Expert review says cutting corners caused deadly Grenfell Tower fire in London

The fire that consumed Grenfell Tower killed 71 people, and raised alarms about gaps in British fire regulations.
The fire that consumed Grenfell Tower killed 71 people, and raised alarms about gaps in British fire regulations. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (NYTIMES) - An independent review of one of Britain's deadliest fires in modern times condemned construction regulations on Monday (Dec 18) as "not fit for purpose", saying the rules allowed dangerous latitude for cutting corners in a culture of "doing things cheaply".

The June 14 fire that consumed Grenfell Tower in West London killed 71 people and raised alarms about gaps in British fire regulations. The flames raced in minutes up the sides of the 24-storey building, and in its aftermath similarly flammable exterior cladding was found and removed from many other high-rises around Britain.

The review was conducted by Ms Judith Hackitt, a chemical engineer who heads a manufacturers' trade group and previously served as a top health and safety regulator.

"I have been shocked by some of the practices I have heard about," Ms Hackitt wrote in a preliminary report to Parliament released on Monday, and she called for an overhaul of the regulatory system so it would "hold to account those who try to cut corners".

Critics, though, noted that previous inquests have issued similar calls for reform without significant changes, arguing that her report failed to examine how the influence of the building industry might have weakened enforcement of existing regulations.

The Construction Industry Council, the main trade group for builders, praised the report and said Ms Hackitt's review had followed the industry's recommendation. An expert at the Fire Brigades Union complained that the report did not address years of spending cutbacks that had crippled enforcement of existing safety standards.

The 121-page report briefly but explicitly addressed a key weakness in the British regulatory system that many experts said had played a major role in the Grenfell fire: a failure to require tests of building materials such as exterior cladding in real-world conditions rather than in laboratory or desktop experiments.

The United States and other jurisdictions that require real-world testing banned the use of such cladding around high-rise buildings years earlier.

But the preliminary report nonetheless stopped short of calling for an end to reliance on desktop studies, as in other jurisdictions. Ms Hackitt called only for new limits, not a ban.