Former communities secretary Eric Pickles has claimed he was unaware of workload pressures in the Department for Communities and Local Government section dealing with building regulations in the years before the Grenfell Tower fire.
Giving evidence to the public inquiry into 2017’s tragedy, caused by the flawed refurbishment of the 1970s west London high-rise block, Lord Pickles said he would have wanted to act if he had been made aware of concerns about the ability of staff to cope and his government’s deregulation agenda.
But he also managed to offend a support group for survivors, relatives and friends of the fire’s 72 victims by describing them as the “nameless 96”, which is factually incorrect on both counts.
Pickles served as communities secretary for the entirety of the coalition government’s 2010-2015 term. On his second and final day appearing before the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, he said he had always believed DCLG was “an extraordinarily well-run department” and never felt civil servants had let him down.
However, he said it had become clear from earlier evidence to the inquiry that staff working on building regulations – particularly in relation to the fire-safety-focused Approved Document B – were working under pressure he was unaware of at the time. Pickles also said he did not know officials were working on the basis that the then government’s Red Tape Challenge and one-in, one-out deregulatory drive – which later became one-in, three-out – applied to their safety work.
Pickles said accounts of the pressures faced by staff given by former principal construction professional Brian Martin and former deputy director of the building regulations and standards division Bob Ledsome were “depressing”.
“It almost seems as though they were operating in an administrative hall of their own, and I would expect, where pressures were felt within a department, that it would be sensible that the director or the director general would bring those questions to us to relieve the pressure,” he said.
“I can recall where there were pressures in the department, it was the kind of thing that the permanent secretary would deal with, or if they couldn’t deal with, would at least advise me that there was a problem.
“I can say that I never, during my period of those five years, had anybody saying to me, ‘actually, it doesn’t look like the building regulation team can really cope’.”
Pickles said he “would have been quite worried” if he had known about the health and general wellbeing of the team’s working environment.
“You would always try to create something … that would encourage people to come forward and say, ‘well, I ’m really sorry, but I’ve got a problem here’, and it is a matter of some regret that that appears not to have happened.”
The former secretary of state acknowledged there had been problems related to workload with planning and press-office staff during his time at DCLG but insisted he was unaware of issues in building regulations.
“Had I known that the building regulation team were living in almost an isolation bubble, I would have addressed it, and I would have hoped that I would have addressed it in a kind way, rather than as a scolding way,” he said.
“I would have wanted to be alongside them or I would have wanted people to be alongside them, because that’s the way you get the best out of people.”
However he conceded that evidence to the inquiry had painted a grim picture of morale at DCLG, which is now the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
“Those people don’t sound very happy. They don’t sound like they got up in the morning and came into work and thought, ‘well, this is a great place to work’,” he said.
In 2013, Pickles was asked by a coroner to review parts of Approved Document B after concerns were raised about the clarity of its wording at inquests following the Lakanal House fire in south London four years earlier, which followed a refurbishment programme at the ageing block.
Work was folded into plans for an update of the document scheduled for 2016-17, but little progress had been made by the time of the Grenfell Tower fire. Issues raised by the coroner, Frances Kirkham, were significant factors in the later blaze.
On Wednesday, Pickles said officials at DCLG had assured him that he didn’t need to worry about prioritising Kirkham’s points. And they were not prioritised.
Yesterday, Pickles said that before he gave evidence he had been planning to admit that with hindsight he should have followed Kirkham’s request and reviewed elements of Approved Document B in line with her proposals.
But he said he had now come to the view that it would have made no difference.
“I think there was a kind of mindset that existed in parts of the department that just simply ignored what was happening,” he said.
In rambling and factually incorrect closing remarks, Pickles said he did not believe the issues at the heart of the Grenfell Tower or Lakanal House tragedies were about deregulation.
He appeared to suggest that product manufacturers who produced combustible panels for use on buildings had more questions to answer.
Pickles named one of the victims of the Lakanal House fire – Michelle Udoaka – who was just three weeks old when she died in the 2009 blaze, but did not name any of the Grenfell Tower victims or correctly identify the death toll from the fire.
“We will see various court cases that will put it together,” Pickles said. “But ultimately it comes down to Michelle and to the nameless 96 people who were killed in the Grenfell fire. It’s them we should think about when we’re arguing the toss.
“Ultimately the dead deserve the dignity of being remembered by name; the dead deserve the dignity of a solution.”
Grenfell United, which represents victims of the fire, survivors, friends and their families, said it was “speechless”.
“How dare he refer to our loved ones we lost that night as ‘the 96 nameless’,” it said on social media.
“Had he done his job, our experience on the 14th June might have been different. Yet today, he told the inquiry he wouldn’t have done anything differently.”
The inquiry continues.