This week the Grenfell Tower Inquiry scrutinised the work of Carl Stokes, the man hired to carry out fire risk assessments for the block. Nathaniel Barker reports
With shock and ash still hanging in the air in the days after the terrible Grenfell Tower fire, Inside Housing revealed the identity of the person appointed to assess the building’s fire safety.
Mr Stokes, as sole employee of CS Stokes & Associates, was paid nearly £250,000 to undertake fire risk assessments (FRAs) for Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) between 2010 and 2017.
For those following the awful Grenfell tale, Mr Stokes and his work has been a sustained point of intrigue. This week we heard the full account of his dealings with KCTMO for the first time.
Before we turn to Mr Stokes, on Monday the inquiry heard more evidence from Judith Blakeman (pictured above). Ms Blakeman has three roles in the story: she is a veteran Labour councillor whose ward covers Grenfell Tower; she was a member of the council’s housing and property scrutiny committee (HPSC); and she was a council-appointed board member of KCTMO.
First appearing last Thursday afternoon, her evidence painted a picture of her trying unsuccessfully to raise concerns about safety issues at the tower, met with only with what she described as “bland assurances”.
This week we heard about how that came to a head on 11 May 2016 at a meeting of the HPSC. The committee was due to discuss an internal report on the Grenfell refurbishment, in which Ms Blakeman said KCTMO “commended” itself and its contractor.
Having seen the report at an earlier KCTMO board meeting, Ms Blakeman emailed fellow HPSC committee members ahead of 11 May outlining concerns. Shortly before the meeting began, Robert Black, chief executive of KCTMO, emailed the HSPC chair pointing to a “conflict of interest” on Ms Blakeman’s part due to her three roles and warning she was “in breach of her duties as a director of KCTMO”.
At the subsequent meeting, the inquiry heard, she was “bullied” by Mr Black and HSPC chair Quentin Marshall into sitting in the public gallery “fuming”. Such a direct intervention in the council’s democratic scrutiny process by Mr Black, as an official, may raise eyebrows for some in the housing sector.
At the end of her evidence, Ms Blakeman took the unusual step of interrupting inquiry lead counsel Richard Millett QC as he thanked her for her participation. “No, you’re supposed to ask me what I have to say first,” she interjected.
After expressing regret at having not pushed harder with the Grenfell Pathway project she helped set up in a bid to learn lessons from the refurbishment before the fire, she added: “Well I’m going to sit here with tears in my eyes and say how terrible the fire was because I watched the fire, I knew over 30 of the people – including children – who died in that fire. And that fire should not have happened… one reason why it happened was because the council, first of all, did not take [resident] Mr Daffarn seriously and secondly they then decided to vilify me as well. They didn’t listen to the residents, and they should have done.”
Mr Stokes’ (pictured above) evidence lasted a full three days this week, and he is due to come back for another stint in the witness stand after the Bank Holiday weekend. As well as a forensic examination of his work at Grenfell Tower, we were afforded a significant glimpse into him as an individual.
Having worked for the fire service – chiefly in audit – for two decades, Mr Stokes retired in 2009 and became a fire risk assessor. His nine-year career, dominated by work with KCTMO, came to an end in May 2018 after his insurer refused to renew his policy.
One notable habit of Mr Stokes’ was calling Mr Millett “sir”. That mark of respect was not enough to spare him from some uncomfortable moments under the counsel’s microscope.
The earliest of these came when it emerged that he had written on his CV submitted to Salvus, a consultancy which gave him his first job as a fire risk assessor, that he had “experience of undertaking risk assessments and audits of the common parts of high-rise residential tower blocks”. He admitted this week that he had never actually produced an FRA for a high rise before this point.
Shortly after, it was revealed that he had added a series of letters to his name indicating qualifications, called ‘post-nominals’, on a sample FRA submitted to KCTMO before it offered him a contract in summer 2010. The document described the sample FRA as having been completed by “Mr C Stokes, ACIArb, FPA Dip FP (Europe), Fire Eng (FPA), NEBOSH, FIA BS 5839 System Designer, Competent Engineer BS 5266, IFE Assessor/Auditor (FSO)”.
