This essay, on the corruption revealed by the Grenfell Inquiry, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 2 May 2021, under the headline “Grenfell is still giving up its secrets and they retain the power to shock”.
It is not just the broken promise, it is also the pitilessness of it. In February, Boris Johnson told parliament, in the wake of the cladding scandal, that “no leaseholder should have to pay for the unaffordable costs of fixing defects that they didn’t cause”.
The Fire Safety Bill became law last week, but only after MPs five times rejected attempts to provide financial support for leaseholders facing ruinous costs for the replacement of inflammable cladding. There is a fund of £5bn to support leaseholders in taller tower blocks, although the real cost of replacing the cladding could be three times that amount. For leaseholders in blocks under 18 metres high there is not even inadequate support.
The government’s obstinacy is unfathomable. It is also unsurprising. For, as the Grenfell Tower inquiry has exposed, the state – at local and national level – has continually colluded with business to the detriment of ordinary people. Private companies continued to sell materials they knew could kill. Governments and regulators refused to act. Locals who spoke up were damned as “troublemakers”.
Arconic, the company that made the Grenfell Tower cladding, knew it to be a firetrap. The firm created more fire-resistant cladding to use in countries with tighter regulations, such as Germany, but pushed the dangerous version in Britain. It allowed it to be used in a form called a “cassette” (in which panels are bent into a box shape to hide the fixings) even though it recognised as far back as 2004 that this could be lethal in a fire. The cassette system was used on Grenfell Tower. An internal memo from 2007 forecast that a fire in buildings with such cladding could result in “60 to 70” deaths; 72 people were killed in Grenfell. Arconic misled the certification body, the British Board of Agrément (BBA), which passed it as safe.
Kingspan, the company that provided some of the Grenfell insulation, called Kooltherm K15, changed the way the product was made in 2006. The new version performed disastrously in tests – an internal document described it as creating a “raging inferno” – but Kingspan sold it using test results from the old product. “What. We lied?” asked one employee in a text. “Alls we do is lie in here”, responded another. After insulation from Celotex, a third company involved in the Grenfell disaster, failed a safety test, the company used hidden non-combustible boards to get it through its next test. An employee told the inquiry that “this isn’t the only manipulation of test data”.
It is difficult to overstate the depth of the scandal exposed by the inquiry, even though it has received relatively little coverage in recent months. What’s been revealed is a culture of corruption and a contemptuous disregard for people’s lives in the pursuit of profit. This is not something peculiar to construction. From Boeing to Volkswagen, from clothes manufacturers to Big Pharma, we’ve seen in recent years how lying and cheating is part of big business. That’s how the market works.
It is not, however, just about companies knowing how to circumvent regulation. It is also about regulators (and governments) allowing them to do so.
Arconic’s president told the inquiry that the BBA “could have found the [real] results by public audit”. That’s no excuse for lying in the first place, but it is true that the certification body could have scrutinised the company’s claims with greater zeal if it had wanted to.
In 2015, the National House Building Council (NHBC) realised that Kingspan’s product was not compliant with regulations. Kingspan threatened legal action and organised a PR campaign. The NHBC changed its mind and approved the insulation. An internal Kingspan email boasted that the NHBC had “effectively eased the passage of compliance for a selection of combustible insulation brands”, the “direct result of our testing and campaigning on this issue”.
The Building Research Establishment, a national research facility privatised in 1997, failed to notice the hidden boards that Celotex used to rig the test on its insulation. Many experts wonder how.
There has been much debate in recent weeks about “crony capitalism”, about jobs for the boys and backhand deals. There is a deeper issue, too. Over the past four decades, the state has outsourced authority and power to independent organisations and private corporations. It’s a process that has hollowed out the state, made companies freer to regulate themselves and eroded the distinction between government and business, hence the “revolving door” about which we have heard much in recent weeks.
Regulation – proper regulation – has been eaten away. Corruption has become normalised. Grenfell is one tragic consequence.