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. Peter Apps reports
This week the Grenfell Tower Inquiry heard live evidence from seven former residents of the tower and extracts from the witness statements of 10 residents or relatives of those who died.
The evidence outlined the serious concerns they had about fire safety as well as major dissatisfaction with the service their landlord provided.
Here is some of what we learned:
First, some explanation. Grenfell Tower, along with around 9,000 other social homes in the west London borough, was owned by the local council, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC).
However, management services, such as repairs, were carried out by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), an arm’s-length company set up by the council and (in theory) scrutinised by it.
While tenants could be elected to its board, the majority of those questioned this week said they were never told that this was a possibility.
There have been longstanding concerns about KCTMO’s services in west London. In 2009, independent auditor Maria Memoli published a damning report which found evidence of board members abusing their positions and tenants waiting years for leaks to be fixed. She branded it “an unhappy culture [which] needs to change for the better”.
Stamped through the resident testimony we heard this week was evidence it had not.
Shah Ahmed, who had lived on the 18th floor of the tower since 1992 and chaired the Grenfell Tower Leaseholders Association (GTLA), criticised KTCMO’s complaints procedure.
“I thought that the complaints procedure was a way for the TMO to be judge, jury and executioner,” he said. “It essentially let them judge themselves. Their strategy was to refer me to the complaints procedure and exhaust GTLA.”
We will come to specific fire safety complaints, but numerous other complaints were discussed.
In particular, residents with mobility issues being told of how they were trapped in the building by both lifts going out of service around once a month. One, Mariko Toyoshima-Lewis, was unable to take her children to school when this happened.
Others referenced hot water and sometimes even drinking water being cut off at the tower and KCTMO failing to provide bottled water.
Emma O’Connor described “mould and mushrooms” growing in her kitchen following a leak and silverfish coming in through the windows. “Despite our complaints this was not dealt with by the TMO,” she said.
Corrine Jones said that in less than a year living in the tower there were “four to five occasions when we had no hot water and this was usually over a weekend”. “Nobody came out and nobody explained what the issue was… we would just wait for it to come back on,” she said.
Betty Kasote (pictured above), a nurse who lived on the seventh floor, described being spoken to by an “abrupt and rude” operator when she phone to report serious leaks in 2016. “I felt like they thought I was a ‘troublemaker’ because I had been making complaints,” she said.
The leak became so bad that the floor of her bathroom was ruined, and when a workman attended he broke her toilet and removed an expensive rug.
She linked a deterioration in repairs service to the closure of the tower’s estate office and the opening of a central complaints hotline.
The above are just some examples of issues residents faced and complained about. But there were further complaints which were very specific to fire safety.
Seven years before the tragedy of June 2017, there was a serious fire on the sixth floor which saw smoke spread all the way up to the 15th floor, leaving three residents injured.
One of these was Sayeda Ahmed, the wife of Mr Ahmed. He took this up with KCTMO with a strongly worded email in May 2010 about the risks of what had happened.
“Should a fire occur in the staircase of Grenfell Tower, there will be no escape route for residents of Grenfell Tower, since obviously the lifts will be out of service,” Mr Ahmed wrote. “This raises serious health and safety issues and could trap the residents of the building in a fire with no escape.”
Receiving a brief two-sentence response, he made a legal claim following his wife’s injury. This revealed a serious defect: the smoke ventilation system was broken with improper seals, meaning it spread smoke around the building rather than remove it.
This issue was described as a “catastrophic failure” in an email from the London Fire Brigade (LFB) to KCTMO and led RBKC to settle Mr Ahmed’s claim, with its insurance officer accepting the claim would be “impossible for us to defend”.
But despite repeated complaints from the GTLA, nothing was done until it was upgraded during the refurbishment in 2016. Mr Ahmed called the delay “extraordinary”.
According to expert evidence, even the upgraded system failed to function properly on the night of the fire.
Across these years Mr Ahmed was the driving force behind the GTLA, which raised many complaints about life in the tower. He said in his witness statement that he was threatened with the forfeiture of his lease and that RBKC and KCTMO “always seemed to want to ignore the existence of GTLA” and “would not engage with GTLA as a body”.
Things were to get worse as the refurbishment started.
Residents were consulted on plans to refurbish Grenfell Tower in 2012.
The GTLA raised issues such as the communal heating system, which was unreliable and generated huge service charge bills, and difficulty cleaning windows.
Both Mr Ahmed and fellow resident Ed Daffarn (pictured above), who was a member of an estate management board of residents at this time, questioned the appointment of Studio E as architects.