But it emerged that these post-nominals had either been invented by Mr Stokes entirely or referred only to training courses he had been on. “There was never anything else to deceive or even highlight anything else, but these are courses and competencies,” Mr Stokes insisted.
At times Mr Stokes appeared to be struggling to articulate himself or properly understand Mr Millett’s questions – meaning the cross-examination was at times stunted, with inquiry chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick having to interject to mediate more frequently than usual. This dynamic gave rise to some especially acerbic comments from Mr Millett.
Asked at one point how he could have been sure that disabled people in Grenfell Tower would be protected in a fire given that he had not made any relevant enquiries, Mr Stokes replied: “Because I did enquire because I wasn’t given positive information to say there was anyone in there that did require…” Mr Millett cut him off. “With great respect Mr Stokes, that answer makes no sense… that’s not an enquiry is it?”
Tellingly, asked about a recurring typo in one of his FRAs – “imputed” for “inputed” – Mr Stokes admitted: “To be honest, if it hadn’t have come up as spellchecker I wouldn’t have looked at it, no.”
“Well that would explain a number of the infelicities which are repeated,” Mr Millett remarked.
And later when Mr Stokes claimed that “appease” means “help”, having used the word in an email to KCTMO about the London Fire Brigade, Mr Millett deadpanned: “I think there may be people in history who might regard appeasement as something slightly different from that.”
Having been introduced to KCTMO through his work at Salvus, Mr Stokes went on to be contracted directly through his newly established company, ostensibly for less money. He was vague this week on the tendering process, being unable to recall exactly when his agreement with KCTMO was reached, and it appears his one-year initial contract was simply left to roll from 2010 on to the end of 2017.
This week, Mr Millett (pictured above) went through the FRAs Mr Stokes conducted on Grenfell Tower with a fine comb.
A recurring feature was that Mr Stokes would cut-and-paste significant portions of text between FRAs – even for different buildings. That was where the typo discussion cited above came up. In one particularly embarrassing moment for Mr Stokes, the inquiry heard that three of his FRAs for Grenfell included a paragraph discussing pigeon netting and flat balconies – neither of which were in place at the tower. That, in Mr Millett’s words, was a “slam dunk”.
There were other apparent shortcomings, too. For instance, Mr Stokes repeatedly misidentified firefighting lifts in Grenfell Tower, despite the fact the apparatus he was referring to did not meet the relevant standards.
His FRAs also stated that “TMO employees will arrange for a general evacuation of the whole building, at anytime if this is appropriate to do so”, though it is not clear what this assertion was based on.
Mr Stokes claimed this week that this sentence referred to a different type of situation, such as a leak flooding flats. Asked by Mr Millett if it was true that he never considered the idea of a ‘Plan B’ evacuation in an emergency, Mr Stokes said this “would be the fire service’s responsibility”.
Carl Stokes completed the final FRA for Grenfell Tower in June 2016
A major point of discussion on Wednesday was disabled people living in Grenfell Tower. Many of those who died in the fire had mobility issues and, in some cases, were living high up in the building. This lead lawyers for the bereaved and survivors to describe the blaze as a “landmark act of discrimination against disabled and vulnerable people”.
Mr Stokes told the inquiry that he relied on KCTMO to provide him with information about residents in its buildings who would need extra help to evacuate in an emergency – and he proceeded on the basis that if they did not tell him of anyone in this category, that was because there was no one.
This approach meant that in seven years carrying out FRAs across KCTMO’s 9,000-home stock, he only ever identified two residents with a disability, neither were in Grenfell Tower. His FRAs therefore did not flag this as an area of risk.
For context, more than half of the social rented households in England include one or more people with a disability or long-term illness.
This is was where another recurring theme continuously appeared: Mr Stokes would assume that KCTMO was doing the right thing from its own end, rather than directly checking. So instead of asking for information about disabled residents when undertaking an FRA, he would consider the “onus” to be on KCTMO, or the occupier, to tell him.
“Is that not a very incurious approach for a fire risk assessor?” Mr Millett demanded.
