Fire ripped through Grenfell Tower high-rise block in 2017, killing 72 people. © PA

They are some of the key questions that have haunted the marathon inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster — the fire that ripped through a west London high-rise block in 2017, killing 72 people.

How did so much combustible cladding end up attached to the outside of the building? These were materials that were supposed to improve the lives of residents by insulating properties and hence cutting their heating bills. And how could regulators have missed the flaws that led to so many deaths? 

Well, now the answers are starting to come in and they are not pretty for the industry. It’s a story that has shades of the Volkswagen scandal over diesel emissions, involving regulatory arbitrage and rigged tests. 

Eager to seize a large slice of a fast-growing “green” market, cladding manufacturers exploited weak regulatory oversight to push for undeserved safety ratings. Developers happy to cut corners asked too few questions. This might have seemed a good way of driving booming sales. But it was reckless. Indeed, knowing what came next makes it hard to read the evidence regarding some players, such as the Irish cladding giant Kingspan, without a shudder of disbelief. 

Take the messages between members of its technical team a year before the fire, which joke about how they managed to get the company’s K15 insulation categorised as “class 0” — allowing it to be used in buildings over 18 metres — in part by submitting for testing a different material to the one being sold. “Doesn’t actually get class 0 when we test the whole product tho. LOL,” says one. “WHAT. We lied? Honest opinion now,” responds the other. “Yeahhhh,” says the first, before adding, “All lies, mate.”

Asked about these messages at the inquiry, Kingspan’s head of regulatory affairs said he did not believe the company had lied and could not explain “why they’re describing it as such in that way”.

Nor was Kingspan — whose product represented only a small quantity of the cladding materials at Grenfell — alone in allegedly pushing boundaries. Celotex, a subsidiary of Saint Gobain of France, which supplied much of the insulation, allegedly manipulated tests for its RS5000 insulation by concealing non-combustible materials. RS5000 was withdrawn from sale days after the Grenfell fire.

It is for the police to investigate any criminal culpability of those involved in the refurbishment of Grenfell. But apart from the loss of life, what is clear is that an almighty mess has been created. 

Estimates suggest that around 5 per cent of the private homes in England could be clad in dangerous materials, rendering them unmortgageable. MPs on the housing select committee found that repairs could cost £15bn. The government has set aside just £1.6bn in grant funding to help.

Simple equity suggests that the “polluter pays” principle should operate. But, astonishingly, a UK government adviser, Michael Wade, has reportedly come up with a plan that would help leaseholders pay the cost of repairing the damage through a loan scheme.

Since the Grenfell fire, five of Britain’s largest housebuilders — all of which have had cladding problems — have reported profits of £9bn, their dividends and management bonuses engorged by public subsidy through the “Help to Buy” scheme. Celotex and Kingspan are beneficiaries of the UK’s taxpayer-supported £2bn “Green Energy Grant” programme.

Having raked in public money, it seems extraordinary that these companies should be able to make more profits without clearing up the mess.

Sense may yet prevail. Another restitution scheme has been proposed that would send the bill to those more responsible, such as the developers and cladders. On Thursday, the government said it would expect the building industry to “contribute” to any solution.

Kingspan’s 2019 accounts contain a 14 page section proclaiming its “Planet Passionate” mission to help the world to get to net zero. Of Grenfell, not a word.

Corporations increasingly like to trumpet their commitment to ethics and good citizenship. Few now claim to subscribe to Milton Friedman’s 1970 doctrine that “the only social responsibility of business is to increase its profits”. Events like the Grenfell disaster are a reminder that we are less far from Friedman’s famous dictum than we might like to believe.

jonathan.ford@ft.com


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