Despite a review of building regulations in response to the 2009 fire at Lakanal House, the rules remained unchanged at the time of the Grenfell Tower disaster eight years later. Over the past few weeks senior government figures have been asked to explain how and why this happened
In 2009, a small fire broke out inside the 14-storey Lakanal House in south London. The flames spread outside to the residential block’s combustible cladding panels, which then ignited with a speed and ferocity that left firefighters puzzled. The resulting blaze killed six people, including three children. At the time it was the UK’s worst fire in a tower block.
Nearly eight years later, this disaster was dwarfed by the fire at Grenfell Tower in June 2017. Just as at Lakanal House, a small internal fire catastrophically escalated when it spread to the building’s combustible cladding – except at Grenfell it engulfed almost the entire 24-storey building and killed 72 people.
The cladding panels used on Grenfell had been specified by construction professionals for a refurbishment of the block in 2014, more than five years after Lakanal. Despite a review of building regulations launched in response to the latter, the rules were unchanged by the time of the Grenfell fire. Meanwhile, hundreds of tall residential blocks across the UK had been fitted with combustible materials, creating a safety crisis that is costing the government – and industry – billions of pounds to remedy.
Over the past month, the Grenfell Inquiry has seen a roll-call of senior government figures asked to explain how this had happened. Key figures who have provided evidence included Eric Pickles, housing secretary between 2010 and 2015, and former ministers Brandon Lewis, Gavin Barwell and Stephen Williams. Other significant witnesses have included Brian Martin, the civil servant in charge of building regulations for nearly 18 years before the Grenfell fire, and his colleagues Bob Ledsome and Melanie Dawes. It has been the culmination of the phase of the inquiry looking into the causes of the fire, with hearings now set to move on to what happened in the aftermath.
Change that never happened
A key focus has been the government’s handling of the review of building regulations in the years leading up to the Grenfell fire. In 2013, the findings of an inquest into the Lakanal House fire included recommendations that the government should amend a small section to clarify the risk of external fire spread. But almost no progress had been made by the time of the Grenfell fire aside from some preparatory research, and the building regulations were not updated to explicitly ban combustible cladding panels until December 2018.
Dawes, a former permanent secretary of the then Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), said the recommendations had not been considered “particularly important for public safety”. This, she said, was because officials in charge of the regulations had deemed the coroner Frances Kirkham’s advice “not particularly well-written” and were “probably a little bit dismissive of them”.
It was said that I shouldn’t worry, there wasn’t any real issue in terms of safety, people know these kinds of thing
Eric Pickles, housing secretary between 2010 and 2015
Martin, who was so well acquainted with the rules that he likened them to his “third child”, had also said the expert witness who had advised Kirkham had been “confused and conflicted” and so it was “unsurprising” that the coroner had asked for the rules to be clarified. Pickles said this had “certainly affected” his judgment in terms of the importance of following the recommendations.
“It was said that I shouldn’t worry, there wasn’t any real issue in terms of safety, people know these kinds of things,” the former secretary of state added. Nevertheless, the government had agreed to implement the review.
But it soon ran into problems, partly caused by a drive for deregulation during the coalition government under prime minister David Cameron. In 2011, the Cabinet Office introduced the “red tape challenge”, which restricted departments to only adding new regulations if they removed existing ones. This “one in, one out” policy, which was intended to stimulate the economy in the wake of the financial crisis, was strengthened to “one in, two out” in 2013 and “one in, three out” in 2016. It meant that the job of amending regulations became enormously complicated, as officials needed to balance any additions by selecting which rules had to be cut.
Partly because of this, the amendment of a small section of official guidance recommended by Kirkham was expanded to include a review of the entire 300-page Approved Document B, the part of building regulations that deals with fire safety. It was then expanded further to encompass a wider review of building regulations, a process which would take years.
Barwell, the housing minister between 2016 and 2017, told the inquiry that there had been a “clear presumption” that the review into building regulations was not “life safety critical” because it had been wrapped into a much longer-term piece of work. He also said he had been “comforted” by figures shown to him by officials which showed that the number of fatalities from fires had been steadily falling for 30 years.
In this environment, evidence suggests that the urgency of Kirkham’s recommendations had been lost. A set of research documents underpinning changes to the regulations which had been delivered to the department in March 2015 was not published until February 2019, a delay which Barwell admitted was “absurd”.
Martin said that his team had “really struggled to get anything done” within the department because regulation was seen as a “dirty word”. He suggested that political disruption following the 2016 Brexit vote had made it even harder to get “any kind of traction” with proposals for regulatory changes.
Drive for deregulation
So why did officials not ask for fire regulations to be exempt from the drive for deregulation, given that they were a matter of life safety? Ledsome, the former deputy director of building regulations, said that neither he nor any of his colleagues had done this because he did not think it was a “fight worth having”.
