There has been a good deal of controversy lately over the proposed public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire which claimed an as yet undetermined number of lives and left many hundreds more homeless and traumatised. The controversy began with the appointment, despite widespread resistance in the Lancaster West community, of a retired judge, Martin Moore-Bick as head of the inquiry, an establishment figure whose previous actions revealed him to be seriously lacking in the empathy necessary to earn the trust of the local community.
The Moore-Bick controversy was further fed by statements he made (reported in the Independent on 29th June) that the inquiry would be “…limited to the problems surrounding the start of the fire and its rapid development in order to make recommendations about how this sort of thing can be prevented in future.” Judge Moore-Bick added that he was aware that local residents were demanding much wider terms of reference and expressed doubts that the the planned inquiry could satisfy those demands.
The controversy deepened with the appointment of a new panel of technical experts to advise the government on fire safety issues. Half of the members of this panel are tainted by their links to a company called BRE Ltd which, for many years, has been paid by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) to provide advice on fire safety. The Building Research Establishment Ltd (BRE) was formerly a British Government research body, but was privatised in 1997. It appears that BRE Global has since been paid at least £250,000 by the DCLG for fire safety advice.
Dr Peter Bonfield, Chief Executive of BRE Global, will sit on the expert panel alongside Sir Ken Knight, who is a trustee of BRE’s charitable parent company, the BRE Trust. According to Sky News and the Mail online BRE raised concerns in April 2016 that the use of combustible cladding on buildings was increasing, but they considered the current regulations to be adequate.
We wanted to see this report for ourselves so we searched for it and found it online. The report was in two parts, the second more technical part of which described only limited controlled testing of single components of a cladding system but not of the entire system. Not exactly the rigorous and fully comprehensive testing one might expect given the risks involved in the widespread use of highly combustible cladding systems. The conclusions were presented in part 1 of the report and stated that:
“There is currently no evidence to suggest that the current recommendations, to limit vertical fire spread up the exterior of high-rise buildings, are failing in their purpose.”
However, to our great surprise, while searching for the 2016 BRE report, we stumbled upon another much earlier report, also commissioned from BRE by the Blair government in 1999/2000. The conclusions of that report were as follows:
Clearly the advice to government from BRE Ltd in 2016 had changed markedly from that offered in 2000, perhaps because the ‘worst case scenario’ had failed to materialise by that time, but as the whole world now knows, it did materialise, just a year later on 14th June 2017, in the worst fire disaster to strike the UK in living memory, with an undetermined number of fatalities, widely believed in the community to be in excess of 100 souls.
Alternatively, this latest BRE guidance may have been designed to accommodate a notorious policy of the current government commonly referred to as the ‘Bonfire of the Regulations’ – a policy of deliberate widespread deregulation designed to cut costs for business and industry regardless of its negative impact on public health and safety.
As reported in the Guardian on 14th June:
“A 2015 survey by the Fire Sector Federation, a forum for fire and rescue organisations, found that 92% of its members believed the UK Building Regulations were ‘long overdue an overhaul’, claiming that they do not reflect today’s design and construction methods and that research underpinning the guidance is out of date.”
The coroner in the Lakanal House case in 2009, in which six people died, including three children, also called for a thorough review as the evidence pointed to a risk of further deaths in the future unless changes were made, with about 4,000 tower blocks in the UK remaining subject to outdated regulations.
It seems from the above that BRE Ltd have been too closely associated with central government, both Labour and Tory, for far too long while calls from other interested parties for reform of the building regulationse have been ignored. Indeed BRE clearly became part of the problem, rather than the solution, when they declared in 2016 that the regulations were fit for purpose.
In our opinion BRE are not fit to advise the government on fire safety issues and neither Peter Bonfield, the CEO of BRE Ltd, nor Ken Knight of the BRE Trust, should have been appointed to the technical panel convened after the Grenfell Tower fire. Perhaps the Fire Sector Federation, which appears to have far more integrity, might be willing to volunteer some of its more highly experienced members to sit on the new panel. We believe the Lancaster West community would be more inclined to trust a reformed panel to provide the kind of competent technical advice that is so urgently needed.
