The former boss of the organisation that managed Grenfell Tower said he “accepted” it did not make “suitable and sufficient” assessment of the risks to which its residents were exposed, an inquiry heard.
The public inquiry into the 24-storey block’s tragic 2017 fire has repeatedly heard how the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) faced a backlog of fire risk assessment (FRA) actions – which reached 1,400 outstanding in March 2014.
Giving evidence on Thursday, its former chief executive Robert Black said these had “reduced” over time, but admitted it had been a “struggle” to tackle the actions as required by legislation.
The inquiry was shown statistics produced for the TMO executive team that revealed 142 outstanding and 165 partially complete FRA actions for its housing stock as of June 7 2017 – just 10 days before the deadly Grenfell Tower blaze.
Some 128 actions were outstanding for 12 months or more at the time.
Mr Black said he could not recall if he was made aware of the figures at the time, but agreed that they were a cause for concern.
He was questioned over whether there was a “fundamental problem” over the TMO’s management of outstanding actions, with the figures showing an “exponential rise” in such actions in the area of responsive repairs the older they became.
Richard Millett QC, lead counsel to the inquiry, also asked whether the figures showed that “the TMO had a long-term and systemic problem in addressing FRA actions in a timely manner”.
Mr Black responded: “I’m not sure if I’d say that but I recognise that the 12 months aren’t looking great.”
Mr Black agreed when it was put to him that as CEO he had “ultimate responsibility to ensure that the TMO carried out its fire safety obligations adequately” and “to review and make changes where necessary to ensure that the TMO was meeting its statutory fire safety obligations”.
“Do you agree that you didn’t do so?” Mr Millett asked.
“No, I agree that we’ve actually improved the situation and continued to try to do that,” Mr Black said.
“So you don’t agree that you failed in your responsibility,” Mr Millett asked.
Mr Black said: “I have to accept responsibility.”
Asked twice if he agreed that he “failed to discharge it”, Mr Black said he “discharged my duty through other people”, saying a duty over repairs sat with the managing director of the Repairs Direct subsidiary.
Questioning him further, Mr Millett asked: “Will you agree with me that the TMO, of which you were the CEO, and therefore for this purpose its embodiment, did not make suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to which the relevant persons, and in particular your residents, were exposed at Grenfell Tower?”
“I’ll have to accept that,” Mr Black said.
He was said it was a “struggle” to “get rid” of FRA actions, adding that the TMO “sought to achieve” the requirements of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, the RRO.
Mr Millett asked if the TMO “never really faced up to the degree of failure to comply with its obligations under the RRO and recognised that there was a fundamental, systemic problem with closing out RRO actions in accordance with your own fire risk assessor’s time scales as understood by Janice Wray (the TMO’s former health and safety manager)?”
“We found it challenging,” Mr Black said.
He was asked whether the “ageing condition” and size of the TMO’s social housing stock, which it managed for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, meant “keeping residents reasonably safe from fire was impracticable”.
Mr Black said “the shape of the stock could be an issue” adding that historically, because of the way Government had handled financing local authorities, long-term investment had only started in 2012.
In response Mr Millett asked instead whether there was an issue over “your inability or unwillingness to resource proper fire safety measures appropriate to the age and size of your stock”.
“I wouldn’t accept that,” Mr Black said, adding: “We tried with the resources we had to meet our obligations.”
Mr Millett suggested that “you knew you were not meeting the legislative requirements but never asked for any more money”.
“I’m not sure of that one,” Mr Black replied.