An ex-senior housing official for Grenfell Tower’s landlords did not check on whether coroner and fire service recommendations were followed in the wake of a fatal fire at another housing block in 2009, an inquiry has heard.
The Lakanal House fire in Southwark, south London, on July 3 2009 claimed the lives of six people.
A subsequent coroner’s inquest resulted in a set of recommendations for the London borough of Southwark and Department of Communities and Local Government, with the deadly blaze also followed by wider London Fire Brigade (LFB) safety guidance.
On Thursday, Laura Johnson, former director of housing at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC), told an inquiry into the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire that she read a summary of the coroner’s recommendations in their Rule 43 report.
She said she was aware that Lakanal’s refurbishment had been linked to the spread of its fire.
The coroner recommended that “providers of housing in high-rise residential buildings containing multiple domestic premises to consider the retrofitting of sprinkler systems”.
Lead counsel to the inquiry Richard Millett QC asked Ms Johnson if anyone at RBKC ever considered the retrofitting of sprinklers in high-rise residential buildings in the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) stock.
“No I don’t believe we did,” she replied, adding that she did not remember why that was.
The coroner also recommended that Southwark review its policies for fire risk assessments at high rise buildings.
Under questioning, Ms Johnson said RBKC did not change its approach to these assessments post-Lakanal.
The Lakanal coroner also recommended the consideration of “the training needs of staff who will be involved in procuring or supervising work to existing high-rise residential buildings… to ensure that materials and products used in such work have appropriate fire protection qualities”.
Asked if she remembered considering such training needs for personnel at RBKC or the TMO, Ms Johnson said she did not.
“I personally wouldn’t have overseen the training needs of personnel in high-rise buildings, I would have assumed that the TMO would have taken action in those instances,” she said.
The council was the owner and landlord of Grenfell Tower, while the TMO was the organisation appointed by it to run its entire housing stock.
Asked if she thought it would have been appropriate to raise such training needs with the TMO, Ms Johnson said: “I did not do that at the time.”
She added: “I’m perfectly happy to concede that I should have had a conversation with the TMO about training of their personnel, of people who work for them, about how they managed evacuation or refurbishment of high-rise buildings and how it complied with or took the recommendations from the Lakanal House fire.”
Asked if she took steps to ensure those involved in the Grenfell Tower refurbishment project had such training, she said she did not.
Ms Johnson said she had organised a presentation on the causes of the Lakanal House fire and how it had spread, which left her concerned about the issue of “lack of compartmentation” – something she discussed with the TMO in relation to Grenfell.
She did not remember taking action personally as a result of the presentation nor remembered it “causing me any particular concern” about external cladding being discussed for Grenfell.
She said Lakanal was “quite an old” building erected in the late ’60s or ’70s, where “the cladding there, the panelling type was of that era, very much so”.
“So it would have been very different to anything that was suggested at Grenfell Tower,” she said.
The inquiry heard that after the Lakanal fire, the LFB produced new guides for councillors about fire safety that were shared with Ms Johnson in July 2014.
One document outlined what questions councillors could ask to probe the fire safety status of purpose-built blocks of flats, such as checking if a borough had clear policies stating that before modification and maintenance works on blocks, there should be proper assessment on the impact of fire safety.
Asked if RBKC had such clear policies, Ms Johnson said she would have expected this to be undertaken by a building control team or the planning department.
She added: “I did not take the leaflet that had been sent by LFB and then put together a plan about how I would use those recommendations in order to be able to respond to councillors.”
She said she had shared the leaflet with councillors and asked them if they wanted any further information.
Another fire safety “audit tool” document for councils was produced by the LFB because it was “concerned about the arrangements in place for protecting the fire safety precautions of a building, especially if it has been refurbished or if any modification or maintenance have been carried out”.
Despite being sent a copy, Ms Johnson said she did not remember seeing the document which featured a checklist of questions covering fire safety.
Mr Millett told the inquiry: “We haven’t seen any documents which would show that RBKC took this document, examined the audit tool, and discussed the audit tool with the TMO or internally.”
The inquiry also heard that the LFB sent a letter to Ms Johnson in April 2017 following a fire at a tower block at Shepherds Court in Hammersmith, west London in August 2016, that featured an external spread of the blaze.
This warned that testing revealed the combustibility of the building’s panels “did not meet the levels expected for conformity with the building regulations” and advised a risk assessment of RBKC’s properties.
Ms Johnson forwarded the letter to TMO chief executive Robert Black who later informed her that advice from a fire assessor was that Grenfell had different panelling “and it was OK”.
Concluding her evidence, a tearful Ms Johnson said there was an “endless list” of things she might have done differently before the Grenfell fire.
She said: “You look back on your time there, and you think, if only we had had more due diligence in relation to the cladding that was placed on the tower, if only we had understood better what was happening internationally around cladding.
“If only only we had had the ability to really understand better all the ins and outs of a refurbishment project of this of this nature.
Ms Johnson added: “You would never want anything of this type of incident to happen ever.
“It’s just awful.
“So, of course, I look back and think, what could I have done differently to make sure that this didn’t happen?”