LAWYERS for victims of the Grenfell fire have indicted the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea council, which owned the Grenfell tower block, and its building managers accusing them of ‘neglect, indifference and discrimination’ towards residents.
They told the on-going inquiry that worried residents who raised safety concerns before the fire in June 2017 that killed 72 people were ‘bullied’ and ‘stigmatised’.
Michael Mansfield QC said the council regarded the 24-storey block in North Kensington as an ‘eyesore which required cosmetic surgery to make it more palatable to its elegant and wealthy neighbours.’
Mansfield added that the refurbishment, which took place between 2012 and 2016 and installed flammable cladding, only gave it a ‘superficial facelift while neglecting underlying deficiencies’. Residents’ concerns were ignored.
One of the residents to raise concerns was Shah Ahmed, who formed the Grenfell Tower Leaseholders Association and wrote to senior executives after a fire in 2010. He wrote: ‘There is certainly a high probability that, in the event of another fire, the whole building can become an inferno.’
He warned about the building’s ‘interior staircase and malfunctioning ventilation system’ and demanded an independent investigation into the safety of the block. He further charged that Grenfell residents were viewed as ‘sub-human’.
Mansfield said Ahmed had to write the letter because the complaints system for residents was ‘outdated, cumbersome, not simple and was used to shut them off, lock them out essentially’. He indicted the Kensington & Chelsea Council and the Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) for having a ‘culture of indifference’.
Further warnings came from Edward Daffarn, a member of the Grenfell Action Group, who wrote a series of blog posts about safety issues in the building and raised concerns with the council.
Victims’ lawyer Danny Friedman QC said that when Daffarn pointed out that a fire door had a broken closing mechanism in 2015, the TMO seemed to care more about dismissing his complaints than fixing it so that on the night of the fire the door was still not working, allowing smoke into a central area on one floor where two people died. In fact, the council described Daffarn’s blog posts as ‘scaremongering’.
Stephanie Barwise QC read out an email from council worker Laura Johnson sent during the building’s refurbishment saying that a councillor would not want to attend a public meeting of people ‘moaning about minor issues’.
Barwise said the fire was ‘predictable and preventable’ and accused the council of failing in its legal duty to ensure the building was safe, including after the London Fire Brigade warned in the months before the blaze that cladding could be dangerous.
The inquiry was told that the council simply forwarded the letter from the Fire Brigade to the TMO, saying: ‘FYI’. ‘Sick Building’.
The fact that vulnerable residents such as disabled people and children suffered higher death rates than any other group, Barwise blamed on a failure to take adequate precautions for them.
A quarter of the 67 children in the building died along with 41% of the vulnerable adult residents present on the night of the fire, she said. Both the TMO and its fire risk assessor, Carl Stokes, ‘failed to identify the vulnerable residents at Grenfell’ and there was a lack of an emergency or evacuation plan.
In a written submission, Mansfield said that Grenfell had become a ‘sick building’ over the course of decades. ‘The residents saw the symptoms, and even suggested the cure,’ he said. ‘They were ignored and marginalised at every turn.’
In fact, the firm that made the Grenfell Tower cladding was warned of the risks of a building fire that would kill ‘60 to 70’ people a decade before the tragedy. It was a chilling prediction of the exact circumstances of the Grenfell Tower blaze.
This prediction came at a presentation attended by a marketing manager from Arconic. Gerard Sonntag sent an internal memo at the time suggesting the company stop selling the flammable version of its product, the public inquiry heard.
It never happened, and the fire, made worse by Arconic’s cladding, killed 72. The public inquiry is hearing evidence relating to three Arconic employees who have refused to give evidence.
Grenfell survivors are demanding prosecutions and jail sentences for those responsible for the deadly fire.