Peter Apps

The most shocking moments from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry in 2020

The most shocking moments from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry in 2020
Grenfell Tower (Photo: Getty)
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In the past year, a series of horrifying details have emerged from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, as it began to examine the companies which manufactured and installed dangerous cladding and insulation on the tower block. Taken together, they point to an enormous corporate scandal. Below are seven of the most shocking revelations from the Inquiry this year:

1. ‘There is no point in fire stopping, as we all know; the ACM will be gone rather quickly in a fire’

This email, first disclosed in January, drew audible gasps from the public gallery when it was read out. It was sent by Daniel Anketell-Jones, design manager at the subcontractor Harley, which installed cladding on Grenfell Tower. The email was part of a lengthy email debate on the need for cavity barriers and fire stops within the cladding system.

On the face of it, the email appeared to show knowledge within the team that the products they were installing were dangerous – although all participants in the email chain downplayed this when they gave evidence.

Mr Anketell-Jones explained that he was referring to the ACM being dislodged by a fire and falling away, making fire breaks ineffective, as opposed to igniting and sending flames shooting up the tower.

‘Basically, the aluminium rails and the brackets that supported them and the ACM would melt and fall off,’ he said.

Either way, this shows the company was aware of fire risks: heavy metal panels falling from a burning 24-storey building is hardly hazard free.

2. ‘Was the plan in Rydon to keep the [Tenant Management Organisation] in the dark about the real extent of the savings on the ACM panels and then pocket the difference?’

It was known before the start of the inquiry that the fateful decision to install aluminium panels with a plastic core akin to solid petrol, instead of solid metal cladding (as originally specified) on the tower was made to save money. But the circumstances surrounding this decision were even more shocking when laid out before the Inquiry.

The contractor, Rydon, bid as part of an open procurement process, where it had submitted a quote of £9.2m – some £700,000 below its nearest rival. But it had made an error: one of its financial team had done his sums wrong and its quote was £200,000 lower than it should have been.

In order to win the contract, it then had to tell the building manager the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) it would save the organisation a further £800,000. So it needed to find double savings: first to hide its error and then to reduce the amount the TMO wanted to spend.

‘You are underwater. You have got to find over £1m of value engineering in order both to satisfy your client and to maintain your profit level,’ pointed out Richard Millett QC, counsel to the Inquiry, when questioning Simon Lawrence, project manager at Rydon.

As a result, Rydon asked for a quote on the savings that could be made by switching the cladding used by its subcontractor Harley to ACM. The amount saved came to either £419,627 or £576,973 depending on the fixing used. When Rydon presented this to KCTMO, it said the savings would be £293,368 or £376,175. In other words, Rydon appeared to want to pocket the difference.

‘Was the plan in Rydon to keep the TMO in the dark about the real extent of the savings on the ACM panels and then pocket the difference to make up the shortfall?’ asked Mr Millett. ‘That could be the reason for it,’ replied Simon Lawrence, adding that the money ‘probably went into, effectively, additional profit’.

3. ‘PE [Polyethylene] is dangerous on facades, and everything should be transferred to [fire resistant] as a matter of urgency… This opinion is technical and anti-commercial, it seems.’

At the start of November, with most of the world’s attention fixed firmly on the result of the US presidential election, the inquiry turned its attention away from the refurbishment of the tower and toward the companies which sold the products used in its cladding system.

The case was outlined in two devastating opening statements from lawyers representing the survivors, with one describing the key cladding players as ‘little more than crooks and killers.

We heard that senior staff at the French-arm of Arconic, the giant multinational which sold the cladding panels (identified as the primary reason the fire spread in the way it did) had been aware of the devastatingly poor performance they exhibited in a fire when bent into a ‘cassette’ shape since 2005 when it achieved a basement Class E ranking in French fire tests.

But the firm continued to advertise the panels as obtaining a Class B and targeted markets ‘with national regulations who are not as restrictive’.

Unease over the company’s strategy was expressed in emails across the decade preceding the Grenfell Tower fire. It appears one senior staff member, Claude Wehrle, had pushed internally for the company to take the risks more seriously.

Referring to a near miss in France, he wrote in January 2016:

‘We were very lucky... The Walleck tower is in Reynobond PE 10 metres from a fire!... fortunately, the wind didn’t change direction, but... we really need to stop proposing PE in architecture! We are in the ‘know’, and I think it is up to us to be proactive... AT LAST.’

In 2010, asked about discrepancies in the testing, he wrote: ‘It’s hard to make a note about this… because we are not clean.’

But his most memorable email came in 2015. ‘PE [polyethylene-cored cladding panels] is dangerous on facades, and everything should be transferred to [fire resistant] as a matter of urgency… This opinion is technical and anti-commercial, it seems.’

At around the same time as this email was sent, the panels were being fitted to the walls of Grenfell in West London.

We may not learn much more about the background to these comments: Mr Wehrle, based in France, is one of two key Arconic witnesses currently refusing to attend the inquiry.

In its opening statement, Arconic said its panels had been ‘misused’ in a way that was ‘entirely peculiar to Grenfell’ and ‘could not have been predicted’. It said the design involved ‘numerous departures from building regulations’ and that the product was ‘capable of being used safely if adequate safety measures are designed’. It said it was entitled to proceed on the basis that the UK regime would create a safe environment for the use of its product.

4. ‘Did you realise at the time that if this was how the test was to be described to the market, it would be a fraud on the market?’

Much of the evidence in the six weeks since November has surrounded the actions of the two companies which provided the combustible insulation for the tower’s cladding system.

