a sharp pencil” and they hit the lowest tender with “Knock 10% off and the job’s yours.” The subby, who has intentionally gone too low to win the job and hopes to gouge the principal on “extras” to meet his bottom line, then gets dodgy cheap materials through an even dodgier supplier and there you have your exploding cladding. What a rort!

Ian Morris
Ian Morris
1 year ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

The sub contractors and suppliers have to meet the contract technical specification. The consultants or main contractor administering the contract should check that the spec is met when alternative materials are proposed.

Rhys Jaggar
Rhys Jaggar
1 year ago

Grenfell was the British distillation of the expression ‘acceptable collateral damage’.
All the decisions taken regarding building maintenance, health and safety etc etc accepted potential ‘collateral damage’ as a consequence of cutting corners, taking corrupt bribes etc etc.
They put a value on other people’s lives and weren’t too bothered when those lives were lost.

David McKee
David McKee
1 year ago

Sitting behind these errors is a story of decay that can be traced back to an absence of state intervention. Inadequate funding, hands-off regulation, and privatisation — all contributed to the deterioration of these sectors.”
Maybe. It is certainly a complicated picture, filled with clueless officials and private companies that ran rings round them. I think we need to see this in a broader context, including Ronan Point in 1968, and the Factor 8 blood scandal from the 1980s (and which is still not resolved).
Are we simply demanding too much from national and local government?

Andrew Schofield
Andrew Schofield
1 year ago
Reply to  David McKee

My MP and I warned the government long before this tragedy that the privatised BRE who fire tested the Grenfell cladding were altering test data to give the outcome they wanted but the Business Minister did not reply, nor have subsequent ministers.

Frances Frances
Frances Frances
1 year ago

It’s a minor thing, but we fell afoul of the local building code. Bought our home way back when, and it had a somewhat curved stairwell (curved on the inside, but with a square wall on the outside; it’s actually really cool) up to the second (and bathroom) level (we have a split-level house). Everyone navigated it successfully, including my mother (legally blind) and her elder sister. Eventually, we decided we needed a major renovation including adding another level above the living room/kitchen area. At the time, the joke was that we either had to raise the roof or get rid of a kid (and there were moments during the reno when we were openly asking if we’d made the right decision). As the railing to the new upper level was installed, I noticed that the original stairwell was also getting a railing. Asked why, and was “it’s code”. So the installers promptly put two railings in, one down each side of the square walls, but with no joining piece between the two. Mum came over to visit, went up to the washroom, and came far too close to seriously falling because she was depending on the new railing and was not aware of the lack of join between the two railings Apart from anything else, the two sections were not positioned for a natural transition from one to the other. I insisted on a proper transition piece (which cost us), but – to this day – am seriously skeptical about any assertations that “it’s code”.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
1 year ago

Discussion of Grenfell has been bedevilled by the lack of psychopathic thinking. Instead everyone is focussing on the individual tragedies brought in front of them. The same thing was seen with C19 policy. We end up spending all our money on what we can see, even though the money would do more good and even save more lives if it was spent elsewhere.
The value of a quality adjusted life year used by NICE in the UK is perhaps ÂŁ30,000, or up to ÂŁ60,000 or so in certain circumstances. Assuming 25 QALYs lost for each of the 76 victims at Grenfell would give a total loss worth ÂŁ57m or maybe ÂŁ115m.
These panels have been used extensively for twenty years, and yet Grenfell remains almost the only time they have in fact seriously failed with heavy loss of life. If we allow a total loss in QALYs of even as much as ÂŁ200m over that period it still amounts to just ÂŁ10m per annum.
Why are we proposing to spend much more than that amount, on increased regulation and red tape, let alone on the cost of re-cladding a large section of our housing stock?

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
1 year ago
Reply to  Christian Moon

QALYs are used, as you imply, to compare the benefits of different investments, although usually in a healthcare setting with defined groups. There’s no defined group here, and your Swiftian analysis completely excludes the current risk of future fatal outcomes. But I imagine you are trying to be ironic?

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
1 year ago

The group is implicitly defined as residents of buildings with this inferior cladding. As time went by we were finding the number kept getting higher and higher. This meant the experienced per capita risk was falling lower and lower.
I agree that one could try to capitalise the current cost of future deaths, and I think we should do that. However I cannot see that we would start anywhere else than with the twenty year experience that we have to date.
You’ve called it Swiftian, and I accepted psychopathic. I’m not really being ironic, just pointing out that whatever is the reason we spend this money, it mostly isn’t for the actuarial benefit of the purported beneficiaries (since they’d be better off with the cash). We’re managing irrational emotions, and perhaps there are cheaper ways of doing that.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
1 year ago
Reply to  Christian Moon

“They’d be better off with the cash”

But they’d be even better off still alive, rather than burnt to death.

BTW if the private companies were honest, rather than a bunch of psychopathic crooks, there’d be no need for regulations or red tape.

And the system that led to the fire wasn’t cheap or light touch – it failed because it was Criminally Corrupt.

Therefore Cost isn’t a factor in the matter.

In any case, Scrooge-style penny-pinching isn’t good business.

If the evil people responsible for the Grenfell fire don’t repent, they’ll have an eternity in Hell to learn to take fire hazards more seriously.

Lord have mercy on them; and on you.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
1 year ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

If you have a thousand people earning £30,000 a year, how much does each one want to spend to stop one of them dying but they don’t know who?

How much would you spend? ÂŁ1 for sure, but ÂŁ15,000?
NICE is saying ÂŁ750-ÂŁ1500: does that seem too high or too low?

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
1 year ago
Reply to  Christian Moon

You are committing sophistry with statistics.

The NHS can’t save people from a death from natural causes. Merely delay it.

But being burnt alive in one’s home isn’t a death from natural causes. It’s being murdered by selfish people and shouldn’t happen.

Moreover, financial considerations aren’t relevant. The cost of good cladding is only fractionally more than that of inflammable cladding.

You also forget all the indirect suffering caused by inflammable cladding – notably the horrible fear felt by all the many, many people who know that their homes are death traps.

Do you live in such a home ? Then don’t wish them onto others.

You also fail to see that the act of covering people’s homes in inflammable cladding is the work of monstrous criminals and conscienceless dopes.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
1 year ago

Yes, I was also put in mind of “A modest proposal”.

Tommy Abdy Collins
Tommy Abdy Collins
1 year ago

‘If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’.
However I am delighted to see that UnHerd has cancelled Arnaud Almaric, whose recent controversial remarks were well ‘beyond the pale’.

Efim Rabinovitch
Efim Rabinovitch
1 year ago

Kudos to Peter Apps.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 year ago

Could we abandon the false term ‘public sector’? It does not exist. What it is, is the state’s governing apparatus.
Likewise the idea of MPs and Civil Service being ‘public servants’. They are officials of the state, who owe allegiance primarily to the Monarch, and serve the state. They do not ‘serve the public’ but hold state office (MPs represent their constituents in Parliament. They do not take instructions from them). There is no direct relation between what we pay in taxes and the remuneration of state officials and the expenses they claim. If there were, they’d probably find themselves ‘earning’ (and spending) a lot less.
Clarity of concepts aids clarity of thought. That’s my only excuse for pointing this out.