Council ‘apologises unreservedly for ways in which it failed Grenfell residents’

The council that owned Grenfell Tower has apologised “unreservedly” for the ways in which it failed the residents of the high-rise building, as it stressed that the current national fire and building safety system was “too broken to be fixed by minor changes”.

A devastating fire at the west London tower block in June 2017 claimed 72 lives.

There appeared to be “a culture of gaming the system” in some parts of the construction and safety industry, that were working in a sector some critics might describe as being “not fit for purpose”, James Maxwell-Scott KC, for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) council, said.

His comments were made during closing statements to the long-running public inquiry which is looking in to the circumstances leading up to and surrounding the fire.

He told inquiry chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick: “Mr chairman, I have no doubt that when you embarked on this inquiry you expected to identify a sizeable number of failings but even you may have been surprised by the nature, scale and extent of the failings which you and the inquiry team have so effectively uncovered.

“In this week of closing statements, you may think this is the most shocking and most disturbing overarching feature of all.

“It seems clear now that over many years the construction industry developed, and central government presided over, a deeply flawed system.”

He said it might be appropriate for the inquiry panel to think it was “too generous” to consider that the system was “not fit for purpose”.

He added: “You may think that not only was the system deeply flawed but that corporates working within the system actively sought to take advantage of flaws within it – that there was a culture of gaming the system.”

The council was the owner and landlord of Grenfell Tower, while the Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) was the body appointed by it to run its entire housing stock.

Reynobond PE is a type of ACM cladding that has been largely blamed for the lethal intensity and rapid spread of fire at Grenfell Tower.

Mr Maxwell-Scott suggested a range of events or decisions could have been missed opportunities to prevent Grenfell Tower being clad with unsuitable products.

The Knowsley Heights fire at an 11-storey tower block in Merseyside in April 1991 could be seen as a “desire to promote over-cladding for reasons of energy efficiency (which) was not matched by a desire to assess the fire safety implications”, the council said in its written statement.

The statement says central government knew ACM panels had performed terribly in a full-scale fire test.

The July 2008 Lakanal House tower block fire in Camberwell, south London, which killed six people, could have been a chance to re-evaluate fire safety in high-rise residential buildings.

The council said the Grenfell Tower design team was left with incomplete and misleading advice, and getting advice from a fire engineer could have been sought by various organisations linked to the building.

In a written statement to the inquiry, the council said it “apologises unreservedly for its failings” across various areas including its building control service, its monitoring of the TMO and self-closing doors.

Mr Maxwell-Scott told the hearing there was a need for “robust recommendations to address deep-rooted systemic problems” because the ultimate achievement of this inquiry was to “ensure that when people design, construct and refurbish buildings in future, a disaster like this never happens again”.

Mr Maxwell-Scott added: “The council remains determined to do all it can to achieve this.

“Since the fire, the council has completely changed the way that housing is managed in the borough.

“The council now has direct responsibility for the management of its social housing properties. It is directly accountable to its residents for its management of those properties.”

He said the council had made “significant changes” in many areas including its building control service, resident engagement and how it managed fire safety.

Mr Maxwell-Scott said: “The council believes that at the national level, progress has been too modest and too slow. It also believes that too much of the national fire safety and building safety system is too broken to be fixed by minor changes.

“In our submission, the starting point for the panel should be to recognise that fundamental change is needed, that there are vested interests opposed to change which will need to be overcome and that in order to achieve the necessary fundamental change there will need to be both legislative change and cultural change.

“The residents of Grenfell Tower were failed by many, many organisations – from both the private sector and the public sector.

“The council was one of them but the council is conscious that it differed from most of the other core participants in important respects.

“It was not an anonymous cladding subcontractor or a manufacturer whom the residents might not have heard of. It was the owner of Grenfell Tower. The residents were its tenants and its leaseholders. The council was democratically accountable to them.

“The council apologises unreservedly for the ways in which it failed the residents of Grenfell Tower. It wishes to say how sorry it is to each of the bereaved, everyone who survived and all of its residents.”

By March 2018, the TMO was no longer in charge of the day−to−day management of Grenfell Tower.

James Ageros KC, for the TMO, said it “exists now only as an organisation whose function is to respond to any civil or criminal proceedings brought against it.”

He added: “The handful of staff presently in post were not in post before the fire and had no dealings with the refurbishment.

“For these reasons it is not appropriate for those now employed to express critical judgments about the organisation as it previously was, or its employees. This is especially so when a number of the individuals in question continue to be investigated by the police.”

Mr Ageros said the inquiry could conclude the TMO’s former staff were “well-intentioned social housing professionals and none acted with ill will or a reckless attitude towards residents’ health and safety”.

Noting that a large number of buildings were clad in dangerous material, he said “the sheer scale of the cladding crisis supports the proposition that it could have been anybody in the sector”, and in light of this “it would be wrong to single out the TMO or its employees as being uniquely or egregiously at fault .”