The building control officer who oversaw the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower described himself as “truly heartbroken” about the 14 June 2017 disaster that killed 72 people and accepted that he made “serious failings” in his work.
But, giving evidence to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, John Hoban, who worked for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, said his department was “under-resourced” and that he was coming into the office at weekends to try to keep on top of his workload of around 120 separate jobs.
Lead counsel to the Inquiry Richard Millett QC probed Hoban on his work checking the suitability of materials for the building.
Hoban said he knew by early March 2015 that ACM panels were going to be used as rainscreen material on the outside of the building. He didn’t mention in his original witness statement that he had checked the BBA certificate. Asked why not, he said: “It’s something that I’ve always done, but I just didn’t put it in my answers…I should have.”
Hoban agreed that he regarded BBA certificates as reliable and accepted them without question. But he admitted that he would not read them in detail but would instead “pick out the points that concerned me”.
Hoban also admitted that when looking at the BBA certificate for Reynobond ACM cladding “maybe I just looked at the first page”, even though the page relating to fire performance came at section six of the document.
Millett pointed out that the certificate made it clear that the cladding was available with both a polyethylene core and a fire-retardant version. He told Hoban: “If you had read this certificate at all carefully you would have understood that there were two different products.” Hoban answered that he could not recall.
Asked if he had an understanding at the time of what polyethylene was at the time, Hoban replied: “No.”
Asked if he had any thoughts on whether the certificate applied to panels regardless of whether they were in a face-fixed or cassette system, Hoban replied that “it’s not something that comes to mind”. He added: “As far as I was aware, Reynobond was class 0.”
Millett said: “I think what you’re telling me is that you looked at the BBA certificate, you looked at page one, you saw it was class 0, and you didn’t look into it further.”
Hoban replied: “Most probably”.
Hoban said: “I was dealing with a considerable number of projects at the time, and perhaps I didn’t spend as much time as I should have looking at the documents at that time.”
Millett probed Hoban about a March 2015 email from Harley with a specification. The specification mentioned using Styrofoam as an insulation material for the glazing and Hoban admitted that he didn’t know whether or not it was a material that would comply with the guidance in 12.7 of Approved Document B because he didn’t check.
Continuing, Millett asked Hoban about the P2 panels on the project, to be comprised of an outer and inner skin of aluminium 1.5mm in each case, with a core of 25mm of Kingspan TP10 rigid insulation.
Millett asked if Hoban agreed that Kingspan TP10 was not a material of limited combustibility. Hoban once again said he would need to see the BBA certificate and agreed that he did not check.
Millett asked: “Therefore it would follow that you never queried the use of these materials, even though the specification was sent to you, with either Studio E or Rydon, or for what it was worth, Harley?
Hoban replied: “Yes.”
When it came to the Celotex insulation, Hoban said he became aware that it was being used when he saw it on site and looked up information about the material on Celotex’s website. He also recalled asking Rydon, Studio E and Harley for details about the work but found it “difficult” to obtain information. He added: “I wish I’d been more formal, but I was trying to work with them.”
Referring to a Celotex datasheet about RS5000 when it was launched in August 2014, Millett pointed out “in fairness” to Hoban that it stated that the product was “suitable for buildings above 18 metres in height” but it also detailed how in the elements of the system tested to meet the BS 8414 fire performance test included 12mm fibre cement panels, a 12mm non-combustible sheathing board, and plasterboard. Millett added that underneath details of the system tested, it added in bold: “The fire performance and classification report issued only relates to the components detailed above. Any changes to the components listed will need to be considered by the building designer.”
Hoban said he couldn’t recall that qualification in the datasheet and that it wasn’t something he spotted at the time.
Millett said: “Just to summarise where we have got to: by early March you know that there are ACM panels going on the building. And at some stage you discover that there is RS5000 going on the building. You look up RS5000 on the Celotex website, but you don’t get any further than seeing that it’s suitable for buildings above 18 metres. And you don’t examine precisely why that was so. Would you accept that that was a serious failing on your part?”
Hoban replied: “At the time, I felt that was…okay. I see now that’s not.”
