The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has apologised for failings that led to the Grenfell Tower fire, which claimed 72 lives, including its “failure to realise” the regulatory regime for building safety was “broken”.
Its admissions came today in a brief closing statement to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, which is probing the systematic shortcomings and construction-industry bad practice that led to the botched refurbishment of the west London tower block and 2017’s catastrophic fire.
The latest phase of the inquiry has heard hundreds of days – and thousands of hours – of evidence from architects, construction companies, product manufacturers, and departmental staff with oversight of building regulations.
It also heard from ex-communities secretary Lord Eric Pickles and the former permanent secretary of DLUHC’s predecessor department, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Dame Melanie Dawes.
But this morning the department’s counsel, Jason Beer KC, took barely four minutes to deliver final reflections from DLUHC before the inquiry team retires to finalise its phase-two report and recommendations.
“The department wishes to apologise again for its failure to ensure effective and whole-system oversight of the regulatory and compliance regime,” he said.
“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.
“For the department’s failure to realise that the regulatory system was broken, and it might lead to a catastrophe such as this, the department is truly sorry and apologises unreservedly.”
The first phase of the inquiry has already established that the aluminium composite material cladding added to the outside of the tower 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.
In his closing statement, Beer said DLUHC wanted to emphasise its commitment to “driving change to ensure that a tragedy is never permitted to happen again” and ongoing work to that end.
“The Fire Safety Act 2021 and the Building Safety Act 2022 bring about lasting changes to overhaul a regulatory system that has been shown to have been unfit for purpose,” he said.
“The department has submitted a comprehensive statement to you on reforms, and looks forward to engaging with the inquiry to ensure that any additional areas of concern are addressed. Where further change is necessary, the department is committed to implementing it.”
Beer said DLUHC had engaged with both phases of the inquiry “fully, frankly and openly” and shared its aim of “getting to the truth” of what went wrong.
He concluded: “Whilst the department’s commitment to support the inquiry and the recognition of its own failings cannot change the tragic events of 14 June 2017, nor in anyway compensate for the immeasurable loss and grief and suffering of the bereaved, survivors and residents, the department hopes that its sincere commitment to ensuring that such a catastrophe cannot happen again gives some small measure of comfort to all of those affected.”
Central government failed to act “despite known risks”
Inquiry lead counsel Richard Millett KC took a different stance in his closing statement.
“There was nothing unknown or not reasonably knowable which caused or contributed to the fire or its consequences,” Millett told the inquiry panel.
“On the contrary, each and every one of the risks that eventuated at Grenfell Tower on that night were well known by many and ought to have been known by all who had any part to play.
“As a result, you will be able to conclude with confidence that each and every one of the deaths that occurred in Grenfell Tower on 14 June 2017 was avoidable.”
Alongside the failure of Grenfell Tower manager the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation and firms directly involved in producing, specifying and installing materials for the ill-fated refurbishment, Millett also listed central government failings.
He said there had been a “failure of central government to act despite known risks” about building safety in relation to high-rise blocks. Millett also made reference to “deregulatory policies pursued by successive governments”, an issue that affected attempts to change building regulations, according to evidence given to the inquiry by past and present civil servants.
Behind all of the other factors, Millett said there lay “complex, opaque and piecemeal legislation and an overreliance by law- and policymakers on guidance, some of which – including the statutory guidance, was ambiguous, dangerously out of date”.
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry is due to deliver its phase-two report next year.