On 23 June, the police announced that they were considering charges of “manslaughter, as well as criminal offences and breaches of legislation and regulations” over the Grenfell Tower fire. And they issued a statement confirming that both the cladding and insulation installed at Grenfell have failed safety tests. Investigators are now trying to establish whether those materials were used illegally.
The Canary has been examining available and leaked documents relating to the Grenfell refurbishment. And the results are numbing.
The day after the Grenfell fire, the Metropolitan Police Service announced it had begun a criminal investigation into the causes of the tragedy. This meant that the tower block and the premises of all parties connected to its refurbishment are now crime scenes. Since that announcement, many have been pushing for strident action.
MP David Lammy, for example, had asked Prime Minister Theresa May for an update on the criminal investigation into the Grenfell Tower fire in a House of Commons session. She was not able to oblige him. He demanded that all relevant documents relating to the refurbishment be seized; and that corporate manslaughter charges be considered.
He said: “Most people see this as a crime and they know that rich and powerful organisations get away with crime”.
And in an open letter to the Prime Minister, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan stressed:
I would seek an assurance that if the Inquiry or police investigation finds any individual or organisation to have been negligent in their duties, then they will be prosecuted. This issue is not limited to the type of cladding fitted; the material it is attached to and how this has been achieved are also critical factors.
The key players
By all accounts, the cladding used during the refurbishment is likely to be key to the investigation.
A planning application [pdf] for the Grenfell Tower refurbishment project was made in October 2012. In that application, there appears to be no mention of the type of cladding eventually used, just “ “. This may be significant. Planning permission was granted in January 2014. And in the decision document [pdf p2, point 3], it was a requirement that “Materials to be used on the external faces of the building” be approved by the Local Planning Authority.
There were a number of key players involved in the project:
- Grenfell Tower is owned by Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea.
- The tower is managed by Kensington & Chelsea TMO (KCTMO).
- The refurbishment project cost £10m and was managed by Artelia.
- Architects contracted to advise on the project were Studio E.
- The main contractor for the refurbishment was Rydon.
Other key players organised the cladding:
- Cladding used is a product of Arconic.
- It was supplied by Omnis Exteriors.
- And it was installed by Harley Curtain Wall (now Harley Facades).
The wrong cladding?
In Arconic’s Reynobond PE brochure [pdf], a diagram clearly shows that panels with a fire retardant core, which applies only to the Reynobond FR model, can be used for buildings up to 30 metres tall. And above that, the A2 (non-combustible) model should only be used:
Indeed, the Building Control Alliance 2014 recommendations agree; and they are quoted on the Omnis Exteriors website:
Where the building exceeds 18m in height, the BCA recommends…the use of materials of limited combustibility for all elements of the cladding system both above and below 18m.
However, Grenfell Tower is over 60 metres tall and only Reynobond PE (the combustible variety) was installed.
So why was Reynobond PE chosen instead of Reynobond FR? Simple: Omnis director John Cowley told The Guardian that the product is £2 cheaper per square metre than the fire-resistant variety. But costs should not have been a factor, as Kensington & Chelsea Council holds reserves of £274m.
The view of the Grenfell Action Group (GAG) on this aspect is unequivocal:
The cladding on Grenfell Tower was intended to pimp it up so that it wouldn’t spoil the image of creeping gentrification that the Council are intent on creating, here and throughout the rest of North Kensington.
Is the cladding banned?
Reynobond PE is not banned in the UK. Current building regulations allow its use in both low-rise and high-rise structures. The key question now is whether the overall design of the building’s complete exterior was properly tested and subsequently signed off by the relevant authorities including the fire officer, building compliance officer and architect before commencement of the project.
Cladding using a composite aluminium panel with a polythene core should not be used for cladding on a building taller than 18 metres.
But in Germany, construction companies are banned from using Reynobond PE on towers more than 22 metres high. And in the US, the product is banned above 15 metres. Britain’s Fire Protection Association now wants the government to make it a statutory requirement for local authorities and companies to use only fire-retardant material, such as Reynobond FR.
What do the building regulations say?
The external envelope of a building should not provide a medium for fire spread if it is likely to be a risk to health and safety. The use of combustible materials in the cladding system and extensive cavities may present such a risk in tall buildings.
Limited combustibility can be demonstrated by testing a cladding system as a whole and by satisfying the performance requirements set out in BR 135 Fire Performance of external thermal insulation for walls of multi-storey buildings. This would allow the inclusion of firebreaks within the cladding. However, contractors are provided some leeway in that, under Appendix A of the Building Regulations 2010 fire safety document [pdf], only the outward-facing surface needs to be fire-resistant.
