Former Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) chief executive Robert Black gave his evidence to the inquiry this week and was asked to account for the various failures described over the previous six weeks. Peter Apps and Nathaniel Barker report
Robert Black, the former chief executive of KCTMO, previously gave evidence in phase one back in 2018, where it emerged he took more than two hours to send on documents requested by firefighters on the night of the fire including a list of residents.
This time, the questions were about his role in the years building up to the fire, and to what extent he was personally at fault for the various failures described over the past six weeks.
He made a point of stating that KCTMO was an organisation with serious problems when he joined in 2009 from Circle Housing, where he had been executive director of customer services.
This is undoubtedly true: the organisation had recently been subjected to an astonishingly negative review by independent adjudicator Maria Memoli, who had described tenants waiting years for repairs amid “an unhappy culture [which] needs to change for the better”.
Mr Black described being under “gigantic pressure” to turn this around, claiming that as a result he mainly relied on Janice Wray, the former health, safety and facilities manager at KCTMO, who previously gave several days of evidence, to manage issues relating to fire safety compliance.
Throughout his evidence, there was a tension between his willingness to verbally accept blame and his inclination to make it clear that other people were actually responsible.
An example was KCTMO’s emergency plan, which the inquiry previously concluded was “obsolete and had been for many years” by 14 June 2017. Information about Grenfell Tower contained in the plan was more than 15 years out of date.
“How come?” inquiry lead counsel Richard Millett QC asked.
Mr Black replied: “I don’t know why people didn’t do, because actually this was escalated down to lower management to do as part of their roles and [they] should have been keeping it up to date.
“So, in a sense, I can’t get away from it; it’s out of date, I think that there was more up-to-date information available, but it wasn’t there, so I just have to accept that responsibility.”
Pressed further, he simply said “pass” when asked if he was ultimately responsible for the failure to keep the emergency plan updated. Eventually, after an intervention from inquiry chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick, Mr Black accepted that he “ultimately [had] to take responsibility for the way the system works or doesn’t work”.
Asked if he accepted that he had failed to fulfil his role in respect of ensuring that KCTMO’s management and maintenance procedures were “adequate” and “implemented effectively” in the lead-up to the notice being issued, Mr Black said simply: “In terms of my role, yes.”
What, then, of the specifics? One major area in which KCTMO witnesses have been grilled is the failure to identify residents who would struggle to evacuate and provide them with personal emergency evacuation plans (PEEPs).
The background to this is that government-backed guidance published by the Local Government Association (LGA) in 2011 indicated this was not necessary in general needs housing and reliance should instead be placed on ‘stay put’.
As a result many social landlords simply parked a problem they felt was too difficult to solve without staff on site to assist with evacuations.
The problem is that several other pieces of guidance were clear that PEEPs were required, and so did KCTMO make a conscious choice to follow the LGA position? Mr Black’s evidence was that it did.
KCTMO was in fact advised by fire consultants Salvus in a general management review in 2009 to put fire safety policies for disabled and vulnerable residents in place.
“Do you remember whether a positive decision was taken not to follow the Salvus advice about vulnerable residents?” asked counsel to the inquiry Mr Millett.
“I can’t remember, but I think we probably did,” said Mr Black.
But the problem was that this was not what it was telling its board.
Papers presented to the board in July 2010 said it planned to “identify residents with special needs and work with them to establish a specific Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan (PEEP) to ensure their safety is protected”.
This statement continued to be repeated in health and safety objectives reported to the board right through to June 2015.
But despite these statements, the organisation was not actively working on PEEPs. Why not? Mr Black said the organisation had “adopted the LGA guidance”. But this decision does not appear to have been documented.
“It sounds to me as though what may have happened is that instead of there being any formal and certainly any documented decision, it was allowed to drop on the basis that it was thought not to be appropriate?” asked inquiry chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick (pictured, above).
“I would probably accept that,” said Mr Black.
In the event, the inquiry has only been able to identify two PEEPs prepared by KCTMO since 2010 across its entire 9,600 general needs homes.
“Do you accept that the ultimate effect of your failure to set out any substantive policy or strategy in respect of disabled or vulnerable residents, or a clear policy of collection of data about those individuals, was that the TMO was unable to identify all of the relevant vulnerable people in Grenfell Tower on the night of the fire?” asked Mr Millett.
“I think we’re probably clear we… wouldn’t have been able to identify all the people who lived in the 10,000 properties, because again, it wasn’t a proactive position we were in to do that. It was still a stay put and be rescued,” Mr Black said.