Just a few days ago I received an email from Sinead McQuillan, the latest in a long line of TMO company secretaries, in which she refused my request for a report commissioned by the KCTMO twelve years ago in 2005. I was a member of the Lancaster West Estate Management Board at the time and the report had been commissioned, under extreme pressure from the EMB, following our discovery that two thirds of the emergency lighting units in Grenfell Tower had failed a routine inspection commissioned by the TMO.
The battery packs on which the lighting units depended during an emergency were designed to provide temporary lighting during power cuts and in case evacution was necessary in the event of a serious fire. Two thirds of the emergency lights had failed because the battery packs were long past their expiry dates and had neither been maintained nor replaced for many years. The EMB regarded this at the time as a very serious matter. The consultants report commissioned by the TMO agreed with us and was highly critical of the TMO and its contractors. It found the EMB complaints, which the TMO had dismissed for several months, to be well founded and completely vindicated.
The basis of Ms McQuillan’s refusal, on 14th July, to provide me with a copy of this report was her claim that, as a private limited company the TMO is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. The email thread detailing the exchanges between McQuillan and myself is reproduced in the blog post immediately preceding this one: “KCTMO – Housing Management for the People, by the People?” and it could reasonably be argued that, given their obvious contempt for the Freedom of Information Act and, by implication, for their clients in the Council owned social housing they control, the KCTMO have forfeited any moral right to the claim that they are a ‘Tenant Management Organisation’. They still retain a token representation on their board of compliant and mercenary elected tenant members who draw inflated expenses payments far in excess of the measly amounts that were previously allowed to EMB members, who were constantly undermined and disempowered by the TMO, working in collusion with the RBKC Council.
The Council’s refusal to honour the Management Agreement it had signed with the EMB in 1993, several years before the creation of the monstrous KCTMO, had created the conditions under which, with the Councils’s active collusion, the KCTMO could strip the EMB of all its powers. In our opinion and, in that of most TMO residents who have had to endure TMO incompetence and negligence for many years, tenant board members are mere ‘scabs’ who serve only to confer a spurious legitimacy on a self-serving TMO bureaucracy, which has been propped up and enabled by the Council it serves and has never had a shred of legitimacy or integrity – a fact that has been common knowledge among its clients for many years and has finally been publicly exposed by the Grenfell Tower catastrophe on 14th June.
So, what about the Freedom of Information Act, under the provisions of which one might reasonably expect the TMO to disclose infomation relating to fire safety and other health and safety issues to the residents of the Council owned social housing they control?
The KCTMO website includes a page entitled ‘Access to Information’ which, until very recently, contained the following statements:
“The Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOI), and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR) make it possible for residents, and members of the public to request information held by public authorities or for public authorities.
We are required to supply, on request in writing and subject to availability, information held by KCTMO, for RBKC, on the services provided on behalf of RBKC.”
At some time during the few days since McQuillan refused my FOI request the text of that page was changed so that it now reads:
“Although the TMO is a private body and not subject to FOI, we are required to supply to RBKC any information RBKC may require in order to comply with its legal or regulatory obligations including any obligation under the FOI.
The TMO also operates its own transparency agenda even though FOI does not apply directly to it. This means that the TMO will disclose information where it can, but reserves the right not to disclose if it is reasonable to do so, for instance protecting the commercial interests of the TMO, or the interests of third parties, or where disclosure might affect criminal, regulatory or other investigations.”
In December 2014 the co-editor of the Grenfell Action Group blog, Edward Daffarn, wrote to the KCTMO requesting information under the Freedom of Information Act, specifically copies of minutes of the monthly meetings between the TMO, their contractor, Rydon, and the project architect, Studio E, at which matters pertaining to the planned Grenfell Tower Improvement Works were discussed. His request was refused by McQuillan’s predecessor Fola Kafidya who claimed that this information;
“… is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act 2000 as it is not information held on behalf of a public authority or by the TMO on behalf of a public authority. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 relates to information held on behalf of public authorities.”
