The suppliers of two key components implicated in the deadly Grenfell Tower fire faced accusations on Monday of knowingly allowing the installation of dangerous products during the refurbishment of the west London block of flats.
The criticism of Arconic, a US metals group and Celotex, a UK-based materials company, came in opening statements on the first day of the resumed public inquiry into the June 2017 disaster that left 72 people dead and many more injured.
The claims were made by barristers acting for Rydon Maintenance, the main contractor responsible for the tower block’s refurbishment between 2014 and 2016, and Harley Facades, the specialist contractor overseeing the installation of the cladding on the building’s exterior.
The second, longer phase of the inquiry, led by retired Court of Appeal judge Martin Moore-Bick, will consider issues surrounding the renovation, when insulating and rain-proofing panels that allowed the fire to spread were installed.
Marcus Taverner, representing Rydon, presented evidence in his opening statement that Arconic had long accepted that the cladding panels provided for the Grenfell project posed a fire risk. Mr Taverner produced an email sent in 2011 by Claude Wehrle, an Arconic executive, in which he referred to the product exhibiting “bad behaviour” in response to fire.
He also quoted a 2015 email from Mr Wehrle in which the executive described the panel used at Grenfell as “dangerous on facades”. Mr Wehrle discussed an element of French regulations which he said could be interpreted as permitting the use of the Grenfell-type material on tall buildings. However, that rule should have been discontinued “over 10 years ago” because of the risks, Mr Wehrle wrote.
Mr Taverner also cited internal emails at Celotex from 2013, in which two executives discussed giving up on designing a rain screen of the type that was eventually installed at Grenfell because it posed such a serious fire risk.
Later, Jonathan Laidlaw, for Harley, described how Celotex had made “erroneous” claims that its RS5000 rain screen, fitted at Grenfell, could safely be used on buildings as tall as the 24-storey tower. It in fact had only very limited safety certification that did not cover the combination of materials fitted at Grenfell, Mr Laidlaw said, citing internal Celotex correspondence.
Mr Laidlaw revealed that Harley had contacted Jonathan Roome, Celotex’s major projects and specification manager, to discuss the refurbishment. Harley sent Mr Roome detailed drawings of the planned design and specification.
“At no stage was it suggested by Mr Roome, or anyone else at Celotex, that the wall build-up being proposed at Grenfell Tower in any way called into question the suitability of the use of RS5000 above 18 metres,” Mr Laidlaw told the inquiry.
Richard Millett, counsel to the inquiry, had earlier opened the second phase of hearings by criticising the “merry-go-round of buck-passing” between the companies involved in the refurbishment.
Only two parties had accepted any responsibility, he said. The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, the local council, had accepted that it should not have certified the building safe after the end of refurbishment in July 2016, Mr Millett said. Celotex had accepted some responsibility “to a lesser extent”, he said.
He said the submitted evidence gave the impression no one had done anything wrong.
Addressing Sir Martin, Mr Millett said: “If lessons are to be learned from what went wrong at Grenfell Tower, and the necessary changes to the construction industry are to be made, it is important that all those who give evidence . . . provide a truthful and a candid account of what happened during the primary refurbishment, so that your factual findings and recommendations . . . may accurately reflect the true nature of the problems which arose.”
Barristers for Arconic and Celotex are due to give their opening statements on Tuesday.