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Grenfell Inquiry day 3: ‘reprehensible’ witness immunity bid; tit for tat; and admissions

Grenfell one year on
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The AJ rounds up the key findings from an eventful third day at the Grenfell Inquiry, which has begun investigating the causes of the 2017 disaster

Witnesses want immunity or won’t talk

Studio E Architects surprised everyone when it and others involved in the tower’s refurbishment asked for immunity from prosecution relating to evidence given at the inquiry. Unless it was guaranteed that what they said could not be used against them in other legal proceedings, lawyers warned it was likely witnesses would rely on their privilege against self-incrimination and simply refuse to answer questions.

Inquiry chairman Martin Moore-Bick was forced to pause the inquiry following the application made by the counsel for a number of witnesses, including the architects, façade installer Harley, certain employees or ex-employees of Rydon, and the tenant management organisation.

The application, which would require Moore-Bick to request an undertaking from the attorney general, will be part-heard tomorrow. The bereaved, survivors and residents (BSR) will get their chance to respond on Monday.

Speaking for the families, QC Michael Mansfield branded the move ‘highly questionable’. He said: ‘The timing of this application by certain corporates with regards to whether they will answer certain questions or have immunity is highly reprehensible.

‘[It] comes on the eve of evidence, yet there has been plenty of time for this to have been considered as it does normally in inquiries and inquests. We have a major question over why it has been done today. It has caused immense anxiety, distress and anger … as it were to be almost thwarted at the doors of the court.’

Artelia’s opening statement: ‘We weren’t the lead consultant’

Perhaps it was less surprising that Artelia, the employer’s agent, quantity surveyor and one-time CDM co-ordinator was insistent that Studio E Architects ‘was the lead consultant’ on the Grenfell tower refurb and not them.

This allegation was contrary to claims by the architect. Studio E’s opening statement to the Grenfell Inquiry earlier this week stated that Artelia had ‘confirmed’ it would take on the key role.

But in its evidence today (29 January), Artelia, which sought to minimise its role and responsibilities, stated that it was employed neither as a project manager nor lead consultant.   

‘[The] project was a public sector refurbishment project,’ it said. ‘It was to be supported by a sizeable consultant team; a lead consultant (Bruce Sounes of Studio E) was appointed and Artelia did not have a lead consultant role. Further, there was an important limitation on Artelia’s responsibilities with the express agreement that Artelia would have no responsibility for design or materials. That meant that, on those issues, Artelia’s knowledge would necessarily be limited.’

Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Association’s expectations of the architects

Before it was wound up post-Grenfell, Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Association (KCTMO) managed the entire housing stock for the local council.

Lawyer for the tenant management organisation (TMO) Alice Jarratt told the inquiry that, as client, the association was not required to manage the refurbishment project itself, but instead to appoint a team of professionals to work on its behalf.

At pre-contract phase, the TMO engaged a team consisting of Studio E and others, with Jarratt claiming the architect’s ‘terms of service were clear.’

The TMO said that the Employer’s Requirements, drawn up by Studio E, included a request for pricing for Proteus HR zinc cladding and two alternative products, Reynobond rainscreen cladding and Alcobond rainscreen cladding.

The purpose of presenting pricing options was to achieve value for money and the TMO had a ‘reasonable expectation’ that all the options would be suitable and compliant for the tower’s external façade, it said.

The cladding

According to the TMO, statements given by Harley and Studio E reveal that Harley first suggested the use of ACM to Studio E and that the architect relied on the advice of Harley for the cladding.

It added that, as designer and contractor, Harley was required to ensure its advice complied with the CDM regulations and inform Studio E and  Artelia - who maintains it was not the project manager - if its advice changed.

The TMO said that it was Studio E’s duty as lead designer to assess whether ACM was a ‘compliant material choice’ for the tower. It added: ‘The evidence is not clear as to what checks Studio E made with regard to the compliance of those cladding materials with EU and British Standards’.

Value engineering

The TMO rejected ‘suggestions’ in some of the other opening statements that its only consideration was to minimise costs. It insisted that seeking value for money in publicly funded projects was ‘standard practice’.

It added that value engineering processes could not be used to blame why the materials came to be applied to the façade. ‘The TMO would never have accepted a value-engineered option that it accepted was either not suitable non-compliant or not safe,’ it said.

It added that, while there could be ‘no denying’ the design and construction of the refurbishment compromised the safety of the building, the TMO believes it took reasonable steps to appoint competent specialists.

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea argues ‘we were not the designer’

The authority used its opening statement to apologise ‘unreservedly’ for failings by its building control team.

But the council emphasised it was not responsible for the design of the cladding system used on the Grenfell Tower, arguing ‘there was a fundamental conceptual distinction between a person who creates a design and a person who checks it’.

Even so, the local authority admitted its building control had failed to: ask for ‘comprehensive details’ of the cladding system; request an up-to-date version of the Exova Fire Safety Strategy – despite being given a document that had a date from 10 months earlier; and identify that the insulation materials were ‘not of limited combustibility’ and therefore did not satisfy Approved Document B.

Building control had failed to spot the lack of cavity barriers on the plans

Worryingly, the borough also confessed its team had not recognised ‘that insufficient cavity barriers to seal the cavities at openings within the walls had been indicated on the plans submitted to it’.

The council therefore concluded that a completion certificate should not have been issued on 7 July 2016, and accepted responsibility for the failings by its building control team.

However, the council pre-empted its admission of failure by forcefully underlining that, though its building control team signed off an unsafe refurbishment design for Grenfell, the more culpable party was whoever designed it.

‘Prior to the Grenfell Tower fire, the construction industry operated on, and was structured on, the common understanding that designers were responsible for producing designs that complied with the Building Regulations and that, if they failed to do so, those financially affected should look to designers, rather than local authority building control services, for compensation,’ the council said.

It added that this point would be important if those with design responsibility tried to claim either that the completion certificate absolved them of some responsibility, or that their role was merely to obtain a completion certificate.

Grenfell United unimpressed by council

Grenfell United, the campaign group representing survivors and bereaved families of the fire, expressed its dissatisfaction with the council’s statement, saying it should get no credit for admitting some culpability.

In a tweet, it said that since the first phase of the inquiry had made it clear the refurbished tower did not comply with Building Regulations, the council ‘have no choice but to accept that it was a total failure for their building control to sign off the refurbishment’, adding that it was ‘insulting to us that they are trying to argue that, despite signing off a building that was a death trap, they should not share any responsibility for it’.

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Readers' comments (3)

  • Rats trying to leap off a sinking ship? - that's surely the public impression.

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  • On the matter of insufficient cavity barriers, this particular fire safety measure was recently found to have been 'left out' of a large number of homes constructed by one of the major national house builders in several places in Southwest England, and I wonder whether this is just the tip of the iceberg?
    Time will undoubtedly tell.

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  • Industry Professional

    This latest article makes informative but depressing reading.

    Far too often, proposed agreements try to shift responsibility around and to "muddy the waters". This project is just one example of many where no one seems to be able to agree who was responsible for what. It really should not be that difficult to decide.

    I am afraid but sure we have all come across individuals who try to influence a design without taking responsibility for the changes they want.

    Jeffrey - an engineer - comments made via IHS

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