14 June, marks the four-year anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, where 72 people lost their lives. The public inquiry set up by the government to investigate the tragedy is currently in Phase Two, focusing on how the building came to be a deathtrap. The obvious answer – which the inquiry will not consider, of course – is that capitalism is to blame.
Phase Two of the ongoing inquiry has examined the process whereby companies started producing and selling highly flammable cladding for use on residential buildings.
The facts presented to the inquiry help shed light on the ugly reality of capitalism, including the relentless drive by companies to cut costs, regardless of the consequences.
We are told that capitalist competition and the profit motive are the engine of progress and technological development. But in reality, the drive to accumulate profits comes at the expense of all else – including workers’ lives.
In the years leading up to the Grenfell fire, we saw how capitalist competition drove the race by companies to adopt more and more dangerous and flammable materials; to adopt misleading advertising; and to manipulate and distort fire tests.
Here we can trace the profit motive at work.
With the switch from zinc to flammable ACM cladding, the Tory council got the ‘regeneration’ of Grenfell on the cheap. The Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) saved £293,368.
Rydon, the building contractor, who misinformed their client on the savings, pocketed £126,000.
And Arconic, the cladding manufacturer, made a third more in profit compared to the fire-resistant alternative.
All because of this, 72 of Grenfell’s residents lost their lives.
Profits and ‘innovation’
The profit motive – supposedly the great motor-force of ‘innovation’ – was hard at work. It is well explained by Marx how the drive for ever greater profits forces capitalists to cut their costs of production, or else be forced out of business by their competitors.
The great ‘innovation’ of Kingspan, of Arconic, of Celotex was to exchange non-flammable and costly building materials like zinc, for the cheap by-product of other industrial processes – a flammable and toxic plastic which behaved like ‘petrol’.
In this difference between safe and unsafe, between flammable and inflammable, were the super profits for these capitalists.
Kingspan was a ‘market leader’, and the first to sell plastic foam insulation for high-rise buildings. In 2005, its product ‘K15’ passed a large scale fire test in a cladding system with non-flammable cement fibre cladding.
The company then proceeded to falsely advertise their product as safe for buildings over 18 metres in height with all non combustible cladding, when it only ever passed the test with the specific system.
When the British Board of Agremént (BBA) wanted to edit information in an erroneous certificate they had previously granted to Kingspan, and asked questions regarding the circumstances of the fire test, they were ignored.
In response to the BBA’s questions, Philip Heat – a director of Kingspan – ordered his employees to “let it gather dust”, as such clarifications would harm sales.
In 2009, Kingspan commissioned the Local Authority Building Control (LABC) to issue a desktop study certification for K15. The LAVC falsely included a statement which said K15 could be considered a ‘product of limited combustibility’.
With this new false certificate, Kingspan ordered the halting of all fire tests. It claimed that ‘‘the pressure is on other component suppliers for this method of construction to obtain a similar statement or prove their non combustible status”.
Kingspan’s competitors, Arconic and Celotex, asked themselves how it was possible for Kingspan to get flammable material certified. They looked at the £15 million K15 was making in profits and were eager to follow in Kingspan’s footsteps.
Arconic and Celotex quickly engineered their processes so that similar flammable products would pass fire tests under specific and misleading circumstances – fire tests that they then used to market their material as safe for buildings over 18 meters in height.
Celotex’s insulation product RS 5000 had previously failed fire tests. So in May 2014, Celotex engineered for their product to pass a large-scale fire test in a ‘cladding system’.
Yet in order to have this combustible insulation pass the test, Celotex inserted inflammable magnesium oxide boards (which are used in blast furnaces, and impractical and uncommercial for cladding systems) behind the cladding system specified. These were used to halt the spread of the inferno.
However, the presence of this board was not mentioned in the BRE test report. Somehow the BRE (provider of fire safety certificates) was never informed. They never looked for it themselves, and never noticed!
Once the certificate was granted, Celotex concealed photographic evidence of the magnesium oxide boards from certification bodies, customers, and even their own staff.
Claude Wehrle, head of the Arconic technical sales support team, told his colleagues that the failed fire safety test should be kept “very confidential”.
The cladding and insulation companies knew full well that their products were highly flammable.
Kingspan knew it was ‘dodgy’ to advertise their materials as safe for high-rise buildings. Celotex even held internal presentations in 2014, where it was explained they could market their combustible product as safe for buildings over 18 meters because “nobody understood the test requirements”.
What becomes evident when hearing the many testimonies of the managers and employees of the various companies, is that it’s difficult for someone to understand something when their salaries and position depend on them not understanding.
Indeed, various emails show they understood things very well. But they quickly learnt that they should not understand. They all learnt to play dumb.
