THE GOVERNMENT has appointed Ali Akbor to the Grenfell inquiry panel, which saw further evidence given about Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO).

In a press release, the Cabinet Office and the inquiry announced that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has appointed Ali Akbor as a panel member on the inquiry, with Mr Akbor currently chief executive of housing association Unity Homes and Enterprise. He will join the panel on 2 November, and will ‘sit for the duration’ of proceedings, starting ‘reading into the work of the inquiry immediately’. He will be ‘jointly responsible’ with the other panellist for ‘the whole’ of the phase two report.

Mr Johnson commented: ‘The appointment of Ali Akbor is an important step forward in Phase 2 of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. He will bring a wealth of experience and expertise to the role, as well as a crucial understanding of the issues at the heart of Phase 2 and an unwavering commitment to improving people’s lives.

‘The government remains committed to uncovering the truth from the night of the tragedy and ensuring justice is delivered for the survivors, bereaved families and the wider community.’

BD Online and London News Online reported on the continued evidence from witnesses at the inquiry, with David Gibson – head of capital investment at KCTMO between 2013 and 2016 – stating that he ‘saw no need’ for a client design advisor on the project, insisting that this decision ‘was not taken to save money’, with the inquiry having heard previously that appointing an independent design advisor – suggested by project consultant Artelia – would have cost £30,000.

Mr Gibson said he had taken the view that KCTMO did not need the advisor ‘even if one had been available for much less than the anticipated cost’, and he was ‘confident’ in the abilities of architects Studio E, expecting them to have been ‘vocal’ if designs were compromised by contractor Rydon. He added that appointing the advisor would have been ‘additional to contract requirements’, and was ‘not something I’ve ever previously been recommended to have’.

In turn, he pointed out that ‘I believe we had the suite of contractual documents that were required, we had the designers on board so I didn’t give it a great deal of consideration. Some of it, I thought, was doing a check that the clerks of works were already doing on site’. Mr Gibson told the inquiry that at the time this was suggested, all major design decisions had been made, and ‘I don’t think there was any stage where I felt the need to pick up the phone in terms of getting design advice.

‘The design decisions that we were taking at that stage, post tender, were relatively minor’. He also shared his view that as Rydon and Studio E were responsible for ensuring cladding was compliant with regulations, he ‘wouldn’t have expected’ KCTMO to have input on design, adding: ‘There was no contractual requirement for us signing off design, there was only a contractual requirement for the contractor to develop designs and construct.’

He also rejected claims from Artelia staff that saving costs was ‘part of the motivation’ for not employing an adviser, answering chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s question as to whether KCTMO would not have accepted an adviser’s service even if free by stating: ‘Free? Possibly. But I didn’t feel there was a need for the role and I wasn’t particularly interested in the role. It was an additional service that Artelia had told us some clients choose to have. There was no recommendation that we should have it.’

He also mentioned he was ‘not aware’ Grenfell was Studio E’s first high rise overcladding project, but that it had been made project architect before he joined KCTMO in 2013, and he had ‘no reason to doubt’ its capabilities. Mr Gibson said: ‘The scheme was very well-developed from when I had looked at their Stage C/D report. It looked very professional. I met Bruce Sounes, he came over very well and very competent. I had no reason to think they didn’t have the ability to do this.’

If he had known the company had not done such a project before, he also said he would ‘not necessarily’ have been concerned, as ‘there’s a point in anyone’s career where they’re doing something for the first time. There shouldn’t be anything technically difficult about overcladding a building. Complexity comes in with high-rise and access and other areas. But cladding is something that’s very common in the industry’.

Later, he mentioned that when value engineering services were being sought on the cladding, discussions focused on ‘cost not on performance’, though the inquiry heard that by 2013 KCTMO was ‘aware’ of a £2m gap between its budget and prospective contractor Leadbitter’s price. In looking for these savings, Mr Gibson said that KCTMO had been ‘purely’ focused on how alternative materials would look, as ‘we were not expecting to be offered materials that were not compliant, so we weren’t asking questions about compliance.

‘We knew there was a requirement for the materials that were used, and how they were put together, to be in accordance with regulations and legislation. So we weren’t having that type of discussion. My assumption, rightly or wrongly, was that there are many, many properties in London with aluminium cladding and this was aluminium cladding. I didn’t think any further than that.’

He had ‘assumed’ the cladding would be single panels incorporating insulation until Rydon’s contracts manager Simon Lawrence ‘informed him otherwise’ in 2015, and said that this had ‘given him concerns’ that space between insulation and cladding ‘could be a fire risk’ based on the Lakanal House fire in 2009. His witness statement said he had ‘sought assurances’ about the cladding’s safety from Mr Lawrence, who had told him all materials used were ‘completely inert’.

However, ‘no minutes exist’ from the meeting between the two, and Mr Lawrence ‘denied giving such an assurance’. Inquiry counsel Richard Millett asked if it was a ‘pretty major misunderstanding’ for KCTMO not to have known cladding contained a range of components; Mr Gibson said: ‘I accept that not having been involved in an over-cladding project before that I hadn’t considered it. We’d never talked about the insulation, separately. We talked about the level of thermal efficiency we needed to achieve.’

He believed that the ‘firm response’ he claimed Mr Lawrence gave him reassured him that the fire safety issues he had ‘were not a problem’, commenting: ‘I thought, they’ve done this before, he knows the materials and I’ve just assumed something wrong about the insulation. His response was immediate. I was confident he knew which materials he was fitting.’

The inquiry later heard that the cladding was hoped to ‘prevent [Grenfell Tower] looking like a poor cousin’ to the new academy school and leisure centre nearby, with a document from Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) employee Jane Trethewey about the redevelopment stating that KCTMO wanted to clad it ‘for that reason’.

It read: ‘[KC]TMO was keen to look at cladding Grenfell Tower and replacing the windows. This would have the advantage of addressing the investment needs of one of its worst property assets and prevent it looking like a poor cousin to the brand new facility being developed next door.’

Mark Anderson, KCTMO’s interim asset management and engineering manager at the time, said that these comments came from Studio E or RBKC, and said he did not think it was a concern of RBKC housing portfolio holder Timothy Coleridge, adding: ‘I would not say it was a concern, it was a desire that whatever was done to Grenfell Tower reflected well on the broader community.’

In turn, Mr Anderson said there was no pressure ‘to drive down the budget’, and also noted that Grenfell resident Ed Daffarn had told him residents had ‘little say’ on the school and leisure centre, so ‘he wanted to ensure the same didn’t happen with Grenfell Tower’.