Everything We've Learned So Far from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry

Companies involved in the tower's refurbishment have been accused of prioritising profit over safety.
December 24, 2020, 9:15am
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Photo: Henry Nicholls / REUTERS

The Grenfell Tower fire was the deadliest blaze on UK soil since the Second World War. Causing the deaths of 72 people, the disaster on the night of the 14th of June, 2017 sparked outrage and anger, with many demanding answers as to how such a tragedy could ever happen.

Three years on, an inquiry into the fire in the west London tower block is well underway, with thousands of hours of evidence heard since it began in June of 2018. The revelations have been shocking, exposing mistakes on the night and a construction industry rife with companies appearing to prioritise profit over safety.

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Here are the inquiry’s key findings so far.

What Happened On the Night of the Fire

The Grenfell Inquiry has been split into two parts. Phase two, which is ongoing, is examining how the building came to be so dangerous, while phase one looked at the night of the fire itself.

After three months of testimony, in October of 2019 Sir Martin Moore-Bick, the inquiry chair, published his phase one report. This provided a timeline of events and established the reasons for the devastating loss of life.

A key conclusion was that the building’s cladding was the primary reason for the rapid spread of the fire. Sir Martin wrote that, once alight, the polyethylene core of the Reynobond PE aluminium cladding material (ACM) created a “waterfall of burning”, and that the spread of smoke and fire within the building was aided by a “total failure of compartmentation”.

Karim Mussilhy, whose uncle Hesham Rahman died in the blaze, says Sir Martin’s early intervention was positive.

Mr Mussilhy, who is part of the survivors group Grenfell United, tells VICE World News: “The companies involved were trying to dissuade [Sir Martin] from making this finding so early, but he thought the evidence was so overwhelming, he had no choice.”

The report also identified failings in the response on the night. Despite praising the bravery of firefighters, Sir Martin said this did not mask the deficiencies of the London Fire Brigade (LFB).

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His harshest criticism was of the LFB’s “blind faith in the ‘stay put’ policy”. Grenfell residents were repeatedly told to remain in their flats until “stay put” was abandoned at 2.47AM, a time described as “too late for a managed evacuation”. If dropped an hour earlier, “many more lives would have been saved”, Sir Martin concluded. 

The report laid out several recommendations to change housing management, including evacuation plans for disabled residents in all buildings. The government promised to quickly implement all recommendations, but Grenfell United feels this promise has been broken.

So far, the government is yet to officially introduce any of the report’s suggestions. In September, Labour proposed an amendment to the government’s building safety bill that would have implemented every recommendation in the phase one report. This was voted down by the Conservative Party, by 309 votes to 185. Grenfell United responded to the news by saying they were outraged by both the vote and how little the government had done since the phase one report.

The family of Sakina Afrasehabi, a disabled woman who died in the fire, is seeking a judicial review to have the evacuation recommendations implemented, and is crowdfunding for support.

“These are the lengths a family has had to go to to get the government to meet the recommendations they promised,” says Mr Mussilhy.

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Photo: Henry Nicholls / REUTERS

Mistakes Were Made During the Refurbishment

A £9 million refurbishment was completed at Grenfell Tower in 2016.

Phase two’s first module looked in detail at the refurbishment, exposing oversights by contractors and decisions ultimately made to drive profit margins. It revealed that a safer zinc cladding was the first choice for Grenfell, but that this was swapped out for ACM due to a £376,000 saving.

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A key characteristic of this module was a keenness by witnesses to apportion blame to other parts of the construction team, which the inquiry’s chief counsel described as a “merry-go-round of buck passing”.

There was also a seeming disregard for fire safety. Daniel Anketell-Jones, the technical manager at cladding contractor Harley Facades, which worked on the Grenfell refurbishment, encapsulated this when he admitted that nobody at Harley had been designated to “think about fire”. Harley had installed ACM on several buildings across London; some of these have now been stripped of the material.

Even those charged specifically with ensuring that the refurbishment was fire-safe ultimately failed. Terry Ashton of Exova, the fire engineer during the tower’s refurbishment, incorrectly predicted that it would have “no adverse effect on the building in relation to external fire spread, but this will be confirmed by analysis in a future report”.

