Gavin Barwell, the former housing minister and sometime Conservative MP for Croydon Central, could be hauled up before the public inquiry into the Grenfell disaster after an investigation by the website Inside Housing today published correspondence which shows that he, and his ministerial predecessors, failed to act on pressing fire safety recommendations.
The failures of Barwell and his Tory government colleague Eric Pickles represent “one of the greatest public policy failures anywhere in the modern world”, Inside Housing states.
Tomorrow marks the second anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire in North Kensington, in 72 people died, another 70 were injured and more than 220 others lost their homes.
In 2009, another fatal fire in a London tower block, at Lakanal House in Southwark, had claimed the lives of six people, including three young children. The coroner’s report on that tragedy made a series of significant recommendations on safety in tower blocks, which this government has failed to implement. Indeed, the government appears unwilling to heed the lessons from Lakanal and Grenfell, as the ferociousness of a fire in Barking last week was attributed to the flammable cladding used on that residential block of flats.
The research work by Inside Housing journalist Peter Apps, published today, suggests that there was enough information following Lakanal to have made the Grenfell Tower fire an entirely avoidable tragedy. Only the inaction of ministers, including Barwell, allowed it to happen.
Sarah Jones, the Labour MP for Croydon Central since 2017, described the findings published today as “utterly devastating”.
Jones is now a shadow housing minister and is due to speak in a House of Commons debate this afternoon on social housing. She is expected to raise many of the issues uncovered in the Inside Housing investigation, which she says has exposed “the culture of indifference” among successive housing ministers in Tory-led governments.
Jones wrote on Twitter: “I am so very sorry that ministers failed to act and that we let down so many people at such cost to life. We have to fix this.”
Barwell lost his parliamentary seat to Jones at the 2017 General Election. Since when, he has been employed as chief of staff to the Prime Minister, Theresa May. This, as Inside Housing points out, has put Barwell “in a position of political authority as the response to Grenfell has played out”.
As parliament was informed this week, despite promises made by the Prime Minister in the immediate aftermath of Grenfell, there has been no substantive changes in legislation regarding fire safety, government promises to fund the removal of potentially deadly cladding from residential tower blocks have been broken, and some of those who lost their homes in Grenfell Tower remain, today, two years on, in temporary accommodation.
The Lakanal inquest was heard before a jury in 2013. It spent 50 days going over the evidence.
“The coroner, Judge Frances Kirkham, then sent a series of letters to public bodies containing recommendations ‘to prevent further death’,” Apps writes in Inside Housing.
“This included a letter to the government – specifically to the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), which was responsible for housing and building regulations and led by Eric Pickles.
“Over the course of the inquest, the coroner had heard evidence that sprinklers could have put out the fire and saved lives. So she told Mr Pickles to ‘encourage providers of housing in high-rise residential buildings… to consider the retrofit of sprinkler systems’.”
In Croydon, the Labour-run council has gone ahead and been installing sprinklers in all its residential tower blocks, though promises to fund such works from government ministers, including the then Secretary of State at the DCLG, Sajid Javid, have not been fulfilled. Javid is among the contenders seeking to become the new leader of the Conservative Party, and therefore the next Prime Minister.
According to Inside Housing, Pickles replied to Judge Kirkham’s letter on May 20, 2013. “In his response, he said he had recently written to social housing providers about sprinklers. He said new official building guidance would be published by 2016-2017. And he assured the coroner of his ‘commitment to ensuring that the safety of residents in high-rise buildings continues to be a priority’.” Inside Housing adds: “And that was that.”
“There was no review of building regulations and neither pressure nor funding were applied to require the retrofitting of sprinklers. When Grenfell burned, the official guidance on building regulations was the same as it was in 2013.”
Grenfell had cladding of a category which the Lakanal coroner had warned needed to be removed, “And there were no sprinklers to be found anywhere in the tower. In fact, fewer than 1 per cent of social housing towers had sprinklers inside flats, according to Inside Housing research in 2015.”
In his Inside Housing report, Peter Apps places the government inaction in the context of the political landscape of the past 40 years.
