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
This week the inquiry continued to hear from witnesses from Rydon, the main contractor that took on the design and build responsibility for Grenfell Tower’s refurbishment between 2014 and 2016. Stephen Blake, refurbishment director at Rydon for the duration of the project, gave evidence, alongside site managers David Hughes, Gary Martin and Daniel Osgood.
“The due process was undertaken and we submitted a fair bid”
A lot of time was spent this week establishing how Rydon came to win the tender for the Grenfell project in 2014. This involved, in particular, delving into the relationship between Mr Blake and Peter Maddison, who was director of assets and regeneration at Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), which managed Grenfell Tower.
It transpired that Mr Blake had known Mr Maddison since the early 2000s and had worked with him regularly when Mr Maddison was head of projects at housing association Hyde, which regularly partnered with Rydon.
The inquiry heard that Mr Blake was made aware of the Grenfell project as early as April 2013 when a consultant working for the TMO contacted him to ask if Rydon could provide some “quick and dirty” costings. Mr Blake forwarded this email on to Jeff Henton, managing director of Rydon’s maintenance arm, describing it as the “Peter Maddison scheme that is right up our street”.
Earlier in the day Mr Blake had denied having any contact with Mr Maddison prior to the official tender process. When asked to clarify his position, Mr Blake said: “We may have had an exchange about other bits of work but if it was specific about the tender, we didn’t have any dialogue about that… and I would see that as both people being totally appropriate.”
It is clear that this contact with KCTMO continued throughout the tender process. The inquiry was shown an email sent by Mr Blake to a legal representative at Rydon that read: “At the housing conference we had meetings with senior representatives from [Kensington and Chelsea]… we have been informally advised that we are in pole position – ours to lose.”
Mr Blake confirmed that this conversation would have taken place with either Mr Maddison or Sacha Jevans, the TMO’s executive director for repairs. The conference in question was the Chartered Institute of Housing’s South East conference in Brighton held in March 2014, one day before Rydon’s tender interview with KCTMO.
This builds on evidence presented to the inquiry last week, including an internal Rydon email sent by Mr Henton before the tender was officially granted. The email read: “I have spoken with Peter Maddison at KCTMO who informs me that our price… is in first place. Therefore subject to a small amount of value engineering, Peter should be in a position to recommend our appointment on this scheme to his board early next week.”
The inquiry heard that Rydon had been informed by KCTMO that based on its tender bid of £9.2m, it would have to find £800,000 of savings through value engineering. Mr Blake denied that there was a “secret arrangement” that Rydon would be granted the job if it agreed to the savings and said it did not occur to him that the tender process would likely be subject to a challenge if the other bidders were made aware of the discussions.
Ultimately, Mr Blake accepted that he had “personal and private access to the top decision-makers at the TMO on this project” but denied that he used these connections to “maximise” Rydon’s chances of winning the bid, arguing that “the due process was undertaken”.
“I have no training in checking anything to see if it complies”
Another theme that re-emerged constantly throughout the week was the knowledge and experience of Rydon employees working on the Grenfell Tower refurbishment.
On Tuesday, the inquiry heard that three key people on the project – commercial manager Zak Maynard, contract manager Simon Lawrence and project manager Simon O’Connor – were all undertaking their first project in these senior roles at Rydon. When grilled about this, Mr Blake, who was the most senior Rydon employee involved directly with Grenfell, labelled them a “young, progressive team”.
When Mr O’Connor gave evidence last week, we learned that his CV, which was provided to the TMO as part of the tenure process, included a number of inaccuracies. For example, it said Mr O’Connor was able to “co-ordinate design” and assist with value engineering, skills that Mr O’Connor denied having.
Mr Blake admitted to the inquiry that Mr O’Connor had been promoted in name only and that he did not expect him to fulfil all aspects of the project manager role, including involvement in the design process. He agreed that Mr O’Connor’s CV was “thoroughly misleading” and took ultimate responsibility for the decision to present it to the TMO.
All four Rydon employees who took the stand this week admitted that they had limited knowledge of the building regulations when working on Grenfell.
Site manager Mr Hughes said his knowledge “comes from experience” and is not something he was ever taught. Mr Osgood said it was his understanding that “anything going on any building is fire proof” and that “all insulation was 100% fire retardant”. Each witness said that they did not know that the aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding used on the building was combustible.
“They have responsibility to make sure their work is correct in the first place”
This lack of general knowledge of materials and safety raises questions about how Rydon was able to properly oversee the work of the specialist sub-contractors it employed.