Strangely Ms Kafidya, in the same email, went on to invoke one of the few exemptions allowed under the Freedom of Information Act (section 43 subsection 2), claiming that;
” the TMO’s commercial communications with its contractors are sensitive and the disclosure of such commercial communication would, or would be likely to, prejudice the commercial interests of the contractor.”
From this the following question arose: if Kafidya truly believed that the KCTMO was not subject to the Freedom of Infomation Act why would she have found it necessary to claim also that the information was exempt under a subsection of the Act, clearly implying that she believed the KCTMO is in fact subject to the Freedom of Information Act?
Mr Daffarn replied challenging the transparently absurd basis of Ms Kafidya’s decision, pointing out that the TMO’s only role or function is the managment of the housing stock owned by the local authority, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and that all information they hold is therefore held on behalf of the local authority and cannot be exempt from the Act. Mr Daffarn requested a revision of the refusal to disclose on this basis.
Within a couple of days (hardly enough time to have conducted the genuine and thorough review required by law) he received a final refusal from Ms Kafidya. Surprisingly, she had now abandoned all pretense that the TMO were exempt from the Freedom of Information Act and offered instead the following reason for the TMO’s refusal;
“Although Rydons is providing a service in the public interest, the TMO’s commercial communications with its contractors are sensitive and the disclosure of such commercial communication would, or would be likely to, prejudice the commercial interests of the contractor. By virtue of section 43(2) of the Freedom of Information Act, such information is exempt from disclosure. As a result, we are unable to disclose the information you have requested. In accordance with the Freedom of Information Act 2000 this email acts as a Refusal Notice.“
It is interesting to note that Mr Daffarn later made another FOI request to Ms Kafidya in May 2016. This time he requested a copy of a report presented by the TMO to the Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee at RBKC. This time he received a positive reply:
“Further to your request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the report presented to the RBKC Scrutiny Committee is attached for your consideration.
Should you be unhappy with the handling of your request, you have a right to complain to the Information Commissioner who is responsible for ensuring compliance with FOIA.
Fola Kafidiya-Oke FCIS
Head of Governance & Company Secretary
The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea
Tenant Management Organisation Limited”
It would appear that, by this time, Ms Kafidya had finally resolved any doubts or confusion she may previously have had as to whether the KCTMO is, or is not, a public body and is, or is not, subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Clearly she had realised that the TMO is indeed a public body and is indeed subject to the FOI Act.
She resigned from the TMO shortly after this last exchange with Mr Daffarn but it is interesting to see what her Linkedin profile now says about her period as Head of Governance & Company Secretary at the KCTMO. It claims that she;
“…ensured that the group complied with the Data Protection Act, Freedom of Information Act and other legislation relating to access to information of public bodies.”
Further evidence that the KCTMO is, and always has been, subjecd to Freedom of Information legislation can be found in the FOI Publication Scheme (a mandatory element of compliance with the legislation by public bodies) which which was first published by the TMO in 2005 and is downloadable from the TMO website. NB In case the new company secretary should decide, on reading this blog, to pull another fast one by deleting this document from the TMO website we have uploaded a copy we downloaded earlier:
With the departure of Fola Kafidya, and her replacement by Sinead McQuillan, the TMO’s position on Freedom of Information appears to have come full circle, with the exception that the original claim by Kafidya, that the TMO are only responsible under FOIA for disclosing to the public information they hold on behalf of the local authority, has now been replaced by a claim by McQuillan that they are responsible for providing such information, not to the public, but only to the local authority itself so that the local authority may fulfill its obligations under the FOIA.
However the report from 2005 that I requested has never, as far as I can tell, been in the possession of the Council, and the responsibility for acting on its recommendations fell not to the Council, but to the TMO who had commissioned the report in the fiirst place. Those recommendations included a complete replacement of the emergency lighting system at Grenfell Tower and an improved system of inspections and checks of the new system. The first of these recommendations was implemented, but serious doubts must surely remain as to whether an improved inspection system was ever implemented and, if so, was sustained in the longer term. Radical changes to the management culture at the TMO were also recommended, and we all know what became of that idea. Nada! Zilch! SNAFU!