The majority of this was made by a company called Celotex.

What emerged – in short – was that the company essentially rigged a key large-scale safety test to give a system containing its insulation the best chance of passing.

In the test, the company used thick non-combustible cladding panels, reduced the gaps between them and added additional fire resisting boards around the temperature monitors which record the pass/fail criteria.

But when it advertised this product, it declined to mention the use of the additional fire resisting boards and suggested the test meant its insulation could be used on any tall building – relegating to the small print the fact that the insulation could only be used on the specific system tested.

Jon Roper, a 22-year-old business studies graduate with no special knowledge of fire safety had been put in charge of much of this process.

Grilled by Mr Millet QC, he said he regretted his behaviour.

‘Did you realise at the time that if this was how the test was to be described to the market, it would be a fraud on the market?’ asked Mr Millett.

‘Yes, yeah I did,’ he replied.

‘Did you not feel at the time a sense that that was wrong?’ asked Mr Millett.

‘I still lived with my parents and I recall going home that evening and mentioning it to them and I felt incredibly uncomfortable with what I was being asked to do,’ Mr Roper replied.

Celotex has emphasised that a rerun of the test without the additional fire barriers and other anomalies passed a large-scale test after Grenfell, and that all the staff involved in the prior test have now left the company.

5. ‘The Phenolic was burning on its own steam and the BRE had to extinguish the test early because it was endangering setting fire to the laboratory.’

After the Celotex witnesses came those from Kingspan, who the inquiry has spent much more time with. While they provided much less of the insulation for Grenfell Tower, their status as an industry leader means they are accused by survivors’ lawyers of effectively ‘setting the precedent’ that combustibles could be used on high rises.

The central revelation was that a product Kingspan have been very successfully marketing for use on high rises following a successful test pass in 2005 was actually replaced with a new version not long after it entered the market.

This new version – which had perforations to the foil face which covered the combustible plastic and a new chemical composition to improve its thermal performance – appeared to perform far worse in a fire.

When further testing was carried out in 2007, the system failed dreadfully with the insulation burning ferociously. It was described as a ‘raging inferno’ in internal Kingspan documents.

‘The Phenolic [foam] was burning on its own steam and the BRE had to extinguish the test early because it was endangering setting fire to the laboratory,’ said the report.

But Kingspan sold the material for use on hundreds of high rise blocks over the coming decade, obtaining certification which appeared to confirm its suitability on the basis of the 2005 test.

This test was finally withdrawn in late October 2020 – weeks before witnesses were called in front of the inquiry.

Kingspan emphasised that it has since passed several other tests using the new insulation.

6. ‘Wintech can go fuck themselves and if they are not careful we will sue the arse of them’

What raised eyebrows and headlines during Kingspan’s evidence was not just the way the firm tested its insulation but the aggression with which it defended its position.

It brought in lawyers as it attempted to convince the Building Research Establishment (BRE) to recategorize one of its failed tests as a pass. And when the National House Building Council (NHBC) indicated it would tell the market that Kingspan’s insulation should not generally be used on high rises, it sent a legal letter threatening the firm with action for defamation and an injunction.

In a memorable internal email, one manager, Philip Heath, responded to consultancy Wintech raising (entirely legitimate) concerns by writing to two colleagues: ‘Wintech can go fuck themselves and if they are not careful we will sue the arse of them.’

He apologised for the ‘unprofessional’ language when questioned and said it was a result of ‘frustration’ due to an ongoing dispute with Wintech on this issue.

7. ‘Alls we do is lie in here’

British building regulation guidance contains a fire safety standard called ‘Class 0’ which while not enough to permit an insulation product for use on high-rises, was often believed to be the required standard by the industry. It was a standard Kingspan claimed its K15 product met.

But the Inquiry has unearthed some shocking evidence when it comes to the standard. Class 0 contains two tests, one of which involves the spread of flame across the surface of a product. During testing, Kingspan separated the foil facer from the combustible insulation and tested it independently. Its interpretation of official guidance suggested this was suitable.

‘So on your technical reading of [the guidance], you could staple the foil facer to dynamite and put it on a building above 18 metres and call it Class 0?’ Mr Millett asked one of its directors, Adrian Pargeter. ‘No, because you wouldn’t have a classification of Class 0 applied to a stick of dynamite. It wouldn’t be a requirement,’ he replied.

Kingspan’s technical interpretation of the standard was not possible in Scotland, meaning its insulation should not have been called 'low risk' (the Scottish equivalent) north of the border. But it wasn't until 2016 that the wording was quietly dropped from Scottish marketing. Some eye-opening text messages were disclosed between two members of the team discussing this.

‘Doesn’t actually get class 0 when we test the whole product tho. LOL!’ wrote Arron Chalmers in 2016.

‘WHAT. We lied?’ his colleague Peter Moss replied. When Mr Chalmers explained the testing criteria, Mr Moss wrote: ‘Whey. Shit product. Scrap it.’ Discussing what was happening in Scotland, Mr Chalmers added: ‘Alls we do is lie in here.’ Shown the texts, Mr Pargeter said it was ‘very disappointing’ and that the suggestion that ‘all we do is lie’ was ‘not true’.

When the Inquiry restarts in the new year, we will hear the last Kingspan witnesses, those who attend from Arconic, and those who tested and certified the products. We will then move on to failures by the social housing managers of Grenfell Tower and finally – towards the end of the year – central government. It feels inevitable that there are many more shocks to come.