The landlord of Grenfell Tower took five years to replace a smoke ventilation system that had suffered “catastrophic failure” in a fire in 2010 that spread smoke across 11 storeys and injured three people.
The inquiry heard the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation was told by the London Fire Brigade that the ventilation system needed a full test after it failed, causing injuries to residents.
But the smoke extractor was not replaced until the refurbishment and only after the KCTMO admitted in 2015 that the fire alarm and ventilation system were “beyond economic repair”. The system broke down again six days before the fatal fire on 14 June 2017 that claimed 72 lives. Many of the residents died from the inhalation of smoke and toxic gases.
Shahid Ahmed was chair of the Grenfell Tower leaseholders’ association and he told the inquiry that for years before the fire, the TMO was unresponsive to resident concerns about safety, and he strongly criticised its complaints process.
“I thought the complaints procedure was a way for the TMO to be judge, jury and executioner,” he said. “Their strategy was to refer me to the complaints procedure and exhaust GTLA. I felt their replies never gave sincere attention to GTLA’s serious and grave concerns in Grenfell Tower. The complaints I made never achieved anything. That was why I repeatedly requested that Grenfell Tower be subjected to an independent health and safety review in 2017.”
“I was sure that they were not taking the risk of another fire seriously,” Mr Ahmed told the inquiry. “I was scared for all of the residents.
In spring 2017 Mr Ahmed drafted a statement, with the help of a barrister, to the Housing Ombudsman and others titled “Health and safety and serious fire risk hazard”. It raised concerns about gas pipes being installed in stairways, the safety of the evacuation system and lift breakdowns. In March 2017 the TMO again refused his request for independent safety checks on the tower.
“The real problem with Grenfell Tower was not the age or state of the building, it was the attitude of the council and the TMO.”
The inquiry also heard about problems with the TMO’s communications with non-English speakers in the tower. There were very few translation requests for tenants’ newsletters, even though some contained important fire safety guidance.
The inquiry was told that 52 of the block’s 120 flats had disabled occupants. On the night of the fire a TMO document only listed 10 disabled residents. Fifteen of the 37 residents classed as vulnerable in the block were among the 72 who died.
The TMO did not create escape plans for disabled residents and instead relied on telling people to “stay put” despite fires in 2015 and 2016 at nearby tower blocks, Adair Tower and Shepherds Court which both required evacuations.
By Patrick Mooney, Editor