Council 'prioritised cost over safety', Grenfell Tower inquiry hears

The London fire brigade warned the Grenfell Tower landlords about dangerous cladding just two months before it went up in flames but it failed to order checks that counsel for the bereaved said displayed “a staggering lack of concern” and “scant regard for safety”, the public inquiry into the disaster has heard.

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) was told by fire chiefs in April 2017 that cladding panels often did not comply with building regulations and could potentially spread fire from flat to flat. But in what was described as an “extraordinary” decision, it did not investigate how its officials ensured the safety of facades or require them to be included in future fire risk assessments.

The missed opportunity was revealed by Stephanie Barwise QC, representing some of the survivors and the bereaved at the opening of the latest stage in the inquiry. On Monday the inquiry began examination of the role of the council and Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) which, the inquiry heard, demonstrated “a systematic and concerted denial of residents’ entitlements to be consulted, informed and listened to”.

In hearings that will include the first testimony from residents since they paid tribute to the dead at the start of the inquiry nearly three years ago, it will examine how the council landlord reacted to years of attempts by residents to raise concerns about safety and whether the council breached its duty to care for vulnerable and disabled people in the tower – where 52 of the 120 flats contained people with disabilities. Lawyers for the bereaved said evidence would show the council displayed an “ethos of indifference or hostility [that] came to permeate the non-negotiable matter of fire safety”.

In opening statements, Barwise said: “RBKC prioritised cost over safety” while Michael Mansfield QC said there was “discrimination of a class of people” and “a racial characteristic” to the neglect. Danny Friedman QC said the fire was “a landmark act of discrimination against disabled and vulnerable people”.

Grenfell United, the families’ group, said in a statement to the press that it expected the hearings to expose the KCTMO as an organisation that “never cared about its tenants” and urged the government to “rush forward social housing reform to tackle all rogue landlords so no one in social housing ever has to endure what we did”.

The fire brigade’s 2017 warning about the cladding came shortly after the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower with plastic-filled panels that on 14 June 2017 were the main cause of the spread of the fire that killed 72 people. It was sent to Laura Johnson, the Conservative council’s director of housing, but the council took no action other than to forward the letter to its arms-length tenant management organisation (KCTMO) with a note that read: “FYI.”

Barwise said Johnson showed “a staggering lack of concern only tolerable in a culture with scant regard for safety”. In 2017 she also delayed installation of door-closers across the TMO’s wider estate and held off an inspection programme because of the cost. This was “misguided and perverse” because two years earlier there had been a devastating fire at Adair House, one of its blocks, where door-closers had failed.

Residents concerns were repeatedly dismissed, the inquiry heard, including from several people who died in the fire. Edward Daffarn, a 16th-floor resident who seven months before the fire wrote on a blog that “only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord”, was accused internally at the KCTMO of “scaremongering”. Daffarn survived, but Mariem Elgwahry, Dennis Murphy, Berkti Haftom, and Sheila did not. They were among 60 residents who with Daffarn signed a petition asking for RBKC to investigate the treatment of residents. The petition was dismissed within RBKC and the TMO as being “engineered” by Daffarn. RBKC responded by allowing the TMO to investigate itself and it “glowingly commended itself and its contractor”, Friedman said.

Johnson also dismissed the tower as “a bad-tempered place” and complained a “general crossness has lingered and is stoked by various individuals with their own agenda,” according to internal emails. The KCTMO showed “an obsessive defensiveness” towards Daffarn, said Friedman.

He described how the residents’ “campaign for accountability” was defeated by “a systematic and concerted denial of [their] entitlements to be consulted, informed and listened to”.

In 2014, after Daffarn had already written to the London fire brigade saying Grenfell residents had no confidence the tower had been assessed to cope with the refurbishment, the landlord refused to show Daffarn project meeting minutes because of “commercial sensitivity”, the inquiry heard.

In fact, Friedman said, the KCTMO thought that if he knew about problems this would “cause Mr Daffarn to raise more queries either on his blog or via further requests”.

Had they been released, the minutes might have shown how the contractor had been tasked over five consecutive months with appointing a fire consultant.

Describing this as “a genuine what if moment” he said: “For the TMO to withhold information because they did not like what their critics would do with it, was unlawfully perverse and a patent abuse of power.”

Barwise revealed how in 2015 RBKC’s leader, Nick Paget-Brown, failed to implement audit tools sent to him by the London fire brigade specifically designed to ensure refurbishments did not impact upon fire safety. They had been designed by a working group after the 2009 Lakanal House fire in Southwark where six people died.

She said the council’s half-yearly reviews of the TMO’s performance had been based on reports written not by the council’s officers but by the TMO itself. Health and safety reports had been written by the TMO’s fire safety adviser too – “thereby marking her own homework,” she said.

The inquiry continues.

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