The many who lost their lives in the Grenfell Tower catastrophe were our friends and neighbours. We tried to speak for them in life and we will continue to speak for them now. We share the pain of the homeless, the injured and the bereaved to whom we offer our heartfelt sympathy, condolences and solidarity. We also share the sense of anger and injustice that has troubled this community for years and has greatly intensified now. That is why we started this blog and that is why we will continue as we started, speaking truth to power whether or not they choose to listen.
Even the dogs in the street know that the flammable cladding encasing the exterior of Grenfell Tower played a major role in spreading and accelerating what began as a single dwelling fire with such rapidity that the entire interior of the 24 storey building became a raging inferno in less than two hours. It is incumbent on us also to state our firmly held belief that the cladding in question was not installed for the benefit of the residents of Grenfell Tower but because Kensington and Chelsea Council was redeveloping the surounding area, building another of their flagship academy schools right next to Grenfell Tower, and a new sports and leisure centre next to that. The cladding on Grenfell Tower was intended to pimp it up so that it wouldn’t spoil the image of creeping gentrification that the Council is intent on creating, here and throughout the rest of North Kensington.
According to an article published on 14th June in the Guardian government ministers were warned numerous times that breaches of fire safety standards are common in the UK and that the use of cladding on high-rise blocks is unsafe. The government repeatedly ignored the advice of fire experts. In the 1990’s the Home Office received a damning report by architect Sam Webb following a survey of hundreds of residential tower blocks. The study found that half of the buildings inspected did not meet basic fire safety regulations. Webb described the state of Britain’s tower blocks as ‘a disaster waiting to happen’.
The Lakanal House fire in Southwark in 2009 subsequently proved him right. Six people, including three children, died when a fire in the high rise block in which they lived spread rapidly from the ninth floor to the tenth and eleventh floors of the building via flammable cladding that had been fixed to the exterior of the block.
Southwark Council subsequently pleaded guilty to four breaches of fire regulations. Labour MP Harriet Harman, whose constituency includes Lakanal House, said that those who had escaped with their lives were those who had ignored fire brigade instructions to ‘stay put’ and fled the building via the emergency stairs. Those who died were those who obeyed instructions to stay in their homes. The advice to stay put would have been correct were it not for the recent obsession with cladding high rise buildings, more often than not with cheaper highly flammable cladding, which renders the standard fire safety advice redundant, and caused the fires at Lakanal house and at Grenfell Tower to spread so rapidly and uncontrollably from floor to floor. The Lakanal inquest arrived at a number of conclusions and recommendations which included the following:
Since then there have been a number of high profile high rise fires in which the presence of cladding played a key role, notably in Dubai where, in February 2015 fire engulfed the 79 storey Torch skyscraper, one of the tallest residential buildings in the world, and the 63 storey Address Hotel where, on New Years Eve 2016, there was a similar fire. In both of these cases external cladding was implicated in the extremely rapid spread of the fire up the exterior of both buildings. There was one fatality and 14 were injured in the Address fire and no casualties at the Torch. It would seem that the rich of Dubai are far safer in their luxury skyscrapers than the poor of Kensington were in the 28 storey Grenfell Tower.
The fire risks from cladding of high rise residential blocks have been known for years. The Government dragged its feet after the Lakanal fire, despite the recommendations of the inquest judge and a report the Government commissioned in 2013 that recommended an urgent review of fire safety policies for high rise blocks. We believe the dangers of cladding must have been known by RBKC Council and TMO technical staff involved in planning the Grenfell Tower ‘improvement works’ and by the contractor Rydon and sub-contractor Harley Facades who carried out the works using cheaper highly flammable cladding.
None of this information about the known fire risks associated with the use of cladding was ever communicated to the residents of Grenfell Tower.
Of course there is more to all this controversy than the media have so far reported and we have evidence that we will present here that strongly supports the widely held local belief that a culture of complacency, indifference and negligence has continued for many years at the KCTMO and with which the RBKC are complicit and equally negligent.
