Civil servant warned of ‘major fire’ risk three years before Grenfell

Inquiry hears DCLG safety lead expressed fears to construction-product firms
Photo: Loz Pycock/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

By Jim Dunton

10 Feb 2022

A senior official at the Department for Communities and Local Government warned a construction-industry body of the risk of a “major” cladding-related fire three years before the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the public inquiry into the 2017 blaze has heard.

Brian Martin, policy lead for building fire safety at the department – successor to the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – is alleged to have made the comments at a July 2014 meeting.

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry, which is probing building-safety failings which led up to the west London fire – which claimed 72 lives – heard on Tuesday that Martin expressed his safety fears as he left a meeting of industry-funded research organisation the Centre for Window and Cladding Technology.

Inquiry lead counsel Richard Millett QC read part of a witness statement from David Cookson, a product manager at insulation firm Kingspan – some of whose products were used in the Grenfell refurbishment.

”One thing that does stand out in my mind from the CWCT meeting is that when Brian Martin left the meeting, he said something along the lines of ’there is going to be a major fire ’,” Millett said, quoting Cookson.

However, Cookson acknowledged uncertainty about the exact nature of Martin’s concerns, suggesting that the official had not necessarily been referring solely to the kind of highly flammable aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding fitted to Grenfell Tower and other buildings.

“My recollection of this comment, is that it related to quality of installation and the issue with cavity barriers which is referred to under the heading ’rainscreen cavity barriers ’ at page 3 of the CWCT minutes rather than simply the use of ACM. However I cannot fully recall,” he said in his statement.

CWDC director David Metcalfe, who was also at the meeting, told the inquiry on Tuesday that he had no recollection of Martin making the comments.

At the time of the meeting, there had already been several serious cladding-related fires in high-rise buildings, both in the UK and abroad.

In December 2020 a different module of the inquiry heard that Martin was aware of concerns that combustible insulation products were being used in in façade systems being fitted to high-rise buildings by July 2014.

The acknowledgement came in an email exchange between Martin and inspection-and-warranty organisation the National House Building Council.

Martin told the body there appeared to be confusion in the industry about which products were “of limited combustibility” and so suitable for use on high-rise buildings. He said his mail should be treated as a “friendly warning” to check that NHBC’s inspectors and other staff were aware of the issue.

Former ministers and officials at DLUHC – and its predecessor departments – are due to appear before the inquiry in the coming weeks.

Secretary of state Michael Gove acknowledged last year that it was likely to be a “very, very painful time” for the department.

The inquiry continues.

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