Department for Communities and Local Government officials were “furious” that a minister ignored their advice and agreed to meet with campaigners pushing for building-safety reforms three years before the Grenfell Tower fire, the public inquiry into 2017’s tragedy has heard.
Former Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Williams was parliamentary undersecretary at DCLG from October 2013 to May 2015 in the coalition government. His ministerial brief included responsibility for building regulations.
Williams, who lost his seat in the 2015 general election, told yesterday’s Grenfell Tower Inquiry hearing that his decision to meet with the chair and honorary secretary of parliament’s All Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group in 2014 had angered DCLG officials.
The APPG, which was chaired by the late David Amess and had former chief fire officer Ronnie King as its honorary secretary, was pushing for amendments to building regulations and the retrospective fitting of sprinkler systems to flats following the Lakanal House fire in south London in 2009. King was an expert witness to the inquests following that high-rise blaze.
Six people died in the Lakanal House fire, which came after a flawed refurbishment programme at the council-owned block. The coroner who presided over the inquests, which concluded in 2013, used her powers to urge the government to review and update building regulations to clarify them in relation to refurbishment projects to prevent further deaths.
She also asked then-communities secretary Eric Pickles to encourage housing providers with high-rise properties to consider retrofitting sprinkler systems. Williams told the inquiry he was aware of the letter and had been briefed on the concerns expressed but had never seen the document.
On Monday, Williams told the Grenfell Tower Inquiry – probing the systemic issues that led to 72 lives being lost – that his decision to reject advice and go ahead with meeting Amess and King had gone down poorly at the department.
Williams said then principal private secretary Kerr McKendrick had told him that senior officials with responsibility for building regulations were deeply unhappy.
“Kerr did say before we had the pre-meeting − because he would have accompanied me to the pre-meeting, because it was a building regulations issue and he tended to come to all of those meetings with officials − that, ‘they are furious with you for doing this , but they won’t say it to your face’,” Williams said. “I clearly, clearly recall that.”
The officials were principal construction professional Brian Martin, deputy director of building regulations and standards Bob Ledsome and Richard Harral, head of technical policy in DCLG’s building regulations division.
Williams said none of the three ever said anything to him that was derogatory about either David Amess or Ronnie King.
But he said his steer had been “that they were annoyed with me, that their ‘no, minister’ had effectively been overturned and I’d agreed to the meeting”.
Williams said the officials had been entitled to their views on the APPG, but said he had wanted to make sure that its opinions were also in the mix of what the department was going to consider in relation to building regulations reform.
He told the inquiry that the result of the meeting was that the APPG – which he said was effectively Ronnie King – wanted to change the timescale for the government’s review of Approved Document B of the building regulations, or get piecemeal amendments delivered earlier and be the arbiter of those changes.
“That clearly is not a position that any government would accept,” Williams said. “The review of such an important document… should be based on properly sourced evidence, possibly from a variety of sources, and should not follow the opinions, considered as they may be, of one individual.
“I would have been definitely irresponsible if I’d said as a result of this meeting, ‘well, let ’s make all the changes that they would like to make at the time they would like to make them’.
“Officials would then have been quite within their rights to say, ‘no, minister’ to me, and it would have gone to the secretary of state, probably, to underline the timetable that had already been agreed.”
The review of Approved Document B was originally targeted to be finished by 2016-17. It had not been completed at the time of the Grenfell fire.
Last month Ledsome admitted to the inquiry that DCLG had moved too slowly in response to Lakanal House coroner Frances Kirkham’s recommendations. He said ministers could have been given the option of quicker action to address the issues she raised. However it was decided to incorporate her concerns into a full review of the document.
The current module of the inquiry has heard a great deal about the coalition government-era “Red Tape Challenge” deregulation drive, which eventually stepped up from a one-in, one-out requirement on regulations to a one-in, three-out approach. Former DCLG and Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government perm sec Dame Melanie Dawes suggested the environment was a barrier to reform.
Williams told yesterday’s session that a considered opposition to piecemeal regulatory changes was official government policy.
“There was the policy of the government that regulation should not be updated in a piecemeal fashion, because that wasn’t helpful to anybody, that regulation should be a considered, whole−body work and should be updated on a date that was known to everyone,” he said.
“I think they were called common commencement dates. This is a reform that the coalition did introduce. From memory, the common commencement dates were 1 April and 1 October.
“You go through a process, you revise everything at the same time and publish a new regulation, including a building regulation, on a common commencement date. You don’t make piecemeal changes.
“So that’s not my view or Brian Martin’s view or Bob Ledsome’s view; that was government policy, from the very top of government.”