Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2809

Grenfell—how companies risked lives and then covered it up

The inquiry into the Grenfell Fire has revealed a litany of farce and failures that killed some 72 people five years ago. Isabel Ringrose breaks it all down in this anniversary recap
Issue 2809
Marchers in Green hold a banner that says 'solidarity'

Marching for Grenfell (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Five years on there has been nothing close to justice for the 72 people whose lives were snatched in the Grenfell Tower fire. Cost-cutting, cover-ups and corruption were at the core of the blaze in North Kensington, west London which began in the early hours of 14 June 2017.

Thousands of survivors and bereaved were left with life-changing injuries and unimaginable trauma—stuck in temporary accommodation and denied access to mental health services.

But the fire was no accident. It was the bloody result of Tory and Labour politicians’ disregard—in the council and government—for housing, safety and working class people.

For construction companies behind the refurbishment of Grenfell, which was completed just a year before the fire, it was a chance to cash in. Competing with rivals meant falsifying tests and knowingly selling deadly materials without care for the human cost. Haunting forewarnings of the fire’s inevitability were routinely ignored.

In the days since, what has been unearthed about the Grenfell fire should’ve meant immediate prosecutions and jail time. Instead, the system these criminals represent has enabled them to thwart accountability.

Inquiry is a farce

The lengthy and delayed public inquiry has produced a mountain of damning evidence against numerous corporations, Kensington and Chelsea borough council and successive governments.

Calls for institutional racism to be at the forefront of investigations were batted away. Those responsible for the disaster instead had immunity from prosecution.

The Met police only collected and submitted evidence at the last possible minute, years after the fire. That delayed the inquiry’s second phase into the fire’s wider causes.

Witnesses from Kensington and Chelsea tenant management organisation (KCTMO) handed in key notebooks about the refurbishment days before testifying, or binned them. The inquiry, set to finish late this year, has shown that it is not acting for the benefit of the bereaved, survivors and victims.

Recommendations were ignored

The fire spread due to the flammable polyethylene cladding installed on the outside of the building. A 50-millimetre gap between the aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding and flammable insulation acting as a chimney flue, despite a ban on such construction.

Overseeing the inquiry Sir Martin Moore-Bick ruled after Phase One that the refurbishment breached building regulations. He said that the tower’s walls “promoted” the spread of fire.

Recommendations from Phase One’s report included a building safety law that would require owners of high rise buildings to inform fire services of its materials. It also called for an immediate inspection of fire doors and lifts in all high rises, and guidelines for evacuations.

Yet the Tories voted these recommendations down three years after the fire and no law breakers have been prosecuted. As of January, some 40 percent of buildings in England with the same flammable cladding have not been made safe.

Residents’ lives weren’t valued

Critical safety mechanisms failed on the night of the fire. KCTMO labelled residents who raised safety concerns during and after the refurbishment as “troublemakers” and “antagonists”.

Firefighters experienced problems with water supplies because there was no water pipe running up the building and had limited access for emergency vehicles.

Lifts were unfit for evacuating vulnerable residents and there was only one staircase and exit to the entire building. Fire alarms failed to sound, and the 24 storey building didn’t have a sprinkler system. A blog by residents’ Grenfell Action Group warned “only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord”.

The London Fire Brigade issued the KCTMO with a notice about the smoke ventilation system in March 2014. It was given a six-week deadline to fix this but missed it, and a system from 2016 failed on the night of the fire.

KCTMO also removed door closers from fire doors making them illegal because they would not self-shut. Disabled residents had no emergency escape plan, meaning 15 of 37 never made it out alive. Changes to floor numbers during the refurbishment also meant there was no clear record of who lived where in the building.

The Grenfell Tower, now wrapped in plastic, with a banner across the top reading 'always in our hearts'

The memory of the Grenfell fire looms large over west London (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Tories cut costs and regulations

David Cameron, prime minister during the Tory-Lib Dem 2010-2015 coalition, delivered £10 billion of cuts to deregulate and privatise the building industry. The “Red Tape Challenge” meant new health and safety policies ended in “one in, three out” by 2016.

Ministers responsible for housing, fire safety and construction ignored specialist warnings about Class 0 rated materials—the lowest-ranking standard for building materials. They also failed to install sprinkler systems in over 4,000 tower blocks, and to review fire safety and “stay put” regulations despite recommendations following previous fires.

The Tory council’s priority was to make Grenfell more attractive. Deputy leader Rock Feilding-Mellen only waded into a discussion about the cladding to advocate against the champagne colour.

Council plans originally included zinc cladding panels. But construction company Rydon and subcontractor Haley Façade chose ACM panels to save £300,000. Celotex also sold its RS5000 insulation foam boards to Harley with a 47.5 percent discount amounting to £45,803. KCTMO hired Studio E architects without a proper selection process to sidestep costs and public contract rules.

The inquiry has revealed that companies involved in the refurbishment were critically lacking experience and ignorant to basic safety issues and checks.

Companies dealt in death

Throughout the inquiry each corporation has passed the blame, and most are still in business. Phase Two of the inquiry revealed that Arconic, the company that made the deadly cladding, admitted to selling the flammable panels to grab more money. Classification of the panels was “significantly misleading” and Arconic supplied a test report for a fire-resistant version of the product, not the version put on Grenfell.

Meanwhile managers at Kingspan celebrated that their flammable K15 insulation—earlier described as “a raging inferno”—had passed tests. This successful result was from a previous version of K15.

Celotex rebranded its ­existing flammable FR5000 insulation ­product as RS5000 to be used on buildings taller than 18 metres. RS5000 failed testing in February 2014. It passed a second test, but by using thinner boards to strengthen the cladding panels.  Celotex also added fire-resisting magnesium oxide boards to the test wall. The Building Research Establishment advised the company on this—and omitted it in its reports.

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