Read Inside Housing’s review of seven years of Kensington and Chelsea Council papers, which tell a story of missed opportunities in the build-up to the deadly fire at Grenfell Tower
The atmosphere in the town hall was febrile. Shouts of “shame” and “murder” echoed down from the public gallery and outside, protestors carrying Justice for Grenfell placards filled the forecourt.
Towards the end of the meeting, Judith Blakeman stood up to speak. She was the ward councillor covering the estate where the tower was located and Labour’s housing spokesperson. And she was angry.
“I have worked with residents on a range of complaints and concerns about fire safety, security and many other problems at the tower for many years,” she said. “The problems were manifold, but nobody listened.”
This accusation of not listening has followed the council since virtually the day of the fire. But is it true?
Inside Housing has sifted through seven years’ worth of council papers, minutes and budgets to build up a picture of its approach to fire safety and its scrutiny of the Grenfell Tower refurbishment in the years and months preceding the disaster.
What emerges are three clear strands: one, a council which had saving money at the absolute forefront of its mind when it considered and approved the refurbishment. Two, a council which had lost the trust of residents in the tower and was felt to be sweeping their concerns under the rug. And three, a council where a key fire safety review in 2010 did not result in improvements across the whole of its stock.
The story starts, as is so often the case, with money.
The question of finance has dogged the debate over the fire from hours after it happened. Was this tragedy a result of Tory austerity? Or were the mistakes made little to do with tight public finances? The documents shed some light.
In May 2012, a plan to renovate Grenfell Tower was approved by the council's cabinet. The tower is on the Lancaster West Estate in Kensington, and had been identified as the top priority for investment on the estate. Home to 120 flats, it had been built in 1974, and designed seven years earlier along the lines of the brutalist architecture common for social housing in the period.
Surrounding the tower, work was underway to build a glossy new academy school and leisure centre. The council wanted to modernise the appearance of the tower in accordance with the new buildings that would surround it, while also improving living conditions inside. New windows, heating pipes, boilers and cladding were all supposed to make the building more energy efficient – less expensive for residents to heat in winter and less prone to overheat in summer.
The complicated renovation was to be the job of Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (the TMO), an arm's-length body set up in 1996 to manage almost 9,000 council homes owned by Kensington and Chelsea.
This system of management is not unusual – there are more than 40 councils nationwide which have set up a similar management organisation for their homes. But in Chelsea it is a little different. The TMO is an independent company – not council owned – which gives the town hall slightly less control than usual. Officially, scrutinising its work fell mainly to the council's Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee and its papers dating back over the past few years are a treasure trove of information about Grenfell Tower.
The detail of how the renovation was funded is outlined in papers from July 2013. The money was to be raised through the sale of basements owned by the council in Elm Park Gardens – a residential street just off the King’s Road in Fulham, where two-bedroom homes sell for more than a million pounds. The basement sales raised £8m, of which £6m was earmarked for the Grenfell renovation. This budget was then upped to £9.7m with council funds.
But this appears to have been a low price for the amount of work the council wanted done in Grenfell Tower.
The TMO had initially hoped to use Bouygues UK – the contractor building the school and leisure centre in the area surrounding Grenfell Tower. But this did not happen. Papers from July 2014 say: “As negotiations progressed, it became apparent that it would not be possible to agree a contract within the agreed budget with Bouygues UK.”
The TMO, in negotiation with the council, therefore went out to tender, seeking a better price. It first attempted to find a contractor through a framework known as Improvement and Efficiency South East, designed to “drive efficiencies” in local government in the South East.
Nonetheless, this procurement framework was unable to get a provider willing to do the works to Grenfell within the £9.7m budget. Major contractor Leadbitter was originally selected but priced the refurbishment at £11.278m – £1.6m above the proposed budget. The TMO therefore committed, in July 2013, to run an open tender under European Union rules to ensure “value for money” was achieved.
Following this process, the decision was taken to appoint Rydon. Papers from 2014 say it had submitted “the most economically advantageous tender”, with the appointment announced to residents in April 2014. In short, the firm had agreed to do the works at a cost deemed too tight by two competitors.
