The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has issued a lengthy mea culpa for the building-safety failings exposed by the Grenfell Tower fire – including admitting it “did not have a good understanding” of how its own regulatory system was working on the ground.
In an opening submission to the latest module of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry yesterday, DLUHC barrister Jason Beer QC apologised to the bereaved, residents and survivors of the fire for the department’s role in overseeing checks and balances on the construction industry and building-control bodies.
Beer said DLUHC was “deeply sorry for its past failures”, “fully supported” the inquiry and would “do everything it can to assist it in its vital work” of probing the roots of the 2017 fire, which claimed 72 lives.
“That is why the department has disclosed tens of thousands of pages of documents to the inquiry and provided dozens of witness statements from junior civil servants to former secretaries of state, thereby opening itself fully to the scrutiny of this inquiry and the benefits that that brings,” Beer said.
In his 15-minute statement to the inquiry, at the start of its investigations into the government’s handling of building-safety regulation in the decades before the west London fire, Beer said DLUHC and its predecessor departments had failed to learn lessons from earlier tower-block blazes.
“The department should have done more to take on board the learnings and recommendations triggered by other fires, including, in particular, its response to the Lakanal House fire and the coroner’s recommendations following it,” Beer said.
He added that the department had also failed to address concerns from MPs on the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Fire Safety and Rescue quickly enough and in great enough depth.
“Individually, these areas of missed opportunities from the department and across industry may not have caused the fire at Grenfell Tower, but, cumulatively, they created an environment in which such a tragedy was possible,” Beer said.
DLUHC’s admission that it “did not have a good understanding of how the regulatory system was working on the ground, nor of how well it was being enforced by local building control bodies” was damning enough.
However, Beer also said DLUHC accepted it “failed to recognise the risk that those responsible for complying with and enforcing the Building Regulations would not diligently fulfil their respective responsibilities and the potential consequences” that could follow.
He added: “Having failed to recognise that risk, it then failed to add a further layer of assurance to the system. Had there been a functional enforcement system, with efficient assurance built in, non−compliance to the extent that gave rise to the Grenfell Tower tragedy may not have been possible.”
Beer said DLUHC accepted that, as the department that sponsors the building-safety system, it should have had a clear process in place to develop its understanding of systemic compliance and enforcement risks.
Let down by construction firms and building inspectors
Despite its admission of numerous failings, Beer said DLUHC believed it had been let down by construction firms and building inspectors, employed by local authorities and private companies to ensure standards are adhered to.
“The public, residents and indeed government trusted that those constructing and approving high-rise blocks and supplying the products used in them were following the law and doing the right thing,” Beer said.
“This trust was both misplaced and abused. The department greatly regrets that it took the Grenfell Tower tragedy to lay bare this misplaced and abused trust.”
Competent construction firms ‘would have refurbished Grenfell safely’
The Grenfell Tower disaster has shone a spotlight on flaws with fire-safety guidance contained in Approved Document B of the Building Regulations and exposed confusion in the construction industry about the meaning of particular standards and product classification.
But Beer said DLUHC maintained that if Building Regulations, British Standards and statutory guidance been “followed and enforced with reasonable diligence”, a large−scale cladding fire could not have happened at Grenfell.
“In particular, the department’s view is that the meaning of the regulations and of ADB read together with the regulations was sufficiently clear at the time of the refurbishment of the tower that no competent professional, acting in good faith, should have misunderstood or misapplied the statutory requirements,” he said.
“A competent professional would have taken appropriate advice in case of uncertainty, not least where the issue involved fire safety.”
On Monday, Stephanie Barwise QC – a barrister representing one group of Grenfell Tower, survivors, bereaved and relatives – said government officials and ministers had known about significant safety issues with the over-cladding of high-rise blocks for the past 30 years.
She said there was a “consistent pattern of inadequate investigation and suppression of reports” in relation to cladding-related fires at high-rise blocks.
“Government’s tendency was to regard fires as something to be covered up or trivialised, such that the public might be reassured and avoid criticism of underlying regulations, thereby continuing to allow industry the latitude it wanted,” Barwise said.
She told the inquiry there had been a “prolonged period of concealment by government” that “should properly be regarded as one of the major scandals of our time”.
Barwise said government priorities of ramping up the delivery of new homes and removing regulation from the construction industry had trumped safety concerns and produced an “astonishing period of wilful blindness” that stopped Approved Document B being reviewed.
The inquiry continues.