The Guardian view on lessons from Grenfell: when money comes first

Editorial
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: James Veysey/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: James Veysey/Rex/Shutterstock

So now we know. The suppliers of the cladding system used in the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower are greedy cheats who put sales before safety. Jaw-dropping evidence at the public inquiry into the disaster from key witnesses including Jonathan Roper, who worked for the insulation manufacturer Celotex, and emails sent by employees at the cladding company Arconic, have put beyond doubt what many survivors believed they already knew: these companies knew that what they were doing was dangerous and they didn’t care.

This was not a simple matter of a fatal error on a single project due to a one-off management or product failure, or a “bad apple” cutting corners on a job. The risk-taking in the sector was systematic and deliberate, and included faking tests and misleading customers and regulators, as well as working behind the scenes to weaken rules.

Arconic, the conglomerate that made the plastic panels already singled out by the inquiry as the main cause of the fire’s spread, knew in 2011 that its polyethylene-filled product was “not suitable for use on building facades”, but sold it anyway. Celotex, the main supplier of the building’s insulation, added fire-resistant boards to a fire safety test to ensure that its product would pass – and deliberately concealed what it had done. Kingspan Insulation, the market leader with whom Celotex was trying to compete, worked for years to persuade the National House Building Council to grant it safety certificates. Internal emails reveal how this was described as “slowly educating” the firm, and boasted that it had been achieved without taking executives out drinking. Kingspan sold its foam insulation to at least 240 high-rise blocks, the inquiry has heard.

What form of redress the survivors of the disastrous 2017 fire, and those bereaved by it, can expect will depend in part on the conclusions of the inquiry. Last month, the police made their first arrest: a 38-year-old man suspected of perverting the course of justice. But criminal prosecutions are not expected to take place until after the inquiry. Civil law suits, similarly, have been placed on hold.

But revelations about the behaviour of the companies at the heart of this tragedy raise questions for others besides lawyers. Was this a discrete failure of corporate culture and regulation? Or do businesses do this kind of thing all the time? Does the increasing domination of markets by multinational companies far removed from the people who depend on their products (such as Arconic), or private-equity owners with their intense focus on profit (such as AAC Capital Partners, which owned Celotex until 2012), make such disasters more likely? Could a similar catastrophe happen again?

One of the reasons why the Grenfell disaster was so disturbing, not only for those involved but also for those who observed it from afar, is that it was assumed that a tragedy of this sort could not happen in the UK, let alone in Kensington and Chelsea – home to some of the wealthiest people and most expensive property in the world. Yet it did, and the public inquiry is not the first time that regulatory oversight of a safety-critical British industry has been shown to have been dangerously lax. By a quirk of geography, the 1999 Paddington rail crash, which killed 31 people and was blamed on inadequate training and signalling, took place just up the road.

That weak regulation is harmful should be obvious in 2020; around the world, governments are still struggling with the fallout from the 2008-09 banking crash. What the fire at Grenfell Tower illustrated in an extraordinarily vivid way was that the least well-off people face the greatest risks from such failures of oversight and governance, on whatever scale. We already knew that the tower’s residents were not listened to, even when it came to the safety of their own homes. Recent evidence has confirmed long-held suspicions that Grenfell’s 72 victims were consumed in a fire fuelled by greed.