As part of the opening statements for Module 6 of Phase 2 of the Grenfell Inquiry – set up to examine the circumstances leading up to and surrounding the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower on the night of June 14 2017 – a lawyer for the Fire Brigades Union has placed central importance on the ‘agenda of deregulation, privatisation and marketisation’ as causing the disaster.
Martin Seaward said that an agenda which encouraged companies to behave recklessly towards building safety was ‘actively and, regrettably, deliberately created by central government’.
The strong words were set out before a phase of the inquiry that is set to focus on the government, who were criticised at the time for their poor handling in the aftermath of the tragedy and for a culture of privatisation at all costs that led to unsafe cladding being installed on far too many of Britain’s buildings.
Seaward argued that an agenda of deregulation, privatisation and marketisation had been in place for ‘more than four decades’, across multiple governments. He said this had ‘predictably degraded’ public services such as building control and fire and rescue services, in turn weakening enforcement of these regimes and leading to the abolition of national bodies.
What’s more, it helped to cause ‘ambiguity and confusion in the guidance which has been left unclarified, a culture of complacency created towards fire safety, both during and after building works, and private companies being enabled to put profit over people’.
Seaward stated that these factors contributed to the systemic failure of the building and fire safety regimes, enabling the installation of cheap and dangerous rainscreen cladding systems all over the UK, including at Grenfell Tower.
The lawyer specifically named the evolution of building safety regulation – namely Approved Document B [ADB] which, with ever greater complexity and flexibility, brought ‘concomitant ambiguity and scope for manipulation’ - as an issue here, with confusion around the ADB being ‘ruthlessly exploited’ by manufacturing companies for their own commercial self-interest, according to Seaward.
He also pointed to the introduction of the Building Regulations 1985, which replaced the previously detailed technical and prescriptive regulations, covering at least 300 pages, with ‘functional requirements’ covering just 25 pages, supplemented by guidance in the ADB.
This introduction of functional requirements was described by Seaward as a ‘major change’, bringing with it ‘significant flexibility’ that subsequently ‘could be and was’ exploited by some in the construction industry.
Seaward also stated that after the Lakanal House fire, a 2009 fire in Camberwell in which six people lost their lives, none of the coroner’s recommendations were implemented either effectively or at all ‘either by Lord Pickles [Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government when the recommendations were made], his successors or anyone else in government’.
He claimed this was the result of the government’s deregulatory agenda. The recommendations on the night included ones relating to ‘stay put' guidance, guidance on high-rise firefighting, and sprinklers.
The Grenfell Tower fire killed 72 people on June 14 2017. The day after then-Prime Minister Theresa May ordered an immediate inquiry. Out of the tragedy emerged a scandal on a national scale that is still affecting many people today – with too many properties still playing host to unsafe or combustible cladding, leaving thousands feeling anxious in their homes and unable to sell.
The Inquiry also heard from Stephanie Barwise QC, a lawyer representing victims of the 2017 disaster, who claimed successive governments had hidden the extent of fire safety risks to buildings, creating the conditions for which a tragedy like Grenfell became inevitable.
She labelled it one of the ‘major scandals of our time’.