Mr Stokes thought for a moment. “No, I don’t think so,” he replied.
But then we were led to wonder whether this incuriosity was something less forgivable. In December 2012, the London Fire Brigade asked KCTMO for “assistance to identify vulnerable persons” in their stock to put together a business case for installing sprinklers. Mr Stokes advised: “If you identify anybody now questions like why were they not including in the buildings FRA spring to mind. A good response I believe would be thank you for this information if we find anyone in the future we will let you know.”
He denied this week that he was suggesting to “keep quiet about it” in order to avoid prompting difficult questions from the fire brigade.
Most of Thursday was taken up by questions about flat entrance front doors. These were a key aspect in which the fire safety measures at Grenfell Tower failed on 14 June 2017, with investigations since finding that on the night at least 64% of flat entrance fire doors in the block did not have a working self-closer. Mr Stokes told the inquiry that he was “very surprised” by that figure.
Indeed, in the last four FRAs he conducted for Grenfell Tower, Mr Stokes only identified one flat entrance door with a missing or faulty self-closer. The inquiry heard that he used a “pot luck” approach of knocking on residents’ doors in order to be let in to check a sample of self-closers. But he refused to agree with Mr Millett that this system was “inadequate” and that a “suitable and sufficient” one would have led to him spotting more of the endemic fire door problems in the tower.
The thing is, Mr Stokes had repeatedly discussed the issue of fire door self-closers with KCTMO – at one point going out of his way to query a “reoccurring fault” with the newly installed doors made by Manse Masterdor. It was something he admitted being concerned about and he warned KCTMO about the dangers of self-closers being removed.
But, again, the inquiry established that he assumed KCTMO was fixing issues with self-closers as and when they came up, including in one case where a handyman had been removing them when they failed. Mr Millett put it to Mr Stokes that this was a “dangerous” assumption, to which he retorted: “It’s no more dangerous than I check it and two days after I check it, it fails.”
Picture: Jon Enoch
After Mr Stokes’ lengthy cross-examination is over, the inquiry is set to hear from Janice Wray, former health, safety and facilities manager at KCTMO, who was his primary point of contact.
Some of the evidence we have heard from Mr Stokes may give rise to hard questions for Ms Wray and her KCTMO colleagues.
For example, why were the ostensibly obvious errors in the FRAs Mr Stokes was submitting to KCTMO – such as on disabled residents – never picked up?
Asked at one point whether it ever felt like he was asking KCTMO to fix the same issues repeatedly, Mr Stokes said: “Yes.”
As part of the last FRA he carried out for Grenfell Tower in June 2016, Mr Stokes recommended 43 “high-priority” actions which he considered to be statutory breaches and said work to fix these should start within three weeks. Four months later, 23 were still left outstanding. He described his “frustration” at the lack of progress.
And, shockingly, late on Thursday we heard that Mr Stokes had been put “under pressure” by senior KCTMO staff to downgrade an action to fix fire doors at Adair Tower in 2015 from “high priority” to “strong advice”.
The inquiry will want to get to the bottom of KCTMO’s whole approach to fire safety in the run up to June 2017.
Week one: A vivid picture of a broken industry
After a week of damning revelations at the opening of phase two of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, Peter Apps recaps the key points
Week two: What is the significance of the immunity application?
Sir Martin Moore-Bick has written to the attorney general requesting protection for those set to give evidence at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. Peter Apps explains what the move means
Week three: Architects of misfortune
This week saw the lead architects for the Grenfell Tower refurbishment give evidence to the inquiry. Peter Apps runs through the key points
Week four: ‘I didn’t have any perception that it was the monster it’s become’
The architects continued to give evidence this week, outlining a lack of understanding of the fire risk posed by the cladding materials and its design. Nathaniel Barker reports
Week five: ‘No adverse effect in relation to external fire spread’
As the Grenfell Tower Inquiry returns from its long absence, Peter Apps recaps the key points from a week of important evidence from the fire consultants to the refurbishment
Week six: ‘I can’t recall any instance where I discussed the materials with building control’
Nathaniel Barker summarises what we learned from fire engineers Exova, architects Studio E and the early evidence from contractor Rydon
Week seven: ‘I do not think I have ever worked with a contractor operating with this level of nonchalance’
Two key witnesses from contractor Rydon gave evidence this week. Peter Apps recaps some of the key points from a revealing week of evidence
Week eight: ‘It haunts me that it wasn't challenged’
Four witnesses from contractor Rydon gave evidence this week. Lucie Heath recaps what we learned on the last week of evidence before the inquiry breaks for five weeks
Week nine: ‘All I can say is you will be taken out for a very nice meal very soon’
This week the inquiry heard evidence from witnesses at Harley Facades, the sub-contractor responsible for Grenfell Tower’s cladding. Peter Apps recaps the key points
Week 10: ‘As we all know, ACM will be gone rather quickly in a fire!’