Why Dangerous Materials Were Installed On Grenfell and Hundreds of Other Buildings

Module two of the second phase – which has examined the flawed testing regime that led to the dangerous material being installed on Grenfell – has exposed a wider cultural issue within the UK’s construction industry. Grenfell Tower is an extreme example, but it provides some insight into the way in which many projects are carried out.

Evidence from staff working for the manufacturers of insulation materials has highlighted the tactics used to make these products appear safer than they actually are, all to drive sales.

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This includes evidence that Arconic, the manufacturers of Grenfell’s ACM, knew about its fire risks. In a series of emails stretching back seven years, Arconic staff highlighted the dangers of Reynobond PE to colleagues. One 2015 internal email from Claude Wehrle, Arconic’s technical support head, said: “PE is dangerous on facades, and everything should be transferred to fire resistant as a matter of urgency.”

The inquiry also exposed how another flammable insulation material, Celotex RS5000, ended up being installed on Grenfell Tower.

Jonathan Roper, a Celotex employee, was charged with getting the RS5000 through testing so it could be marketed as acceptable for buildings over 18 metres tall. Mr Roper alleged that the company had knowingly failed to disclose that it had used additional fire-resistant boards to pass a fire test, agreeing that some of the company’s actions were “misleading” and that he had been made to “lie for commercial gain”.

Celotex has said that, following an internal investigation after the Grenfell Tower fire, it found “unacceptable conduct on the part of a number of former employees”. The company added that, “Disciplinary proceedings were instituted as a result and six employees left the company (others having resigned previously).”

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Campaigners say that there are around 700,000 people currently living in buildings covered in flammable cladding. Estimates put the number of homeowners who face issues selling their homes because dangerous materials have been used to clad or insulate them at between 600,000 to 3 million.

“It makes me angry, once you read through all of the evidence and emails, you see this is a culture,” says Mr Mussilhy. “It is about, ‘How can we maximise profit?’ [They were] never thinking that what [they] were doing could have life-threatening implications.”

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Photo: Neil Hall / Reuters

What’s Next?

The Grenfell Inquiry will not directly result in any prosecutions. The purpose of the inquiry is to understand exactly why the Grenfell Tower was so dangerous, and to provide lessons to the construction industry and policymakers so that similar tragedies can be avoided in future. 

Alongside the inquiry, there is currently a police investigation into the fire, which could lead to personal prosecutions and jail time, or prosecutions against companies, which would result in huge fines. So far, only one person has been arrested in relation to the Grenfell investigation, a 38-year-old who was detained in October on suspicion of perverting the course of justice.

Under rules agreed in the early weeks of phase two, witnesses are unable to self-incriminate, meaning evidence they give verbally about themselves cannot be used against them in criminal proceedings. These rules were introduced to address fears that individuals or companies would refuse to answer questions or decline to give evidence for fear of repercussions. Any evidence given by witnesses about others, or evidence given in written statements, can be used in criminal proceedings.

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Once module two finishes, there are still six modules to complete in phase two of the inquiry.

Module three will look at how residents were treated before the fire. For years, residents had been ignored by their landlord, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), resulting in a blog written by residents that famously predicted “only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord”.

Module four will look into the aftermath of the fire, including the rehousing efforts of displaced residents. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s rehousing programme has been widely criticised, with many Grenfell survivors still not permanently housed years after the blaze. 

The fifth module will once again look at the fire service and how prepared they were for an event like the Grenfell Tower fire.

Module six, which looks at the government’s role, will see politicians give evidence. The government housing minister at the time of the fire, Gavin Barwell – who was repeatedly warned about cladding dangers – has said he expects to be called.

The survivors and bereaved will have to wait well over a year for the final phase two report to be published. This phase was initially scheduled to end in May or June of 2021. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been delayed by 17 weeks, and is now likely to finish in September of 2021, with Sir Martin then expected to take several months to compile his report.

For Mr Mussilhy, the inquiry must expose the truths at the heart of this tragedy. 

“It is not set up to prosecute people, it is set up to find out what happened, how it happened, and make sure this never happens again,” he says. “Getting these details and the truth is closure for us, hearing them say the words, looking in their faces, finding out their role, no matter how big or small. It is about finding out the truth and exposing these companies.”