Monica Press, a Labour councillor who joined the scrutiny committee in 2014, says this approach was common. “The number one priority is price,” she says. “They say they procure on quality and price, but the reality is they almost always select the contractor who puts the lowest bid in.”
There is evidence of this focus in the documents. At the end of a meeting in July 2013, a report from the council to the committee concludes as follows:
“The refurbishment of Grenfell Tower is a large and complex project… Particular focus has been required to ensure that the project representing [sic] value for money.”
Indeed, the minutes show that when Laura Johnson, director for housing at Kensington & Chelsea (K&C), was grilled at this meeting she was asked first to “respond to concerns from the chair over value for money”.
A relentless focus on value for money in procurement in social housing has been linked to problems before, particularly in the context of repairs and maintenance. Privately, contractors operating in the sector complain of a race to the bottom – where rivals effectively underbid in open procurement knowing it is the only way to secure work. This can lead to huge financial pressure and can mean under-resourcing and a pressure to cut corners during the work.
But why was one of the richest boroughs in the world so worried about cost cutting?
Swingeing government cuts to local authority budgets were not the direct cause of the problems. These hit general funds (which pay for libraries, bin collections and so on) and not the housing side of councils' business, which is funded out of rent receipts from the homes they own – the Housing Revenue Account (HRA). But K&C was still under financial pressure.
A new financing arrangement had come into effect in 2012, designed to allow councils to take control of their own housing finances. This deal allowed councils to borrow against this income for investment, but this borrowing power was limited to within caps imposed by the government.
K&C’s business plan from January 2014 reveals these caps limited the council’s borrowing power to a measly £11.4m.
The budget says: “Despite the aim of HRA’s becoming self-financing, local authorities have been set a borrowing cap for their HRA which cannot be exceeded. The Royal Borough’s cap is £221m – given our current debt, our headroom for borrowing is only £11.4m... Given, the limited scope for additional borrowing, the intention is to not use it to fund maintenance work.”
It adds that the "cost over the next five years to deliver the agreed investment standard is approximately £100m". This included the works to Grenfell Tower. "There currently remains a funding gap of at least £30m," the business plan adds.
Unable to borrow to make up the difference, the council reviewed its options. A plan to transfer its stock to a housing association, which could borrow more freely, was “immediately dismissed”. Instead it planned a combination of measures to boost its income and fund the works, which included the sale of properties it owned.
And so, thanks to stringent government rules on council borrowing, Grenfell's refurbishment was financed mostly through the receipts from the basement sales, and given to the contractor which could do it at the cheapest price. And, acting under this financial pressure, when the decision was made over which material to use to clad the building, the residents’ preference for fire retardant zinc cladding was ignored, and the council opted to save £300,000 and install cladding which later proved to be highly flammable on the outside of the building.
Long before flames engulfed the tower, the relationship between the TMO and residents at Grenfell was broken.
The first evidence of tension came in July 2013, when the committee considered a report about recent power surges in the tower affecting 45 flats. In that meeting, Labour councillor Ms Blakeman warned “she was concerned the TMO would find it difficult to regain trust because many residents believed the impact of the power surge had not been taken seriously enough”.
Eighteen months later, with the refurbishment nearly complete, this prophecy had come true. Following a petition signed by 51 residents Ms Blakeman bought a motion to the full council meeting complaining about their treatment. The work, they claimed, had resulted in “living conditions that at times have been intolerable”. It called for compensation for residents, but was watered down. Investigating the substance of complaints about the refurbishment was passed down to the council's Housing Scrutiny Committee.
This came to the scrutiny committee in January 2016. Resident Edward Daffarn, author of the now notorious Grenfell Action Group blog, gave a speech to councillors raising six specific complaints. These included accusations that the TMO had been guilty of a lack of consultation and ignoring complaints. Mr Daffarn called for “urgent scrutiny of the management of the works that had been carried out, which needs to be conducted as an independent investigation”.
This, then, was the chance to properly investigate a refurbishment project over which residents had major concerns and which we now know had installed highly flammable cladding to the outside of the building.