Mr Hughes, who took over as lead site manager midway through the project in October 2015, was responsible for checking the work of cladding sub-contractor Harley Facades in its final stages and co-ordinating with building control.
When grilled on how this process worked, Mr Hughes admitted that he relied significantly on Harley Facades to check its own work before it went to building control because “they designed the system”.
Despite this, he said he believed that Rydon had been “quite thorough” and had “made sure that contractors are doing their work”.
However, it is clear that some Rydon employees had very little knowledge of the work they were supposed to be overseeing. The inquiry heard that Mr Martin, who was the site manager responsible for the interior work, oversaw the installation of what he thought was a fire-resistant seal around a window, which turned out to be combustible. Mr Martin said he assumed the material had been fire resistant as it had been used in the show flat.
Later that same day, the inquiry heard that Mr Osgood had overseen the installation of insulation in the show flat that was different to the one specified by the architect.
Throughout the week, all witnesses stuck to Rydon’s general view that it was the role of sub-contractors, specifically the architects at Studio E and the cladding specialist Harley Facades, to ensure that the design and materials were safe and that they complied with building regulations.
We have seen already that Rydon’s contract with the TMO meant that it was “fully responsible in all respects for the design”. When asked whether this meant the ultimate responsibility of sub-contractors’ work lay on the shoulders of Rydon, Mr Blake said: “In terms of the contractual chain that’s where we are but we would manage that by flowing those responsibilities to those who are able to provide that advice.”
“I assumed without personally checking that it was a like-for-like product”
However, it is clear that Rydon employees sometimes played an active role in decision-making about materials. For example, Mr Hughes admitted this week that he approved the decision to change the type of insulation used on Grenfell without telling KCTMO or Studio E. This was despite a contractual obligation that said Rydon must get written approval from the client when making any material changes.
When asked why he approved the decision to change the insulation from Celotex to Kingspan without consulting the TMO, Mr Martin said: “They are so similar to me, my knowledge and my experience, that I didn’t see it as an issue”.
Mr Blake, who was made aware of the decision at the time, had a similar answer. “I assumed without personally checking that it was a like-for-like product… my recall is it was for an extremely limited amount. That doesn’t excuse not checking it out,” he said.
When the use of Kingspan on Grenfell Tower was revealed after the fire, the manufacturer said it had been used “without our knowledge, as part of a combination for which it was not designed, and which Kingspan would never recommend”.
Last week the inquiry heard that Rydon also played an active role in convincing the TMO to switch from zinc cladding to ACM. An internal email sent by Mr Lawrence talked about a meeting Mr Blake was due to attend with planners in which he was to “put forward our case that ACM is not an inferior product to zinc”.
We also learned last week that Rydon had a financial incentive to recommend this type of cladding as the firm planned to pocket more than £100,000 of the savings that would be made from switching to ACM.
When asked this week about that decision, Mr Blake said: “Changing in a contract environment is a way of creating margin for a contractor and that’s what we’ve done here.”
“It haunts me that it wasn’t challenged”
We also learned this week that a key warning was missed by the team responsible for the refurbishment of Grenfell following a fire in a building they had overclad together previously.
Rydon and Harley Facades had previously worked together on the refurbishment of the Chalcots Estate in Camden. Mr Blake was contract manager on the project, which also saw the installation of ACM cladding.
In 2012, a fire broke out in a flat in one of the towers. After the fire, Mr Blake visited the flat alongside Harley Facades, which produced a report. In the conclusion, the report said it was “apparent that the design of the facade and fire-stops has unquestionably worked well, as despite the severe heat the extremes of the damage have been compartmentalised”.
The report also showed a picture of Mr Blake pointing to the fire breaks in the windows under the conclusion that the “fire breaks were still intact and prevented fire spreading between flats”.
Cavity barriers were not installed above the windows of Grenfell, despite building regulation requirements.
While Mr Blake agreed that this experience gave him “first-hand knowledge of the importance of cavity barriers to the prevention of fire spread in high-rise overclad buildings”, it is clear he did not carry this learning on to Grenfell or share it with fellow Rydon employees.
Mr Hughes said he had discussed the Chalcots fire with Mr Blake during a train journey and that Mr Blake had told him “the cladding panels had worked fine”.
When asked at the end of his two-day evidence session what he would have done differently on the Grenfell project, an emotional Mr Blake said it “haunts” him that the design of the cladding and windows were not challenged as it was “believed to be correct”.
The Grenfell Inquiry will return on 7 September following a five-week summer break.
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
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