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Inquiry hears cladding posed ‘no fire safety issues’ in 2012

7 July 2020

THE GRENFELL inquiry’s first day heard that a senior fire engineer ‘did not raise the need for any proposed cladding system to have a separate fire safety assessment’.

The second phase began with a focus on decisions ‘taken in the months and years before the fire’, its immediate aftermath and the government’s role. ‘Key revelations’ included that ‘almost none’ of the clients, consultants or contractors during the refurbishment were ‘accepting much blame’, and ‘ignored pleas from the inquiry not to engage in a “merry-go-round of buck-passing”’. 

The first week heard refurbishers ‘knew cladding would fail’; witnesses threatened to ‘withhold evidence’; and a consultant was not sent a key report. However hearings were delayed due to witnesses asking for assurances that ‘anything they say will not be used in criminal prosecutions against them’. This was granted, and the inquiry resumed.

The inquiry also acknowledged that Sir Martin had written to Attorney General Suella Braverman to ‘request an extension’ in late April, and she extended the ruling. After the agreement had been made, testimony from Studio E staff admitted it ‘lacked experience in cladding tower blocks’ and was selected ‘despite never having carried out similar work’, without any ‘competitive procurement process, interview or design competition’.

Later, emails between senior fire engineers and consultants at Exova Warrington Fire saw admissions that refurbishment plans were making ‘a crap condition worse’, and ‘no sprinklers [were] wanted’. Studio E’s lead designer Neil Crawford then alleged that Celotex ‘calculatedly sought to deceive’ and ‘deliberately misled’ over its product’s safety ‘as if selling horsemeat as beef’.

Most recently, contractors appeared more concerned about ‘cost and delay’ than fire safety, and on ‘appearance and cost’, while Exova consultant Cate Cooney had carried out a fire strategy report in 2012 on Grenfell in its original ‘state’ but ‘without visiting the site itself’, and included a ‘number of assumptions’.

Last week it was confirmed that the inquiry would begin hearing oral evidence again ‘on a limited attendance basis’ from today, after having been suspended in March due to the COVID-19 pandemicThat same month, it discussed plans to resume hearings remotely, while a later update noted that ‘potential options’ were outlined, with core participants and witnesses asked for their views on three options.

In late May, it received responses that ‘indicated a substantial consensus in favour of limited attendance hearings’, and had ‘come to the clear conclusion’ that this ‘present[ed] the best way in which the Inquiry can pursue its important work with the necessary urgency’. More recently, it was ‘working towards’ resuming and ‘proceeding on the basis that the current restrictions will remain in place’, confirming it would restart on Monday 6 July.

The inquiry has begun ‘taking evidence in limited attendance hearings’, with its restrictions creating ‘anger’ among the bereaved, survivors and other residents ‘who will be prohibited from attending’. The Guardian has now reported on the first day of the resumed hearings, which heard that Clare Barker, former principal fire engineer at Exova, ‘did not think overcladding’ the tower would pose any ‘particular issues or problems’ for fire safety during ‘early discussions’ on refurbishment.

Dr Barker was said to have not raised ‘the need for any proposed cladding to have a separate fire safety assessment’ during a July 2012 meeting, with an early fee proposal for Exova’s work at Grenfell that same year also assuming a ‘detailed appraisal’ of its compartmentation was ‘unnecessary’ because it was a ‘concrete building’, Ms Barker told the inquiry.

She also mentioned that she was involved with the project ‘only between’ July and August 2012, before then passing it on to her London based colleague Terry Ashton ‘who was off ill during her involvement’. Inquiry counsel Richard Millet asked her: ‘Given that you knew Grenfell Tower would be overclad, although not the details, did you raise the need to carry out a fire assessment specifically in relation to the proposed cladding system as the proposal then stood?’

Dr Barker responded with a no to this question as well as to Mr Millet’s next, which asked ‘at the time did you consider that cladding this building would present any particular issues or problems with regard to fire safety’. The aforementioned fee proposal said it was ‘based on the assumption that a detailed appraisal is not required of the structural fire protection to the loadbearing elements of the structure or of the fire compartmentation within the building’.

When asked why this assumption had been made, Dr Barker responded: ‘I would say it was assumed that, because the building was a concrete building, that it possessed the necessary fire resistance. As well as because of the time it was constructed, it was required to be a building with two hours’ fire resistance to the structural elements.’

The Guardian added that Exova has previously stated that criticism of it was ‘unjustified’ because it was ‘not consulted’ about the flammable materials used on the tower, with its counsel Michael Douglas stating that the company had been ‘left out’ of planning discussions and ‘effectively sidelined’ after Rydon was appointed main contractor in 2014.

Inquiry hears cladding posed ‘no fire safety issues’ in 2012