How sorry is ‘deeply sorry’?

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

Where does the buck stop? It’s the question that has hung over much of the Grenfell Tower inquiry ever since phase two opened with what lead counsel Richard Millett called a ‘merry-go-round of buck passing’ between the organisations and companies involved.

The opening statements in the latest part of module 6 this week  take us at last to where, how and why decisions were made within government. 

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) admits in its opening statement that it ‘presided over an overarching building safety system that has been shown to be unfit for purpose with catastrophic consequences’.

It acknowledges a series of failures in its oversight of the regulatory system, internal governance, and the nature of its responses  to the recommendations of the Lakanal House coroner and issues raised by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on fire safety.

And it says that: ‘Cumulatively these failings helped to create an environment in which non-compliance was widespread and such a tragedy was possible. For that it is deeply sorry.’

But sorry for what exactly? For Grenfell itself, for presiding over a system that Dame Judith Hackitt had already said was unfit for purpose, and for specific failures to act and learn lessons sooner, certainly. 

But the department continues to argue that Approved Document B (ADB) plus associated building regulations on fire safety ‘were sufficiently clear at the time of the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower that no competent professional acting in good faith should have misunderstood or misapplied the statutory requirements’.

This despite the evidence the inquiry has head so far about the ambiguities, lack of clarity and exploitable loopholes built into the system. 

The department ‘accepts that it failed to recognise the risk that those responsible for complying with an enforcing the Building Regulations would not diligently fulfil their respective responsibilities and the potential consequences should that risk eventuate’ and ‘recognises that it did not identify widespread non-compliance or understand how the regulatory system was performing practice’. 

The opening statement goes on:

‘It was dependent on a legal framework that placed all the compliance obligations on the person conducting building works, on industry understanding the outcomes required and taking the steps necessary to deliver those outcomes, and on local regulatory oversight through a semi- privatised and relatively light-touch system of building control. It is now entirely dear that the overall regulatory regime failed with catastrophic consequences.’

Some of this, such as allowing private firms to compete for building control work, long pre-dates Grenfell, but how did that system become so catastrophic? 

You will find no mention in the DLUHC statement to the failed cladding tests in 2001 or of the Red Tape Challenge, reducing the burden of regulation on business or all the other departmental priorities between 2010 and 2017. 

However, these issues are at the centre of the opening statements made by counsel for different groups of Bereaved, Survivors and Residents (BSR). 

Successive governments are accused of ‘prolonged wilful blindness’ but they argue that ‘certain political ideals, principally deregulatory policies, bear primary responsibility for events’. 

Those ideals came from the top as David Cameron committed the government to being ‘the first to reduce rather than increase the stock of regulations during its lifetime’ and promised to ‘kill off the health and safety culture for good’.

So does the buck stop at, or near to, the top? Opening statements from counsel for the BSR groups reveal that Eric Pickles (communities secretary from 2010 to 2015) says in his witness statement that ‘I do not recall that the issue of the guidance in ADB and the potential industry use of combustible materials in external cladding systems was ever raised with me.’

This despite being the recipient of the Lakanal House coroner’s recommendations in 2013 about the need for clear guidance in the building regulations ‘with particular regard to the spread of fire over the external envelope of the building’.

In his reply, Pickles promised a formal review leading to a new Approved Document by 2016/17 but work had still started by the time of the Grenfell fire in June 2017. 

Meanwhile, Melanie Dawes, permanent secretary at the DCLG from 2015 to 2020, says in her witness statement that the morning after the fire ‘was, to the best of my recollection, the first time I had heard of the Lakanal House fire, the Coroner’s recommendations or the commitment to simplify Approved Document B’. 

If those statements are correct, they speak volumes about the priority given to fire safety issues at the department before Grenfell – they were not worth senior management time and not even worth including in the briefs given to the most senior minister and the most senior civil servant when they joined. 

So does the buck stop with them or with the more junior ministers and civil servants who were directly responsible for areas such as the building regulations and fire safety?

The opening statements hint at the questions that will be faced over the next few weeks by former housing ministers like Brandon Lewis and Gavin Barwell and senior officials such as building regulations expert Brian Martin.

They start to illuminate how the department failed to learn lessons from previous fires and how work to clarify and simplify ADB in the wake of Lakanal got downgraded from ‘an urgent priority’ to something that ‘was not safety critical and therefore not urgent’.

They reveal how the department downplayed the case the retrofitting of sprinklers and other issues raised by the APPG chaired by the late Sir David Amess to the point where it eventually resorted to sending its warnings by recorded delivery. 

That only scratches the surface of the issues raised in the opening statements from government, the BRE, the National House-Building Council, Local Authority Building Control and the other cast of characters in the system that failed. 

So how sorry is ‘deeply sorry’? For starters the apology would have to be coming from the DLUHC itself rather than its QC. As previous witnesses have found, people coming to the inquiry with evasive answers and semi-admissions have tended to come unstuck . 

For Grenfell United, the apology is ‘deeply offensive’ and ‘a disingenuous attempt to carry on their masquerade of innocence’. The government ‘knew about the deadly materials and the consequences and covered up the risks’. 

So are these failures the result of management and governance alone or are they the outcomes of political culture? 

Was there the direct link that’s being claimed between Grenfell and the government’s ‘radical housing agenda’? It’s certainly true that it spent the first half of the 2010s intent on removing as many regulatory ‘burdens’ as possible on housebuilders rather than acting on the lessons of previous fires. .

Until the department and its former ministers accept that, nobody can say that ‘the buck stops here’.


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