A senior councillor at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) intervened in a debate about switching to the cheaper, combustible cladding for Grenfell Tower to argue that he did not like the colour choice of champagne.
Rock Feilding-Mellen, former deputy leader and cabinet member for housing at RBKC, became involved in the deliberations of the planning committee as it considered whether or not to approve a switch from zinc to combustible aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding in summer 2014.
This was being done to save in the region of £500,000 from the job as newly appointed contractor Rydon sought to complete the work within the tight £9.7m budget set by the council.
Giving evidence today, Mr Feilding-Mellen said he had become involved in this debate because residents had complained about the delays to the start of the project and he wanted the decision to be taken quickly.
But emails revealed he pushed against the “champagne” colour choice, advocating instead for “brushed aluminium” or “battleship grey”.
“I really don’t like the champagne. Let me know if I need to speak to planners,” he wrote in one email to Peter Maddison, director of assets at the building’s managing agent Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO).
“I think we should stick with the brushed aluminium or battleship grey - not champagne!” he added in another. Told that one of the planners had a preference for the champagne colour he wrote that “if she is the great arbiter of what is good choice, I would like to know her opinion”.
“Why didn’t you ask any questions about other properties of the cladding apart from colour?” asked counsel to the inquiry Richard Millett QC.
“Because the issue at hand which was causing delay was a disagreement over the colour of the cladding,” replied Mr Feilding-Mellen.
“It looks from this, that you’re bringing... your personal tastes, to bear in the discussion. Would that be fair?” asked Mr Millett.
“It does look like I was expressing my personal tastes... But I think if you look at later emails it is clear, that I do not try to impose my personal tastes, and I say the most important thing is to make progress,” he said.
Mr Feilding-Mellen was also shown an email - widely circulated in the media after being leaked in the aftermath of the fire - which shows Claire Williams, project manager at KCTMO asking a quantity surveyor to provide “good costs” to present to him at a meeting about the cladding switch.
This meeting did not go ahead. Asked what he thought Ms Williams meant, he said: “If they were going to be talking to me about budget issues, I would normally ask questions. I imagine what she’s meaning that she wants to be able to give a clear answer. If I was to ask questions.”
“Did anybody express any concerns about fire safety, in respect of the choice of cladding?” asked Mr Millett.
“It was never raised to me that there was any question of fire safety in this discussion,” replied Mr Feilding-Mellen.
Earlier, the inquiry saw Mr Feilding-Mellen questioning budget increases for the project - which was increased from £6m to £9.7m in July 2013 and then to £10.3m a year later.
Minutes of the meeting discussing this first increase in July 2013 say Mr Feilding-Mellen “queried increasing the budget provision for improving Grenfell Tower”. “Laura Johnson [director of housing] said the council has not spent any money on maintaining the building in over 30 years,” the minutes say.
“I think it would have been remiss of me not to ask why it was going to cabinet asking for an increase of over 50%. It’s public money,” he said when asked about this today.
Asked if he was satisfied with Ms Johnson’s explanation, he said: “My guess is that the note in this minute, is a pretty abbreviated version of that discussion… If that was the only explanation she gave, I would not have been satisfied.”
The inquiry also saw that when Mr Feilding-Mellen first heard of plans to refurbish the tower in 2012, he queried whether refurbishing the tower would “hinder or obstruct any future potential regeneration of the whole Lancaster West estate”.
He cited a masterplan document for the area, which had proposed knocking down the tower as part of a project to build mixed tenure housing on the site and described the building as a “blight” on the appearance of the area.
Emails show he then sought assurances from Ms Johnson that this was not being abandoned and wrote that he was “glad to hear you are keeping the bigger long-term potential in mind”.
He said today that he was told the tower needed investment “more immediately” due to long-standing problems with things such as windows and the communal heating system.
“There was a shortage of land on which to build more affordable housing. And I had the notion that the regeneration of council estates was one of the ways in which the council could play its part in trying to increase the amount of affordable housing,” he said.
An email was also shown from one of Mr Feilding-Mellen’s councillor colleagues who complained that there was not enough money to refurbish Grenfell Tower because rents were too low “to maintain them, let alone do major works”. He said the council should “look fundamentally at the speed of rent increases”.
The inquiry heard that Mr Feilding-Mellen had a background in property investment in addition to his role as a councillor, which he began aged 26, through his company Socially Conscious Capital, which was a strategic land promoter.
He also told the inquiry that he had never seen a critical report of KCTMO’s performance, written by independent adjudicator Maria Memoli in 2009, recommending major improvements for the company.
Earlier, the inquiry heard from Amanda Johnson, head of housing commissioning at RBKC at the time of the refurbishment and responsible for overseeing the work of KCTMO.
She was asked about the council’s decision not to fund an inspection programme for fire door self-closers and to extend their replacement over three years rather than five, following concerns raised by the London Fire Brigade after a serious fire at another tower in October 2015.
Asked if there was any formal analysis of the impact this would have on resident safety she said: “I cannot recall that happening.”
The inquiry continues tomorrow with further evidence from Mr Feilding-Mellen.
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