But the independent review Mr Daffarn wanted was not to happen. Instead, council papers reveal the investigation was carried out by “a delegated group of KCTMO board members”. Effectively, the TMO was being allowed to scrutinise itself.
In the end six members of the TMO's board were nominated to join the review panel. This took the form of a review lasting “one full day”. It involved a presentation about the refurbishment, a tour of the tower and an information pack covering the issues raised by the tenants. The board members then prepared a report summing up the concerns. But this was not made public. The TMO refused to release it – offering only a brief summary to the next meeting of the scrutiny committee in May.
Inside Housing has obtained a copy of the full report, and the only mystery is why the TMO was reluctant to make it public. The six-page document deals briefly with the complaints made by residents, brushing them off with suggestions of small tweaks to the consultation process. It insists the £50 compensation offered was “adequate” and that Rydon had “responded adequately” to complaints – which it said had been submitted by just four residents.
It concludes by “commending the contractor Rydon on [its] performance and ability to deliver a complex construction project”. It then finds time to even praise itself for its good work: “The group commended… the TMO team involved in high quality management of the project over 22 months”.
Ms Blakeman responded angrily, submitting her response to the investigation in which she said she was “baffled”, in particular by the claim that only four residents had submitted complaints. She had personally submitted complaints on behalf of 14, she said, a number of which were still outstanding.
“Throughout the duration of the project, no process was in place for common issues to be raised,” she said in a document obtained by Inside Housing. “I raised a number on behalf of residents, but received dilatory responses that did not always fully address the matter.”
She added: “We are aware of a groundswell of concerns about the TMO throughout the borough. We must therefore ask the TMO to consider seriously whether producing a report that will be seen as from the managerial perspective and without resident input assists the TMO’s reputation – or its chances of rebuilding a relationship with the residents of Grenfell Tower.”
She emailed her concerns to the chair of the scrutiny committee at the council, Quentin Marshall.
This was clearly a moment for the council's scrutiny committee to flex its muscle. The TMO was facing serious allegations from residents, a major regeneration scheme was in the spotlight and its own councillors were warning the investigation was a whitewash. At the very least, Robert Black, then-chief executive of the TMO, should have expected a rough ride when he was called to appear before the committee in May 2016.
What happened instead was extraordinary. Faced with Ms Blakeman's criticism Mr Black, used the platform at the committee to attack her for speaking out. At that time, she was a non-executive board member at the TMO board – there to scrutinise its operation.
“He said that a member of the board had a duty to the board and to support the views and conclusions they had put forward in relation to Grenfell Tower,” the minutes recall.
Ms Blakeman argued that she wanted to challenge the TMO and had been “given very little opportunity to do this in the board meeting”. Nonetheless, the committee decided she had a conflict of interest and she was barred from voicing her concern.
Asked why the report was being kept secret, Mr Black said “the main report did not belong to the scrutiny committee”, which would have to make to do with the summary he provided. And that was that. The chance to chase up residents’ complaints and properly investigate the regeneration work was missed.
And this is not the only opportunity apparently missed by K&C in the build-up to the fire.
The deaths of six people in the Lakanal House fire in south London in 2009 was arguably the biggest warning sign ahead of Grenfell that things needed to change.
Following this fire, the London Fire Brigade ordered other councils in London to carry out fresh risk assessments on their buildings within three years and complete any necessary works identified within five.
In Kensington and Chelsea this work revealed some changes were necessary. In March 2010, the scrutiny committee met to consider the issue. A report to the committee said (emphasis added):
“There are a number of potentially more costly items such as an inspection programme to ensure that all flat entrance doors in enclosed blocks are sufficiently fire resisting, self-closing and smoke-sealed and where this is not the case upgrading or replacing these. Capital funding has been ear-marked to progress these items.”
A year later, in January 2011, papers say a work programme was being drawn up to identify the highest priority blocks where the council would confirm “each dwelling door… is provided with a self-closing device”. The work was due to complete in September 2014.
