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What we need from the Grenfell inquiry is clarity

David Price

This week we heard the opening statements at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry from representatives for the bereaved and the survivors, along with those for parties involved in the building’s refurbishment.

The inquiry has a long road ahead of it, with weeks and weeks of evidence to be heard over the next year-and-a-half.

The detail will also be immense, as reflected by the 1,507-page report submitted by fire engineering specialist Barbara Lane on day one.

Sitting in Holborn Bars and watching the various statements, it seems clear that responsibility for selecting and signing off the cladding will be a critical element in proceedings.

Determining where the bulk of that responsibility lies may not be easy, as the current positions of those involved illustrates.

Chelsea and Kensington Borough Council said that, while it provided funds for the refurbishment, it was not responsible for commissioning the works.

That fell to the tenant management organisation, which argued that it was not a construction specialist and relied on the advice of designers and consultants, as well as the expertise of the contractor in carrying out the refurbishment.

One of their advisers, fire safety consultant CS Stokes, said its job was not to undertake an “ongoing consultancy and/or supervisory” role on the refurbishment, and that it had been assured that building control had approved the fixing system and cladding used.

Building control falls under the scope of Chelsea and Kensington council, who said that building control “does not remove the duties on those paid to design buildings”.

The council added: “Prior to the Grenfell Tower fire, the construction industry operated on, and was structured on, the common understanding that designers were responsible for producing designs that complied with the Building Regulations and that, if they failed to do so, those financially affected should look to designers, rather than local authority building control departments, for compensation.”

Chelsea and Kensington made the point that design duties fell under refurbishment contractor Rydon’s remit under the design-and-build contract, which it signed with the tenant management organisation.

Rydon’s opening statement largely focused on the scope of the two phases of the inquiry, rather than responsibilities.

The contractual structure and where the responsibilities lie will be a major focus when the 2012-16 refurbishment is examined in phase two of the hearing.

Roles and responsibilities of each party in a construction contract – client, contractor, subcontractor and everyone in between – and the regulatory framework within which companies work will be examined forensically.

There is already a sense of anger from some of the survivors and bereaved at the opening statements from those involved in the refurbishment.

As the QC for one former resident said of the organisations: “Their strategy is clear: keep your head down, say as little as possible, express sympathy, admit nothing, pass the buck, pretend it is all very complicated, minimise reputational damage and financial loss.”

Yet construction contracts and regulations are complicated due to the many different parties are involved.

The hope now is that those parties will be open and clear about their responsibilities on the tower. If they are, then the inquiry can help the industry understand weaknesses in contract terms and regulations – and whether there is sufficient clarity over responsibilities for safety considerations.

Problems can then be addressed and we’ll be one step closer to having safer buildings and making sure Grenfell is never repeated.

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