Grenfell: UK government accused of ‘grotesque abdication of responsibility’

Successive UK governments were guilty of a “grotesque abdication of responsibility” for failing to ensure the fire safety of high rise buildings, lawyers acting for survivors of the Grenfell tower fire in London told a public inquiry into the tragedy on Monday.

Stephanie Barwise QC, acting for a group of bereaved, survivors and residents, said the suppression of key information about the risks of flammable cladding over decades and a drive to deregulate the building sector had contributed to “one of the greatest scandals of our time”.

She was speaking at the start of the latest phase of the inquiry that will examine the government’s role in the disaster that killed 72 people in June 2017.

The inquiry, which has been held in stages over a period of more than three years, has exposed serious concerns about lax building safety regulations and led to accusations that they were abused by the makers of insulation and cladding products that are fitted to thousands of buildings in the UK.

The initial stages of the inquiry concluded that the external cladding fitted to Grenfell as part of a renovation was the “principal” cause of the fire’s rapid spread. The findings sparked a crisis that left millions of people unable to sell similar properties, while facing extra costs for short-term fire safety measures and the prospect of a large bill to carry out remediation work.

Describing a series of tower block fires and their causes dating back 30 years, Barwise accused the respective governments in power at the time of “an extraordinary suppression of information”. 

She highlighted a 1991 fire at a block called Knowsley Heights on Merseyside. She said the blaze, in which no one died, spread through the gap between the wall and the building’s cladding, which had been added as part of a government drive to re-clad old blocks with better insulating material.

Eight years later a fire at Garnock Court tower in Irvine, Scotland, spread rapidly through external cladding, killing one person. After the fire, Barwise said the housing ministry failed to adequately question the Building Research Establishment, the testing and standards body, about the safety of that cladding and implied they may have done so wilfully.

The failure to probe the BRE “tends to suggest government did not want to know the extent to which Garnock’s cladding had contributed to the fire,” she said.

She highlighted other fires in tower blocks fitted with external cladding, including the 2009 Lakanal House blaze in Camberwell, London, in which six people died.

“Government’s response on realising the extent of the problem was to react by concealment instead of candour” and the failure to properly investigate those incidents meant mistakes were repeated at Grenfell, Barwise said.

A rush to deregulate and encourage housebuilding led successive administrations to hand more and more power to industry. This culminated in the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government, which was in power from 2010 to 2015, giving the construction industry relatively free rein, Barwise added.

“The overriding deregulatory imperative meant there were no fetters and safety considerations were not balanced against either the environmental imperative or industry freedoms”, she said.

The inquiry began in June 2018 by investigating the causes of the Grenfell blaze before examining the roles of the cladding suppliers, the contractor that refurbished the tower before the fire, Kensington and Chelsea council, which owned the property, and the London Fire Brigade’s response.

The examination of the role of government will last until April. The government’s legal team is due to appear before the inquiry on Tuesday. The hearing continues.

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