Austerity cuts left the building control inspector who approved Grenfell Tower “swamped” with work, reviewing 130 projects at once and dealing with complex projects he had no experience of, the inquiry heard today.
John Hoban, the inspector at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC), explained that he left the council in 2017 out of frustration that the lack of resources meant “I wasn’t able to do the job how I was taught to do it”.
Mr Hoban approved the cladding system installed on the tower, despite the use of non-compliant combustible insulation coupled with highly flammable polyethylene-cored aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding panels.
He explained that a restructuring was carried out in September 2013 to make the council department “self-funding”, which involved a major reduction in headcount.
The staffing levels went down from 12 team members to between four and five, with the remaining inspectors required to pick up the geographical ‘patches’ left by those who departed.
Mr Hoban explained by 2016 he was covering the former workload of three colleagues, and would have an average of 130 projects open at any one time.
“Did that affect the efficiency and thoroughness with which you were able to carry out your role on each project?” asked counsel to the inquiry Richard Millett QC.
“As time progressed I wasn’t able to do the job in the way I wanted to do it, in that I wasn’t able to visit as much as I would have liked,” he replied. He explained he would deal with issues via email rather than in person due to the workload.
He also explained that a ‘special projects team’ had previously taken on more complex projects – of which the Grenfell Tower project would have been one – before it was disbanded in 2013.
Mr Hoban began working on the refurbishment in December 2013, despite having never previously reviewed a high-rise overcladding project.
“It was given to you because it was on your patch regardless of your skill and experience, workload and qualifications or absence of them?” asked Mr Millett. Mr Hoban accepted that it was.
In his witness statement, he said: “As a result of restructuring, due to austerity measures, the planning department was restructured with substantial cuts to building control. This led to a substantial reduction in the number of employees in building control. Consequently, the remaining employees had their workload increase commensurately.”
The inquiry also saw an internal Rydon email which referred to RBKC’s building control department as being “swamped” with work.
Mr Hoban said the pressures drove him to leave RBKC in 2017, just 10 weeks before the fire: “I resigned because I had enough. I wasn’t able to do the job how I was taught to do it. It was affecting my health and I just didn’t want to work there any more.”
During his evidence, Mr Hoban was shown a fire strategy for the refurbishment, produced by Exova, which said the plans would have “no adverse impact” in relation to external fire spread, but that this would be “confirmed in a future issue of this report”.
Asked why he did not chase for this “future issue” of the report, Mr Hoban replied: “There was a lot of outside influences going on and I was having difficulty in dealing with things generally due to some family matters that were going on at that time.”
Becoming visibly emotional, he offered to explain what these issues were but chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick said the inquiry did not need to “pry” into it.
Earlier, Mr Hoban had explained that he believed the tower’s cladding system complied with building regulations because the cladding panels were Class 0, as required by guidance, and the insulation had formed part of a system which had passed a large-scale test.
However, this was a mistake, as the insulation would only have complied if the precise system used in the test was installed on the tower – a build-up which used non-combustible cement-fibre cladding panels.
He said he had been reassured that the insulation product – Celotex RS5000 – complied when he found a reference to it on the website of an organisation called Local Authority Building Control (LABC) – a group which represents local authority inspectors and offers other services such as the provision of warranties.
“The information that I looked up on the LABC website said that the Celotex RS5000 was suitable for use on buildings of that height,” he said.
Since Grenfell, the government has claimed that its guidance required the core of cladding panels to be “limited combustibility” rather than Class 0, because of a reference to the phrase “filler material” in the guidance relating to insulation.
But a range of industry figures have rejected this suggestion – saying the word ‘filler’ would not apply to the middle of a cladding panel and as a result the required standard for cladding was ‘Class 0’ (see box, below).
“I didn’t understand the material inside [the cladding] to be a filler material, my understanding of filler material was to make good joints and to finish the insulation as it were,” he said.
Mr Hoban was also questioned as to why he did not reject the application when it was submitted at ‘full plans’ stage, because no details were given of the material to be used in the cladding system.
He said he had placed conditions on the approval - some relating to the external walls - but no documentary evidence of this conditions has been found.
He was never specifically told that the original plans to use honeycomb zinc cladding had been switched for ACM in summer 2014, and only learned of the change when he saw the ACM panels on site.
He was also asked about his relationship with the architect firm, Studio E, with whom he had previously worked on the school project. He said he trusted them, and believed they understood the requirements of building regulations.
“Was it not your job to hold them to the highest standards on building regulations, completely independently and ruthlessly?” asked Mr Millett.
“In hindsight yes, but I had worked with them on the previous project and spent a long time dealing with it… It was my understanding that they knew what they were doing,” he said.
He also said he believed fire safety consultants Exova were advising on the project throughout and said he drew “comfort” from this fact. In reality, Exova were dropped from the project in 2014, and only provided ad hoc advice after this point.
The inquiry continues with further evidence from Mr Hoban tomorrow.
Each week we send out a newsletter rounding up the key news from the Grenfell Inquiry, along with the headlines from the week
Already have an account? Click here to manage your newsletters
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.