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When will the Grenfell betrayal end? Everyone involved is playing the blame game

Justice postponed. Dan Kitwood/Getty


November 15, 2022   5 mins

At 12.54am on the 14 June 2017, a small fire started in a fridge on the fourth floor of a west London tower block. It quickly spread from the window of the kitchen in which it started, and ignited the plastic cladding system which had recently been installed on the tower. 

Over the next seven hours, the blaze would engulf the entire building, smoke would spread rapidly through its interior and the firefighting operation — despite many instances of individual bravery — would fail to reach many of those who were told by call operators to stay put and wait for help. 

By morning, 70 of the 293 people who were in the tower when the blaze broke out would be dead. Two more would follow: an unborn baby named Logan Gomes and 74-year-old Maria ‘Pily’ Burton. 

Five and a half years on, and the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower blaze has finally completed its hearings, with closing statements last week. The counsel, Richard Millett KC, summed up by saying one simple conclusion could be definitively made from the evidence: that every single death at Grenfell was avoidable. “There was nothing”, he said, “unknown or not reasonably knowable which caused or contributed to the fire and its consequences.”

“On the contrary, each and every one of the risks which eventuated at Grenfell Tower on that night were well known by many and ought to have been known by all who had any part to play.” The question of how blame should be shared, though, is far less simple.

Each corporate and public body implicated in the disaster has — in effect — pointed the finger at someone else. Where the evidence has made their own failure impossible to deny, they have minimised them with the lawyerly claim that they were not “causative”. 

Let’s take the manufacturer of the cladding used on the tower: Arconic. Arconic is among those most straightforwardly to blame for the fire. The expert evidence and the conclusion of the inquiry’s first phase (which examined the night of the blaze) was that the cladding panels — which contained a core of what was effectively solid petrol — were the primary cause of the rapid fire spread up and around the tower. 

Arconic also had internal testing dating back to 2004 which showed this cladding would perform catastrophically in a fire if bent into a certain shape — the one ultimately used on Grenfell Tower. This testing was repeated with the same results throughout the 2010s, but never released to the market or to regulatory bodies.

Arconic kept selling the material, despite internal warnings from its technical staff that the product was “dangerous on facades, and everything should be transferred to [a more fire resistant product] as a matter of urgency”. With this advice not heeded, one Arconic employee sardonically commented that his opinion was “technical and anti-commercial, it seems
”. This was but one of a series of damning internal emails and documents released by the inquiry, the most startling a 2007 document written by its marketing manager which speculated about the possibility of a cladding fire involving Arconic’s product killing “60 to 70 persons”. 

Yet Arconic’s closing statement contained no acceptance whatsoever that it was to blame for the fire. None. Instead, their barrister complained that the firm was the “victim” of “an agenda” against it. 

He claimed that since the 2004 test was to European standards, and different national categorisations could apply in England, the test was “a non-issue”. He said that since Arconic sold the panel in flat sheet form, for others to bend into the dangerous shape, a certificate it shared claiming a higher fire performance was in no way “misleading”. That since the cladding could be used safely in other buildings, those who designed the Grenfell Tower system were the ones who were really at fault. And that since the UK government had failed to tighten standards to objectively ban the sort of cladding Arconic sold, its actions in selling it in this country were “entirely lawful”. 

This process was repeated over and over by one “core-participant” after another: the manufacturer Celotex said that because the speed of the fire was driven by the cladding panels, the combustibility of the foam boards which sat behind it was irrelevant. This, of course, discounts the impact of smoke — to which both products contributed an equal amount — which was pivotal in trapping residents in their homes, stopping firefighters from reaching them, and ultimately causing their collapse and death.

Along with Kingspan, another insulation manufacturer which made a small quantity of the product used on the tower, the firm apologised for some prior conduct by former staff members, but emphasised that it did not cause the fire. This poor conduct, on Celotex’s part, involved allegedly inserting fire resistant boards to help it pass a commercial fire test.

For Kingspan, it involved a long period of behaviour which included obtaining a certificate claiming (falsely) that its product could be used on tall buildings without restriction. When asked internally how this was obtained, one Kingspan employee wrote: “We threw every bit of fire test data we could at him [the official who wrote the certificate]. We probably blocked his server
 We didn’t even have to get any real ale down him!” 

The inquiry heard more. There were the architects and contractors who designed a cladding system so poor it objectively failed to meet even the watered down standards applicable in government guidance at the time. Each of them blamed one another. They blamed the manufacturers for misleading marketing which their witnesses accepted they had barely read and blamed, in the end, a man called John Hoban, the hapless, overworked official at the local council that signed the whole thing off.   