THE GRENFELL TOWER EMERGENCY LIGHTING CRISIS – 2004/5
Early in 2004 Lancaster West Estate Management Board received leaked information indicating that the emergency lighting system in the staircase at Grenfell Tower was in a dangerous state of disrepair. This information proved to be accurate and strongly suggested that the contractors who were responsible for inspecting the emergency lighting system had been falsifying their inspection certificates for several years and giving the system a clean bill of health. The reality was that the system had been badly neglected for years and by 2004 two thirds of the emergency lighting units were non-functional because the battery packs that powered them were old, worn out, and useless. In response to this information the EMB began a campaign aimed at ensuring that all emergency lighting systems at Lancaster West were functioning properly and seeking answers to the serious questions the lapse at Grenfell Tower raised. For several months the TMO denied there was any problem or negligence, but the EMB continued to press them and eventually the TMO relented and commissioned an independent investigation of the issues. This was conducted by Peter West of Capita Symonds Ltd and was completed in May 2005.
Mr West’s investigation was based on a study of all relevant documentation including the report submitted by the EMB in August 2004 which he found to be ‘substantially accurate’. Some of his conclusions were based on inconsistencies in the available documents held by the TMO and the unexplained absence of some essential documents. His report was as thorough and comprehensive as could be expected under the circumstances and its main conclusions were summarized as follows:
- Lack of suitable communications between the contractor and the TMO
- Lack of suitable communications within the TMO
- Failure to acknowledge the importance of undertaking urgent remedial works by both the TMO and the contractor.
- Lack of communications between the TMO and the EMB
- Inadequate installation standards of the contractor
- Lack of adequate strategy planning by the TMO, suitably supported by the contractor
The West Report also concluded that all aspects of the relevant contract conditions and management required extensive review so that the TMO could be proactive in its approach and be able to develop a specification that reflected the skills and resources available to appoint and manage a suitable contractor. It also recommended that the TMO should review whether the current contractors were suitable to continue with the contract, and whether they should even be allowed to submit a bid for a new contract.
According to the Report the primary causes of the problems were the contractors poor administration, communication, management procedures and the quality of installation works. However, it also stressed that the TMO had a responsibility to the Borough, the public and the residents of Grenfell Tower, to ensure that contractors comply with their contractual obligations and provide a duty of care to residents. This objective, it found, had not been achieved and the report concluded that a considerable effort would be required to amend the culture and procedures at the TMO to ensure effective future management. The West Report ultimately led to replacement of all emergency lighting systems at Lancaster West and a thorough overhaul of systems throughout the borough.
THE GRENFELL TOWER FIRE RISK ASSESSMENT – November 2012
We acquired the last published fire risk assessment from the TMO some time ago and blogged it at the time, but were unable to acquire any later asessments. We found the 32 page report to be unremarkable except for a section of inspector’s comments or observations quoted below from page 28 which gave us serious cause for concern;
‘The fire extinguishers in this building, the basement boiler room, the lift motor room, the ground floor electrical room plus other areas were out of test date according to the contractors label on the extinguishers. The last test date was on the 8th August 2011. Some located in the roof level areas had “condemned” written on them in large black writing with a last test date of 2009 or 2010. This seems to indicate that monthly occupier inspections are not being carried out.
It is not known if the caretaker is undertaking the monthly occupier’s tests of the installed emergency lighting system, fire extinguishers and structural items as per the caretakers check list. This would include the external stairs and lift checks with the results being kept as a record of testing having been undertaken.
From the asset records provided by the TMO the emergency lighting and fire alarm systems along with the dry riser, fire fighter lifts and the hose reels installed in this building are all subject to a maintenance contract. Testing, servicing and maintenance is carried out by professional third party contractors on a planned preventative maintenance programme with records kept centrally by the TMO and by the contractor for all these systems. No test certificates have been seen to confirm this.’
In our opinion one of the most alarming aspects of these comments was the fact that the inspector could not locate any of the test certificates pertaining to inspections of the emergency lighting and fire alarm systems (and other vital fire fighting equipment) which were supposedly held centrally by the TMO. We are entitled to suppose that the author of the report requested these certificates from the TMO who were unable (or perhaps unwilling) to produce them. This raises crucial questions about whether the remedial actions and protocols agreed after the 2004/2005 emergency lighting crisis had ever been followed through and whether the culture of negligence and incompetence evident from the Capita Symonds Report of 2005 had ever changed, as it absolutely should have done.
