The public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire resumed its hearings after being suspended amid the national lockdown, but with a similar message ‘maximising profits took precedence over safety’.
Internal communications from within Arconic revealed that staff were aware the ACM cladding panels attached to the tower were dangerous and a fire hazard for at least six years beforehand, but fire safety test results were hidden from customers or their use was manipulated, as the company strove to significantly increase its market share.
The inquiry heard the company sought to “keep secret” differences between the polyethylene panels (the type used on Grenfell) and its more fire-retardant version. It was shown a report from a 2004 fire test in a French laboratory of the panels that had to be stopped after 850 seconds because it was emitting too much heat.
Debbie French, the UK sales manager for Arconic from 2007 to 2014, told the inquiry she estimated fire-resistant Reynobond would have cost about €28,000-€30,000 more to install on Grenfell Tower than the polyethylene (PE) version that was ultimately used.
Claude Wehrle, Arconic’s technical manager, ordered staff not to release to customers information about the difference between the polyethylene-filled panels and the fire-retardant version. Ms French said she had never been told about the failure but agreed it was a “very serious omission”. And yet it was the PE panels that were used by Arconic in the UK “by default”.
Wehrle is one of three current or former Arconic staff refusing to give evidence to the inquiry. He and the other two employees are likely to be empty chaired. The inquiry was adjourned in early December and had been due to resume on 11 January, but its resumption (via Zoom) was delayed until early February.
Last year the inquiry heard more than 400 hours of evidence, from 53 witnesses. Some witnesses claimed they did not have a full grasp of the building regulations relating to the tower’s refurbishment, even though having this knowledge was an integral part of their job.
The inquiry heard how 17 companies worked on the refurbishment project through a complex web of contracting and subcontracting arrangements. Lead counsel Richard Millett accused some witnesses of taking part in a “merry go-round of buck passing” while some staff of Celotex and Kingspan admitted that their marketing material was misleading.
It was also revealed that in the aftermath of the fire, when investigators looked at the cladding and how it had been installed on Grenfell Tower, they found a catalogue of errors. For example many of the cavity barriers, intended to stop fire spreading were poorly fitted or installed in the wrong place. Some were even attached back to front, which stopping them from working.
In December it emerged that Government ministers have been called to give evidence to the inquiry, which could see several senior politicians being cross-examined about their actions before and after the fire. Key figures have already been asked to provide written statements and some will face detailed questioning in public. No doubt there be a focus on the failure to implement recommendations from the coroner, following the Lakanal House fire.
It is clear there will be a lot more twists and turns before the inquiry eventually concludes, but hopefully we will emerge at the end of it with a stronger and safer regime for the construction and maintenance of residential buildings.
By Patrick Mooney, Editor