What about the issue of fire door self-closers?
The fact that nearly two-thirds were missing from front doors in Grenfell Tower has already been established as a crucial cause of the loss of ‘compartmentation’ in the fire, which allowed smoke to spread through the building early in the fire – trapping many of the victims in their homes.
What makes this worse is that KCTMO had very specific warnings: it had been told to monitor and replace self-closers by the London Fire Brigade (LFB) following a previous fire at Adair Tower in October 2015 where they had failed, and missing self-closers were specifically raised in a deficiency notice covering Grenfell Tower in November 2016.
Mr Black’s interrogation on this began with the Adair Tower fire. That blaze occurred on 31 October, but KCTMO had actually been served a deficiency notice by the London Fire Brigade on 12 October, 19 days previously, warning of missing self-closers in the block.
This notices was upgraded to an enforcement order after the fire.
But when Mr Black wrote a report for his board about the blaze in December 2015, he did not mention that issues had been raised before the fire.
“Can you explain why you were giving the board a version of events that was so potted it even omitted the vitally important reference to the deficiency notice of the 12 October?” asked Mr Millett (pictured).
“I can’t explain it,” Mr Black said.
“You were keeping the board in the dark,” said Mr Millett.
“No, I didn’t, wouldn’t do that,” Mr Black replied.
Following this fire, the brigade warned of five other deficiency notices and told KCTMO it needed a boroughwide programme of replacement and maintenance.
Other witnesses have covered the ins and outs of why this did not happen, but Mr Black offered some overall context: KCTMO did not believe it was possible to achieve with limited powers of access and funding.
But wasn’t this an explanation of why achieving the aim would be difficult, not why no procedure was put in place, as the LFB had requested?
“I didn’t say specifically it’d be impossible to set up a procedure,” said Mr Black. “You can set up a procedure, but then you have to deliver that procedure. I think that’s the bit that Janice [Wray] and I were saying, you know, yes, impossible. You would eventually do it, but it’s [not] without huge challenges.”
Another major theme that has been presented to all KCTMO witnesses is the question of fire risk assessments and a long-standing failure to complete the necessary actions identified as necessary in these reviews.
The backlog of issues was as large as 1,400 in 2014, and while it reduced in the intervening years, still stood at 287 by the time of the Grenfell Tower fire, with 128 outstanding for more than a year.
“Is the truth, Mr Black, that the TMO never really faced up to the degree of failure to comply with its [legal] obligations, and recognised that there was a fundamental, systemic problem with closing out actions in accordance with your own fire risk assessor’s timescales?” asked Mr Millett.
“We found it challenging,” said Mr Black.
Mr Millett went on to explore why, suggesting a series of possibilities to Mr Black and inviting his response. One was “the ageing condition of your social housing stock”.
Mr Black agreed that this was possible. “Long−term investment had only started really in 2012, when [Housing Revenue Account] freedom was given,” he said.
“Up until then, the government controlled the finances − yes, there was an uplift in terms of Decent Homes, but a lot of times that dealt with the interior, the kitchens, the bathrooms, rather than the actual structure of the buildings which decay over time,” he said.
Mr Millett then suggested the problem may in fact have been “your inability or unwillingness to resource proper fire safety measures appropriate to the age and size of your stock” or “a blind spot about how serious it all was”.
“I wouldn’t accept that,” said Mr Black.
Mr Black was also questioned over the decision to place sole-trader Carl Stokes (pictured) in charge of risk-assessing all 650 blocks in its stock – with two of three contracts handed over without formal procurement.
“Just standing back, did you yourself ever stop and ask yourself… how a one-man band could possibly perform the job of fire risk assessor for 650 buildings?” asked Mr Millett.
“I believe the programme is over three years,” Mr Black said. “And therefore, probably the assumption was that in that three years, he said he could do it and I think they achieved it.”
“Yes. There’s achieving it and achieving it , isn’t there? One could run around 650 buildings and knock out a 30−page report by dint of a lot of cutting and pasting... So my question: did you ever stop to ask how a one−man band could possibly perform the job of fire risk assessor for 650 buildings properly?”
“No,” replied Mr Black.
Asked how Ms Wray could be expected to keep up with the task of monitoring and overseeing the works which arose from these assessments, Mr Black replied simply: “It was her job.”
