A former senior official at the Department for Communities and Local Government has denied that results of a fire-safety test – where cladding of the type later fitted to Grenfell Tower failed catastrophically – were covered up.
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry heard last week that tests commissioned by DCLG’s forerunner department, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, had found aluminium composite material panels with polyethylene cores were “one of the worst performing” of 14 cladding systems checked.
The tests were conduced by the Building Research Establishment in 2001 and detailed in reports to Anthony Burd, ODPM’s then head of technical policy for building regulations, in September 2002 – almost 15 years before the Grenfell fire, in which 72 lives were lost.
Yesterday, Burd was asked why the test results and project data, which showed a “catastrophic full-scale failure”, according to inquiry lead counsel Richard Millett QC, were never published until they were submitted as evidence to the inquiry.
“From my perspective, I didn’t realise that they hadn’t been published, but I agree they should have been published, and for me it’s something that’s, in effect, fallen down between the department and BRE,” he said.
Burd acknowledged there had been multiple opportunities when DCLG could have published the test results – including the days and months following June 2017's fire. However he left the civil service at the end of 2013 and said he could not answer for that period.
Burd said he was not aware of a decision being taken to not to publish the test data, and repeatedly denied there had been a cover-up.
“You see, some people looking at this, the importance of the results, your evidence, might think that the government had deliberately covered up the test results showing that ACM panels with a class 0 badge performing disastrously at height and the government let them [continue to be] used at height,” Millett said. “What would you say to them?”
Burd replied: “I can see how that might appear and why people might think that. I can only provide you with my assurance that that is not what happened from my perspective.”
Millett suggested that other motivating factors not to publish the test results may have been bad reaction from the construction products industry or the potential for a crisis surrounding cladding safety to be triggered.
“Again, I can see why people might think that, but from my perspective, there was no such cover−up,” Burd responded.
Earlier in his evidence Burd suggested he was aware of the significance of the BRE test results on ACM panels with polyethylene cores. “It was good that this has been found,” he said, adding that it could go “forward for consideration” by advisory bodies, such as the British Standards Institution Committee.
Guidance ‘was clear enough’
A recurrent theme in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry has been a lack of clarity over the classification of building products and interpretation of the government’s building regulations.
Contractors involved in the ill-fated refurbishment of Grenfell Tower have often pointed to the “class 0” rating claimed for some key products used on the project – such as the cladding – as justification for their selection.
The ACM 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 “actively promoted it”.
Burd told Monday’s hearing that he believed that building regulations had been clear that combustible ACM should not have been used on tall buildings because other factors would have overridden the “class 0” rating.
Inquiry chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick asked Burd whether it had ever occurred to him that some people might read Approved Document B – the relevant part of the building regulations – and reach a different conclusion because it was not worded clearly enough.
“I suppose there always that potential risk , and I can only speak of a time when I was working in building control and then I became a regulator ... We were always taught to read all of the approved document or the relevant parts,” he replied. “But, yes, sir, that risk, that is a possibility.”
Moore-Bick responded: “Sometimes you have to write guidance or even rules for the sort of people who are not as careful as you are.”
The inquiry continues.