The fire at the 23-floor Grenfell tower broke out in the early hours of the morning of 14th June 2017, in the kitchen of a 4th floor flat. Within 2 hours the fire had spread to all 4 sides of the tower and to most of the upper floors. 72 people died and a further 70 were injured.
A public inquiry was announced on 15th June 2017. Since then the Inquiry has released its Phase 1 report and has begun its Phase 2 investigations. Public debate has raged regarding the responsibility for failings of the local authority, contractors, manufacturers and emergency services, most recently with a debate in the House of Commons following the release of the Phase 1 report in October 2019.
To date, out of 19 corporate core participants to the Inquiry only the local authority which instructed the instalment of flammable cladding to the exterior of the tower has acknowledged failings in relation to its Building Control service approving applications during the works. This was met with anger for the utter lack of real remorse and admission of responsibility. The contractors, sub-contractors and manufacturers which have given statements to the Inquiry have all largely blamed each other. Most recently they have requested immunity from prosecution in relation to their evidence to the Inquiry.
It is important to know that this public inquiry is not the first to investigate a fire at a high-rise residential building where similar external cladding material was considered to be dangerous, and where policy and performance failings by a fire brigade were noted. Inquests and inquiries containing eerily similar details to that of Grenfell include Shepherd’s Court in 2016, Lakanal House in July 2009, , Harrow Court in 2005, Garnock Court in 1999 and Knowsley Heights in 1991. The dangers have been noted, publicised and discussed for decades. The lack of substantive changes to building regulations has attracted accusations of institutional racism due to the over-representation in high-rise buildings of ethnic minorities in the UK, and the perceived lack of care put into maintaining those buildings.
Grenfell tower was refurbished in 2016 by Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea council and the local tenant management organisation. They instructed various contractors and sub-contractors to carry out works including installing exterior cladding. By the time of instructing the work the Council had been under pressure for some time to cut spending on building maintenance. A decision was taken to install cheaper cladding which did not have the highest classification in terms of fire safety (Euro classification A1).
The first phase of the Inquiry was intended to set out a description of events and a narrative account of the fire and the response to it, in order to examine the cause of the fire and the steps taken by emergency services. The resulting report stated that the principal reason for the fire spreading so rapidly all over the building was “the presence of the aluminium composite material (ACM) rainscreen panels with polyethylene cores, which acted as a source of fuel.” The melting and dripping of the polyethylene was considered the principal mechanism of the spread of the fire horizontally and downwards. The presence of polyisocyanurate (PIR) and phenolic foam insulation boards behind the ACM panels as well as components of the uPVC window surrounds contributed to the rate and extent of the vertical spread of the fire.
The external cladding accelerated the fire and led to such intensity of heat that the glass in windows broke and allowed the fire to spread internally. Some of the internal fire doors lacked effective self-closing mechanisms and so were essentially left open, further contributing to the internal spread of fire and smoke.
The refurbishment did not include the installation of internal fire safety measures despite requests from residents.
Once the London Fire Brigade (LFB) arrived at the scene the failings in policy and duty continued. While the Inquiry acknowledged the “extraordinary courage and selfless devotion to duty” of the firefighters who attended, it found that there was a lack of:- knowledge and understanding of the materials used in the refurbishment of the tower in terms of how they may affect the spread of a fire; timely ability to change strategy from the usual “stay put” advice to residents during a high-rise fire; communication with Control Room Operators receiving emergency calls from residents (and the control room itself was quickly overwhelmed and gave inaccurate advice); and effective command and control.
The Inquiry has made various recommendations to the LFB and the government in relation to those failings.
The Inquiry also found during Phase 1 that there was compelling evidence of a failure to comply with building regulations in terms of the use of certain materials and their testing and certification. Recommendations in this respect will likely be made following the conclusion of Phase 2, which will investigate in detail the decisions which led to the installation of flammable cladding on a high-rise residential building.
Phase 2 will focus on an investigation into the potential liability of all of those organisations which were involved in either the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower or attending at the scene when fire broke out. Findings regarding the exact circumstances of the deaths of those 72 people should be made and, in the same way as other public inquiries such as that of the Hillsborough disaster, criminal charges will follow. It is hoped that those responsible will face justice and that real change will finally be effected.
Blog by Shona Cocksedge, Solicitor