Former communities secretary Eric Pickles has said civil servants reassured him that rapid work to update building regulations was not a priority four years before the Grenfell Tower fire, despite a coroner’s recommendations following a blaze in which six people died.
Lord Pickles’ observations came in evidence to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry yesterday, which is probing the systemic failings in building safety that led to 2017’s west London tower-block fire, which claimed 72 lives.
A major line of investigation in the current phase of the inquiry is the extent to which coroner Frances Kirkham’s 2013 call for a review of Approved Document B of the building regulations was sidelined following the inquests into the deaths in 2009’s Lakanal House fire in south London.
Pickles told the hearing that he had been advised by two senior officials at the then-Department for Communities and Local Government that Kirkham had been “inadvertently” confused by an expert witness to the Lakanal House inquests.
He said the views of Brian Martin, who was DCLG’s principal construction professional, and Louise Upton, who was head of fire safety policy, had been contained in at least two submissions he had been given. The overall stance was backed by the department's then-permanent secretary Sir Bob Kerslake, he said.
“I think, though I can’t be sure, that certainly affected my judgement in terms of the importance of doing this,” he said of the feedback on Kirkham’s call for the ADB review.
Inquiry lead counsel Richard Millett asked Pickles whether officials had caused him to be sceptical of Kirkham’s views on Approved Document B.
“I think yes, but I think, in a respectful way,” Pickles replied. “I wasn’t going to dismiss the coroner’s views. But, nevertheless, it was very much at the forefront of the mind.
“It was said that I shouldn’t worry, there wasn’t any real issue in terms of safety, people know these kind of things, and, you know, we will sort this out.”
The Lakanal House fire followed a flawed refurbishment project at the Camberwell block. Kirkham used her powers to flag concerns about confusing wording of ABD and poor understanding of the regulations among parts of the construction industry in a formal letter to Pickles in March 2013. Her letter also raised other issues, and suggested housing providers with high-rise properties should be encouraged to retrofit sprinkler systems in homes.
Pickles' response said DCLG was “committed to a programme of simplification” for Approved Document B, and that it would feed into a new edition of the document that would be published in 2016-17. However, the work had not been done at the time of the Grenfell Tower fire, when many of the issues flagged by Kirkham again became apparent.
Yesterday, Pickles told the inquiry he had sought guidance on whether the timeframe proposed for the review was appropriate.
“I did press quite hard back as to whether or not we could accelerate the process, rather than waiting for it in 2016, perhaps do it a little earlier,” he said.
“I pressed the permanent secretary, Sir Bob, very hard on that. But his view was that it wasn’t appropriate, and that, you know, the team had these reservations but the job would be done.
“And Sir Bob was someone who I respect and still respect as a very competent officer. I wouldn’t have been able to achieve half the things that was achieved without Sir Bob.”
“You don’t help the politician to take a decision unless you confront them with the reality”
Pickles was communities secretary for the entire five-year term of the coalition government, from 2010 to 2015, which instigated a crackdown on regulation sometimes called the Red Tape Challenge. Part of the deregulatory drive included requirements to drop existing regulations in exchange for introducing new ones. Starting as one in, one out, it progressed to one in, three out before David Cameron stood down as prime minister and the drive lost momentum under Theresa May.
Former DCLG officials – including ex-perm sec Dame Melanie Dawes – have suggested the challenge and its deregulatory environment were a barrier to building-safety reform.
Pickles told the inquiry that he believed changes to Approved Document B would have had “a high level of protection” from the challenge, as there was an understanding that matters related to safety would “not be touched”. However, he was unable to identify a document that would have made this clear to officials.
Last month DCLG’s former deputy director for building regulations and standards, Bob Ledsome, told the inquiry officials believed any changes to Approved Document B would be subject to Red Tape Challenge requirements. He said the understanding was that there would be a need to justify costs and benefits of any changes proposed.
Ledsome also acknowledged that the department moved too slowly to implement Lakanal House coroner Frances Kirkham’s call for a clarification of elements of Approved Document B. He admitted officials had not even proposed accelerating Kirkham’s recommendations as stop-gap changes ahead of the full review as an option to ministers.
Pickles said he did not find Ledsome’s evidence on the Red Tape Challlenge very convincing and said the decision not to present ministers with a proposal for an earlier review of elements of Approved Document B was plainly wrong.
“It was politicians’ role to take decisions,” he said. “You don’t help the politician to take a decision unless you confront them with the reality.
“If this reality is that we need to regulate…there is a problem, then it is appropriate for them to speak to their higher line management.”
Pickles added: “I would have expected that to go up through line management and I would have expected to have a discussion. I would have expected the permanent secretary to come and say, ‘I think we’ve got a bit of a problem here, we need to do something about it’.
“I'm not saying I would have agreed with Mr Ledsome. But I think I’m entitled to have had a chance to do the right thing or do the stupid thing.”
The inquiry continues.