Even the London Fire Brigade (LFB) took to pointing the finger at this official, suggesting his completion certificate gave the brigade no way of knowing the building would not support the classic ‘stay put’ strategy, on which it was so reliant. But this discounts the crucial failure of the LFB: to have some semblance of a plan for what to do in the totally foreseeable instance where a badly-built building meant this policy failed to hold. 

As for central government, it found the money to hire Jason Beer KC, a barrister who has “appeared in most of the significant public inquiries of recent times”. He presented their acceptance that the government failed “to ensure effective whole-system oversight of the regulatory and compliance regime”. Translate this into normal language. It means that the government believes its primary error was failing to stop others failing — essentially joining the other participants in blaming one hapless building control inspector for the fire. 

But myriad government failures were presented by the inquiry, all unaddressed by Mr Beer. Consider the government’s failure to act after a test in 2001 that showed the exact cladding used on Grenfell failing disastrously in laboratory conditions. Officials knew from this moment on that this cladding was on the market, on buildings and apparently permitted by a defunct standard in official guidance. They did not amend the guidance to objectively ban it until two years after Grenfell. Neither did the government’s KC address the fact that deregulation, often presented with the bitterly portentous framing of a bonfires of red tape, was prioritised above an urgent call from the coroner investigating six deaths at Lakanal House in 2013 to review guidance “with particular regard” to the risk of external fire spread. 

Mr Millet described the government’s position as a “ship of fools”. Government building guidance was fatally weak, and made weaker when it ought to have been tightened. The result was builders empowered, even allowed, to build dangerous buildings. The legacy of this failure is all around us. Five years on from Grenfell, we still have thousands of buildings around the country with combustible cladding.

At the end of Mr Millett’s speech, he presented diagrams for how each party has sought to blame the others. He blended them into a “spider’s web” of vastly complex interlocking arrows. He implored the inquiry panel to find a way through. “The families of those who died and the wider public want to know who is to blame for this tragedy, how culpability is shared, and what will be done about it,” he said. “You can and you must help them answer that question.”

The inquiry will now pause for around 10 months as the panel prepares a report which seeks to do this. There are those in the community who are, justifiably, frustrated by the length of time this has taken and how criminal prosecutions have had to wait as a result. 

But if the inquiry can provide some answers, some definitive truths, then it will set the ground for the wheels of justice to begin to turn. Failed so many times before, during and after the fire, the community of Grenfell Tower deserve at least this.


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

PeteApps

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CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

Here we go again! A British Public Enquiry that wil cost a fortune, go on for years, and establish very little.

Have we forgotten the outrageous Saville Enquiry that lasted 10 years and cost a simply staggering ÂŁ400 million?
What did it achieve? Only to reverse the opinion of Lord Chief Justice Widgery and his 11 week Enquiry of nearly 40 years before.

Not a good result for British Justice however you look at it.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Grenfell? anything to do with Morgan Grenfell? fine merchant bank…

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

I don’t think so in this case, just a bit 19th century street naming.

Incidentally are Morgan Grenfell still going?

Last edited 1 year ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
Andrew D
Andrew D
1 year ago

Grenfell Street, named after Francis Grenfell, 1st Baron Grenfell. A veteran of the Zulu and Anglo-Egyptian wars, according to Wiki

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Thanks, that sounds correct.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

Widgery was a corrupt cover-up, lies heaped on lies.
https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/a-judge-who-seems-to-have-escaped-judgment-tnvfb3bjf8h
I guess you prefer cheap lies to expensive truth.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

I am sorry but I do NOT agree.

John Passmore Widgery, Baron Widgery, OBE, TD, PC (24 July 1911 – 26 July 1981) served as Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, and thus was considerably ‘senior’ to Saville. To malign him as you and some of the media do is simply scandalous.

Sadly, only in England can one Judge open his mouth for another to condemn him.
The whole so called “Bloody Sunday” farrago is yet another example of ‘ Irish exceptionalism’,
aided and abetted by the USA & NORAID.

Your last sentence demeans you.

Last edited 1 year ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
Martin Brumby
Martin Brumby
1 year ago

On what basis was the structure being “insulated” in the first place?
Absolutely not on the basis of any credible cost / benefit analysis, that is certain.

And why was gas pipework being incompetently installed in a multi storey?

Banned since Ronan Point disaster in the mid 1960s.

Dozens more strange issues apparently unconsidered.
Why?

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Martin Brumby

In a perfect world, The (Royal) Borough of Kensington & Chelsea would be stripped of its royal prefix, and most of its staff charged with a Capital offence.