We are now left with a bizarre game of musical chairs in which TMO residents always lose because the rules of the game are set by the TMO and interpreted by the TMO. This includes their policy on the Freedom of Information Act, responsibility for which the TMO sometimes whimsically accepts, and more often rejects on the contrived pretext that the TMO is not a public body and is therefore not answerable to the public it serves and to whom it supplies all housing services, including fire safety and all health and safety services.
There is nothing funny about this particular ‘game’ of musical chairs. A great many people died in the most terrible way on 14th June. The bereaved of that night, and many of the ‘survivors’, are terribly traumatised and will carry the psychological scars of that night for the rest of their lives. Now we have the KCTMO, deeply implicated in the criminal negligence that caused all this, refusing to disclose information they hold on any pretext they can find.
To whom should we now turn for answers?
To Martin Moore-Bick? I don’t think so!
Apologies are in order, first of all, to our friends and colleagues in the Save Wornington College Campaign for our recent exclusive focus on the truly terrible events at Grenfell Tower. This has caused us to somewhat neglect the Wornington issue, which is also dear to our hearts. However it has been, and remains, vitally important that we continue to prioritise the Grenfell Tower catastrophe and try our utmost to keeep it alive in the media and in the public mind. However, it hasn’t escaped our notice, and we are very pleased to see and to support the new Save Wornington College blog that has recently appeared at;
Ealing Hammersmith and West London College recently announced the much anticipated merger with Kensington & Chelsea College. They claim the merger will broaden the opportunities available to learners and help meet the future needs of employers across the region. Kensington and Chelsea College had earlier announced plans to increase the number of students in North Kensington, with modern facilities for both school-leavers and adults. According to KCC the plan for Wornington is for facilities on-site or nearby, allowing space for increased student numbers and more courses. The college, they say, is committed to staying in North Kensington where demand remains strong for student places. Michele Sutton, the interim principal of Kensington and Chelsea College, said:
“We are delighted to be able to announce the agreement to enter into this merger with a very strong, well-respected and successful neighbouring college. This announcement (will ensure) good provision in the borough while at the same time drawing on the resources of a larger organisation. We are looking forward to working closely together as this merger takes shape over the coming months and ensuring a smooth transition.”
This latest statement lacks any mention of provision in North Kensington and public consultation is not scheduled until January 2018, despite the fact that the decision to proceed with the merger has already been confirmed.
The local branch of the University and College Union (UCU), the largest trade union in the UK representing academics, lecturers, trainers, researchers and other academic staff in further and higher education, has responded to these developments by pouring cold water on the warm words of these college governors and their senior management teams.
The KCC branch of the UCU passed a motion on 5th July stating that:
This Branch considers that the recent round of cuts resulting in compulsory and voluntary redundancies was not carried out in accordance with established and lawful procedures.
- As more than 20 members of staff were/are at risk of redundancy and/or have been accepted for voluntary redundancy, we demand that the proper procedures be followed (as outlined in the UCU Branch email of 27th June concerning collective consultation).
- Those consultations already carried out were conducted improperly.
- Classes were closed prior to any ‘at risk’ members of staff having been made redundant and/or received voluntary redundancy.
- Potential students are being turned away, having been informed that classes will not take place. This is prior to any consultations having taken place and goes against the spirit and letter of redundancy consultation legislation and established practice.
- We are shocked and appalled that Senior Management fail(ed) to appreciate, or do not know, that the College is a public body.
- The Branch has received an inadequate response to concerns raised on the 23rd June regarding the decision to close maths for adults and regarding the College’s responsibilities under The Equality Act 2010.
- The ‘Equality Impact Statement’ shows contempt for the needs of the local community, especially in the North Kensington area, which is amongst the most socially and economically deprived in Britain.
