Officials knew dangers of cladding 15 years before Grenfell

Evidence given at the inquiry into the deaths of 72 people in North Kensington in 2017 show that the priority of successive governments was always ‘the demands of corporate interests above the needs of people’, according to a union leader

Tragedy caused by scandal: Grenfell’s dangerous ACM was installed 12 years after a government-commissioned safety report

The government knew from 2002 – 15 years before the Grenfell Tower that killed 72 people – that the type of cladding used on the 24-storey residential block in North Kensington should “never ever” have been used on tall buildings.

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry heard evidence yesterday that confirmed that the government kept the findings of the fire safety tests secret – even after the Grenfell fire in June 2017.

The “catastrophic” result of an official cladding test meant the government was “in no doubt at all” that the material later installed on Grenfell Tower was violently combustible, according to expert witness testimony given at the Inquiry yesterday.

Today, an official at the Fire Brigades Union described the failure of successive governments to act on the test findings as “sickening”.

No doubts: Dr Debbie Smith at the Inquiry yesterday

Evidence given at the Inquiry by Dr Debbie Smith, the former managing director of the Building Research Establishment, appears to place much responsibility for the disaster on successive housing ministers – Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative, including former Croydon MP “Lord” Gavin Barwell – for their failure to act on the findings of the testing authorities.

Michael Gove, the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, has already admitted the government “failed people at Grenfell” and told MPs that “on a couple of occasions” it had “not necessarily appreciated the importance of fire safety and not necessarily done everything in the wake of the Lakanal House tragedy that it should have done”.

That ministerial admission puts Barwell squarely in the frame.

Ignored fire safety warnings: former housing minister Gavin Barwell

Barwell, the MP for Croydon Central from 2010 to 2017, was housing minister in the year before the Grenfell disaster, and is likely to face questions about what actions he took after receiving direct fire safety warnings from the London fire commissioner, Dany Cotton.

He is one of several former ministers who will be required to give evidence at the inquiry this year.

Today, Matt Wrack, the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, said, “They did nothing for one and a half decades. Westminster governments are the ones responsible for this failure to regulate properly.”

Yesterday, as the inquiry had heard previously, the polyethylene-cored aluminium composite material, or ACM, cladding was subjected to a government-funded test in the summer of 2001. In the test, after just five minutes, 20-metre flames were observed.

The results of this test were delivered to government officials in September 2002, but no warning was issued to the industry, and a fire standard which appeared to permit the use of ACM was not removed from official guidance despite what was described at the Inquiry as “an immediate and present risk to life”.

Grenfell Tower had ACM cladding installed 12 years after the government testing had been conducted.

The Inquiry has already established that the cladding panels were the “primary cause” of the rapid fire spread.

‘Sickening’: FBU’s Matt Wrack has condemned government inaction

According to Dr Smith, as the BRE was contracted by the government to carry out the testing, it was therefore up to the department that contracted them to release the results. But the tests were withheld, even following the fire at Grenfell Tower, and only emerged through a leak to the BBC late last year.

The FBU’s Wrack told Inside Croydon, “It is sickening that the government knew of the risks of this cladding 15 years before the disaster at Grenfell.

“We also have to ask why it has taken almost five years to start to get to these key facts.

“This highlights much that has gone wrong with this inquiry so far.

“While this is appalling, it isn’t a shock. Everything we know about Grenfell and governments’ attitude to fire safety over past decades suggests that priority was always given to the demands of corporate interests above the needs of people.”

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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6 Responses to Officials knew dangers of cladding 15 years before Grenfell

  1. moyagordon says:

    Surely people in the building industry knew the cladding was not safe. The manufacturers must have known their products weren’t safe for tall buildings and should have provided warnings to end users. Obviously profit was more important than people’s safety. Truly horrific.

  2. Colin Cooper says:

    So it was a 2002 Labour Government that did not act on the dangers then?!

  3. Lewis White says:

    The initial thoughts provoked on reading this article about the deliberate supression of the truth about the logical outcome of permitting this highly flammable product to remain on sale for one minute after its flammability was discovered are …….. very strong. And unprintable.

    How expert people in product manufacturing, fire testing and the civil service, then politicians remained silient (and some, silenced) for nearly 2 decades is sadly no longer shocking (as we expect the interests of commerce and money to rule the institutional and governmental mind set) .

    It is just sickening.

    The concept of Duty of Care affects all who have responsibility, not only those with technical expertise .

    One hopes that those responsible (and there seem to be many) will face consequences.

    I am left wondering about the law, and whether there should be a specific law about Fire testing and safety.

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