Sadly we live in “dear old blo*dy old England, of telegraph poles and tin” as the late Poet Laureate, Sir John Betjeman so prosaically put it.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago

What is the point of this tone deaf grandstanding, seemingly entirely ignoring everything written in the article?. I suppose on no account must blame the private manufacturers, architects, designers, etc who set the stage for this tragedy. The vast majority of Kensington and Chelsea employees of course had absolutely nothing to do with it, those who had should of course be held to account

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

I agree with you over the ‘private’ contractors etc.

However the ultimate responsibility still lies with RBK&C, and in particular with the relevant planning department, which if I recall correctly was headed by someone who was rather keen advocate of trepanning!

Obviously the ‘rank and file’ are not to blame.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

It feels like every time I hear Grenfell mentioned in the media it prefaces a lashing out at the U.K. establishment and, often, white society – a stick with which to beat the people. It’s become such a common and potent symbol for the very wide range of people, unconnected to the Grenfell tragedy but who passionately hate the U.K., to unleash their fury that I immediately stop listening, change the channel, etc. Windrush is used in the same way.

It’s been exploited to the extreme just like the Floyd death in the USA, and I’m thoroughly fed up with seeing the tragedy exploited so callously.

What I don’t like about my tired reaction is that I can see my sympathy for the unfairness of racism and poverty, which I acknowledge to still be a problem (but rapidly diminishing in the UK), is declining to the point that I now switch off when the subject is raised in the media.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ian Stewart
CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Well done Mr Stewart, something cogent at last!
Quite a change from your normal barrage of snide remarks, if I may say so.
Keep it up old chap!

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

Well thanks Charles.
None of it is personal as Kathleen says!

Last edited 1 year ago by Ian Stewart
Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 year ago

In any disaster a single failure tends to ripple out and be amplified or at least not prevented by other failures. In this sense many are implicated in the final disaster. However, the law tends to address the immediate cause rather than all the peripheral or remote causes. For this reason many will be dissatisfied with any criminal proceedings that eventuate.

The introduction of the unsafe panel into the whole building system without properly highlighting the risks which it presented in certain circumstances of which they were aware was the fundamental cause which was not subsequently picked up on down the line. It is hard to see how those involved here can escape prosecution.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

The gloriously unchained post-Brexit Britain needs this silly inquiry to go away. If we insist on having detailed standards and regulations about such things, we will stifle the economy and it’d be nearly as bad as being in the EU. After all, what are a few plebeian deaths (some of whom may have been immigrants anyway) when set against the greater good of cutting nasty red tape? People need to sort out their priorities here.

Andrew D
Andrew D
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

What coruscating irony! Really makes you think

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

What if they had all been Paddies, or have you been on the Bushmills?

Fredrich Nicecar
Fredrich Nicecar
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

I can only assume that you are making an attempt at humour. This tragedy has shown Britain up to be no more than a corrupt semi third world state. All those involved in the planning, manufacturing and installation of the cladding should have been rounded up and thrown in prison to await trial.
As it stands the evil has been compounded by this farce.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 year ago

Strikes me more like classic performance of a top-down administrative state.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago

“All those involved in the planning, manufacturing and installation of the cladding should have been rounded up and thrown in prison to await trial.”
That really would be a third world country

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

I know you meant this as satire.
But the you skipped in a genuinely ironical bit:
“After all, what are a few plebeian deaths (some of whom may have been immigrants anyway) ”
Those plebs and immigrants are habitually handed cheap or literally free accommodation in the prime parts of London, while working people have to travel an hour or more to reach their jobs.

And not just that. If Grenfell had non pleb / immigrant, working class people there wouldn’t be even one tenth of the fuss.
It would be brushed under the carpet like the victims of Rotherham or the underperforming white boys of England.

Margaret Donaldson
Margaret Donaldson
1 year ago

Why not keep it simple and prosecute under the Trades Description Act: a material was sold under false pretences?

R Wright
R Wright
1 year ago

Our society is filled with despicable wretches who put greed over the common good.

R Wright
R Wright
1 year ago

Our society is filled with despicable wretches who put greed over the common good.

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
1 year ago

Neither did the government’s KC address the fact that deregulation, often presented with the bitterly portentous framing of a bonfires of red tape, was prioritised above an urgent call from the coroner investigating six deaths at Lakanal House … 
Deregulation in all such areas leads to lax product evaluations and/or lax enforcement since the incentive structure in private sector regulation is not merely conflicted, but self-annihilating. Much like the competitive bid regime for external company audits, only far more so. The incentive of the regulated entity is to buy the services of the least rigorous private sector regulatory certifier.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
1 year ago

Should we not wait to see what the report resulting from the enquiry actually says?