Minutes record Mr Daffarn asking if the architects “have experience with tower blocks and if not why are we using them?” It would later emerge this was Studio E’s first high-rise job and that they were appointed without proper checks.
Mr Ahmed criticised the consultation process, saying: “There seems to have been a belief by KCTMO and RBKC that residents should not be consulted about technical matters and that anything they did say would be irrelevant.”
In his oral evidence, Mr Daffarn added: “It [the consultation] was about coming to tell residents what they were getting… they didn’t do things with us, they do things to us. They would have learned a lot from us… These were our homes, it was our community, it was our residential amenity.”
Around this time, amid the frustration about the refurbishment and the construction of a school nearby, Mr Daffarn and a neighbour from the wider estate, Francis O’Connor, launched their Grenfell Action Group blog, criticising the actions of KCTMO and the council.
Mr Daffarn faced some questions about the content of this blog, with counsel to the inquiry Richard Millett QC asking him why he used the “language and tone” he did on some strongly worded posts.
“When I described the TMO as like a mini mafia, non-functioning organisation, they’re not glib, you know, shoot-from-the-hip expressions,” Mr Daffarn said. “The language that we used on this blog in the situation we were in felt like the most appropriate language to describe what was happening to us and even now, and maybe particularly now, I wouldn’t change a single word of it.”
Residents were also seriously worried about a series of power surges in 2013. These were described by Mr Ahmed as: “The lights would flicker, computers turned on and off, and electrical equipment exploded. This was very alarming, as it could happen at any time without warning. It became increasingly frightening as my appliances emitted smoke and I realised that there was a serious risk of an electrical fire.”
He submitted numerous complaints about the surges, which had destroyed his computer, washing machine, fridge and other appliances and affected every floor from 10 up. KCTMO denied liability and refused to offer compensation. Mr Ahmed said residents “were never given a proper explanation about the reasons for the power surges or what had been done to ensure they were not repeated”.
By 2015, anger over the refurbishment work was mounting. The tower was a building site, lifts were regularly being taken out of service by contractors, there was noise and dust and anger at the way residents were being treated.
In this context, Mr Daffarn united with several other residents including David Collins (pictured above) to form the Grenfell Community Unite group. He said this was done following a door-knocking exercise which revealed allegations of “[contractor] Rydon bullying residents and picking on the most vulnerable to secure access”.
But KCTMO refused to recognise the new group. In an internal email, Claire Williams, project manager at KCTMO, said she and chief executive Robert Black had decided “not to meet up with the Grenfell Community Unite group, which could be a showcase for Mr Daffarn”.
Notes from a KCTMO board meeting in autumn 2015 also described Mr Daffarn and local Labour councillor Judith Blakeman, who was helping residents raise issues, as “a negative force at Grenfell at present” and warned “there is concern this unrest will spread to [neighbouring estate] Silchester”.
Meanwhile, anger within the tower mounted due to the sudden decision to shift ‘heating interface units’ into front corridors. The original plan had been to place them in kitchens and this shift would have forced them to squeeze past to get in and out, as well as presenting a potential hazard to children.
There was a stand-off, with residents refusing access to their flats and some being threatened with breach of tenancy.
After a meeting of around 100 residents and the involvement of the local MP, the residents were able to persuade KCTMO and Rydon to switch back to the original plan.
At the end of 2015, after gathering signatures via a petition, Mr Daffarn gave a speech to the council committee criticising the refurbishment.
But a promised investigation ended up being led by KCTMO, which simply praised its own efforts to manage the project. No action was taken.
Amid the concern about the refurbishment, there were specific complaints about fire safety that went unaddressed.
Numerous residents within the tower had problems with their front doors, which had been replaced in a major works programme in the early 2010s.
But the new doors had a fault: the self-closers would often break or jam the door open. In one instance, Mr Daffarn noticed the door of his former neighbour’s flat left standing open after they moved out and contractors had been in.
He investigated and told KCTMO the ‘Perko’ door closer was holding it open. But the complaint was rejected by Peter Maddison, director of assets and regeneration, who told him it could have been closed if he had pulled it harder.
“That was how they treated me,” Mr Daffarn said. “Just to lie to me and make out that I was a vexatious complainer.”
Numerous other residents who appeared this week spoke of broken door closers. Ms Kasote said her door jammed shortly after it was replaced and would not close.
“The person that came adjusted the mechanism on the back of the door which had previously made it close automatically, so that it no longer worked and my door remained open, not closing automatically,” she said in her statement.
“I remember asking whether this was a problem. The person that did the work told me it was not an issue and that it was ‘causing complications’.”
