Civil servants were aware of fire safety issues related to over-cladding high-rise buildings 25 years before the Grenfell Tower disaster but competing priorities stopped regulations being tightened, the inquiry into the 2017 fire has been told.
QC Stephanie Barwise told the inquiry yesterday that there had been a “prolonged period of concealment by government” that “should properly be regarded as one of the major scandals of our time”.
She said the west London fire, which claimed 72 lives, was the “predictable yet unintended consequence” of a laudable desire to reduce carbon emissions through better insulation, coupled with an “unbridled passion for deregulation” and, to boost the housing and construction industry.
Barwise, who represents one group of survivors, bereaved and residents of Grenfell Tower, was speaking on the opening day of a new module of the inquiry that will look at government’s involvement in policy related to building safety and previous tower-block fires.
She said government’s “knowing neglect of safety” in relation to the cladding of tower blocks with combustible materials could be traced back to the Knowsley Heights fire on Merseyside in 1991.
“Civil servants were aware of the significance of this fire, although ministers may, initially at least, have been unaware of the full extent of the implications for the government Estates Action Programme, by which the department funded local authorities to re−clad 1960s blocks using combustible cladding,” she said.
Barwise said a report on the Knowsley fire had not been published, seemingly to play down bad publicity over cladding safety, starting a “consistent pattern of inadequate investigation and suppression of reports” that continued through other fires to the Lakanal House fire in Southwark in 2009.
The failure of coalition government ministers to act on the recommendations of the coroner who presided over the inquests into deaths of Lakanal House’s six victims is likely to be a focal point in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry’s current module.
“Government’s tendency was to regard fires as something to be covered up or trivialised, such that the public might be reassured and avoid criticism of underlying regulations, thereby continuing to allow industry the latitude it wanted,” Barwise said.
She said zest for deregulation had “entwined” with a radical housing policy and produced an “astonishing period of wilful blindness” that stopped Approved Document B of the Building Regulations, which deals with fire safety, from being reviewed despite known flaws.
She said building safety issues had been neglected by all political parties in government since the 1990s, but coalition government-era plans to reduce regulatory burdens on the house-building sector had been a clear threat to safety.
“The housing agenda was compounded by the ‘one in, one out’ rule, which began in autumn 2010, requiring a deregulatory measure to be found of equivalent net cost for any new regulation introduced,” she said.
“Between 2010 and 2016 ‘one in, one out’ became ‘one in, two out’ and ultimately ‘one in, three out’.”
Barwise added that 2012’s Housing Standards Review had been described by then-prime minister David Cameron as a ”bonfire of the building regulations”, marking a return to then-communities secretary Eric Pickles’ Red Tape Challenge, also known as the “bonfire of red tape”.
Barwise said the wave of regulation-removal was compounded by the then-Department for Communities and Local Government – now the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – “priding itself on being a deregulatory department”. DCLG was the responsible department for Building Regulations, as its successor department is now.
The QC said the civil service lacked technical expertise in relation to building safety, leaving government “entirely dependent” on industry. She said that dependency resulted in government “becoming the junior partner in the relationship, thereby permitting industry’s exploitation of the regulations”.
Last month, housing secretary Michael Gove acknowledged to MPs that the latest phase of the Grenfell inquiry would be “very, very painful” for his department.
DLUHC’s counsel is due to give an opening statement to the inquiry on behalf of the department today ahead of the publication of initial witness statements this week.
The inquiry continues.