The chief executive of the company that managed Grenfell Tower warned colleagues they needed to find answers to questions about the cladding and the specification of the refurbishment even as it burned in front of him, it has emerged.
At 6am – just over five hours after the fire started – Robert Black emailed senior officials at the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), saying there were “questions about the cladding and spec. Questions about how [the fire] spread”.
In a memo sent from beside Grenfell as it continued to burn on the morning of 14 June 2017, he told colleagues including the company’s director of regeneration and finance director: “We need to pull some of this together pretty fast in terms of health and safety compliance. We need all the information about the refurbishment as this will be a primary focus.”
He told them that Nick Paget-Brown, the then-leader of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC), and Rock Feilding-Mellen, the then-deputy leader who was in charge of overseeing the refurbishment, were at the site “making statements saying very little”.
Black’s concern about those aspects of the fire emerged as he testified for the first time to the public inquiry into the disaster which claimed 72 lives. The specification of the cladding, which was highly combustible, has since been identified as a cause of the spread of the fire by experts to the inquiry.
He told the inquiry he was being asked questions by the leadership and the email was “a heads-up” to his team.
“I didn’t know why the fire created that problem,” he said. “I thought we had a brand new refurbished building that was on fire and people will be asking how that could happen.”
He said he was not aware of any deficiencies in the building that concerned fire safety.
The KCTMO and RBKC, which owned the housing block, had overseen a £10m refurbishment of the 24-storey tower which was completed in 2016.
It has previously emerged that cost cutting was a concern when the TMO and council were working on the refurbishment, the largest part of which was recladding the 1974 concrete facade.
In July 2014 an official from the TMO emailed the project team: “We need good costs for Cllr Feilding-Mellen.” At that point £300,000 was removed from the cladding budget and zinc panels were replaced with the aluminium composite material with a plastic core, which the government has now banned from use on high-rise residential blocks.
Black told the inquiry that he arrived at around 2.45am having been called at his home by a board member of the TMO who lived near the tower.
“On my arrival, I witnessed a terrible and shocking scene, very difficult to comprehend,” he said. “The building was engulfed in fire, windows were popping and burning and insulation was falling down all around where we were standing. It was very distressing.”
It also emerged that the KCTMO’s emergency plan for the building was out of date.
Examining the document, Richard Millett QC, counsel to the inquiry, said to Black: “As at the night of the fire this doc was 15 years out of date. Is that right?”
He replied: “It would appear to be so.”
“And it does not even reflect the refurbishment,” said Millett.
Black confirmed that it did not.
He admitted KCTMO’s own emergency plan was not activated, but claimed it was not necessary as RBKC had activated theirs.
“From my aspect, having dealt with some similar emergencies, there’s just no way our plan could deal with that event,” he said.
“Although we are a reasonable-sized organisation with 10,000 homes, we just don’t have the resources or the authority.”
Asked what the company’s role in the emergency plan was, Black said: “It has no role. Because the local authority liaison officers are the key part.”