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.
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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