In fire safety terms, self-closers are crucial. As Hannah Mansell, a fire safety expert at the British Woodworking Federation, explains they are not only important because people are prone to leave doors open when evacuating at speed.
"In a fire high temperatures of hundreds of degrees means that the fire door comes under immense pressure. A proper self-closer is there to hold it in place," she says.
Tracking through the scrutiny committee papers over the next few years, there appear to have been no major problems with this work reported. In November 2013, it is noted 107 leaseholder doors were non-compliant. By September 2014, this was down to just three.
What happened next however is unexplained.
On 31 October 2015 a fire broke out on the third floor of Adair Tower – a 14-storey block about a mile from Grenfell.
While no one was killed, there were some concerning aspects about the way the blaze spread. Around 50 residents were rescued from the building. Sixteen were treated at hospital. Twelve flats were left “uninhabitable”.
Nanga Pedro, who lived on the third floor with his young family, told reportersthey had to escape the fire by crawling out of his apartment.
"As [my wife] went to leave [for work] she saw smoke everywhere and woke us all up. I live with my two children, who are two and six. We tried to leave but it was impossible," he said.
"We couldn't wait for them [the firefighters] so we crawled. We all crawled through the lobby under the smoke."
This shouldn't have been the case. Residents are told to stay put in a fire because smoke and flames are supposed to stay in the flat of origin. When this fails in a high-rise building, lives are put at risk.
Evidently concerned by this, the London Fire Brigade (LFB) investigated further and issued two enforcement notices – a legal public notice ordering the property owner to take action to make the building safe – for Adair and neighbouring, identical, Hazelwood Tower, in December 2015.
The enforcement notice, available here, tells K&C to carry out a fresh full fire risk assessment. The final works required by the notice are summarised in notes from the scrutiny committee meeting on 13 July last year:
“The installation of self-closing devices on all flat entrance doors and the requirement to review the protection to each communal staircase and ventilation to the lift lobbies.”
This was completed by 18 October 2016, after an extended limit agreed with the LFB with improvements made to 152 doors in the two buildings. But why were these doors not fixed in the original review, which had concluded just two years previously?
A spokesperson for the TMO tells Inside Housing it was because the "programme of door replacements... was not boroughwide and did not include Adair Tower and Hazlewood Tower".
But this is apparently at odds with the council documents. Papers from 2010 say a total of 100 higher risk blocks were to be prioritised in the review and assessed early in the programme, which began in September 2009.
In papers from 2011, these are identified as those which require 30 minute fire-resisting entry doors. This is a fairly standard requirement for a high rise and it is not clear why Adair or Hazlewood would have been left out.
Nonetheless, medium risk and low risk buildings were still included in the review, just later in the programme. The fire safety regulations which triggered the review in the first place were said to cover "the common parts of all residential buildings" owned by the borough.
How it was, then, that the doors in Adair and Hazlewood lacked closers before the fire is a mystery.
When it comes to Grenfell, whether flat entrance doors were uniformly fitted with self-closers is unknown. What is known is that the corridors and stairwells filled quickly with choking black smoke, trapping residents as they tried to flee. Something can also, possibly, be gleaned from resident testimony after the event.
Maryann Adam, 41, who lived on the floor where the fatal fire started, told the Daily Mail how her neighbour banged on her front door in the middle of the night to tell her there was a fire in his kitchen.
“It was exactly 12.50am because I was sleeping and it woke me up,” she said. “The fire was small in the kitchen. I could see it because the flat door was open.”
It is possible there were suitable self-closers fitted throughout the property and her neighbour propped the door open. But in towers just a mile away, they were not fitted until after a potentially devastating blaze revealed they were necessary.
In response to these issues, and the others raised in this piece, Kensington and Chelsea is reluctant to comment. "We are committed to cooperating fully with the inquiry and making sure that residents get the answers that they deserve," a spokesperson says. "We want to be open and transparent, but we hope people understand that we also do not want to prejudice the fair conduct of the public inquiry in any way."
This public inquiry into Grenfell begins next month. It can only be hoped that all of these questions – spend, scrutiny and fire doors – will be fully answered by the time it concludes.