He quotes David Cameron, when Prime Minister in 2012, telling an audience of business leaders just what they wanted to hear, that his government was “waging war against the excessive health and safety culture that has become an albatross around the neck of British businesses”.
Cameron wanted “to kill off the health and safety culture for good”.
Under the Cameron coalition with the LibDems, civil servants were instructed that for every new regulation introduced, two had to be removed from the statute book. Before the Tory-led coalition, the previous Blairite government had had a “one in, one out” rule which followed the deregulation principles of Thatcherism in the last two decades of the 20th century.
“A former senior civil servant has told Inside Housing that the rule made it ‘almost impossible’ for officials to introduce new regulations that would place significant costs on industry – such as sprinklers,” the website reports. Indeed, one of Barwell’s multitude of predecessors as housing minister, Brandon Lewis, told parliament in 2014 that prioritising deregulation was exactly the reason that no new laws on fitting life-saving sprinklers were being introduced.
It is worthy of note that sprinklers are also estimated to add around £13,000 to the cost for developers of every new home that they build.
Inside Housing has obtained a cache of damning letters which shows that Barwell, Pickles and two other ministers, LibDem Stephen Williams and Tory James Wharton, had all but ignored calls from within parliament to implement the recommendations of the Lakanal coroner’s report.
Between 2014 and 2017, the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group (APPG), chaired by Conservative MP Sir David Amess, wrote to ministers 21 times calling for action to be taken to implement the findings of the Lakanal review.
“These messages were not received well by ministers – who would frequently reply to lengthy letters with a brief two or three paragraph response,” Inside Housing notes.
Indeed, the warnings from the all-party group of MPs were quite explicit. In September 2015, Sir David wrote, on behalf of the APPG, saying, “the group wishes to point out to you that should a major fire tragedy with loss of life occur between now and 2017 in, for example, a residential care facility or a purpose-built block of flats, where the matters raised here were found to be contributory to the outcome, then the group would be bound to bring this to others’ attention”.
The APPG never received a reply.
“Despite this lack of action from ministers, the APPG persisted,” Inside Housing writes. “And in 2016, a new minister took over the brief: a man called Gavin Barwell.”
Barwell, it seems, adopted the policy of his predecessors and barely bothered to respond to correspondence from his parliamentary colleagues.
The APPG wrote to Barwell on September 12, 2016, reiterating the importance of the government conducting a post-Lakanal review of building regulations (which had not been revised for a decade), and inviting the new minister to meet them for lunch to discuss.
There was no reply.
So the APPG wrote to Barwell again on October 17.
Then again on November 7.
On November 14, Barwell – who, after all, had a well-staffed constituency office as well as ministerial staff to support him and handle his correspondence and diary – finally got round to responding to the APPG.
This is his brush-off:
The APPG replied on November 22. They did not get a response.
They wrote on February 20, 2017, again asking when Barwell would be conducting a post-Lakanal review of building regulations.
Barwell replied on April 5, apologising that previous letters had been “lost in transit”. He finally agreed to meet the group.
Over the course of this time, there had been other fires, in other residential blocks, including one in Southend, which had claimed lives. The APPG continued to write to Barwell, right up to May 19, 2017.
As Apps tweeted today: “But now it was too late. Theresa May had called a snap election. The planned meeting with Barwell was put off. He lost his seat in the election. Days later, a fire tore through Grenfell Tower and killed 72 people.
“Mr Barwell was by then Theresa May’s new chief of staff. He has retained that position throughout the two years since Grenfell – including during the Hackitt Review of building regs which placed no blame on ministers for failing to reform them.
“I’m not saying he had an influence on this,” Apps wrote. “I am saying it’s a conflict of interest.”
John Healey MP, Labour’s shadow housing minister, responded to the Inside Housing investigation, saying, “Important investigation by Peter Apps. Anti-regulation, anti-intervention Tory ideology stopped necessary government action pre-Grenfell. Two years on, we see the same pattern with Tory ministers’ continuing failure to take strong action needed to keep people safe in their own homes.”
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