Pickles said his reaction was “intense impatience” when shown this evidence. He told the inqury this month: “I’m not saying I would have agreed with Mr Ledsome. But I think I’m entitled to have had a chance to do the right thing or do the stupid thing.”
Ledsome had said he would have had to persuade Pickles to make the case to then-business secretary Vince Cable, who was responsible for decisions on regulating industry. There would have been an “enormous amount of horse-trading”, Pickles admitted, but he added: “You don’t help the politician to take a decision unless you confront them with the reality.”
But the former minister admitted that he himself was in favour of deregulation at the time. “Of course I wanted to deregulate,” he said. Asked if he was aware that officials felt they were working in a policy environment where regulatory intervention was seen as a last resort, he said: “Well, that isn’t a bad thing, is it? To have a system where… we’re not going to jump straight into regulation, that strikes me as being a good thing.”
He also said that claims that deregulation had restricted efforts to toughen up fire safety guidance were “ludicrous”, as he had believed they were, in fact, exempt. Asked if he could explain how his officials seemed to have been “labouring under a misapprehension”, Pickles said they had been “making assumptions”.
Counsel to the inquiry Richard Millett QC offered another explanation – that Pickles had been “spectacularly out of touch” with his own department and was now seeking to “recast [the] narrative and to underplay what was in truth an enthusiasm by your government for a deregulatory agenda which led to a complete absence of proper checks and balances so far as concerns life safety.”
Pickles said this was “unkind”, adding: “Without getting terribly emotional, I swore on the bloody Bible. I’m a Christian. I wouldn’t come here to… try and just remove responsibility. These things are important to me.”
Warning signs ignored
During this period, the department had been warned repeatedly by the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on fire safety that the building regulations were flawed and required “immediate attention”. The APPG had sent a series of lengthy letters to housing ministers over several years calling for fire safety guidance to be made tougher, but had become increasingly frustrated by a lack of action in the department.
Barwell had declined a meeting with the APPG in October 2016, something he said he now “deeply regrets”. He later agreed to a meeting in March 2017, against the advice of his officials, but this never happened because of that year’s snap general election, at which he lost his seat.
Officials had been aware of concerns about the regulations among industry professionals for several years. In July 2014, Martin had attended a meeting of cladding experts called by the Centre for Windows and Cladding Technology (CWCT), an industry body, to discuss concerns over an ambiguous passage in the official fire safety guidance. The passage appeared to imply that the requirement for the tough fire standard of “limited combustibility” in cladding systems only applied to “filler” materials.
The inquiry heard that this term, which had been inserted by Martin and his colleagues in 2006, was a last-minute addition and had not been consulted on with the construction industry. It was also contained under the heading “Insulation Materials/Products”, leading many professionals to conclude that it only referred to insulation products and not cladding panels. It meant that ACM panels, which contain a highly combustible plastic core and were the type used for the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower, were seen by some as permitted by the guidance.
It was a problem which was really peculiar to ACM, and I just didn’t think it was that significant an issue at the time
Brian Martin, civil servant in charge of building regulations in the years prior to the Grenfell fire
Millett said this had resulted in a “10-year legacy of misunderstanding by the UK construction industry” because of the “poorly drafted” clause in the regulations. Martin, despite minutes from the meeting with the CWCT showing that he agreed that the wording was “not clear”, has insisted at hearings that the term also referred to the core of cladding panels like ACM.
The government also stuck to this line when details about the passage first emerged in the press in the days after the Grenfell fire, with the inquiry hearing that Martin had emailed product testing body the Building Research Establishment (BRE) with a “pre-prepared script” to use for a defence of the regulations.
After the CWCT meeting, it was agreed that Martin and the BRE would draft a clarification of the word “filler” to be published on the government’s website in the form of a “frequently asked question” (FAQ). But the clarification was never published, and the passage in the guidance was unchanged until 2018. The timing of the meeting was significant, as it came months before the project team working on the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower decided to use ACM panels in the cladding system.
Martin, who the inquiry heard was the person to whom “everyone would turn” at the housing department for advice on fire safety issues, said he had decided to wait for the experts who attended the meeting to contact him with proposals. This does not appear to have happened, and Martin said he then “probably forgot about it” as it had been a “busy time”.
His colleagues, Anthony Burd, Ledsome and Richard Harral, have all told the inquiry that issuing the FAQ was not a difficult piece of work and could easily have been done by the fire safety team in the department. Martin also accepted that there was nothing “unreasonable or inappropriate or disproportionately difficult” in publishing the FAQ.
Growing concerns over ACM panels
Asked if the reason he had done nothing to clarify the passage was because he did not consider there was any risk of a major fire in England and Wales due to the use of ACM panels, Martin admitted that he “completely underestimated the hazard” and would have put more time into the issue if he had “fully understood it”. He also said he had not raised the lack of clarity in the guidance on ACM with any other senior official at the time, admitting: “I don’t think I recognised how serious it was. It was a problem which was really peculiar to ACM, and I just didn’t think it was that significant an issue at the time.”
