Bereaved families and survivors mark the fifth anniversary of the fire at Grenfell Tower in west London on Tuesday with the public inquiry on the tragedy still exposing the wider circumstances that fuelled the flames.
Thousands of hours of testimony and tens of thousands of documents have laid bare a disregard for safety within parts of the construction industry and a compromised regulatory regime that allowed Britain to become a dumping ground for dangerous goods.
“From manufacturers, to developers and architects — nobody paid any attention to fire safety. It wasn’t on their radar,” said Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, whose members the inquiry has previously criticised for their own failings on the night of the fire.
Peter Apps, a journalist with the trade magazine Inside Housing whose coverage of the hearings has become a must read for academics, lawyers and firefighters, said he initially expected the inquiry to focus on “incompetence and testing that was inappropriate”.
“I didn’t realise we would get so much evidence that people actually knew about the risks of fire. That is where the inquiry has always been at its most shocking,” he said.
The inquiry was set up by former prime minister Theresa May in the aftermath of the inferno, in which a faulty refrigerator on the fourth floor sparked a fire that within less than an hour had reached the top of the 24-storey tower block. In one of the worst disasters in Britain since the second world war, 72 people died.
The first phase of the inquiry, which ended in December 2018, addressed what happened on the night, concluding that the “principal reason why the flames spread so rapidly” was exterior cladding made of aluminium with a polyethylene core. Insulation boards “contributed to the rate” at which the fire spread.
The second phase of the inquiry, delayed by the coronavirus pandemic but now in its final weeks, has delved into the environment that made it possible for developers to refurbish a high-rise building using such combustible materials.
Contractors, architects and fire safety consultants passed the buck when it came to who was responsible for ensuring that the designs used in the Grenfell refurbishment were safe. In one email, a consultant with fire engineering experts Exova said the plans for ventilation at Grenfell made an “existing crap situation worse”.
Yet amid a culture portrayed in the inquiry as “seeking to get around the building control officer”, no one stepped in to make improvements.
The most striking segment of the inquiry, however, was focused on the materials that developers used and on three suppliers with global reach.
The first, Arconic, is the US multinational that supplied the cladding from its arm in France.
Ten years before the Grenfell tragedy, the company’s marketing manager Gerard Sonntag wrote an internal memo warning, after listening to an expert from a rival company, of potential liability should “60 or 70 persons” die in a burning building clad with aluminium composite with polyethylene at its core.
The expert, Sonntag wrote, claimed that using 5,000 square metres of the material on the walls of a tower block was equivalent to adding fuel from a 19,000-litre oil tanker. He advised in his note that Arconic should switch to selling its safer fire retardant version.
Other evidence portrayed Arconic as having concealed the results of tests that suggested that the use of its aluminium composite cladding in the bendable cassette form deployed at Grenfell was far more hazardous than when the product was riveted to a wall.
A trail of emails showed that senior company officials were aware of the dangers, and in some instances, warned about them internally. Despite this, Arconic was able to present its product as passing the minimum safety requirements for use on high-rise buildings in the UK.
Arconic denied misleading the regulator, and said it was possible to use its product safely “if adequate safety measures are designed”. The company said it was the responsibility of those using the product to assess “the fire performance of the chosen fabrication”.
Grenfell Tower was being refurbished in part to improve its energy performance. Hence behind the cladding, the walls were fitted with insulation boards. These too fuelled the fire.
The main one used came from Celotex, a subsidiary of manufacturer Saint Gobain, but a small portion of the facade used boards fabricated by Kingspan, an Irish company. Both groups were alleged in the inquiry to have exploited weaknesses in the UK testing regime to market their products as suitable for use on high-rise buildings when they knew they were not.
In its closing submission, Celotex said the evidence showed that any “misdescription” in its product literature had “no impact” on its use at Grenfell. The construction of the cladding facade “was the responsibility of . . . the designers, contractors, consultants and other construction professionals involved,” it said.
Kingspan said it had neither supplied its product, described in an internal note after one failed test as causing “a raging inferno”, nor recommended its use at Grenfell. “Our K15 insulation board was misused in this unsafe and non-compliant system,” it said.
The written conclusions to the inquiry are not expected for at least a year and London’s Metropolitan Police are waiting until then before pressing any charges. A definitive tally for how much it will cost to remove combustible cladding from other affected buildings has yet to emerge. The government is attempting to force developers to foot much of the bill, estimated by a parliamentary committee to be about £15bn.
The government also passed a fire safety act last year and is now seeking to pass a building safety bill in an attempt to address shortcomings underscored by the inquiry.
Wrack of the Fire Brigades Union said the inquiry showed that the tragedy was not just a story about cost cutting and austerity “but more complex and about deregulation”. Five years on, his union says, the same dangers lurk in thousands of other buildings across the country.