Grenfell: System Failure Scenes from the Inquiry

Edited By Richard Norton-Taylor & Nicolas Kent
Nick Of Time Productions & The Playground Theatre
The Tabernacle, London

Howard Crossley (Lord Pickles) Credit: Tristram Kenton
Ron Cook as Richard Millett QC Credit: Tristram Kenton
Grenfell: System Failure Scenes from the Inquiry Credit: Tristram Kenton

Most of us take a grave risk living in the UK. That is a conclusion you might come to from watching Grenfell: System Failure Scenes from the Inquiry, a riveting dramatisation of the final phase of the Grenfell Inquiry.

Richard Millett KC (Ron Cook), the chief council for the inquiry, concluded that, “each and every one of the deaths that occurred in Grenfell Tower on 14 June 2017 was avoidable.”

The performance begins and ends with the account of Hasam Choucair (Shahzad Ali) of the six members of his family living on the twenty-second floor and dying in the Grenfell fire.

He describes anxiously going to the tower block on the night of the fire only to find no information about his family or institutional support. There are simply firefighters and aggressive-sounding police.

A disturbing account of another family is presented just before the interval. Mohamed Saber Neda arrived back with his family at their flat on the 23rd-floor block just as the fire began, and is told to stay put and await the firefighters' rescue.

The firefighters never reached the 23rd floor. At 2AM with the fire spreading, they made a decision to try and make their way downstairs. Saber sent his son and wife ahead.

In terrifying darkness en route, they stepped on dead bodies but made their way out. Saber, who stayed behind to help less able people, didn’t.

He was just one of many people who needn't have died if the fire brigade's ‘stay put’ policy had been dropped in the light of their own knowledge that the policy of ‘compartmentalisation’ of the fire was unlikely to work.

But the fire brigade was not the only organisation to fail people. We hear from a long line of organisations that had good evidence of the lethal danger of the situation facing Grenfell and did nothing about it.

Celotex fitted flammable insulation panels that released cyanide fumes. Kingspan also fitted flammable panels. Both covered up failed tests. Internal messages in the Kingspan technical department in 2016 talking about the fire hazard of the panels include the injunction to others, “not to tell anyone” since “all we do is lie in here.”

The main reason flames travelled so fast up the building was the Arconic aluminium cladding panels (ACM) that the inquiry revealed had failed many tests. When the Arconic sales manager is asked about a message she received in 2012 from a supplier of ACM describing how it “transports the fire from bottom to top or vice versa within shortest time” and left architects who saw the test shocked, she admits it wasn’t removed from the market because of cost implications.

The supposed guardians of our safety weren’t much better. Asked about the 2001 tests on the ACM cladding, the senior scientific officer since 1995 and director of the fire suppression team at the Building Research Establishment (BRE), says it failed the tests and they were shocked at how quickly the fire took off. She admitted they didn’t think it was suitable for external high-rise buildings but simply passed the information up the line.

The man further up the line at the BRE was “the lead consultant… on matters related to fire safety.” He was also seconded to a government department 50% of the time, becoming the person giving government policy advice on building regulations.

Asked why the 1999 Select Committee report recommending all cladding be non-combustible was ignored, he says that such a measure is “probably... unreasonably onerous.”

After all, says this key government advisor on fire safety, “fire safety is a very subjective subject.”

The architect who wrote the report on the cladding fire that killed six people in Lakanal house in 2009 recalls telling this fire advisor that as things stood, “another fire like Lakanal was inevitable (with the) death toll likely to be ten-to twelve times… the Lakinal fire.” To which, according to the architect, the man upon whom our safety depends, replied with the words, “where’s the evidence? Show me the bodies."

However, Mr Fire Safety does explain that, “to justify imposing higher standards... we would need to demonstrate that any changes were not only... as a minimum cost-effective, but also meet the… one in three out rule by then.”

The rule of course relates to the Tory Lib-Dem Coalition government's promise to “kill off the health and safety culture for good.”

Enter the stage Lord Pickles (Howard Crossley), the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who, like a pantomime villain, generates a fairly strong reaction from the theatre audience.

He claims nobody had brought to his attention any issues related to fire safety or building regulations related to fire safety or any dangers to high-rise buildings from combustible materials or any of the research findings of his own officials into the dangers or whether his officials were aware that fire safety could be exempt from the Red Tape deregulation challenge.

Such questions and identical answers continued for a while till Lord Pickles, seemingly irritated by questions about government policy, points out to the Inquiry that he has “a busy day” so “I would urge you to use your time wisely.”

It is now nearly six years since 72 people were killed by material that commercial and public organisations knew was a lethal fire hazard. Some 2,000 buildings are said to be still covered in flammable cladding.

In their postscript to the play text, Richard Norton Taylor and Nicolas Kent point out that, “the government failed to implement any of the major recommendations made by the Inquiry after its first phase in 2019, including providing communal fire alarms in high-rise buildings and evacuation plans for the disabled. The Home Office in May 2022 said this would not ‘be proportionate.’"

The inquiry has cost £150 million. The Guardian in February reported that the ”building supply firms Saint-Gobain and Kingspan have reported more than £7.5bn in global profits since the fire in June 201… Combustible insulation products manufactured by both firms were installed on the tower."

As for Arconic, according to The Guardian, “a lawyer representing the firm... said the company was the victim of an agenda. The company considers the sale of the cladding was lawful and permitted by the regulations at the time.”

Grenfell: System Failure will tour three West London venues: The Playground Theatre (18–25 February), The Tabernacle (27 February–12 March) and Marylebone Theatre (14–26 March).

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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