Grenfell Tower Disaster 14th June 2017

With the appointment of an experienced judge, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, to head the forthcoming public enquiry, it is much to be hoped that the enquiry will draw clear conclusions about the fire resistance standards applied to the cladding materials, the need for new standards, and the post-installation inspection regime.

While not presuming to anticipate the enquiry’s agenda, it is worth noting one or two oddities in the official response to the disaster, not hitherto commented on:

  1. The apparent non-appearance, until a fortnight after the disaster, of the UK’s chief centre of expertise on building design and regulations and materials – the Building Research Establishment (BRE) at Watford[1]. This actively supports a specific fire research section, the “BRE Centre for Fire Engineering Research” at the University of Edinburgh ( This unit is expressly concerned with the effects of fire outbreaks in actual buildings. In the 1990s it carried out a series of large-scale fire tests in the former giant airship hangar at RAF Cardington, Bedfordshire. It carried out a further series of large-scale fire experiments in a real 1960s tower block in Glasgow, due for demolition, as recently as 2006.
  2. The large-scale tests are vital because of the flame-spread question. British Standard 476-20 (1987) sets out general principles for materials and structures fire testing. It is fair to say though that the behaviour of polymer materials contained in cladding installed as vertical sheets is not a particular focus in BS 476.

    The oft-quoted and respected US Underwriters Laboratory fire initiation and propagation standard UL94 specifically excludes plastics materials when used for building construction and finishing. Most modern furniture covered in polymer fabrics passes these UL94 tests, but the real issue at Grenfell (and other tower-block fires abroad) is that the easily measured fire spread speeds on horizontal test pieces are magnified many times in the vertical position by natural convection. This is the primary means by which 2 ft vertical radiator panels heat domestic premises, which can easily be observed by holding a paper strip just above the radiator.

    These are profoundly technical matters which have been brought into terrifying view by the Grenfell disaster. It’s a profound pity and failure of crisis management that this technical issue was not firmly parked and not subjected to uninformed comment and speculation by sundry officials, politicians, and the general public.

  3. Which brings up the third point of this post, namely the absence of any one individual clearly in charge of managing the aftermath of this tragedy. In fact it has exposed British public administration and politics at their worst – senior officials from the fire and police services, politicians and councillors, all competing for attention, but none in proper charge.

    An extraordinary puzzle arises from this confusion – the lack of a list of the people who were the tenants of the block as the starting point to assess who was in the flats during the night of the fire outbreak at 2 am.

    The actual management of the block is in the hands of a landlord organisation Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), of which there has been barely a word. Yet this organisation must have a list of tenants, and their rents paid and any in arrears.

    KCTMO was established on April 1st 1996 and manages 9,760 properties. Since then it has been completely separate from the Kensington and Chelsea Council, and in 2002 took over responsibility for all major, as well as minor, capital works including the 2016 refurbishment of Grenfell Tower. Like all councils everywhere, Kensington & Chelsea has statutory responsibility for issuing a Completion Certificate (CC) certifying the finished work’s compliance with Building Regulations.

    KCTMO is managed by a 15-member Board of Directors, of which 8 – a majority – are elected for 3 years at a time by tenant members, 4 appointed by Kensington & Chelsea Council (which owns the freehold), and 3 are appointed independent members. KCTMO is formally a not-for-profit company, limited by guarantee and tenants are encouraged to join (effectively without financial responsibility): almost half (4,500) of the properties’ tenants have done so.

    On the face of it KCTMO is a model arrangement to ensure active participation by tenants in the management of their flats. There will be a Chairman, a Finance Director, probably a Chief Executive for an organisation turning over some £50 million plus in rents per year. Curiously though, none of the current holders of these posts is identified on the KCTMO website.

    Like any other landlord, KCTMO has as one of its prime duties to apply the law on immigration status, that is not to let property to anyone not entitled to be in the United Kingdom[2]. The suspicion here is that the difficulty of completing a list of inhabitants is because some tenants may have illegally sublet their flats to unnamed individuals, of which KCTMO has, naturally, no record.

What the Prime Minister should have done

She should have appointed a single individual to manage the whole situation from establishing a missing, dead, and absent list for regular updating, to organise temporary accommodation, to gather together at one point all that is known or remembered about the fire, and to oversee the operations of the fire service to see that it has access to the most appropriate equipment and people (e.g. helicopters) in addition to its own equipment.

Even at this stage in the Grenfell tragedy, there is need for someone to take overall charge, that someone being from the military or from the civilian project management profession.
In a crisis of similar dimensions – the foot and mouth outbreak all over the country in 2001, chaos reigned for weeks with widespread burnings of culled livestock at individual farms, until the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, appointed one man, Brigadier Alex Birtwhistle, to manage the aftermath including the deployment (in that case) of units of the Territorial Army. Brigadier Birtwhistle rapidly and systematically brought the disaster under control, brought help to beleaguered farmers and gave space for scientific lessons to be learned.

End Notes

[1] The Building Research Establishment was set up as a government facility in 1921 and remained such until the Major government privatised it in 1997.

[2] This rule is rightly and rigorously enforced by inspections of properties let by private landlords. The suspicion is that Councils, especially in Labour controlled inner cities, do not do this.

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