Two years later, Martin was warned again about what was unfolding in the construction industry. In 2016, he was sent an email from cladding professional Nick Jenkins which warned of “grave concern” that the number of tall buildings in the UK fitted with ACM cladding was “many and growing”. Martin responded by saying that fire caused by ACM “shouldn’t be a problem in the UK” because the building regulations were “designed to prevent this”.
The department continued to receive warnings about ACM right up until the Grenfell fire. In April 2017, two months before the fire, the London Fire Brigade (LFB) sent a letter saying that it was “deeply concerned” about blocks of flats and other buildings including schools. Commissioner Dany Cotton said the LFB had discovered at least one property each month since the beginning of the year with “significant” fire safety issues, and that it was “safe to assume that there are many other cases that do not come to our attention, yet are placing the residents of those properties in significant risk”.
[There was] progressive decay in the construction industry, the progressive decay that went alongside it in the building control world, the impact of government policy on regulation
Cotton also said that the LFB was “concerned about contractor competency” and asked to discuss wider issues in relation to the quality of housing. Barwell said he found the letter to be “the most disturbing” of all the evidence shown to him at the inquiry. But he did not receive it at the time because he had been campaigning for the election. The Grenfell Tower fire occurred on 14 June, just six days after the election concluded.
Evidence provided over the past month would suggest that a combination of deregulatory policies designed to jump-start the sluggish post-recession economy and a complacency about fire safety because of the falling numbers of fire deaths played a role in allowing the Grenfell fire to happen. Austerity-era cuts were also a factor, with Martin saying he had been left as a “single point of failure” in an under-resourced department. But this phase of the inquiry has shed light on many things happening at the same time in the years leading up to the fire.
Asked why it took the Grenfell Tower disaster for the dangers of ACM cladding to be fully appreciated, Martin said that it was the “progressive decay in the construction industry, the progressive decay that went alongside it in the building control world, the impact of government policy on regulation and the resources available to try and address these risks”.
All of this has played out against the backdrop of housing secretary Michael Gove’s campaign to get developers and product manufacturers to pay into a £4bn fund for cladding remediation costs for which, he says, the industry shares responsibility. But, with five modules of the inquiry still to go, as well as a police investigation, it is far too early to draw conclusions about where exactly that responsibility rests.
What is safe to assume is that the evidence heard in recent weeks is adding to the argument that firms had been operating within the regulatory environment set by ministers. The timing of Gove’s threats to hold housebuilders and manufacturers to account through the Building Safety Bill could be seen by some as rather convenient for the government.
Other key moments from the latest module
- Eric Pickles appeared to lose his patience during his second day of giving evidence when he told Millett to “use [his] time wisely” because the former minister had an “extremely busy day” planned. “Could I respectfully remind you that you did promise that we would be away this morning and I have changed my schedules to fit this in,” said Pickles, who had not expected the session to overrun into the afternoon. He later apologised for being “discourteous”.
- Former Liberal Democrat minister Stephen Williams admitted that he had never heard of Class 0, the flawed fire rating which has been discussed repeatedly at the inquiry. “That is honestly the first time I’ve ever heard that phrase”, said Williams, who was in charge of building regulations for two years between 2013 and 2015. Class 0, which was removed from fire safety guidance in 2018, has been blamed for allowing combustible products to be installed in cladding systems.
- Brian Martin described deadly ACM panels as going “whoosh!” when ignited in an email to his civil service colleague Bob Ledsome, 18 months before the Grenfell Tower fire. Martin, who had been responsible for fire safety guidance in buildings since 1999, said the highly combustible product made “nice shiny buildings” but “sadly when it gets exposed to fire the aluminium melts away and exposes the polyethylene core”. He had been warned two years earlier by industry experts that a passage he had written into building regulations in 2006 was being widely misunderstood by construction professionals as permitting the use of ACM.
- A failed fire test on ACM 16 years before the Grenfell Tower “just got forgotten”, Martin told the inquiry. The product, which had obtained the Class 0 rating which permitted its use in tall buildings, had burned with such ferocity in the 2001 test that after just five minutes the flames reached 65ft high - twice the height of the test rig - and had to be extinguished due to safety concerns. Scientists who were present were said to be “shocked” by the results but the report of the test only recommended that the product’s compliance with Class 0 “may require further consideration”. “This sounds awful, but I think [the advice] just got missed,” Martin said.
- Martin was warned in July 2014 by the National House Building Council that Kingspan’s combustible K15 insulation was being used in high-rise projects. He did not investigate how widespread the problem was and did not issue warnings to other organisations, telling the inquiry that he “didn’t think of it at the time”. “Is it because it was just unthinkable and you had the makings of a crisis on your hands that you simply couldn’t conceive of?” Millett asked. “I don’t think it was that,” Martin said.