Millett then went on to question Hoban about the cavity barriers around the windows at Grenfell Tower. He asked if Hoban had ever been to site to check if they were installed. Hoban said that the windows were generally either “not in” or “in” and covered, which meant that he could not inspect the cavity barriers.
Millett said: “Did you not ask to see, to check? Do you agree that checking on site is one of the primary functions of a building control officer?”
Hoban said: “I saw the other cavity barriers going in, which were exposed, but the windows were enclosed at the time…I didn’t ask.”
Millett asked: “Do you accept that your failure to identify the missing cavity barriers generically around the windows on this building was a fundamental failing on your part?”
Hoban replied: “I should have checked – as I say, I saw the other ones and I didn’t feel it was necessary to have a window exposed.”
Millett said: “I’m bound to put it to you, Mr Hoban, that the failure to check the window openings for the presence of cavity barriers fell below the standards of a reasonably competent Building Control inspector. Do you accept that?”
Hoban said: “As I say, in hindsight, yes, but I didn’t see it as an issue at the time.”
While giving his evidence, Hoban explained how, in April 2015, he was given another area to look after which he said added 55 jobs to his workload and he felt it was a priority to go and look at those jobs and find out what stage they were. As far as Grenfell was concerned he said he didn’t have any “major concerns” because there were two clerks of works on the job and a number of levels of supervision.
“My main priority at that stage was dealing with this new area that I was dealing with, and jobs where things were not going right and could escalate into major problems.”
Asked if he was relying on the clerks of works to “get it right” at Grenfell, Hoban replied: “No, I’m not relying on them to do my job but I have to prioritise where I visit and I can only do so many visits in a day, in a week.”
Hoban said he asked for help in April 2015 because he had been given a new area and was struggling with his workload but “none of these suggestions were taken up”. He added: “I felt I was in a position that I couldn’t refuse. I was instructed to deal with an additional area, and I had to take it on.”
Hoban also pointed to health issues that he was having which meant he had to attend various hospital appointments and sometimes go home early because he was unwell. He mentioned to his superiors that he had high blood pressure “on a couple of occasions”.
Millett asked if there were no facilities or resources offered to him to support him to make sure that he could do his building control job on Grenfell to the best of his ability.
Hoban replied: “I felt I couldn’t escalate it any further…I did say on a number of occasions in the office that we needed more staff. I felt that we were under-resourced. In September 2013, five of my colleagues retired and Michael Winn passed away. Subsequently Hilary Wyatt…went into the planning department and I got her area, and then…I got Celia’s area in April and I was told I was in a better position than my colleagues to deal with that. I was coming in at weekends to try to keep on top of my work. I used to go to bed at night with a notebook, thinking about…jobs, and some nights I wasn’t sleeping at all.”
He added that he felt unable to escalate the problems because there was a “culture within the department”.
“Ambiguous and confusing” regulations
In a sometimes tearful conclusion to his evidence, Hoban said he felt that the Building Regulations at the time, particularly the approved documents, were “ambiguous and confusing”. He said: “We can see that with particular reference to Approved Document B in the new volume that has come out, because it is a lot more clear.”
He went on: “The other observation I would like to make is that in the period from 2013 to 2017, when I left Kensington, the building control department lost 10 surveyors who had 230 years’ experience and there was one replacement, who was a graduate, and I don’t believe that’s the correct way to run a department.
“If we had a regulatory body like we had with the Greater London Council, and the regulations and Building Acts and constructional byelaws that we had at that particular time, and a support network of the experts that administered the regulations at that time, I don’t think we’d be in a position where we are now, sitting here talking about people that lost their lives.
“All these buildings with flammable cladding, and the stress and the uncertainty that leaves with the people living in those buildings now…we’ve got hundreds, hundreds and hundreds of buildings with materials that could cause a fire at any time, and it’s still up there.”
Finally, he said: “I am truly heartbroken about what happened that night, particularly for those who lost their lives: the children, the brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, fathers, mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers that lost their life. I also have never forgotten the people that night that got out with their lives. Their lives have changed so dramatically since then, and likewise the people or the families that lost loved ones that night. You know, their lives will never be the same, and I just want to say that I’m truly heartbroken for them.”
The Inquiry continues