Take Deborah French, a sales manager for Arconic, as an example. At one point she researched for herself the difference between Reynobond PE cladding, and the flame retardant versions. She asked if she should share the information she gathered with a prospective client – engineering firm Arup.
French received the following response from Claud Wehrle, Arconic’s technical manager: “OH MY LORD!!!…For sure you are NOT allowed to diffuse to the customers those documents.”
Ivor Meredith, a technical manager at Kingspan who was deeply “embroiled in a deliberate and calculated deceit by Kingspan” explained the process well. Early in his career he was criticised for being too ‘negative’, so he explained: “I tried to sit on my opinions…They weren’t doing any benefit to my career.”
Race to the bottom
In 2007, at an industry event in Norway, Arconic management were shown a presentation of the many ACM composite panels. They were warned a cladding fire could kill “60 to 70” people. Yet nothing was done.
The flammable nature of the cladding may have been known by the building contractors too. A Harley Facades internal email states, “we all know this ACM cladding will be gone pretty quickly in a fire.”
It seems they didn’t care. For the construction contractors, the race to win contracts and maximise profits was the race to have the lowest bid. This means a race to cut all corners – a race to the bottom.
This was the motivation behind the switch to flammable ACM cladding. This was the motivation behind not hiring any fire safety consultants. And this was the motivation behind hiring ‘cheap and incompetent subcontractors’.
Hire your own regulators
We’ve seen how the manufacturers distorted and manipulated tests to pass off dangerous material by sleight of hand and ‘clever marketing’. The question must be asked: how was it possible for the fire safety certifier – the BRE – to go along with this?
One reason is the ‘close relationship’ in the construction industry between manufacturers and the BRE.
The BRE as a whole, privatised in 1997, is dependent on construction industry clients for their income – i.e. the same clients who would commission fire tests. The conditions in the construction industry are therefore one of hire your own certifiers! Hire your own regulators!
For the TMOs, it’s even hire your own ‘fire risk assessor’. In the case of the Kensington and Chelsea TMO, they hired Carl Stokes, who would advise the TMO how to avoid scrutiny and awkward questions from the London fire service.
Given all this, it’s little wonder then that the BRE behaved so compliantly.
There exists a free market in regulators. Councils’ building control offices are part privatised and dependent on funding from building contractors. They are also in competition with a wide choice of private ‘approved inspectors’, who are known to boast in their advertising that ‘plans are never rejected’.
Implicit in this situation is a perverse incentive to pass unsafe buildings as safe.
The dependence of building control on contractors’ funding increased with funding cuts and austerity. Due to funding cuts, the number of building control officers employed by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC) was halved by 2013.
Building control oversight seems to have consisted of reading cladding manufactures’ advertisements, and relying on what they were told by the contractors.
When John Holbon, the building control officer responsible for Grenfell, approved the project, despite the original application not being valid, he was following the culture of the building control office, who were determined to ‘work with applicants’. Ditto when Holbon produced a completion certificate, despite no fire safety information having been handed over.
Holbon eventually left building control prior to the Grenfell fire, as he said: “I was not able to do my job properly in the way I was trained to.”
The Royal Borough & the TMO
Now the inquiry has turned its attention to the council – the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) – and the TMO.
Evidence of their corruption and blatant disregard for working class lives continues to mount. As their obscene choices are aired in public, you can clearly see that the statement “[Grenfell residents] were treated as subhuman” is not hyperbole.
Ed Daffarn was one of many residents to give a harrowing account of that fateful night to the inquiry. It came to light that Mr Daffarn was often used as an excuse for the TMO to avoid their responsibilities. He, like many other residents, were treated like criminals for raising concerns.
Peter Maddison, the TMO’s director of assets, effectively accused Mr Daffarn of lying whenever the topic of fire safety was raised.
And Claire Williams – the TMO project manager for the refurbishment – knew about several complaints from other residents, especially about faulty or broken door mechanisms. In response she emailed: “Lets hope our luck holds and there are no fires in the meantime.”
Maddison added to this when it was made clear he would rather spend money on solicitors to use against tenants, instead of door closers and functioning fire doors.
Astonishingly it doesn’t stop there. Williams was aware of, and lied about, the broken ventilator system.
The TMO’s own contractors described the ignored LFB deficiency notice on the ventilator system, and the lack of protection that stemmed from this as a ‘bombshell’.
This was described as a genuine ‘what if’ moment by the inquiry. However, elevating this alone would diminish the several ‘what if’ moments littered across decades.
Moreover, the TMO revealed not only their own amorality, but that of the private contractors, when they spoke the only truth in their statement: that there was “deception by companies for profit”.