One specific incident of failing to respond to concerns raised by residents was brought to Mr Black’s attention: the complaints of Grenfell Tower’s leaseholders’ association following a fire in April 2010.
This fire exposed a deficiency in the building’s smoke ventilation system which KCTMO would leave unfixed for the next six years.
But the association wrote to Mr Black personally in September 2010 asking for an independent investigation of the tower’s safety.
A manager responded on his behalf, asserting that the smoke system had worked, and claiming that the issue was a failure by firefighters to activate the manual fan.
Mr Millett asked him if this was “an exercise in concealment and half truth” and an effort to “blame the fire brigade” rather than the defective ventilation system.
“I’m sort of upset reading this and can’t explain it. Apologies,” said Mr Black.
The inquiry saw another email from the leaseholders raising issues about the ventilation system in January 2015, which Mr Black forwarded to colleagues, asking them to “review and let me know if it’s the same old thing”.
“Oh, inappropriate language,” he said, shown the email.
“Was it [the smoke extraction system] a matter of concern to you?” asked Mr Millett. “It doesn’t appear to have been. You dismissed it as ‘same old thing’.”
“I have to accept that,” said Mr Black.
“Can you see why, looking at that, the [Grenfell Tower’s leaseholders’ association] might have had a reason to lose their trust in the TMO’s management of their building?” asked Mr Millett.
“Yes, now you’ve taken me through this, yes,” replied Mr Black, who will continue his evidence on Monday.
Before Mr Black’s turn in the witness box, Monday saw the appearance of two LFB officers involved in the pre-fire inspection of Grenfell Tower.
One, Matthew Ramsey (pictued), explained how he had a “prickly” relationship with Ms Wray and the tower’s fire risk assessor Carl Stokes.
“At times I felt they were economical with the truth, especially in regard to the standards of the flat entrance doors,” he said in a witness statement. “I can’t say for certain that they outright lied but I’m not entirely sure that the whole truth was told. They claimed fire doors were up to standard – this had proved untrue during my audits of TMO-managed properties.”
Asked about these comments, Mr Ramsey said: “At times, information fed back from the bi-monthly meetings the TMO had suggested that there were very few non-compliant flat entry doors remaining.
“However, each time I’ve done an audit on the TMO premises I found a significant number.”
He said that a review of the low-rise blocks adjacent to Grenfell Tower had uncovered more non-compliant doors than Ms Wray had claimed existed across the entire KCTMO stock.
The former chief executive of KCTMO has denied “keeping the board in the dark” about fire safety issues.
The former chief executive of KCTMO admitted that a failure to fulfil his role contributed towards historic safety issues in the block.
The head of health and safety and the risk assessor for the organisation that managed Grenfell Tower were “economical with the truth” when it came to fire safety, a former inspection officer for the London Fire Brigade has said.
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
Week 39: ‘What you said there was a grotesque understatement’
This week the inquiry continued to hear from former employees of Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, as well as two employees from the London Fire Brigade. Lucie Heath reports
Week 40: ‘An exercise in concealment and half-truth’
Former KCTMO chief executive Robert Black gave his evidence to the inquiry this week and was asked to account for the various failures described over the previous six weeks. Peter Apps and Nathaniel Barker report.
Week 41: ‘We should do nothing. This is not the sort of website we should be responding to’
This week saw the return of Robert Black, chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), before the inquiry turned its attention to the defective smoke control system in the tower. Dominic Brady reports
Week 42:‘They would leak as much as they leaked. They were what they were’
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry continued its in-depth investigation of the tower’s non-compliant smoke control system this week, with evidence from the various contractors involved in delivering it. Pete Apps reports
Week 43:‘Contractors at the time were not generally aware of the importance of leaving holes unsealed’
This week the inquiry focused on two of the more overlooked areas of the Grenfell Tower fire, with evidence focusing on the gas pipelines and lifts within the west London block. It was a packed week, with five witnesses giving evidence. Jack Simpson reports
Week 44:‘I've never seen a fully compliant firefighting lift in any local authority building, to this day actually’
This week the inquiry turn the focus onto the building’s defective lifts, with evidence from an expert, contractors who worked on them and a former engineer at KCTMO. Pete Apps reports.
Week 45: ‘Don’t you find all this rather a surprising debate, given that the Equality Act was passed in 2010?’
The inquiry heard from expert witness Colin Todd this week, who gave his views about the work of risk assessor Carl Stokes as well as answered questions about his own guidance. Peter Apps and Nathaniel Barker report