THE ROYAL Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) building control officer responsible for Grenfell, and his manager at the time, were questioned.

The Guardian, Building, BD Online and Belfast Telegraph reported on evidence from RBKC’s then senior building control surveyor John Hoban and building control manager John Allen. Mr Hoban admitted the department was ‘swamped’, and he was working on up to 130 projects at once, with ‘austerity-driven cuts’ having ‘slashed’ staff numbers.

He had been ‘forced to take on work’ from three other colleagues during the refurbishment, which he was assigned despite it having been ‘previously handled by a more senior officer’, and had never worked on a project that overclad a high rise. He resigned in March 2017 because ‘I had had enough. I wasn’t able to do the job I was trained to do’; after working for RBKC for ‘almost three decades’, the role was ‘affecting my health […] I just decided that I didn’t want to work there anymore’.

He was ‘truly heartbroken’ for the victims, and ‘expressed anger’ at RBKC for cuts that led to ’10 building inspectors’ being replaced with one new graduate. He didn’t ‘believe that was the correct way to run a department’, and the culture meant he ‘did not feel he could say no to work’; he would work weekends to ‘keep on top […] I used to go to bed with a notebook thinking about jobs, and some nights I wasn’t sleeping at all’.

Asked by inquiry counsel Richard Millett if he had gone to Mr Allen to tell him he was ‘overstretched’ and ‘can’t do all these jobs properly’, Mr Hoban said: ‘I did ask for help in – I think it was – April 2015. I made a number of suggestions about what we should do. None of those suggestions were taken up. I did say on a number of occasions in the office that we needed more staff. I felt that we were under-resourced.’

Mr Allen denied being a bully and ignoring these pleas, stating that the department was an ‘excellent employer […] they had personnel policies, grievance, whistleblowing, it was a very small department. John Hoban […] was free to go and talk as others were at any time. It was a good borough to work with, there were lots of opportunities to talk about it, we had monthly meetings with him, weekly meetings with him, it was never the case.

‘I’m not a bully, never have been a bully with any staff […] we spoke about health issues which I tried to help him with. I was as supportive as I could possibly be’. On the cuts, he said that in 2012 the department made a £500,000 loss which ‘clearly isn’t sustainable’ and several staff opted for voluntary redundancy, as competition from private building control meant work was reducing.

He had ‘full confidence’ in Mr Hoban, did not believe staff had been ‘overstretched’, and said Mr Hoban had ‘not specifically asked for more time’ on Grenfell. He stated ‘he’s the senior building control surveyor, I have every faith and confidence in his ability’, and acknowledged conversations with Mr Hoban about the workload, but said Mr Hoban’s project count ‘wasn’t the highest’.

He accepted there may have been up to 130 ‘at one point’, but this ‘did not give a full picture’, as ‘there would be a number of those that hadn’t even started so that wasn’t like an inspection workload and there was a number that hadn’t been inspected for 90 days. One of the times that I looked the highest number that I could see was 121 and there were only around 30 current jobs’.

An email to RBKC executive director of planning and borough development Graham Stallwood, sent two days after the fire by former surveyor Robert Albrow, was shown in which he offered ‘unconditional support to the building officer concerned’, and alleged the department was ‘afflicted by a culture of bullying’, with ‘surveyors’ concerns […] not taken seriously when they are raised.

‘I absolutely believe the management team would knowingly falsify and manipulate records to demonstrate there (sic) ends hanging the surveyor out to dry’. He mentioned a case where he believed concerns had been ignored, adding that ‘I even recall being told that if a corporate manslaughter charge was to be brought it would be the head of building control who would be liable, not myself’. Mr Allen was aware of the email but disagreed with its ‘whole essence’.

An email he sent to colleague Jago Williams the day after the fire said that he could not find electronic or paper records, and questioned whether Mr Hoban had ‘weeded everything’ so that ‘nothing remains’. Asked whether paper records of signed off projects were discarded to save space, Mr Hoban said the process would see all but ‘structural drawings, plans, sections and elevations showing the constructional details, certificates if they’d been printed out’ thrown away.