As the Grenfell Tower Inquiry entered its 10th week, Jack Simpson recaps the key points from a week of important evidence from the refurbishment’s cladding contractor
Week 11: ‘Did you get the impression Grenfell Tower was a guinea pig for this insulation?’
With witnesses from the cladding subcontractor, the firm which cut the deadly panels to shape and the clerk of works which inspected the job giving evidence this was week full of revelations. Peter Apps recaps the key points
Week 12: ‘Would you accept that was a serious failing on your part?’
With the surveyor who inspected Grenfell Tower for compliance giving evidence, this was a crucial week from the inquiry. Dominic Brady and Peter Apps report
Week 13: ‘Value for money is to be regarded as the key driver for this project’
With consultants to Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) giving evidence, attention at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry turned for this first time to the actions of the TMO and the council. Peter Apps reports
Week 14: ‘Did it not occur to you at this point that your budget was simply too low?’
This week, for the first time in phase two, the inquiry heard from Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, the landlord that oversaw the fatal refurbishment of Grenfell Tower. Lucie Heath reports
Week 15: ‘Have you ever informed the police that you destroyed documents relevant to their investigation?’
Witnesses from the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) gave evidence for a second week, which began with a shocking revelation about withheld and destroyed evidence. Peter Apps recaps
Week 16: ‘I conclude this was very serious evidence of professional negligence’
This week saw members of Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation finish giving evidence, before the inquiry’s expert witnesses took the stand to make some highly critical assessments of the work they had seen before and during the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower. Jack Simpson recaps
Grenfell Tower: a timeline of the refurbishment
Following the conclusion of module one of the Grenfell Inquiry’s second phase, Peter Apps presents a timeline of the key moments during the fatal refurbishment of the west London tower block
Week 17: ‘It’s hard to make a note about this because we are not clean’
The start of the second module of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry phase two came with some huge revelations about the companies that sold the products used in the cladding system. Peter Apps reports
Week 18: ‘It was just reckless optimism wasn't it?’
As the inquiry began cross-examining witnesses for the second module of its phase two work, the picture surrounding just how Grenfell Tower ended up wrapped in such dangerous materials became a little clearer. Nathaniel Barker was keeping an eye on proceedings
Week 19: ‘And that was intentional, deliberate, dishonest?’
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry this week heard the shocking story of how the insulation manufacturer “manipulated” official testing and marketed its product “dishonestly”. Peter Apps tells the story
Week 20: ‘We were outed by a consultant who we then had to fabricate a story to’
This week the inquiry investigated the actions of Kingspan – the manufacturer of one of the insulation products used in the tower’s cladding system. Dominic Brady reports
Week 21: ‘It’s there in black and white isn't it? We see a complete absence of any consideration of life safety’
The story of insulation giant Kingspan’s testing and marketing of its combustible insulation for high rises was unpacked in minute detail this week. Peter Apps reports
Week 22: ‘All we do is lie in here’
In the third week of evidence from insulation giant Kingspan, the inquiry continued to uncover shocking details about the firm’s behaviour both before and after the Grenfell Tower fire. Lucie Heath reports
Week 23: ‘That would have come as an earthquake to you at the time, would it not?’
