A senior official at the former Department for Communities and Local Government has admitted the department could “perhaps” have moved more quickly with a review of building regulations following a fatal fire eight years before the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
Bob Ledsome told the inquiry into the failings that led up to the 2017 tower-block fire in west London that the department's response to a coroner’s recommendations following 2009’s Lakanal House fire in south London should the work should feed into a “full review” of a key part of the regulations.
Six people died in the south London blaze, which came after the block’s flawed refurbishment. In 2013, coroner Frances Kirkham used her powers to call on the government to review Approved Document B of the building regulations based on evidence she heard at inquests into the deaths.
She said ADB was a “most difficult document to use” and urged DCLG to make its guidance clearer on the spread of fire over external walls and the potential for renovation work to reduce the fire safety of existing structures. Kirkham added that the document also needed to be intelligible to the wide range of people and bodies engaged in construction, maintenance and refurbishment of buildings, not just professionals already familiar with building regulations.
Then-communities secretary Eric Pickles agreed to the review, but ADB had not been updated at the time of the Grenfell Tower fire, in which 72 lives were lost.
Although the Grenfell fire was started by a faulty fridge-freezer, the inquiry has already determined that it took hold of the block primarily because of the aluminium composite material cladding and insulation fitted during a flawed refurbishment programme between 2014 and 2016.
Giving evidence to the inquiry yesterday, Ledsome – who was deputy director of DCLG’s Building Regulations and Standards Division from June 2011 to September 2017 – said his team had taken the view that a full review of ADB was necessary, following the coroner’s request.
“Where we were, rightly or wrongly, is that we knew we had to do work on Approved Document B, we’d commissioned research prior to any of this on some issues , we knew it was a big job,” he said.
“We knew that by the time we had finished that it would have been 10 years-plus since the last review of Approved Document B, we knew that we had a lot else on our plate.
“The judgement we took then, from all of the experience that we had of the length of time it took to undertake those types of pieces of work... that timescale of 2016-17 was a reasonable timescale to suggest for the review of ADB.”
Inquiry lead counsel Richard Millett QC asked Ledsome why the department did not limit its review to the specific points raised by the coroner on preventing the spread of fire.
“I’ve thought long and hard about this. It wouldn’t have been a straightforward job,” he said.
“We were focused on this in terms of the overall programme of work. Looking at it now, yes, perhaps we should have taken a harder look at this and been bolder about saying: well , actually, can we do something more quickly with this? Even if it means, for example, that all the other things that we’ve got on our plate or priorities we have to say, ‘Sorry, we’ve got to put those down the track.’
"And clearly we did not put that – those options – to ministers and perhaps we should.”
At the time of the coroner’s recommendation, the coalition government was engaged in a wide-ranging crackdown on burdensome regulation, sometimes referred to as the Red Tape Challenge, led by the Cabinet Office. It was also operating a “one-in-two-out” policy on pieces of new regulation.
Ledsome acknowledged that officials believed changes to ADB were not exempt from the needs to justify costs and benefits that the programmes entailed.
Asked by Millet whether DCLG – now the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – had “lost sight” of the threat-to-life warning that the coroner had issued in her call for a review of ADB.
“I do not accept that we lost sight of life safety,” he replied. “I’ll leave others to judge whether [we] should have thought: ‘Well, is there an option to do something sooner with that particular part of Approved Document B?’
“I regret that perhaps we should have given it more attention and we didn’t.”
DLUHC has already accepted in written evidence to the inquiry that the department should have treated the work to clarify and simplify ADB as an urgent priority and “should not have decided to fold the work into a broader review expected to take at least another three years”.
It also accepts that it “missed the opportunity to look beyond the recommendations made by the coroner, and to consider how widespread the use of non−compliant materials on high−rise residential buildings was, and the associated fire safety risks”.
The inquiry continues.