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PM’s chief of staff did not act on multiple warnings about fire safety in months before Grenfell, new letters show

Theresa May’s chief of staff was sent multiple, clear warnings to review fire safety rules in the months leading up to Grenfell, but failed to reply to letters or meet with the MPs raising concerns, new documents obtained by Inside Housing reveal.

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Gavin Barwell, former housing minister and prime minister’s chief of staff (picture: Rex Features)
Gavin Barwell, former housing minister and prime minister’s chief of staff (picture: Rex Features)
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Prime minister’s chief of staff did not act on multiple warnings about fire safety before Grenfell, new letters show #ukhousing

Gavin Barwell was sent seven letters warning about fire safety and building regulations in the year building up to Grenfell. He did not act, new letters show #ukhousing

Gavin Barwell, who was housing minister in 2016 and 2017, received seven letters from the group of MPs responsible for scrutinising fire safety rules between September 2016 and May 2017 – with the last landing just 26 days before the fire at Grenfell Tower.

The letters warned of the risk of a deadly fire and called for a promised review of building regulations and fire safety to be carried out to prevent it.

But Mr Barwell sent just three short replies during this period and became so bad at replying that the group resorted to sending their letters by recorded delivery.

Ministers had previously been warned that if a tower block fire occurred “where the matters raised here were found to be contributory to the outcome, then the group would be bound to bring this to others’ attention.”


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The letters are described as a “smoking gun” by Labour MP David Lammy and come as Inside Housing publishes the results of a major investigation into the failure to act on the coroner’s recommendations from the fatal 2009 Lakanal House fire in time to prevent the 72 deaths at Grenfell Tower.

Inside Housing understands a total of 21 letters calling for change were sent to ministers Eric Pickles, James Wharton, Stephen Williams and Mr Barwell by the group between 2014 and 2017. Mr Barwell was made Theresa May’s chief of staff after losing his seat as an MP in 2017.

BBC Panorama has previously reported these ministers were contacted by the group – but the new documents reveal the extent of the warnings missed.

Listen to an audio version of our investigation here:

The letters particularly push for a review of the requirement that the external surfaces of buildings have a ‘Class 0’ fire safety rating. Grenfell Tower was eventually clad with a material certified to Class 0.

They also called on ministers to reconsider the decision not to make retrofitting sprinklers mandatory for high-rises, given new costing analysis showed it had become much cheaper.

But ministers refused to listen to these warnings, with Mr Wharton at one stage citing the government’s desire to “reduce the burden of red tape” in his refusal to act.

In September 2014, then-minister Stephen Williams responded to a string of letters to tell the group he had “neither seen nor heard anything that would suggest consideration of these specific potential changes is urgent” and said he was “not willing to disrupt the work of this department by asking that these matters be brought forward”.

The group’s chair, Sir David Amess MP, responded on 28 October, writing that he was “at a loss to understand how you had concluded that credible and independent evidence which had life safety implications was not considered to be urgent”.

He added: “As a consequence, the group wishes to point out to you that should a major fire tragedy with loss of life occur between now and 2017 in, for example, a residential care facility or a purpose-built block of flats, where the matters raised here were found to be contributory to the outcome, then the group would be bound to bring this to others’ attention.”

“These warnings are yet another smoking gun in a man-made, preventable tragedy that took the lives of 72 at Grenfell Tower.”

David Lammy MP

Mr Barwell himself was first contacted him on 12 September 2016, with an invite to lunch and note saying that the post-Lakanal review of regulations had still not taken place.

“Regrettably, we have yet to receive any announcement on this, which is of such importance to the fire and construction sector,” the letter read. It also referred to a death of a pregnant woman in a tower block fire in Essex in May 2016 – which was in Sir David’s constituency.

But Mr Barwell did not reply and also ignored a follow-up letter on 17 October. He finally replied on 14 November, saying a “statement would be made in due course” and declining the invite to lunch.

The group chased him again on 22 November, urging him to make an early statement on the review, but again received no response. They chased again on 20 February expressing “extreme concern” that the minister had not yet written to the residents of the block where the pregnant woman died.

Mr Barwell during an interview with Inside Housing in 2017 (pic Simon Brandon)
Mr Barwell during an interview with Inside Housing in 2017 (pic Simon Brandon)

He finally replied on 5 April, saying the previous letters had been “lost in transit” and accepting that this was “completely unacceptable”. He finally accepted their offer of a meeting.

The group replied on the 18 April saying: “It is over 11 years since Part B [dealing with fire safety] was last reviewed and I trust that the matters… will now receive your due consideration and early decision to proceed.

“The group firmly believes after being given a similar response by three successive ministers… that it is now the time to listen to what the fire sector is saying and get on with the promised review.”

By this stage, it had resolved to send the letter by recorded delivery.

Mr Barwell finally responded to this letter on 2 May without setting a date for the review, and the group sent its last letter to him on May 19 – just weeks before Grenfell.

The planned meeting was then put off due to the snap election.

“The group firmly believes after being given a similar response by three successive ministers… that it is now the time to listen to what the fire sector is saying and get on with the promised review.”

The group also contacted chancellor Philip Hammond in January and February 2017, calling for consideration of sprinklers in schools and high-rises and making it clear that the promised review of the regulations had not been carried out.

The chancellor instructed them to keep liaising with Mr Barwell.

David Lammy, a Labour MP who lost a friend at Grenfell Tower, said: “These warnings are yet another smoking gun in a man-made, preventable tragedy that took the lives of 72 at Grenfell Tower.

“The national and local government response to repeated warnings about safety in this block and others is characterised by apathy rather than action. Those culpable of gross negligent manslaughter must be held to account.”

Grenfell United, the survivors and bereaved families group, said: “As shocking as these revelations are, they’re not surprising. The evidence was there before the fire that regulations were not fit for purpose, materials were dangerous and testing systems flawed.

“What is surprising is the government’s continued resistance to change. No one cared enough then and no one seems to care enough now. Enough with supportive platitudes – we need change now before another Grenfell.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government said the government “took action” on the coroner’s findings.

The spokesperson said the review of the guidance was “underway but had not been completed” by the time of the Grenfell fire and added that the government still “believes an appropriate level of fire safety can be achieved without the need to retrofit sprinklers”.

A review of Approved Document B, which deals with fire safety is currently under way, with the government saying it will respond to a consultation “in due course”.

Mr Barwell did not respond when Inside Housing contacted him for comment.

Click here to read our special investigation

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