Or as fire expert Arnold Tarling dramatically commented:
Since the Grenfell fire cladding installer Harley Facades (formerly Harley Curtain Wall) has removed details from its website of its work on Grenfell Tower “as a mark of respect” (though an archived copy of that page has been recovered).
Interestingly, according [paywall] to The Times, in 2016 a Harley customer tried to claim £428,000 for disputed work undertaken by Harley Curtain Wall. The company then went into liquidation. However, Harley’s owner Ron Bailey was allowed to purchase his old business for just under £25,000, even though it owed creditors £1.18m and was being pursued by HMRC for tax avoidance.
Soon after the fire, The Times [paywall] reported:
Harley said that the panels it supplied were a ‘commonly used product’ in the refurbishment industry. ‘We will fully support and co-operate with the investigations into this fire,’ Ray Bailey, 58, its managing director, said. ‘At this time, we are not aware of any link between the fire and the exterior cladding.’
There were other factors that could have contributed to the Grenfell tragedy.
- The building had no sprinkler system.
- The fire alarm system apparently failed.
- Advice was given to residents to remain in their flats if there was a fire.
- And a major fire incident caused by faulty wiring was narrowly averted, providing further warnings.
The KCTMO was repeatedly warned about fire dangers in tower blocks, but did nothing. Residents also raised concerns about the gas pipes in the main stairwell, as it appears they were not boxed in with “fire-rated” protection. And there were four years of warnings over fire hazards by the Grenfell Action Group (GAG). But these were also ignored. Indeed, in 2013 the council threatened legal action against GAG.
The KCTMO has published a statement saying:
We understand the growing demand for answers. Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) continues to play an important role in gathering all relevant information that will enable us to assist fully with investigations.
At present, however, our focus remains firmly supporting our residents, staff and local agencies throughout this incredibly distressing time.
The government’s role
A dozen letters by the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group, warning that the government “could not afford to wait for another tragedy”, were leaked to BBC Panorama. They were sent to four ministers with the Department for Communities and Local Government. One of the recommendations was that sprinkler systems should be installed in 4,000 blocks of flats. But according to a leaked letter [pdf], nothing further was done about that. The ministers who were warned of fire dangers included: then Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles, Conservative MP James Wharton, Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Williams, and Conservative MP Gavin Barwell (now Theresa May’s Chief of Staff).
Barwell promised a review into safety in 2016. And he was warned again about fire safety in March 2017. A review was eventually announced. But nothing was done, and the review was kicked into the long grass.
Immediate action is now needed to identify which other properties have been clad with Reynobond PE. A cursory search of the Omnis Exteriors website shows that two properties – Granville Road and City West (Manchester) – were clad with Reynobond, though it is unclear which kind. Other cladding projects carried out by Harley may also have been clad with Reynobond.
And there could be more properties – not just high-rise flats – that are clad in Reynobond PE by other contractors. Indeed, already seven high-rise blocks, including three in Plymouth and one in Tottenham, have been identified. And a further nine high-rise blocks in Salford are currently under investigation.
Meanwhile, cladding installed on tower blocks on the Chalcots Estate, Camden, is currently being replaced after tests were carried out. Camden Council stated that the cladding was “not to the standard” expected. As with the Grenfell site, the main contractors were Rydon and Harley. The council is now seeking legal advice.
Truth comes out
Regardless of the ambiguities in the building regulations, the guidance from the product manufacturer should have raised questions about the choice of cladding.
Or as the Grenfell Action Group puts it:
We believe the dangers of cladding must have been known by the Council and TMO technical staff involved in planning the Grenfell Tower ‘improvement works’ and by the contractor Rydon and sub-contractor who carried out the works and seems to have opted for cheaper highly flammable cladding.
Rydon insists it met “all required building control, fire regulation and health and safety standards”.
Everyone who signed off the project has questions to answer.
When the truth comes out about this tragedy, we may find there is blood on the hands of a number of organisations. It is my grave concern that the families of Grenfell Tower will not get justice if documents are being quietly destroyed and shredded, and emails are being deleted.
Hopefully, further evidence will be found to explain more fully why the fire happened; and why so many people tragically lost their lives.
– Donate to the Grenfell Tower Appeal.
– Join the Million March on London on 1 July.
– Read more from The Canary on the Grenfell Tower fire.
Featured image via Flickr
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