IN GIVING evidence at the Grenfell Tower fire inquiry last week, two Exova consultants were said to have given ‘no thought’ to evacuating disabled residents because the law ‘didn’t require them to’.
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 architects Studio E 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 pandemic. That 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 more recently 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's restrictions caused ‘anger’ among the bereaved, survivors and other residents ‘who will be prohibited from attending’.
Last week, a senior fire engineer ‘did not raise the need for any proposed cladding system to have a separate fire safety assessment’, and another then shared that he was sent the design report for the cladding, but did not view it as ‘he was not specifically asked to’. Metro has now reported that both engineers – Clare Barker and Terry Ashton – stated that the refurbishment ‘gave no thought’ to evacuating disabled residents from the tower ‘because the law didn’t require them to’.
Dr Barker defended the ‘lack of detail’ for evacuating residents with mobility issues by suggesting that the tower ‘wasn’t the best place for them to live’ in the first place, while Mr Ashton added that ‘no recommendations were made’ to make the tower easier to escape from for disabled people ‘because government guidelines do not mandate them’. The news outlet pointed out that ‘at least’ 22 people living above the 10th floor of the tower were disabled.
This included Sakineh Afrasiabi, who was one of the 72 victims of the fire, and whose daughter has previously claimed that the local authority ‘agreed she should not have been placed in a flat above the fourth floor’. Mr Ashton stated that his work ‘mainly focused’ on refurbishing the first four floors, and that there were ‘fewer’ safety rules for the disabled in residential buildings than in commercial buildings.
He stated: ‘There are no recommendations in the documentation issued by Government departments or others as to what you do about means of escape for disabled persons in residential buildings. You might say, “Well, there should be”. But the fact is there are not. I’m not saying that’s right. But that’s what it is at the moment. Under means of escape for disabled persons, there are no requirements, you are not required to provide facilities for them to escape.’
Inquiry counsel Kate Grange asked him whether that means ‘then, you just don’t think about it any more?’, to which he responded ‘well, exactly’. Dr Barker in turn said that the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) should have considered that a ‘high rise-residential building might not be an appropriate place’ for disabled people to be housed in.
When asked why her report didn’t discuss evacuation methods for those with mobility issues, she commented that ‘I did not consider that. Because again if they did have mobility issues then maybe Grenfell Tower wasn’t the best place for them to live’. Inquiry counsel Richard Millet showed her passages of a government document used for construction in England, arguing it states ‘at the very least a consciousness that fire safety systems should take account of people with mobility issues’.
He then asked Dr Barker whether she could explain ‘why there was no advice given to [KCTMO] in [her report] about how their fire safety strategy was going to keep people with mobiiltiy issues safe in the event of an evacuation?’. She responded that ‘no, I can’t explain’. Exova’s draft fire safety strategy had said that ‘due to an assumed high degree of compartmentation and therefore a probability of fire spread beyond the dwelling of fire origin, simultaneous evacuation of the building is unlikely to be considered necessary’.
In responses, Mr Ashton said he did not visit the building to assess whether its compartmentation was the same post refurbishment as Exova was not asked to do so, and ‘had it been asked for, that would have been in our fee proposal’.