Grenfell - The Bonfire of Red Tape

‘They died because they were poor’. This is claimed about the 72 people killed when fire ripped through Grenfell Tower on the 14th of June 2017. It is not true. The ideology that led to these deaths is indiscriminate.

Grenfell - The Bonfire of Red Tape
Photo courtesy of ChiralJon from Flickr

“They died because they were poor”.

This is claimed about the 72 people killed when fire ripped through Grenfell Tower on the 14th of June 2017.  It is not true.  The ideology that led to these deaths is indiscriminate.

To understand the political scandal (there are many, many other scandals within, overlapping and connected) we must go back – inevitably – to Margaret Thatcher. Her Building Act of 1984 introduced a massive de-regulation of the English construction industry, including part-privatising of building control (not done in Scotland) meaning private consultants competing with local authorities to sign off schemes as compliant with regulations.  Survival of the cheapest and quickest.

One of the final acts of that long reign of Tory government was selling the Building Research Establishment (BRE), the government testing laboratory that ensures construction products are safe and fit for purpose.  The BRE now had to be financed by the companies that pay to have their products tested. 

These two pieces of legislation, deregulation and privitisation, prepared the conditions for Grenfell to take place.  But it could only happen in a wider Westminster political culture of indifference to safety, in particular with high rise buildings.

As far back as 1986 the English Department of the Environment issued a stark warning about the fire risk of cladding systems on tall buildings.  Regulations were not updated.

In 1999 after fires at Garnock Court in Irvine (killing one pensioner) and previously at Knowsely Heights, Liverpool, an enquiry by the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs committee recommended changes to the regulations in England to ensure cladding products on high buildings were ‘entirely non-combustible’.  These were again ignored by Westminster ministers, instead allowing a route for compliance through ‘large-scale testing’.  Testing to be carried out by the now privitised BRE.

In 2005 responsibility for assessing fire risk in buildings was moved away from the fire service to private consultants.  In the same year new regulations relaxed the restrictions on using combustible insulation on tall buildings.  These changes were lobbied for by industry as opportunities for profit became apparent as post-war high rise concrete buildings were overclad to meet higher insulation standards.

Kingspan, the giant Irish insulation company, were first to take advantage, passing the BRE large scale testing and subsequently selling their product as cladding material for high rise buildings.  But the ongoing Grenfell enquiry has uncovered that this product only passed this test when covered in cement particle board and this was never made clear in their marketing material.  In fact, the insulation they sold was not the same as that tested.

British-based competitor Celotex, who supplied most of the insulation used on Grenfell, had looked on enviously as Kingspan stitched up a lucrative new market.  At that time they were owned by venture capitalists, keen to maximise value before they sold to the global French company Saint-Gobain.  This included cutting the same insulation into different shapes, giving them new names, to give the impression of a busy R+D department with an expanding product range.

So in 2014, 22 year old graduate Jonathan Roper with his first ever job, was given the task by Celotex senior management of getting their product approved for use on high rise buildings.  He tested their new RS5000 insulation – a rebranding of another product – at the BRE laboratories and found that it was engulfed in flames within minutes.  Celotex then, just as Kingspan did, cheated the system.  They added and extra layer of magnesium oxide boards, passed the test on the second attempt, and went on to market a different product with no mention of the boards.

The scale of this corruption is breathtaking.  But it would not have been possible without confusing and out-of-date building regulations and a weakened regulatory system.  Regulations said material above 18m had to be of ‘limited combustibility’.  The panels tested were 0-rated – a poorer standard and only for the surface, not the core.  Incredibly LABC – a representative body and commercial operation for English building control officers – misunderstood the difference and provided certification for both the Kingspan and Celotex claddings.  Neither were fit for purpose. With this certification the products were marketed to architects, contractors and building control officers. A huge con was underway.   

If concerns were raised by industry professionals about the suitability of the products the faked BRE tests and dodgy certificates were cited. If they persisted threats of legal action would follow. “They can go fuck themselves or we will sue the arse off them” is an email from Kingspan revealed at the enquiry.

The government throughout the Labour and coalition years continued to receive warnings that there were serious problems with the safety of high-rise buildings.  In July 2009 six people, including three children, died at Lakanal House in London.  The ‘stay put’ advice of the emergency services, utterly dependent on the idea of ‘compartmentalisation’ of fire within high buildings, did not work. In April 2010 two firefighters were killed at Shirley Towers in Southampton as flames spread rapidly from the 9th floor.

But others were taking notice.  In December 2010 industry and fire sector bodies issued warnings during a public consultation on building regs including calling for sprinkler systems in high rises.

But there was a problem for anyone trying to introduce new regulations.  David Cameron had launched ‘a red tape challenge’.  Later he announced plans to ‘kill health and safety culture’.  This was to take precedent in every government department.

Ignoring all the warnings about dangerous cladding and being ideologically driven to reduce rather than update and improve regulations meant government was uninterested and unwilling to learn.  By illustration in 2011 a guide for fire safety in blocks of flats was issued re-confirming the ‘stay put’ message.  A disaster waiting to happen.

In January 2013 Boris Johnson as London mayor implemented huge cuts to the London fire service.  In March 2013, after a 50-day inquest, the coroner investigating the deaths at Lakanal House wrote to the government with recommendations including an updating of Approved Document B ‘with particular regard to external fire spread’.  The coroner encouraged the retrofitting of sprinklers in social housing tower blocks and a review of the ‘stay put’ advice.

In February 2014, speaking in a debate on fire safety in the Houses of Parliament, housing minister Brandon Lewis used the ‘one in, two out’ rule on regulation as a reason for the government not making sprinklers mandatory for tall buildings.

The following year huge fires ripped through two buildings in Dubai overclad with composite insulation panels.  In response to a letter from cross-party MPs calling for the toughening of building regulations for cladding on high rise buildings and to make sprinklers mandatory, minister Stephen Williams said that he has, “neither seen nor heard anything that would suggest consideration of these specific potential changes is urgent”. He added that he, “was not willing to disrupt the work of this department by asking that these matters be brought forward”.

As if to demonstrate an almost sociopathic disregard for safety, the Tory Government doubled down on their deregulation agenda with a ‘one rule in, three rules out’ initiative to ‘cut a further £10bn of red tap’.  The leader of the taskforce, Thatcher acolyte Oliver Letwin, suggested that English building regulations could be abolished entirely.

Yet MPs and industry groups continued to warn about the need to review fire safety in high rise buildings in English building regulations.  The urgency could not have been made clearer in repeated warnings to Gavin Marwell, Theresa May’s housing minister. In response, in May 2017, he wrote, as an excuse for his failure to act, that “the experience of [the stay put] approach to fire safety over many years has showed [sic] this to be an effective strategy”.

And so it was, the very next month, fire ripped through Grenfell tower, a building covered in an oil-based insulation that burned like petrol and killed with cyanide-laced black tarry smoke.  An under resourced fire service ordered the residents to ‘stay in place’ using advice that should have been updated with building regulations years previously.

Because building control had been hollowed out, because the BRE was compromised, because corporations cheated the system, because policy had not changed, because red tape had to be cut, because money had to be saved, because of a hundred other reasons, 72 poor souls died.

In the next stage of its investigation the Grenfell Inquiry will examine political responsibility.  We may have to wait years for the findings, but one thing is already clear:  The political ideology that allowed the disaster of Grenfell to happen; that placed the free market and money over safety; that ignored experts and advice; that abandonment of the public by the state – that ideology can kill anyone.   

Thank you to the reporting of Peter Apps of Inside Housing for providing much of the information used in this article.