THE GRENFELL TOWER POWER SURGE CRISIS – May 2013
In May 2013 a serious electrical fault causing multiple power surges at Grenfell Tower posed a major fire risk to residents many of whom witnessed smoke coming from light fittings and other electrical appliances, some of which actually exploded. Despite the fact that these highly alarming incidents were reported to the TMO on 11th May no effective action was taken until the problems escalated out of control on 29th May 2013.
The power surges had been ongoing for 18 days with multiple reports by residents of electrical appliances catching fire and sometimes exploding, but multiple reports to the TMO by Grenfell Tower residents were treated with a dismissive and sceptical attitude. When electrical engineers were sent to investigate they insisted that the apparent smoking of electrical appliances was probably caused by steam from water dripping onto the appliances. Residents found these dismissive theories deeply insulting and we believe they demonstrated a shockingly blasé and complacent attitude by the TMO and its agents.
Consequently no effective action was taken until a near catastrophic incident occurred on the weekend of Sunday 29th May which affected multiple households and damaged many electrical appliances beyond repair. On that Sunday there were severe power surges throughout the night that continued through the following morning. A flood of complaints to the TMO out-of-hours emergency repairs service, and on Monday to the estate office, finally prompted the TMO to order a more thorough investigation of the power surge issue. They installed specialised metering equipment that soon revealed that there were indeed serious power surges which were subsequently traced to arcing in a damaged mains power cable supplying Grenfell Tower. The cause of the damage, they claimed, was unknown. The mains cable was subsequently repaired and surge protection was later added.
The residnt groups, having been vindicated at last, were furious at the complacency and negligence of the TMO responses throughout the 18 days of the power surge ordeal. They appealed to the RBKC Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee and it was agreed that representatives from Grenfell Tower would attend the meeting of the Committee on 16th July 2013 to report and discuss their concerns. TMO representatives also attended the meeting and presented their own report which contradicted the residents accounts of what had occurred and downplayed the seriousness of the matter and the fire risk involved.
Robert Black, the CEO of the TMO, also alleged that the Grenfell Action Group and other local stakeholders, such as the Grenfell Tower Leaseholders Association, had made misleading statements on our blog and in round robin emails. When we later challenged him to substantiate these allegations, by specifying which of the statements he believed to be misleading, he declined to do so and failed to provide any evidence for this or other derogatory statements he had made to the Scrutiny Committee.
When the residents groups were eventually able to study the minutes of the meeting and the report that was submitted by the TMO we were horrified to discover that the Scrutiny Committee had chosen to accept the TMO version of events and had given little creedence to the explicit health and safety concerns highlighted earlier by the resident groups in an email to the Chair of the Scrutiny Committee on 9th July.
Incidentally the Committee Report, submitted several weeks after the incident, included the following remarks:
‘It is too early to say whether the problem has been fully resolved and where responsibility lies for the cause. It is possible that the fault that has been rectified is not the primary cause.’
Grenfell Tower residents were never informed whether the primary cause of the electrical problem was ever identified.
It seems that RBKC social housing tenants can never win an argument with the TMO, despite the evidence overwhelmingly backing our accounts, and complaints to the Council are just as pointless because they will invariably treat residents concerns with the same contempt shown by their bedfellows and partners in crime the KCTMO.
We had hoped when we began writing this piece to keep abreast of breaking news, but that effort proved futile as the story developed and unfolded at such a pace that we couldn’t keep up. Nonetheless the opinion we expressed so strongly about the role of the cladding still holds good and we are confident it will remain a crucial part of the final account of the Grenfell Tower disaster.
We had another objective in mind when writing this piece. It was to chronicle the history of complacency, negligence and incompetence that has defined the RBKC and KCTMO for as long as we can remember. We have enough evidence in our possession to begin making that case and we believe it was vitally important to begin the task of recording this in the hope that those tasked with investigating the causes of the Grenfell Tower inferno would be forced to investigate this history and would be unable to ignore or bury it.
The short blog we posted on the night of the fire went viral, to our enormous surprise, and has been quoted and used as source material by a great many journalists. We are counting now on these same journalists to publicise the years of TMO and RBKC negligence that we have recorded today. We have no doubt there is plenty more of such evidence waiting to be uncovered.