Residents’ complaints led nowhere, and were just described as ‘suppressed in disagreements’. The residents felt that their involvement was at best tokenistic. As the emails show, the council and TMO only saw residents as a nuisance, rather than a community with needs that were going unaddressed.
The Grenfell community did not control their homes, they just had things done to them. They had no rights to talk about the budget or cost cutting exercises or contract tendering meetings.
When residents asked to be involved in these important processes, the response was to ask back ‘is this some sort of joke?’
Management lamented that: “This doesn’t go back two years, it goes back 20 years. It has always been a bad tempered place, and for some reason that general crossness has lingered.”
This captures the true nature of the deep-rooted contempt for residents that these careerists and bureaucrats hold.
When you are voiceless for 20 years, then a ‘general crossness’ is not simply justified, but the only response possible.
Whilst RBKC were quick to give ground in the inquiry to obvious mistakes, they tried to remain adamant that they were nothing but ‘overseers’ for the TMO. Yet they failed in even this simple task, with a lack of monitoring and a lack of staff dedicated to the tasks necessary to keep those in the tower safe.
The Tory councillors in the so-called ‘housing scrutiny committee’ always took the side of the TMO. This included ignoring reports from their own electricians that the known power surges, so often complained about, were indeed a pressing fire concern.
Beyond that, there were many purposefully overlooked opportunities highlighted in the inquiry that show the long-term institutionalised contempt for residents.
Laura Johnson, former head of housing at RBKC, was briefed in 2013 that a coroner’s inquest from the Lakanal house fire stated that sprinklers should be retrofitted. Johnson criminally took no notice of it.
Then in April 2017, no fewer than two months before the tragedy, RBKC were sent a letter from the LFB, warning of how cladding spreads fire. Again they chose negligence. They were seemingly, as the former deputy leader Rock Fielding-Mellen’s emails show, more concerned about the colour of the cladding than the safety of it.
Many witnesses have done their utmost to hamper the inquiry.
Arconic witnesses based in France hid behind French corporate law in order not to attend the inquiry. Often the witnesses that did attend sounded like broken records, with ‘I don’t recall’ said on repeat.
Williams and Maddison either failed to submit, or binned, evidence: their diaries and notebooks. It is already known that they broke EU procurement rules and held secret meetings with Rydon. It shows the cozy relationships these people enjoy. It stinks of corruption, with Rydon enjoying private and personal access to the TMO management.
From the early days of the fire, we asked why the police weren’t raiding the offices and seizing evidence of culpable parties? Why did they wait for evidence to be volunteered? What other evidence has been hidden and lost?
During the inquiry, immunity from prosecution was scandalously granted to witnesses. Thus the inquiry largely became toothless in the pursuit of ‘justice’.
The law has proven weak in preventing this fire, and weaker still in prosecuting those guilty. But then again, such public inquiries led by the establishment never lead to real justice.
Even the smallest recommendations from Phase One of the inquiry have been ignored.
The practical matter of requiring high-rise building owners to provide Personal Evacuations Plans (PEPs) for disabled and vulnerable people has been scuppered by this Tory government.
Meanwhile, millions of people are still stuck living in unsafe homes. Scandalously, some of these are still covered in flammable cladding, four years on from Grenfell. Many leaseholders are facing bankruptcy, as they are now saddled with enormous bills to fix their deathtrap homes.
The Tories have failed even the lowest expectations to implement the mildest of reforms. This is because Boris and his Tory chums are the paid servants for the class of criminals responsible for Grenfell.
For example, a major Arconic shareholder recently made a £25,000 gift to Boris Johnson and the Tory Party. Coincidently, Boris Johnson appointed Benita Mehra to sit on the Grenfell inquiry panel. When it came to light that Mehra ran an organisation that received £71,000 in grants from the ‘charitable arm of Arconic’, she was forced to stand down.
Likewise, Tory donor Jeremy Coller – who owns a fifth of Rydon Construction – donated £15,000 to the Tory Party. The Reuben brothers, the co-owners of European Land and Property, who built blocks of flats covered in flammable cladding, donated £200,000 to the Tories at the 2019 general election. And Kingspan director Richard Burnley went to private dinners with Tory and DUP MPs in the houses of parliament.
The government is due to face questioning by the inquiry into October. But it’s highly doubtful that the corruption of the capitalist state is in the remit of the inquiry.
In reality, the struggle for justice, and the quest to make sure something like this never happens again, is the task of the organised working class.
It is not just a few ‘bad apples’ that were responsible, but the capitalist system itself. Only under socialism will we see an end to people being killed for profit.
By Nico Baldion (Momentom HFKC) and Dan Langley (Bromley and Chislehurst CLP)