This week the inquiry took its deepest dive yet into the inner workings of the cladding manufacturer whose product has been blamed for the terrible spread of fire up Grenfell Tower. Nathaniel Barker reports
Week 24: ‘Do you accept that Test 5B was Arconic's deadly secret’
The president of the firm that made and sold the cladding panels installed on Grenfell Tower was asked to account for the apparent concealment of “disastrous” fire tests on the product this week. Peter Apps reports
Week 25: ‘This is quite an incredible list of omissions and missed instances, isn’t it?’
This week the Grenfell Tower Inquiry heard its first witnesses from the Building Research Establishment (BRE) - the testing house which carried out key fire tests on the Kingspan and Celotex insulation products which were later used on Grenfell Tower. Peter Apps reports.
Week 26: 'You were taking an enormous risk, weren't you?'
Week 26 at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry was a key moment in understanding how dangerous products used on the tower came to be accepted by industry professionals. Dominic Brady reports
Week 27: ‘What will happen if one building made out [of] PE core is in fire and will kill 60 to 70 persons?’
The most explosive evidence this week at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry came from those who did not attend, as the evidence which would have been presented to Arconic witnesses was displayed in their absence. Peter Apps reports
Week 28: ‘This is a serious safety matter’
This week the Grenfell Tower Inquiry zeroed in on the British Board of Agrément, the body that produced “misleading” certificates which inspired trust in both the cladding and insulation used on the tower. Lucie Heath reports
Week 29: ‘Is it true that Kingspan’s position… was to do its best to ensure that science was secretly perverted for financial gain?’
The final week in this section of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry primarily examined the attempts by insulation manufacturer Kingspan to lobby government after the fire. Peter Apps reports
How the products used in Grenfell Tower's cladding system were tested and sold
As the section of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry examining how the products used in the cladding system were tested, marketed and sold comes to a close, Peter Apps summarises what we have learned about each of the products included in the system
Week 30: ‘There is certainly a high probability that in the event of a fire the whole building can become an inferno’
The focus of the inquiry shifted this week to the actions of the social housing providers responsible for maintaining Grenfell Tower. Pete Apps recaps what we learned
Week 31: ‘If we cannot get out people will die’
This week saw the former residents of Grenfell Tower enter the witness box to tell of their experiences attempting to raise complaints with the council and its managing agent. Pete Apps reports
Week 32: ‘Let's hope our luck holds and there isn't a fire’
This week saw the return of the landlord of Grenfell Tower, Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), as senior staff members attempted to explain how vital fire safety protections at the block were allowed to fall into disrepair. Lucie Heath reports
Week 33: ‘Isn't that a serious gap in the scope of a policy meant to safeguard vulnerable people?’
A slightly disjointed week at the Grenfell Tower inquiry saw further evidence from staff at building manager Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) interspersed with the views of a cladding expert. Peter Apps reports
Week 34: ‘Some members of the community are doing their best to spread false information’
Jack Simpson covers all the major revelations from the past week of evidence at the Grenfell Inquiry, including evidence from Laura Johnson, director of housing at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
Week 35: ‘I really didn’t like the champagne’
This week the Grenfell Tower Inquiry saw council witnesses, including former deputy leader Rock Feilding-Mellen and leader Nicholas Paget-Brown, questioned about their role in the story for the first time. Peter Apps reports
Week 36: ‘Is that not a very incurious approach for a fire risk assessor?’
This week the Grenfell Tower Inquiry scrutinised the work of Carl Stokes, the man hired to carry out fire risk assessments for the block. Nathaniel Barker reports
Week 37: ‘In giving that advice, weren’t you acting beyond your knowledge and expertise?’
A curtailed week at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry saw fire risk assessor Carl Stokes grilled over advice he gave regarding the tower’s cladding. Peter Apps reports
Week 38: ‘Well it’s a bit more than that, isn’t it. He’s suggesting that you tell the LFB a lie’
The inquiry heard the mammoth cross-examination of KCTMO’s health and safety manager Janice Wray this week. Peter Apps reports
Each week our sister publication Inside Housing sends out a newsletter rounding up the key news from the Grenfell Inquiry, along with exclusive analysis of what it all means for the social housing sector.
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