Asked about during the inquiry, she said that no one from KCTMO had explained the importance of a self-closer to her and that no one had inspected the door following the work to ensure it was safe.
Youseff Khalloud, who lived on the 11th floor, also said that a KCTMO staff member had disconnected his self-closer.
Ms Jones, who lived on the 17th floor, said her door never self-closed and that she raised this with two firefighters who visited the building just four days before the fire. She said the firefighter “reassured me that they did not need to automatically close”.
The lack of self-closers is believed to have been a major contributor to the internal spread of smoke during the fire – as panicked residents fled, the doors did not swing shut behind them and smoke spread to the lobbies and then the stairs.
Concerns were also raised about the renumbering of floors: the addition of new flats in former commercial space at the base of the tower led to floor 15 becoming floor 18 and so on.
This meant the door numbers no longer matched the floor: Flat 156 was now on the 18th floor. “It just didn’t make sense,” Mr Collins told the inquiry. “If a fireman was looking for your flat, he wouldn’t find your door.”
Mr Daffarn also raised concerns several times about access for fire engines and send KCTMO images of cars parked in slots reserved for them outside the tower.
There were also major concerns about gas pipes which were run through the common stairs by National Grid in 2016. Residents feared a leak or explosion and worried they were not properly boxed in.
“I am seriously concerned about how I will get out of the building alive in the event of a fire with this added risk,” wrote Lee Chapman (pictured above), secretary for the leaseholder group, in an email on this topic in March 2017. “If we cannot get out, people will die or at best suffer serious injury.”
Along with the other members of GTLA, he called for an independent investigation of this issue – something that was rejected just four days before the fire.
But it was not just faults with the building that worried residents. They also queried how they would get out of it, particularly the large cohort with mobility problems.
A series of witness statements relating to this were read in the record by barrister Bilal Rawat (pictured above) on Tuesday – many were from relatives of those who died in the blaze.
They painted a harrowing picture of how residents were – as mentioned above – regularly trapped inside the tower when the lifts were out of service.
But there were also very specific fears about how they would evacuate during a blaze.
Ahmed Elgwahry described how his mother Eslah would be “trapped” in her 22nd floor when the lifts broke down.
“At no point did anyone talk to my mother about what she should do or where she should go in the event of a fire. No plans appear to have been made,” he said.
His mother and sister Mariem, her primary carer, died in the fire.
Rosita Bonifacio, whose husband Elpidio, an older, partially sighted man with mobility problems, was the last resident to be rescued from the burning building, said: “The TMO never spoke to me about moving to a lower floor in the tower. The TMO also did not offer to make adaptations to our flat to make it suitable for my husband and more accommodating for his disabilities. They never carried out any kind of assessment of our needs. It made me feel like they did not really care.”
Hisam Choucair, who lost his mother Sirria and five other family members in the fire, described how no one considered his mother’s mobility issues when she was housed on the 22nd floor.
“There is no evidence that anyone at the TMO questioned the suitability of her being placed on the 22nd floor or that her needs in the case of a fire would need to be addressed, before authorising the exchange [from another social housing property owned by housing association Family Mosaic],” he said.
This all touches on what will be a major theme of this module: RBKC and KCTMO’s admitted failure to offer personal emergency evacuation plans to its residents.
They were certainly not alone in failing to do this in the housing sector.
Even now, despite a recommendation for their provision after the first phase of the inquiry, the government has held back on forcing housing providers to prepare them and many disabled tower block residents still have no plan for escape.
There were two further witnesses to end the week from KCTMO, whose evidence will be included in next week’s diary.
For now, we will end with the words Mr Daffarn chose to conclude his 127-page witness statement.
“I dearly miss our community. We came together in the face of adversity before during and after the fire,” he wrote.
“We were not just neighbours. Since the fire there are people out there who have said terrible things about our community, things that are so far away from the reality of what it was actually like, that it has really hurt. We will never have the chance to really show people what that community was like. That thought is truly heartbreaking.”
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry continues.
A Grenfell Tower resident who raised numerous fire safety complaints with the building’s management company before the fire has described how he felt “stigmatised as a ‘trouble maker’” for raising complaints.
Managers at Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation dismissed a residents group set up to raise issues with the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower as a “showcase”, emails disclosed by the inquiry reveal.
Disabled residents of Grenfell Tower were regularly trapped in the building due to broken lifts and offered no plan for their escape in an emergency, the inquiry into the fire heard.
The organisation which managed Grenfell Tower did not fix a smoke control system for five years despite warnings from the London Fire Brigade that it had experienced a “catastrophic failure” resulting in injuries to three residents.
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.