Wealth within Grenfell borough is irrelevant, inquiry told

Counsel for Kensington and Chelsea tells inquiry tragedy could have happened in any borough

The fact the borough containing Grenfell Tower has some of the most expensive property in the world should not be exploited to suggest the council callously mistreated its poorest residents, the inquiry into the disaster has been told.

“That the council should be seen as the public face of the disaster is entirely understandable,” James Maxwell-Scott QC, representing the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, argued on Wednesday afternoon. “The council is the owner of Grenfell Tower. The council is very sorry that the residents of Grenfell Tower suffered a terrible tragedy.

“The council knows that what its councillors and officials did, knew, did not do and did not know will be exposed to intense scrutiny [in the pursuit of] justice.”

Maxwell-Scott said, however, that the wealth within Kensington and Chelsea had been used to create a fictitious belief that it was somehow relevant to the cause of the fire. “As the evidence unfolds, [the question will arise] was this something unique that meant it could only have happened here or could it have happened in any other borough with high-rise buildings?” There was nothing unique about the borough, he said.

It was the tower’s operator, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), that had entered into contracts with organisations that arranged the refurbishment, Maxwell-Scott explained. The council had repeatedly increased the budget for the work, rising from £6m in 2012 to £10.3m in 2014. “Those are not the decisions of a council determined to build on the cheap.”

The council monitored KCTMO’s performance, he added, acknowledging that it was “clear that the cladding system did not satisfy the building regulations”.

James Ageros QC, representing KCTMO, told the inquiry that the aim of the refurbishment had been to improve energy efficiency by adding external cladding and installing a new heating system. The cladding system had been shown to the council several times in 2014 and a mock-up was installed on the tower at one stage.

The use of combustible cladding had been contemplated since the beginning of the refurbishment project in 2012, he said. It had been seen by a range of technical bodies including those responsible for building control and safety. “Numerous high-rise residential buildings in both the public and private sector were clad in similar materials,” Ageros added.

Stephen Hockman QC, representing Arconic Architectural Products, which make the aluminium-faced panels that covered the external insulation cladding, said the core material in its tiles was “obviously combustible”, but the supply of the panels was entirely lawful.

It was up to purchasers, however, to decide whether to use the panels for a particular project and whether they could be “safely and appropriately” used, he said.

Assessment of their compliance with fire safety standards “was not undertaken by the manufacturer”. Additionally, he said, the fire engineering assessment “does not necessarily require that every element be non-combustible or of limited combustibility”.

James Leonard, counsel for the fire safety advisory firm CS Stokes, said its owner, Carl Stokes, had inspected Grenfell Tower in 2012, 2014 and twice in 2016. External walls of buildings, he told the inquiry, had never previously been considered to be subject to fire safety orders. To do so now, he said, would be perverse. “It has never been custom and practice,” he said, to consider the external walls as part of the common parts of the building.


Owen Bowcott

The GuardianTramp

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