What began in the stunned aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017 continues at the public inquiry. Establishing, through an examination of the facts, who was responsible for the deaths of 72 people and the loss of hundreds of homes is the first step towards holding those people or organisations accountable.
Nicholas Holgate, chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea council at the time of the fire (though not during the tower’s refurbishment), was the first authority figure to quit his post, a week after the tragedy. Pressured to resign by the then communities secretary, Sajid Javid, Mr Holgate said his presence would be a “distraction”. A week later, Nicholas Paget-Brown resigned as the council’s leader. Robert Black, the chief executive of the tenant management organisation (TMO) that ran the block, also stepped aside in June 2017 to “concentrate on assisting with the investigation and inquiry” (for which he initially continued to receive a salary). The TMO was later dissolved, as the council took back responsibility for its social housing.
Under a new leader, Elizabeth Campbell, the local Conservatives – who have run Kensington and Chelsea council since it was formed in 1964 – stabilised. Members who were not closely tied to the decisions made about Grenfell spoke to journalists and television crews. In 2018, less than a year after the fire, they emerged victorious from local elections – losing just one seat (to Labour). In December last year, a Tory, Felicity Buchan, took the Kensington seat in parliament from Labour.
Flammable cladding has proved as difficult to shift as the Tories in Kensington. In June this year, a deadline for Grenfell-style material to be removed from all high-rises was missed, leaving tens of thousands of leaseholders trapped in unsellable homes during lockdown. A pledge by ministers to end no-fault evictions remains unfulfilled, despite Labour offering to back it. Proposals for a new regulator have gone nowhere.
With no arrests made, for now survivors’ hopes are pinned on Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s inquiry. The announcement last December that the London fire brigade chief, Dany Cotton, would retire six months early was greeted with relief. Ms Cotton had said in her evidence that the fire was as unexpected as “a space shuttle landing on the Shard”, and that she would do nothing differently if faced with the same situation.
But there have also been frustrations, including a ban on observers at the hearings due to the pandemic and the time taken to appoint a third panel member after a previous appointee was forced to step down due to a connection with one of the contractors. Last week, that hiatus ended with the announcement that Ali Akbor, a housing association chief, had been selected.
Since campaigners have always believed that the council and the TMO’s attitude to their North Kensington neighbourhood was a factor in the way that events unfolded, the contribution of a person with first-hand knowledge of community relations was felt to be essential. That perception has only been strengthened by evidence at the inquiry, such as the discovery that the tower’s refurbishment was described by a council officer as an attempt to “prevent it from looking like a poor cousin”. Recent hearings have focused on repeated efforts to drive down the cost of the building work, including by Laura Johnson, the director of housing for Kensington and Chelsea council, who overruled the TMO by deciding to ditch the original contractor and re-tender, with “value for money” the top priority. (This despite the council’s claim in its opening submission to the inquiry that the TMO was in charge.)
Last week, the inquiry heard details of a “secret” and “offline” meeting between David Gibson of the TMO and the contractor, Rydon, in which it was agreed that £800,000 in savings would be made, including by switching zinc panels for the aluminium ones that became the main cause of the fire’s spread. The conversation took place despite warnings from the TMO’s lawyers that such negotiations would break EU regulations.
The time for definitive and official conclusions remains some way off. There is, however, every reason to believe that the fury of Grenfell’s survivors will turn out to have been not just understandable but correct.