A senior Department for Communities and Local Government official has admitted playing down the risk of a major tower-block fire related to combustible cladding happening in the UK when fears were raised about such blazes in Dubai, two years before 2017’s Grenfell Tower tragedy.
The public inquiry into the west London fire, which claimed 72 lives, heard last week that Brian Martin told HM chief fire and rescue adviser Peter Holland that high-profile cladding fires in the Emirates “shouldn’t be a problem in the UK”.
Martin made the observation in a 2015 email to Holland, who had expressed concerns following a fire at an 86-storey skyscraper named “The Torch” in Dubai. Martin was DCLG’s principal construction professional at the time.
“There are provisions in the building regulations designed to prevent this kind of problem,” Martin wrote. But he added: “There are, of course, no guarantees.”
Martin was DCLG’s top construction professional from 2008 until November 2017, when he was promoted to the role of head of technical policy. He still works for the organisation, now rebranded as the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, but in a different capacity.
The extent to which DCLG and its predecessor departments were aware of safety concerns related to the use of combustible cladding in the UK is a central theme of the current module of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. Widespread ignorance of building regulations, as they applied to combustible cladding, and ambiguities within the wording of the regulations’ supporting documents are also significant strands.
Lead counsel to the inquiry Richard Millett QC asked Martin on Thursday whether his assurance about the Dubai had been made with his “fingers crossed”. He said the assurance had been given in the knowledge that a “significant portion” of the UK construction industry did not understand the relevant building regulations guidance, known as Approved Document B.
“I didn’t say it couldn’t happen, I said it shouldn’t happen, and I said that there were no guarantees,” Martin replied. He accepted, however, that it would have been better to bring misunderstandings known to exist in the construction industry “more to the front” than he did at the time.
Millett suggested that Martin’s 2015 email to Holland had “effectively lulled him and others on the email chain into a false sense of security” on the issue of building safety.
“You weren’t candid with them and told them upfront what the problem was,” he said.
Martin replied: “I think that’s perhaps a fair accusation or criticism.”
The Aluminium Composite Material cladding added to Grenfell Tower during its refurbishment, and the insulation fitted behind it, have already been identified as the principal reason why the fire took hold of the block so rapidly in the early hours of 14 June 2017.
The Grenfell Inquiry’s Phase One report found that the refurbishment project, which principally ran between 2014 and 2016, gave the building a new exterior that not only failed to “adequately resist the spread of fire”, as required by building regulations, but one which “actively promoted it”.
Martin has been the inquiry’s sole witness for its past five days of hearings and will continue giving evidence today and tomorrow. By contrast, Dame Melanie Dawes – DCLG perm sec at the time of the Grenfell fire – gave evidence for just one day.
Other evidence from Martin has included an acceptance that a decision to take a “broad” approach on the wording of Approved Document B that led to confusion about whether it applied to material used as the core of ACM panels was a strategy that evidently “didn’t work”.
Martin said the intention had been to avoid taking a prescriptive approach on individual materials and “get the designers and building-control bodies to think about the issue more broadly” in relation to the fire-performance of the combination of products proposed for the external walls of developments.
Last month, the inquiry heard that Martin warned a gathering of industry body the Centre for Window and Cladding Technology that there would be a “major fire” related to cladding three years before the Grenfell tragedy.
In December 2020, the inquiry heard Martin had sent an email to the National House Building Council flagging that there was evidence construction firms were using combustible cladding on new-build residential blocks.
He told the body, which assesses, inspects and insures new homes, that his mail should be treated as a “friendly warning” to check that NHBC’s inspectors and other staff were aware of the issue.
Earlier the month ex-DCLG and MHCLG perm sec Dawes told the inquiry she believed her former department did not properly understand its regulatory-oversight role before the Grenfell Tower fire.
She also suggested that the “Red Tape Challenge” drive to pare back burdensome regulations, begun under the coalition government and continued by David Cameron’s subsequent Conservative-only administration, would have been a barrier to reform before the Grenfell Tower fire.
“By the time you got to 2015, the non−compliance in the industry was so entrenched, and that combined with the very strong focus on red tape and all the history of that over the previous few years, would have made it very, very, very difficult to get anything changed,” she said.
Martin made a similar point related to ministers’ deregulatory zeal in his evidence last week.
Brandon Lewis, who was minister of state for housing and planning in 2015-16, then policing and fire service minister in 2016-17, is due to give evidence later this week.
The inquiry continues.