The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has been accused of failing to connect its own building-safety shortcomings with the bigger picture of construction industry incompetence and misrepresentation that led to the Grenfell Tower disaster.
On the final day of hearings for the second phase of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry’s investigation into the roots of the 2017 tower-block fire in west London, lead counsel Richard Millett KC recapped evidence given by main players.
Millett spent much time describing the “spider’s web of blame” delivered in evidence by firms involved in the refurbishment of the 1970s block, which covered it in cladding that fuelled the fire that claimed 72 lives.
But he also encouraged the panel, chaired by Sir Martin Moore-Bick, to consider the extent to which DLUHC – formerly the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and before that the Department for Communities and Local Government – had played down its responsibility.
“It has made broad admissions of fault in respect of the regulatory regime, for the most part,” Millett said.
He added that the department had also made “pithy but pointed” criticism of the design, construction and inspection teams who contributed to the state of Grenfell Tower on the night it caught fire.
“What the department does not appear to have reflected upon,” he said, “is how those failings, apparently so commonly shared, are lined in blameworthiness terms – or causatively – to the failings it has identified in its own development and oversight of the regulatory regime, which it accepts was broken.”
Millett said DLUHC had criticised project architect Studio E, main contractor Rydon, cladding specialist Harley Facades and fire consultant Exova, among others.
But he questioned whether DLUHC’s contention was that the across-the-board shortfall of competency in the team tasked with upgrading Grenfell Tower for Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation had been mere bad luck.
“The department says that they all displayed, in different ways, a fundamental failure to give any real thought to the most basic aim of the building regulations – namely the protection of people’s safety, health and welfare in and around buildings, when it should have been front and centre of everything they were doing,” Millett said.
“This failure led them to minimise the importance of compliance with the building regulations and this led, in turn, to the tragic events of 14 June 2017.”
Millett asked: “Why were all these individuals at organisations so lacking in competence in that single arena: fire safety under the building regulations? Why this ship of fools? It was clearly not a coincidence.”
The first phase of the inquiry has already established that the aluminium composite material cladding added to the outside of Grenfell during its 2014-16 refurbishment, and the insulation fitted behind, was the principal reason fire engulfed the block so rapidly in the early hours of 14 June 2017.
Its phase-one report found the refurbishment gave the building a new exterior that not only failed to “adequately resist the spread of fire”, as required by building regulations, but one which “actively promoted it”.
The second phase of the inquiry has been probing how such a situation could have arisen – and has looked back at similar fires related to unsafe cladding, including government’s oversight of the issue.
Earlier on Thursday, DLUHC counsel Jason Beer KC apologised on the department’s behalf for its “failure to realise that the regulatory system was broken” in relation to building safety and that the situation “might lead to a catastrophe”.
“The department recognises that it failed to appreciate that it held an important stewardship role over the regime and that as a result it failed to grasp the opportunities to assess whether the system was working as intended,” he said.
Millett said the inquiry would have to reach its own conclusions on DLUHC’s culpability for the Grenfell Tower disaster and the wider building-safety crisis it exposed.
“The department says that no competent design or construction professional would knowingly have utilised combustible cladding or insulation with the properties of those used at Grenfell in the refurbishment of that building,” he said.
“But beware any shortcut to causation here. You will need to weigh that.”
Millett added that similar questions would need to be asked in relation to practices employed by cladding manufacturer Arconic, and insulation makers Celotex and Kingspan – which he said DLUHC had accused of “cynical and dishonest practices” in the testing and marketing of their products.
“What are you to make of the department’s role in facilitating or creating the environment for the kinds of practices and attitudes that you might conclude that the evidence reveals?” he asked.
“It is for you to assess whether the several and separate instances of manufacturer behaviour for testing and selling their products was just a coincidence or whether it had a common root in the UK’s regime as a seedbed.”
Over hundreds of days of evidence, the inquiry heard numerous stories of manufacturers seeking to rig tests to portray dangerous products as suitable for use on high-rise buildings, and misrepresenting the suitability of those materials in marketing literature.
It has also heard evidence that DLUHC's predecessor departments were aware of safety concerns about the kind of aluminium-composite cladding used on Grenfell Tower for years before 2017’s disaster.
Other evidence has looked at the department’s response to 2009’s Lakanal House flats fire in south London, in which six people died.
In December last year, DLUHC admitted it “should have done more to take on board the learnings and recommendations triggered by other fires”, citing coroner recommendations that followed the Lakanal House fire in particular.
The inquiry panel has now retired to compile its phase-two report. It is expected to be published next year.