We further demand:
- That all redundancy consultations be immediately halted
- That applications for courses in the curriculum areas under threat are processed. We have evidence that applicants are being referred to other Colleges and that applications have supposedly been ‘lost’.
We believe that the above is a deliberately managed decline, prior to the proposed merger/takeover of the College, in order that the College will seem more financially attractive. We believe that this is linked to the regeneration of the North Kensington area and increases the prospects that an asset strip might be appealing to a larger ‘partner’.
This Branch has no confidence in the Interim Senior Management because of past and present performance, we therefore mandate Branch Officers to seek immediate talks with the Chair of Governors to discuss staff concerns regarding Interim Senior Management performance and actions in order to seek ways forward for the general good of the College and its community.
The glaring disconnect between the reassuring PR statements coming from the management at EHWL and KCC, and the litany of redundancies, cancelled classes and other concerns raised by the University and College Union branch at KCC are alarming. The UCU motion speaks of ‘managed decline’ linked to the Council’s plans for the so-called ‘regeneration’ of North Kensington and refers also to asset stripping that will serve only the interests of the dominant ‘partner’ (ie EHWL). This in turn echoes the words of Tony Redpath, a senior RBKC officer seconded to the KCC Board, who warned in February of this year, following the collapse of the City Lit merger talks, that Ealing Hammersmith and West London College were ‘already circling’ and that KCC’s problem was that its attraction to larger Colleges was ‘based on its assets rather than it activities’.
We in the Grendfell Action Group have learned the hard way to be wary of the sweet talk of those in power whose statements we have far too often found to be duplicitous and deliberately misleading. We therefore fear that the new merger is in fact a hostile takeover by EHWL which is likely to involve further asset stripping and the loss of much , if not all, of KCC’s educational provision in North Kensington, which although vital to many local residents, may be a mere incumberance to the plans of the new improved college in which only the Chelsea centre may have any future value.
The Wornington centre having been sold off, and government funding radically cut, any reprovision of adult education in North Kensington will require significant new investment with no guarantee of the returns the new regime will be seeking. What are the chances they will take that gamble?
A beautiful message to the Grenfell community, from the housing estates of East London
Residents of council tower blocks and estates across East and South London dropped 22 banners – one for each of the 22 residential floors in the 24 storey Grenfell Tower, destroyed by fire on 14th June – in a show of mass solidarity with victims, survivors and the local community.
The action on Tuesday 27 June was dubbed ‘East 4 West – Grenfell Solidarity’ and was mainly organised by black and brown communities with people of all faith living in social housing in Tower Hamlets, Newham, Hackney, Southwark and several others boroughs.
OUR MESSAGE OF SOLIDARITY TO THE RESIDENTS OF GRENFELL
Ends to ends, estates to estates, we hope this action brings together our communities and also makes the people of East, North and South London aware that our realities are not too far away from those of Grenfell and its local communities We direct the eyes of our community towards Grenfell, to remember all who are gone and to keep our hearts with you.
We came together because many of us do not have the funds or the living space that others have to offer and we know nothing can bring back what was taken from you.
We too, live in inner city council estates and tower blocks. Our communities are working class, black, brown, people of all faiths, poor and proud. We wanted to find a way to show you that we are holding you however we can; in prayers, love, resistance and solidarity. We have not forgotten you.
We know that there is a long journey towards justice and community repair. We believe in you. We know that you can heal your communities and get the justice you deserve.
We stand in solidarity with your demands for justice. Justice will be yours and because of that justice will be ours.
We are with you.
We will never forget.
With love and solidarity,
Your East London Fam
This action was a collective effort of many east London social housing residents and our friends. We want to acknowledge Queensland House estate and Richard Neale House estate, we were unable to capture their banner drops due to their buildings being high towers and windy weather.
If you visit this page and scroll down you will come to a an archive of pictures of banner after banner hanging from the balconies and walkways of housing estates all over London. If you’re not moved to tears by this (as we were) then you’re just not human.