Peter Apps

The state failures that led to the Grenfell Tower fire

The state failures that led to the Grenfell Tower fire
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This month, five years after the Grenfell Tower fire and four years after the inquiry began, ministers will finally be called to account for the government’s failure to prevent the awful fire.

Four former Conservative ministers and one Liberal Democrat will be cross examined – with the inquiry focusing on the years following the Lakanal House fire, which killed six in south London in 2009.

But the evidence heard in recent weeks – from former civil servants and representatives of organisations which advise government on fire safety – has already exposed what looks and sounds like a monstrous abdication of the state’s duty to protect the lives of its citizens.

The story which has emerged begins in 1991 with a fire at Knowsley Heights, a tower block in Merseyside. Knowsley had been clad with a system not unlike the one later used on Grenfell Tower under a government pilot scheme to test the emerging technology as a solution to the rising problem of damp and cold in the country’s aging housing stock.

On 5 April 1991, a bin was set alight at the bottom of the tower and a devastating fire ripped up the side of the building, reaching all 11 floors and the roof by the time firefighters arrived. This fire was investigated by the Building Research Establishment (BRE, which was a state-owned research facility and privatised in 1997).

The BRE established that the cladding panel used on the building’s walls was made of a combustible plastic. But worryingly it had passed official tests, obtaining ‘Class 0’, the minimum required standard for cladding panels.

This was not something the BRE drew any particular attention to in its report. Instead, its focus was on a lack of cavity barriers closing the gap between the cladding panel and the insulation fitted to the interior wall.

In 1994, further research showed the risk of having buildings fitted with Class 0 panels. A series of cladding tests carried out by the BRE concluded that Class 0 materials ‘may suffer extensive surface burning’ which could ‘spread to the top of the test building (some nine metres) and would have spread further if possible.’ But Class 0 materials were still able to be installed on buildings.

In 1999, a parliamentary select committee looked into the suitability of the government guidance on dangerous cladding following yet another fire, this time at Garnock Court in Irvine, Scotland. This committee recommended the abandonment of Class 0 and the requirement that all cladding systems be either non-combustible or justified by a large-scale test. The New Labour government did not abandon Class 0 and instead introduced new tests.

This apparent complacency towards what was plainly an insufficient and highly dangerous standard for cladding became even more reckless in 2001.

In order to develop new alternative large-scale testing, the BRE was commissioned to run a series of tests to establish the pass/fail criteria. This included a test on a system containing ‘aluminium composite material’ (ACM) cladding – two thin sheets of aluminium held together with a polyethylene core.

This test failed utterly disastrously. After just five minutes, flames were 20 metres high and the test (which should have lasted for 30 minutes) was halted to protect the safety of those present.

This test was particularly horrifying as the material had a Class 0 standard, meaning it could be used on high rise buildings in England.

But the government did not act. No change was made to the guidance for five years following these tests. And even when it was changed the Class 0 standard was retained. There was some tinkering with the wording in another section, covering insulation, which the government has retrospectively claimed ought to have banned the use of dangerous panels like ACM. But this hotly contested interpretation of the guidance was never spelled out to the industry.

The position only appears to have got worse as the years went by and the government’s attitude to regulations hardened.

In 2012, for example, the BRE signed a new contract for work it had been carrying out for 30 years investigating real-world fires. The new contract prohibited them from suggesting that any fires meant new regulations were needed without the express permission of government.

The BRE was also told to step back from its investigation of the Lakanal House blaze just weeks after it occurred.

When investigations by the police showed the fire at that building – which had killed six people, including three children – had spread via combustible panels installed beneath windows, a senior civil servant emailed colleagues to warn them to ‘be very careful’ as they did not want to ‘set any hares running’. He claimed he simply wanted to know the full picture before acting when asked to account for this email at the inquiry.

In 2014, following a series of huge fires in the Middle East, industry lobbyists for the cladding industry drew the specific attention of officials and the BRE to the widespread use of ACM in the UK market due to the continuing presence of the ‘Class 0’ standard. The industry figures asked for an ‘FAQ’ to be published setting out the fact that ACM shouldn’t be used on high rises, but this was never done.

If all of this smells pretty bad, what happened after the Grenfell fire only adds to the stench. The government never released its 2001 testing which showed ACM panels burning until the inquiry got hold of it. In the aftermath of Grenfell, it bullishly said that its guidance banned combustible cladding outright and made no reference to the chances it missed to make this clear.

You might question why this evidence had such little play in the country’s newspapers. It has certainly clashed with a busy news cycle, but we have enough journalists in the UK to report more than one story at a time. Instead, coverage of this seminal public inquiry has been left to the specialist media and an excellent but under-promoted BBC podcast.

We may hear more when political names such as Brandon Lewis, Gavin Barwell and Eric Pickles are questioned in the next few weeks. But the evidence so far points to a grave failure of not just one party, but the entire British state over a prolonged period with devastating consequences. It is an indictment of not just a few politicians but an entire style of government.