Branch Secretary : info@housingworkers.org.uk
  

Grenfell: Inquiry is slowly revealing scandal

“Almost everyone” affected by safety crisis.

 

Watching the Grenfell inquiry has been an agonising process for the survivors and bereaved. But it has become clear that fire safety problems are much wider than previously thought when wider safety issues that have come to light are considered.

 

Inside Housing tried to assess the scale of the problem and concluded, “Nobody knows how many are caught, but the figure will undoubtedly reach into the millions… In the final analysis, almost everyone who lives in a high or medium-rise building may be affected by this crisis in some way.”

 

 

The much-delayed inquiry was set up by Theresa May to ‘kick the can down the road’ at a time when anger was focussed on Grenfell after the death of 72 residents. It started by looking at the firefighters response rather than on the nature and causes of the fire. As many have pointed out, this was illogical because the starting point would be what sort problems the firefighters faced. It allowed the corporate media to seize on the first phase as an opportunity for critical publicity on the role of firefighters.

 

More recent hearings have revealed the cynical profit seeking culture in the construction industry in lurid detail but have received much less coverage. There has though been some critical commentary from some right-wing journalists; Dominic Lawson in the Sunday Times was moved to comment “It turns out that the depravity, at a corporate level, was worse even than we could have imagined.” 

 

Didn’t have to get real ale down him.

 

 

The inquiry heard how staff at Kingspan, a company that made some of the combustible material used on Grenfell Tower, joked in 2016 about claims that their product was safe: “All lies mate … Alls we do is lie in here.” Richard Millett QC was right to suggest it was “a pithy summary of Kingspan’s culture at the time”.  In 2009 when Kingspan managed to persuade the local authority building control that K15 plastic foam insulation (a product used on Grenfell) was of “limited combustibility” Kingspan’s technical manager boasted, “We didn’t even have to get any real ale down him!” 

 

Kingspan threatened to sue.

 

Kingspan threatened to sue the building control body, the National House Building Council (NHBC) when it raised doubts about the suitability of its K15 product on buildings over 18m. Just weeks after the fire, rather than seek to learn lessons and accept responsibility, Kingspan engaged PR firms to lobby the government and set up rigged tests on non-combustible materials (mineral wool) to argue that they were no safer than its K15. 

 

The inquiry counsel commented: “Kingspan, even in ... the face of an investigation into fire safety after Grenfell, was doing its best to ensure that the science was secretly perverted for financial gain. That has been your own approach and Kingspan’s general approach for years. It’s still going on ... Did you see the aftermath of the Grenfell fire as something of a commercial opportunity?” 

 

Notting Hill Genesis using Kingspan.

 

It is important to note that Notting Hill Genesis, the large housing association, is using Kingspan’s K15 for repairs on Zenith House in Colindale, a block currently undergoing fire safety work. Under the combustibles ban introduced in December 2018, K15 would no longer be permitted on a building taller than 18m if it were being newly built or refurbished. Zenith House is 50m tall, but the work is deemed repair work rather than a replacement of the cladding system. “Even if they are right within the letter of the law, it still feels like they are cutting corners.” 

 

Falsified test results

 

Another key manufacturer involved Celotex falsified the fire test results of its RS5000 insulation boards by using fire retardants and obtained approval from building control bodies under false pretences. 

 

Arconic, the US based manufacturer of the now banned ACM PE cladding panels, knew its product was highly flammable and yet knowingly promoted its sale in the UK taking advantage of our weaker regulatory regime. Currently, some European based witnesses from the firm are refusing to give evidence to the inquirey citing a rarely used 53-year-old French blocking statute despite assurances that it does not apply. 

 

Arconic donation to Boris Johnson

 

A major shareholder in Arconic donated nearly £25000 to Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party. Rightly, Karim Mussilhy of the survivors’ group Grenfell United, has called on the Prime Minister to return the money. “How can we trust this government to deliver truth, justice and change when they themselves, including the prime minister, take donations from one of Arconic’s major shareholders. Right now, Arconic is getting away with not cooperating fully with the inquiry and the government appears not to be doing enough. Is this cosy relationship one of the reasons?” 

 

Evidence given by the key companies involved in the carrying out the refurbishment was no more reassuring.  Rydon, the project managers, Studio E the architects, and Harley the cladding designers do not appear to have given any serious consideration of fire safety in the selection and installation of the materials used to clad the tower.  

 

Social landlords should implement recommendations

 

Last year, Boris Johnson promised to accept all recommendations for central government from the first phase of the inquirey but just four of the 46 recommendations have been fully implemented. The Tories also rejected an amendment to the Fire Safety Bill in September, which sought to legislate for some of the recommendations, including requiring landlords to share design information with the local fire service, carry out regular inspections of flat doors and lifts, and ensure evacuation and fire safety plans for residents.  As a minimum, tenants organisations should demand that these recommendations are implemented by landlords and ‘social landlords’ should be leading the way.  

 

Since 2017 more and more fire safety problems have come to light. Sometimes they arise from unsuitable materials and sometimes from poor quality work. Massively profitable companies which often give fat donations to the Tory party are failing to build the affordable homes that are desperately needed and are building substandard as well as unaffordable homes. The governments much trumpeted plans for a building boom will not mean ‘Build back better’ on this basis!  

 

Housebuilders booming

 

While others suffer the housebuilders are booming. Vistry group for example (formerly Bovis) followed the trend in its update in January reporting sales up by 20% over the year and confidently predicting bumper profits of £130 million. 

 

The problems are widely recognised in the industry. In 2017, Chris Blythe OBE, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Building called for the ‘nationalisation’ of the housing market and the creation of a ‘national housebuilding body.’  The role of housing in the pandemic makes his arguments from 2017 still more powerful, “If we are educating people and looking after their health, does it not make sense that we should close the loop with good housing that promotes health and enables people to take advantage of our investment in their education?” He did not spell out the case for nationalisation, but we should.

 

As well as pressing for full implementation of the findings of the inquiry the Labour movement should take up the call for direct Labour and for nationalisation of the construction industry with minimum compensation on the basis of proven need and a planning process based on social need not profit with full democratic input from local people. This could be the way to deliver a mass programme of much needed high-quality green council homes.  

 

Paul Kershaw, Chair Unite housing workers (LE1111)

 

January 28th 2021

 

The inquirey continues hearings in February we will carry further reports.

Comments :

With this enquiry what I find strange is the fact that information I managed to obtain indicated that Grenfell Tower had 2 means of energy. Whether I was misinformed I do not know but I was informed that the means of energy were Electricity and GAS. If this is true then gas would have been the reason why the fire spread so rapidly.


By Gordon Davies on 2021-02-12 19:40:41

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