THERE is much to digest in the first report from the public inquiry into the horrific fire that engulfed Grenfell Tower in June 2017, but it leaves no doubt that a potent cause of the tragedy was the use of unsafe cladding materials.
But the roots of the catastrophe go deeper still. In a sense, today’s report only sets the scene – and a harrowing one at that – as it looked at the initial causes and response to the fire. For the next stage, which is set to get underway in 2020, the inquiry will look at the deeper background; the systems, procedures and organisational failings that enabled the use of such dangerous combustible cladding materials in the first place.
Some media outlets reported on the findings of the Grenfell Inquiry report ahead of today’s embargoed release, which caused no small amount of indignation. The focus and tone of these reports tended more towards shortcomings of the London Fire Brigade (LFB) response and somewhat less on the technicalities of the cladding – which provided the perfect medium for the fire’s devastating spread in the first place.
The inquiry chair, Sir Martin Moore-Bick certainly identified failings with the fire services’ operations and approach – poor communications, lack of training, and failure to abandon the ‘stay put’ policy at a time that would have save many lives – but he praised the “courage and devotion to duty” shown by firefighters.
“[T]he principal reason why the fire developed so fiercely was the presence of aluminium rainscreen panels containing a polyethylene core, which is highly combustible, but the insulation boards and other combustible materials also made a contribution,” Moore-Bick said.
“The architectural crown, a decorative feature introduced as part of the refurbishment played a significant role in enabling the fire to spread around the building. The heat of the fire on the outside of the building was sufficient to break the glazing and allow the fire to enter individual flats.”
There were also other issues that led to a failure of compartmentalisation, enabling fire to spread internally, and for smoke to smother floor lobbies and the stairwell.
In a statement released via Twitter, Grenfell United, the group composed of survivors and bereaved families, welcomed Moore Bick’s conclusion that the building was “not compliant with Building Regulations”.
— Grenfell United (@GrenfellUnited) October 30, 2019
In that statement, the group said: “The Prime Minister must not only accept [the report’s] recommendations in full, he must also outline how and when he will ensure they are implemented. He must bring in a national evacuation plan for high rises, new laws for building owners, and ensure there must be institutional change at the LFB so that lessons are learned…
“Our thoughts today are once again with the people still sleeping in buildings covered in highly combustible cladding and insulation. This cannot go on any longer. The immediate and real danger of these materials are now beyond doubt. Lives are at risk and the Government need to treat this as a national emergency.”
As for the Prime Minister, he also took to Twitter today: “The Government is committed to airing the facts of the fire in public, no matter how difficult they may be, and acting on them. That commitment is absolute,” Boris Johnson said.
He added: “I am very much aware that no report, no works, no apology will ever make good the loss suffered and trauma experience. But I hope that the findings being published today will bring some measure of comfort to those who suffered so much.”
Labour’s shadow housing secretary, John Healey MP, said: “We expect that the Government and other agencies cited will respond in full to the recommendations it contains. Our Labour commitment remains: to ensure survivors have the new homes and ongoing support they need, that all those culpable are brought to justice and that we put in place every measure to prevent a fire like Grenfell ever happening again.
“But when there are still survivors not in permanent homes and when thousands of residents on other tower blocks around the country still have their homes cloaked in Grenfell-style cladding, it is clear the Conservative response to Grenfell has been shockingly weak.”
He added: “I thank Sir Martin Moore-Bick and his staff for the work they have done, but most of all I pay tribute to the Grenfell survivors, relatives and the community in North Kensington who have conducted themselves with incredible dignity during the course of this painful inquiry.”
Meanwhile, in an open letter issued yesterday, the leader of Kensington & Chelsea Council – the local authority that owns Grenfell Tower – offered its apology to those affected by the tragedy.
“I want to reiterate that we are truly sorry for what those families had to endure. We hope the Inquiry will deliver the truth for them, that lessons are learned, and a tragedy like this never happens again,” said Councillor Elizabeth Campbell.
“In phase two [of the inquiry] we know that the actions and decisions of those serving the council prior to 14 June 2017 will be under intense scrutiny. We welcome this, and we hope those giving evidence over the coming months accept it and understand where their duty lies.
“Whatever your point of view, your role, or the organisation you represent or work for, Grenfell is a tragedy that should not have happened. It is a tragedy that can never happen again.
“In our organisation, we believe our duty is to the truth. Whatever it takes and whatever the consequences for Kensington & Chelsea Council.
“I want to assure residents, that as the inquiry progresses, we will not stand still. We will be hard at work. Continuing to help support the survivors and bereaved families, making sure our efforts do not stop at the front door of their new homes.”
In Greater Manchester, Salford City Mayor Paul Dennett – chair of the combined authority’s High Rise Task Force – sought to reassure residents of the city region’s high rise buildings.
“Following the release of the Grenfell Inquiry report, my thoughts are with bereaved families and survivors of the Grenfell Tower tragedy at this time,” he said.
“On behalf of the High Rise Task Force I want to reassure all Greater Manchester residents, but in particular those who live in high rise buildings, of the work being done to keep them safe. We know that fully evacuating a high rise building will be challenging but the fire service has plans in place to assist or instigate an evacuation if necessary. The Grenfell Inquiry Phase 1 report will give us the opportunity to review and where necessary refine these plans, and as chair of the Task Force I will ensure that we carefully consider the recommendations and that we respond to them over the coming weeks.
“I will also ensure that the Greater Manchester High Rise Task Force continues to support our residents, providing a combined approach to our response to fire safety in our city-region to prevent anything like the Grenfell Tower tragedy happening again.”
In wider industry reaction, Kate Henderson, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, said: “We welcome today’s report into the events on the night of the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower. What happened at Grenfell must never be allowed to happen again and the report has a number of important recommendations for how to keep people safe in their homes.
“The safety of residents is the number one priority for housing associations. They have been carrying out extensive in-depth checks and safety works in light of everything that has been learnt since the fire – including reviewing cladding, fire doors and compartmentation. We know there is more to do.
“The extent and complexity of the safety works that need to be carried out across the country are significant, and the government also have a vital role to play. We are calling on them to provide greater transparency, funding for all remedial works and co-ordination of resources.”
Lord Porter, building safety spokesperson for the Local Government Association, which represents councils in England and Wales, said: “The tragedy that unfolded at Grenfell Tower and claimed at least 72 lives in such an unimaginable and heart-breaking way, must never be allowed to happen again.
“There are undoubtedly lessons that can be learned about how the fire service responded on that tragic night as it faced the worst fire in this country for more than half a century. However, the inquiry has made a fundamental error by examining the response to the fire before examining its causes. The consequence of this is to scapegoat the fire service while those responsible for the fire have yet to be exposed or held to account.
“It is clear that the fire was caused by a catastrophic failure of the building safety system in England. This has been proven by the number of public and private buildings with flammable material and the number of modern buildings which are behaving in unexpectedly dangerous ways when they catch fire. Reform of this broken system cannot come soon enough.
“Government has to ensure any new regulatory system not only covers high-rise residential buildings, but extends to any building where vulnerable people sleep like hospitals, care homes and residential schools. Those who live in, work and visit high-rise and high-risk buildings must be safe. We look forward to continuing to work with the Government at pace to deliver the much-needed reform to ensure residents are safe and feel safe.”