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
The inquiry only sat for one day (Tuesday) this week to complete the evidence of Mr Stokes and will be paused on Wednesday and Thursday.
Inquiry chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick (pictured above) explained at the start of the session that this is because of a bereavement within the team of barristers that examine the witnesses.
The witness who is due to follow Mr Stokes, Janice Wray, was health, safety and facilities manager at Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) and is a critical witness for this part of the inquiry, having been involved in many of the key decisions the inquiry is examining.
She will now begin her evidence on Monday 7 June.
Mr Stokes (pictured above) began his evidence yesterday being asked about the smoke ventilation system at Grenfell Tower.
To recap: this system failed during a fire in the tower in 2010 and was ultimately deemed “beyond economic repair”. But it was not replaced until 2016, as part of the wider refurbishment, despite a deficiency notice from the London Fire Brigade (LFB) in March 2014.
This meant the tower had been without a functioning smoke ventilation system for six years – a period in which Mr Stokes had produced several risk assessments of the building. So why did he not raise this issue?
It emerged that in three risk assessments from 2009 up to 2012, Mr Stokes put the following exact same statement: ”There are automatic opening vents on each flat/lift lobby area, it is not known if this system is serviced and maintained.”
But why if he did not know in 2009 had he not found out by 2012? He said he was simply not given the records.
“At this particular point, sir, I had no access to their [KCTMO’s] maintenance records. I literally had to ask each time I went to the building… If I didn’t receive the maintenance records, I would write that statement in, ‘I haven’t seen them’,” Mr Stokes explained.
By the time of his next assessment in October 2014, he was aware that a deficiency notice had been served in March and had recently been copied into an email which described the system had “been confirmed as beyond repair” just days before the review.
But all he said in his review was that “as part of the buildings refurbishment this smoke extraction system is being upgraded”, not that it was not working.
“Would you agree that by not recording the fact that the [smoke extract system] wasn’t working, you gave rise to the incorrect assumption that [it] would work in the event of a fire?” asked counsel to the inquiry Andrew Kinnier QC.
“But [it] was working, it wasn’t working at 100%,” replied Mr Stokes.
“Where do you say that in the [fire risk assessment]?” asked Mr Kinnier.
“I don’t,” accepted Mr Stokes.
The system was replaced in 2016, but the new system is also believed to have failed on the night of the fire. Mr Stokes met with one of the consultants designing the new system in 2015, but could only remember a few details.
He said he was reliant on building control to ensure the system was in compliance with relevant regulations and standards.
Mr Stokes, like most risk assessors before the Grenfell tragedy, did not analyse the external facade as part of his review as he believed it fell outside the scope of the work he was legally obliged to do.
Nonetheless, he was taken through several pieces of guidance which suggested he should have taken it into account.
PAS 79 for example – the British Standard that guided risk assessment of residential properties – said fire risk assessors should have “a knowledge and understanding of… the building envelope eg fire-resisting external walls, curtain walls”.
Guidance published by the Local Government Association (LGA) in 2011 also said: “When assessing existing blocks of flats, particular attention should be given to any rainscreen or other external cladding system that has been applied.”
Nonetheless, Mr Stokes stood by his claim that the facade should not have formed part of his work as it was not part of the “common parts” of the building.
Despite this, he did talk about the issue of cladding at Grenfell Tower. In October 2014, having seen mock-up samples of the cladding on the tower, he suggested asking several questions including “the fire rating of the cladding and the fixings”.
By April 2016, his risk assessment described the cladding as “fire rated” and said the system had been “approved and accepted” by building control officers.
This, however, was written before building control signed off the project, so how had he come to this conclusion? Mr Stokes said that he had “informal conversations” with figures from Rydon when they showed him around the site and they gave him “assurances” that building control were happy with the cladding.
Handwritten notes following this discussion described the cladding as “Ok FR no timber” and “cladding external non-combustible”.
A year later, in April 2017, the issue was raised again when the LFB sent a letter to all councils in the capital warning of external fire spread and “strongly urging” that this be assessed as part of risk assessments.
This followed revelations – first unveiled a couple of weeks previously in Inside Housing – that the panels installed beneath windows at a block in Shepherd’s Bush (pictured above) contained polystyrene and timber, which likely contributed to the fierce fire spread up its walls.
This email was forwarded to Mr Stokes and on 24 April Ms Wray asked him: “My understanding is that we do not have any blocks with external cladding of this nature. Are you able to confirm please?”
He replied: “Grenfell was clad but the cladding complied with the requirements of the Building Regulations, lots of questions asked of Rydons and answers received back from them.”
Asked if he had checked his records before offering this comment, he said: “I’d never had any information on the cladding at Grenfell anyway, so I had no records to check.”
He has also accepted that he had “limited” knowledge of the materials used at Grenfell Tower and was “not a construction or materials specialist”.
“In giving that advice, weren’t you acting beyond your knowledge and expertise and you ought not to have expressed yourself in such unqualified terms?” asked Mr Kinnier.
In his answer Mr Stokes focused on the fact that the products at the building in Shepherd’s Bush were panels below windows, not a full cladding system.
“Shepherd’s Bush didn’t have external cladding on, so therefore the TMO at Grenfell Tower or any other TMO block didn’t have any external cladding of the same nature as Shepherd’s Bush,” he said.
A topic that has come up consistently in this module is KCTMO’s struggle to complete the actions identified as necessary by Mr Stokes in his reports.
At one stage the organisation had more than 1,400 outstanding actions and gradually clawed the position back, but still had 287 outstanding at the time of the fire.
Mr Stokes said he “knew there was a backlog”, but did not know how long it was. He said he had emphasised the importance of closing out actions to Ms Wray “more than once”.
He was also shown an email from November 2015 where a staff member at KCTMO said he was “keen to reduce the number of actions we receive” and said it “would be helpful to raise [some issues outside of the process to ensure the process is manageable”.
“I can’t remember specifically that being asked, but I wouldn’t have done anyway,” Mr Stokes said yesterday.
Ms Wray will give evidence from Monday and the inquiry will then hear evidence from some of the LFB’s safety inspectors who raised concerns about Grenfell Tower.
We will then hear the evidence of Robert Black (pictured above), chief executive of KCTMO, before moving on to specific evidence about the smoke system, gas, lifts and fire doors.
Finally we will hear from experts Colin Todd and Dr Barbara Lane before closing submissions covering all of the evidence submitted to the inquiry so far. This was originally scheduled for 26 July, but may slip to after the summer break as the inquiry is around two weeks behind its original schedule for this module.
The fire risk assessor for Grenfell Tower offered assurances that the cladding system installed on the block “complied with the requirements of building regulations” just weeks before the fire, emails released by the inquiry reveal.
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