One year on from the Grenfell Tower fire, and the concerns over a potentially lengthy inquiry has only added to the considerable discontent over a lack of action
On 14 June and for several days afterwards 12 buildings close to Grenfell Tower will be illuminated in green to “shine a light” on the solidarity shown by the local community in the aftermath of the fire that claimed the lives of 72 people. All week the public inquiry into the blaze has been put on hold as the nation marks the first-year anniversary with a series of memorials and vigils.
And while it is a week for commemoration and reflection, it will no doubt redouble the local community’s “calm rage” and powerful demand for justice once the inquiry resumes. That sentiment was expressed by the Bishop of Kensington in his recent sermon: “Atonement has to be made […] The transition from desolation to joy can only come through justice. We trust and pray that justice will be done through the public inquiry and the police investigation.”
The thought of years of wrangling over the costs is dispiriting – it would be better to get cracking with reforming how construction works
We reported on the initial expert evidence heard at Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s inquiry last week, and it made for upsetting and shocking reading. The reports, which ran into thousands of pages, highlighted multiple failures in the tower’s refurbishment, but the key point that most in the media latched onto was that the cladding system was identified as being to blame for the fire spread.
There has also been the unedifying spectacle of the companies involved appearing to limit their input into the fact-finding stage of the inquiry or seeming to side-step blame. The coldness of the fastidiously careful legal language in the opening submissions only heightened the impression of a tactical game aimed at deflecting attention onto others. Lawyers at the inquiry have branded such behaviour as “buck-passing” and said “it is inhumane to remain silent when so many seek understanding and answers”.
It’s not only the corporate mentality that is under attack; the government looks vulnerable too. Labour MP Clive Betts has told Building that the government is liable for the cost of replacing combustible cladding because it was installed in compliance with building regulations guidance. He cites the expert report by Dr Barbara Lane, which found that guidance specifying that only materials of “limited combustibility” be used in cladding systems on tall buildings did not refer to the cladding panels themselves.
The government disagrees with this interpretation of the guidance, as does Dame Judith Hackitt, and so while it has already pledged to cover the £400m in costs for social landlords to replace non-compliant cladding systems, the funding does not cover the 138 privately owned towers that are affected.
And yet there is frustration with the government on this too. In January the publication of the finalised sector deal for construction was delayed, with civil servants saying the document, which deals with these very issues of industry performance and productivity, would be published “shortly”
With such diametrically opposed views on what the guidance actually means, the question of who is liable for the cost of rectifying mistakes made on all of these building is unlikely to be resolved soon. Frankly, the thought of months or even years of wrangling over the costs is dispiriting. Instead, perhaps it would better to get cracking at reforming how construction works, so that when we say “never again” we really do mean it.
Talking to construction insiders, there is a sense that a long-standing discontent with the industry’s performance has tipped over into outrage – felt inside the sector as much as outside it. After the Hackitt report the industry is preparing for an overhauled regulatory framework, and while we don’t know exactly how the government will implement the recommendations, we can be sure there will be a bigger focus on process, skills and competency as well as heightened scrutiny of compliance and enforcement.
It’s not a huge leap to see how this regulatory crackdown and enforced culture change will boost the emerging saviour of the industry: offsite manufacturing and modern methods of construction. What Grenfell demonstrates beyond doubt is that with buildings – as with any product – understanding the provenance of what we design and deliver is essential for quality assurance. Manufacturing and the golden thread of digital information will play a critical part not just in fire safety but in wider building performance.
The government has already indicated its intention to drive change as a client, taking a hands-on approach by announcing last autumn a presumption in favour of offsite from its biggest spending departments. Homes England (the rebranded Homes and Communities Agency) appears to be taking a particular interest in manufacturing, and we could be in for some innovative reshaping of the supply chain from this quarter soon.
And yet there is frustration with the government on this too. In January the publication of the finalised sector deal for construction was delayed, with civil servants saying the document, which deals with these very issues of industry performance and productivity, would be published “shortly”. You can see how a stretched civil service communications team might struggle to find a good day to release a document about construction industry efficiency and innovation. But the fact is, while Carillion, Grenfell and Brexit all deserve Whitehall attention, the sector deal investment will – once finally in place – be part of the answer to all these problems. Delay will only add to the discontent, when what is needed now is action and change.
Chloë McCulloch, deputy editor, Building