He said ‘you should keep all information, in my view. But the managers decided this is what they wanted done’, though he had not done this for Grenfell. He was making ‘as many visits’ as he could between August 2014 and July 2016, but ‘wished’ he had been ‘given more time’. Desktop checks ‘had not been as thorough as they should have been’; he ‘may have only’ looked at the first eight pages of ACM guidance, and did not know what polyethylene was or its fire performance.

He was asked to take on new work in June and July 2015, so had been unable to visit during that time, stating ‘I think it was about 55 jobs and I felt that it was a priority to go round and look at those particular jobs to find out what stage they were at’. He had had ‘no major concerns’ as ‘there were two clerks of works […] and there were a number of levels of supervision on site […] my main priority at that stage was obviously dealing with this new area and jobs where things were not going right’.

With other witnesses stating they ‘relied’ on building control to ‘ensure’ compliance, Mr Hoban said he ‘did not realise they thought that’, admitting he ‘did not know about’ design and material fire risks. He approved 2014 designs despite not including ‘crucial details’, and was asked whether he was ‘less ruthless and rigorous’ than if experienced professionals had ‘not been’ on site.

He responded that he was not ‘relying’ on them: ‘I can only do so much in a day, Mr Millett, and I have to prioritise my work, I have to make judgments. I can only do so many visits in a day, in a week. I have to look and prioritise where I need to go.’

Designs should have included details about insulation and cladding, and he admitted he ‘should have either found out more or rejected the plans’, only seeing materials later during installation. He ‘had a confidence in the architects and other professionals’, and ‘considered that architects would know and understand building regulations’. He also never investigated why the safer ACM option was not being used.

Asked whether it was his ‘job to hold them to the highest standards of building regulations completely independently and ruthlessly’, Mr Hoban said ‘in hindsight, yes’, and noted he had approved plans ‘with conditions’, though ‘couldn’t recall’ what those were or if they were recorded. He ‘was having difficulty dealing with things because of family matters going on’, and on knowledge of key documents, ‘repeatedly said’ he had ‘not considered their lessons’.

Mr Hoban had not received any training on technical industry guidance, and reading professional magazines ‘was considered as continuing professional development’. He had also not read BR 135, which covers the fire performance of external thermal insulation for walls of multistorey buildings. Mr Millett asked whether he understood ‘at the time’ that cladding ‘can create the opportunity for rapid unseen flame spread’, to which Mr Hoban said ‘it wasn’t in the forefront of my thoughts’.

He was also unaware of guidance differentiating between non combustible and combustible cladding, and filed handwritten notes and project sheets in RBKC’s records management system, which ‘were now missing’. He had been ‘assured’ by a Harley engineer that the cladding had been fitted on many other buildings in England and Wales, and admitted only undertaking a ‘basic check’ on insulation, accepting it was a ‘serious failing’ that he did not look ‘more closely’.

He ‘was dealing with a considerable number of projects at the time […] perhaps I didn’t spend as much time as I should have looking at the documents’. He also accepted he had issued a completion certificate ‘based on an assurance’ from Rydon that legally required fire safety documents had been supplied, and agreed it should not have been issued, stating ‘I accept that now. I issued that with the understanding that it did comply’.

On cavity barriers, Mr Hoban had believed steel frames would be used for replacement windows, which over a certain thickness would ‘act as’ a barrier - he could not recall ‘how he had come to understand’ steel would be used, when aluminium was. ‘In hindsight’ he admitted not checking the barrier was a failing that ‘fell below the standards of a reasonably competent building surveyor’.

Noting that ‘the areas I saw were fine [...] they were putting the barriers in and covering up as they went’, he concluded: ‘If we had a regulatory body like we had with the Greater London council and the regulations and building act and bylaws we had at the time, and a support network of experts that administered the regulations, I don’t think we would be […] here talking about people that lost their lives and all these buildings with flammable cladding and the stress and uncertainty that leaves with people living in those buildings now.’