Grenfell smoke vents show ‘incompetence and indifference’ of management

The standard of the smoke ventilation system at Grenfell Tower shows the “incompetence and indifference” of the organisation in charge of running the building and its advisers, a public inquiry has been told.

The inquiry into the June 2017 blaze at the west London tower block, which claimed 72 lives, heard that a fire in the 24-storey block of flats in April 2010 exposed some concerns with the automatic opening vents (AOVs).

Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) was appointed by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) to run its council housing stock.

Adrian Williamson QC, representing the bereaved, survivors and residents, told the inquiry: “The smoke ventilation system (SVS) is yet another story of incompetence and indifference on the part of the TMO and their advisers.

“The SVS has a long and chequered history dating from its initial construction of neglect and non-compliance.

“This story is bookended by a serious fire in 2010 and the catastrophic fire in 2017.”

The Grenfell Memorial Wall (Jonathan Brady/PA)
The Grenfell Memorial Wall (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Resident Sayeda Ahmed ended up inhaling smoke which came from the April 2010 fire and made its way up the building.

Mr Williamson said RBKC solicitors wrote to Mrs Ahmed’s legal team stating “they are prepared to concede that on the date of the fire for which we are concerned the fire detection system which was in place at Grenfell Tower was defective and they are accordingly prepared to accept responsibility for your client’s claim”.

Janice Wray, a health and safety adviser at the KCTMO, had sent an email to the London Fire Brigade (LFB) where she had stated “in retrospect the delay should have caused us to consider what, if any interim measures were required until repairs were completed and the system was fully operational again”.

Mr Williamson described this period referred to by Ms Wray as one “whereby remedial work had been required, it had not been progressed, it had not been carried out on time and it had not been carried out prior to the April 2010 fire”.

He told the inquiry panel that none of that information had been passed to the fire risk assessor and added “it was a typical example of the TMO’s laxness and mismanagement”.

Stephanie Barwise QC, also representing the bereaved, survivors and residents, said that PSB, a company which installed a smoke ventilation system in the block, has been given the chance to justify its system.

She said PSB has had since April 2018 “to explain the basis of its design and yet has failed to do so”.

She added it is not clear whether PSB has consulted an independent expert to counter opinions which have been given to the inquiry.

Tower block fire in London
People look at tributes outside the nearby Notting Hill Methodist Church after Grenfell Tower fire. (Yui Mok/PA).

Lee Bennett QC, for PSB, told the inquiry that the system created by the company for Grenfell Tower was a reasonable design response and it complied with building regulations.

Looking ahead to potentially critical expert opinion that may be presented to the inquiry, Mr Bennett added: “PSB anticipates that some aspects of the forthcoming evidence will be challenging for it.”

He said: “It’s work has been subject to intense scrutiny over a period of years now and there may well be aspects of its work on the Grenfell Tower project that could have been done better.”

He acknowledged that the paperwork and record keeping was “less than optimal” in relation to the testing and commissioning process but PSB believes these matters were completed satisfactorily.

“Our position is that when PSB left site in April 2016, the system was working as intended,” Mr Bennett said.

He added that the system was designed “for a fire in a single flat on one floor only, not to cope with the undeniable catastrophic fire and its overwhelming consequences that transpired at the Tower on 14 June 2017.”

Martin Seaward QC, for the Fire Brigades Union, called on the inquiry panel to find that firefighting activities were entirely as expected in the early stages of the fire and should have been allowed for in the design of the smoke control systems but were not.

He said there were failings in the design, commissioning, installation and maintenance of the smoke control system.

The work of the firefighters basically was made “impossible” due to failures in the active and passive fire protection systems inside the tower, according to Mr Seaward.

He said these included many fire doors which were not self-closing or fire-resistant, plus fire controls which were not operable so the lifts could not be used for firefighting and evacuation. The floor numbers in the stairs and lobbies were covered and unclear and the emergency lighting was not working properly.

The hearing was adjourned to Thursday at 10am.