Housing

Grenfell Tower Inquiry diary week 12: ‘Would you accept that was a serious failing on your part?’

By 02/10/2020No Comments

Perhaps most significantly, this involved the shut down of a ‘special projects’ team of surveyors which had previously taken on the inspection of more difficult jobs. Grenfell Tower would undoubtedly have been one of these.

Instead, all jobs were allocated through a patch system which split the west London borough up into areas. And as the number of surveyors was whittled down through retirements and one death, the patches of those remaining grew.

Grenfell Tower fell, by chance, into Mr Hoban’s patch. Despite nearly 30 years experience, he had neither the skill, experience or knowledge to deal with a high-rise overcladding. Aside from the school being built next to the tower, it was his first special project.

“It was given to you because it was in your patch regardless of your workload, and regardless of your skill and experience and regardless of your qualifications or absence of them?” asked counsel to the inquiry Richard Millett QC.

“Yes,” answered Mr Hoban.

With the number of surveyors dropping from around 12 to four or five, Mr Hoban revealed his workload would “fluctuate between 120 [and] 130 properties… plus my other duties”.

Asked about the impact this had, he said: “I wasn’t visiting certain jobs – I was making sort of judgements on who to visit, on who to write to, [in order to] sort of confirm things.”

By the end of March 2017 – just 10 weeks before the fire – Mr Hoban resigned. The pressure had become too much.

“I resigned because I had enough. I wasn’t able to do the job how I was trained to do and it was affecting my health, and I just decided that I didn’t want to work there anymore,” he said.

This picture of cuts and an overworked surveyor unable to do a thorough job was compelling, but there are a couple of caveats that are worth mentioning.

The first is why did RBKC feel the need to cut its department in the way that it did? Local authority inspectors bill the developers for their service, and there was no shortage of work. With 130 projects per surveyor, surely it would not have been difficult to secure the fees necessary to better fund the department.

Or was the truer answer that money was being filtered off to pay for services elsewhere? These are questions the inquiry may want to put to more senior members of the council, if and when they are called.

Second, Mr Hoban’s workload is not a complete excuse. Having 130 projects open sounds overwhelming, but they would not all require attention at the same time. His key mistakes, as we will see below, do not appear to have resulted simply from a lack of time.

‘I’m bound to put it to you that failure… fell below the standards of a reasonably competent building control inspector’

So what did Mr Hoban do wrong on the project?

There were numerous ways in which the surveying did not meet up to the required standard, but we will focus on three critical issues which relate directly to the fire: the cladding material, the insulation and the lack of cavity barriers.

The cladding

Mr Hoban was not initially aware that that highly combustible aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding was being planned for the tower. The design drawings he was sent in summer 2014 erroneously labelled the cladding as zinc and no one specifically told him it was being switched to ACM.

But by March 2015, he had received correctly annotated plans and some time around then (he could not recall exactly when) reviewed certification for the cladding, from independent certifier the British Board of Agrément.

This is not something he admitted to doing in his witness statement. “I just… I didn’t… all I can do is apologise,” he said.

This certificate indicated on the first page that the Reynobond ACM panels “may be regarded as having a Class 0 surface”. Under Approved Document B, Class 0 was the required standard for the external surfaces of walls – and hence cladding.

This was apparently enough for Mr Hoban. But the rest of the certificate carried a number of caveats, including a clear statement that it needed to be installed in line with instructions from the manufacturer. Mr Hoban said he never read beyond the first page.

“I don’t think I had taken any steps. I would have, as I say, the first page perhaps as, you know, it said Class 0, and maybe I didn’t read the other pages… maybe I just looked at the first page,” he said.

Had he read more, he would have realised the product came in two forms: fire rated and polyethylene cored. He did not know this and never explored whether fire rated would have been better for Grenfell Tower.

He said he had no idea what polyethylene was or how it burned. We know now that it has a similar reaction to fire as petrol.

On this point, Mr Hoban’s evidence was important in undermining an argument the government has made since the fire. Ministers have refused to accept ‘Class 0’ was the required standard for composite cladding panels, insisting that a reference to ‘filler material’ later in the guidance meant that the plastic inside the panels should have been of limited combustibility.

This has been repeatedly knocked back by industry figures who have said that the reference to filler actually meant polyfiller type products used to plug gaps in insulation. This was certainly Mr Hoban’s view.

“I didn’t understand the material inside [the cladding] to be a filler material, my understanding of filler material was to make good joints and to finish the insulation as it were,” he said.

Expect this quote to be read back to government witnesses when they eventually give evidence. The inclusion of the inadequate Class 0 standard in government guidance as the appropriate standard for cladding appears to have been a critical mistake.

The insulation

But what of the insulation? This should not have been Class 0, but the tougher standard of limited combustibility and there is no way the plastic material used on Grenfell met this standard. So why did Mr Hoban permit it?

His evidence on this point was confused. First, he said he had seen a reference on the Local Authority Building Control (LABC) website to the product – Celotex RS5000 – which described it as “suitable” for use on high rises.

But when pressed to give more detail, he could not recall whether this had in fact been the LABC website or Celotex’s own website.

Shown the product certification, he accepted that while it said it was acceptable for use on high-rise buildings, this was only the case if it was being used within a whole system that had been tested and passed. This was not the system used on Grenfell.

“You look up RS5000 on the Celotex website but you don’t get any further than seeing that it’s suitable for buildings above 18m and you don’t examine why precisely that is so. Would you accept that was a serious failing on your part?” said Mr Millett.

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