A senior official at the former Department for Communities and Local Government has acknowledged missing multiple opportunities to address the burgeoning building-safety crisis that led up to 2017’s Grenfell Tower fire and “potentially” prevent the tragedy happening.
Brian Martin’s admission came at the end of seven days of evidence at the inquiry into the tower-block fire, which claimed 72 lives and exposed widespread failings in construction-industry understanding of building regulations – and checks and balances to ensure they are met.
Martin, who was DCLG’s top construction professional from 2008 to 2017, and who still works for successor ministry the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, told the Grenfell Tower Inquiry he could now visualise specific points where preventative action could have been taken.
But he also said multiple governments had impacted the way DCLG worked. Last month former permanent secretary Dame Melanie Dawes questioned whether anything short of June 2017’s horrific fire could have prompted the necessary regulatory reform, particularly against the backdrop of the “Red Tape Challenge”.
Martin has spent more time giving evidence to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry than any other witness to date. At the end of his last scheduled session, he was asked what he would have done differently, given the opportunity.
“I find it difficult to express how sorry I am for what’s happened to the people of Grenfell Tower,” he said.
“Over the last few months, I’ve been looking through the evidence and the documents, and when you line them up in the way that we’ve done over the last seven days, it became clear to me that there were a number of occasions where I could have potentially prevented this happening.”
Martin said he had become focused on improving Approved Document B of the building regulations, which relates to fire safety, and did not recognise the scale of the problem that was unfolding across the nation.
Over several years, highly combustible cladding similar to that used in Grenfell Tower’s ill-fated refurbishment, was being installed on hundreds of high-rise blocks and many more lower-rise structures while confusion surrounded the use of the products, which should not have been fitted. The situation was due, in part, to guidance being unclear.
“I’d become entrenched in a position where I was focused on what I could do to improve the approved document, and didn’t realise just how big the problem was,” Martin said in an emotional set of final remarks.
However, he suggested there would have been times when the scale of the problem was clearer to him.
Martin referred to a specific meeting with the Centre for Window and Cladding Technology trade body – at which BRE Building Research Establishment member Sarah Colwell was present – as one important moment when a start could have been made on addressing the crisis.
However, Martin left the meeting part of the way through and work proposed to clarify industry confusion over the wording of Approved Document B in relation to combustible filler used in cladding panels was not progressed.
Martin said: “I think at the meeting in 2014 with the CWCT. If I’d been there in the second part of the meeting, with Dr Colwell there, I think between the two of us perhaps we would have realised how severe the risk really was. And I think if I’d have realised that, I would have escalated the issue, and perhaps we could have done something to prevent what happened to the people of Grenfell Tower.”
During his evidence, Martin admitted shortcomings in his own actions – including playing down the risk of a major UK fire related to combustible cladding when reassurances were sought from HM chief fire and rescue adviser Peter Holland after high-profile blazes in the Emirates.
But he said long-term funding issues for DCLG and its predecessor departments and a lack of appetite among ministers for renewed focus on building safety reform had also been factors in the safety crisis that led up to the Grenfell Tower fire.
“What I will say is that the approach the government − the successive governments − had to regulation had had an impact on the way we worked, the resources that we had available, and perhaps the mindset that we’d adopted as a team, and myself in particular,” he said.
“I think, as a result of that, I ended up being the single point of failure in the department, and I think that’s why, when I missed that point, that’s why I think we failed to stop this happening.”
He concluded that the failure was something he was “bitterly sorry” for.
DLUHC has already admitted a litany of failings in relation to its building-safety work in the years leading up the Grenfell Tower fire, including not progressing recommendations from the coroner who presided over the inquests into six deaths that resulted from 2009’s Lakanal Hosuse fire.
The blaze in south London followed the block’s flawed refurbishment and 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 the inquests.
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 – all issues that would resurface years later at Grenfell.
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.
Minister insists deregulatory drive did not affect building safety
Yesterday Lord James Wharton, who was a junior minister at DCLG between May 2015 and July 2016, gave evidence to the inquiry.
Wharton’s brief at the time included building regulations and he was asked about his understanding of Kirkham’s letter and Pickles’ pledge to review building regulations.
He was asked directly about his experience of the de-regulatory “culture” in place at DCLG at the time, following the coalition government’s Red Tape Challenge, and the government’s support of a “one in, two out” approach to new regulations.
“I want to be clear: I think there was a general view that [deregulation] is a good thing and unnecessary regulation would be something we should avoid, but I wasn’t aware that that was in any way constraining work in the area of fire safety,” Wharton said.
“Indeed, my understanding is that a comprehensive piece of work in this area was planned and being progressed.”
He told the inquiry he had been briefed on building regulations in the month he took up office and was made aware of plans to review, simplify and clarify Approved Document B. However he said he could not recall whether it had been stressed that the project was a direct consequence of Kirkham’s recommendations following the Lakanal House fire.
The inquiry has already heard how officials at DCLG opted to conduct a full review of Approved document B and address Kirkham’s concerns as part of that process, rather than implement her recommendations – which were made to prevent possible future deaths – as a priority.
Yesterday, Wharton was asked about one of his written witness statements to the inquiry in which he complained that “everything happens slowly in the civil service” and doubted whether there was anything he could have done to speed the review up.
Wharton told the inquiry he had been aware of delays with the review and was “frustrated” by the situation. He said he could have tried to find out whether resourcing at DCLG was one of the causes of delays with the review.
“I think I may have pushed that issue harder had it been more at the forefront of my mind,” he said.
The inquiry continues.