Housing supply

Inside Housing – News – Housing supply ‘overshadowed’ fire safety despite multiple warnings ahead of Grenfell, Barwell agrees

He was also shown a letter from Fire Minister Brandon Lewis, sent in November 2015, which referred to the department’s “long-standing commitment” to reviewing the guidelines and noted “changes in construction technology, in particular the increased use of combustible materials.

The letter said that Mr Lewis’s officials had met with the industry umbrella group, the Fire Industry Federation, which said the issues “caused concern” in the fire industry.

Ms Grange said the letter was sent following a meeting between senior DCLG and Home Office officials to secure higher priority for review of the guidelines.

Mr Barwell said he was unaware of this and said it was a ‘slightly dysfunctional and odd’ way of raising the issue which he was ‘struggling to explain’.

Another letter, already seen by the inquiry, was sent by London Fire Brigade Commissioner Dany Cotton in April 2017 – who said the brigade was “deeply concerned” about the range of issues fire safety she discovered in buildings, including “in particular, apartment buildings”.

The letter was never delivered to Mr Barwell, who at this stage was campaigning to retain his seat in a fringe Croydon constituency, which he would eventually lose.

Mr Barwell said the letter was “distressing”. “Regardless of the official advice, I would have taken this meeting as a matter of urgency,” he said. “I would have assumed that these problems were not unique to London.”

He said his office was only instructed to forward “the most urgent correspondence”.

“How can you read this letter and not see it as raising the most important of issues?” Mrs. Grange asked.

“That’s the only explanation I can offer,” Mr Barwell said.

“It’s not satisfying, is it?” Mrs. Grange asked.

“No,” replied Mr. Barwell.

The inquiry saw that Mr Barwell, who was responsible for a wide range of policy areas including building regulations, received a briefing on this part of his portfolio from officials in the summer 2016, several weeks after his appointment.

This briefing made no reference to the Coroner at Lakanal House’s commitment to review Approved Document B, although the Department told the Coroner it would be completed by 2016/17.

“Can we agree now that you should have received at least some information about the Lakanal fire and the coroner’s recommendations? Mrs. Grange asked.

“So the straightforward answer is yes, but I want to say that overall I had the highest regard for the officials I worked with and I don’t want to come here today and just say that it’s all the official’s fault,” replied Barwel.

He said the meeting left him with “completely false awareness” about how well building regulations were working.

He said he was called by Prime Minister Theresa May when she took office and told her to focus on tackling the “housing supply crisis”.

He acknowledged that this “influenced his thinking about the department’s priorities at the time”, but also said he had not been asked about building regulations in Parliament or in two interviews he made with Inside the housing.

“Clearly…the government had a completely wrong picture of the level of fire safety, but it wasn’t just the government,” he said.

However, as the inquiry later discussed, he was actually questioned about building regulations in Parliament in October 2016.

He said the preparation to answer this question was the first time he had been told that the department had undertaken to review Approved Document B following the Lakanal House fire.

However, he said he never read the letter the coroner sent in 2013 or the department’s response.

“Can we agree now that you really should have immediately asked to see the letter from the coroner and the letter from the ministry in response to this so that when you answered questions in Parliament you had a clear understanding of what the background was ? Mrs. Grange asked.

Mr Barwell said he ‘accepted the principle’ of his question, but because he should have been more ‘curious’ about the matter, not just to answer the question in Parliament.

As the inquiry has already heard, Mr Barwell’s office has been repeatedly sued by officials for allowing the release of research papers commissioned in 2012 that allegedly support this review.

These documents had been given to the department at the beginning of 2015, but were not finally published until February 2019, more than a year and a half after the fire at Grenfell Tower.

Mr Barwell said it was ‘absurd’ and ‘totally unacceptable that public funds had been spent on these reports and it had taken so long to publish them’, but insisted it was not not his private office which was responsible for the delay.

Instead, he said it was more likely the documents were held up by the department’s special advisers – one of whom was Carrie Symonds, the current wife of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

In order to launch the review, officials were also required to publish a “discussion paper” containing details of the proposed changes for consultation.

The inquiry saw that this document was originally due to be published after the party’s conference season in the fall of 2016, but was delayed as Mr Barwell focused his efforts on the housing white paper, which itself was even been delayed until February 2017.

The discussion paper did not finally reach Mr Barwell until March 2017. It was still unpublished at the time of the Grenfell Tower fire, with the purdah period ahead of the June 2017 general election further delaying its publication.

“Can we agree that during your tenure as Housing Minister no positive steps were taken to advance fire safety issues?” Mrs. Grange asked.

“I don’t think it’s a fair thing to say, we had clearly worked on the discussion paper and we had made internal progress. The general election call prevented this work from entering the public domain, he replied. “So I certainly accept that we haven’t made the progress we should have, but I think the way you phrased it is unfair.”

The draft discussion paper made no reference to the coroner’s recommendations following the Lakanal House fire and did not address the issue of external fire spread.

He also said the review should be limited to “areas favorable to simplification or deregulation” or where “there is convincing evidence that current requirements need to be changed”.

“Can we agree that the government housing supply program really dominated your time in the department and eclipsed other basic work including the review of Approved Document B, some of which was critical to security people ?” asked Mrs Grange

“I absolutely accept that with some important caveats,” Mr Barwell said. “One of them is that the department, as they acknowledge in their opening statement, did not recognize that this work was essential to the safety of people and, therefore, I was not says that.

“And secondly, and I mean this very softly, because it’s absolutely right that the inquiry should hold the government up to a much higher standard than anyone else… but that context that I mentioned earlier in terms of measuring in which parliamentarians, select committees, the media were raising these issues. It was not just the government that underestimated how failing the system was.

Mr Barwell was made a life peer after the Grenfell Tower fire, having left his role as Theresa May’s chief of staff. He is currently a board member of the Clarion Housing Association.

The investigation is continuing with Mr. Pickles’ evidence from tomorrow.