The problem with “arms length” relationships with councils

“Grenfell Tower residents complained two years ago about the refurbishment of the building being done “using cheap materials” and workmanship that “cut corners”, The Independent can reveal.

They later claimed that Conservative-led Kensington and Chelsea Council, owner of the building consumed by fire on Wednesday, had done nothing to address their concerns.

Surfacing days after the catastrophic blaze that killed at least 30 people, the allegations are likely to fuel claims that cost-cutting might have been put before safety.

They come amid reports that cladding used in the refurbishment contained a flammable plastic core, of a kind allegedly banned in the US for buildings taller than 40ft, despite a fire resistant alternative costing only about £5,000 extra. …

Minutes from an emergency residents’ meeting held on 17 March 2015 show that more than 100 people living in the block produced a long list of issues about the refurbishment.

The minutes detail anxieties about the way the firm Rydon was doing the work and the role of the tower’s administrators Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) and mention the “concern that TMO/Rydon are using cheap materials” and “cutting corners” on workmanship.

Other problems included “grave concerns at standard of works inside a number of residents’ properties”.

Kensington and Chelsea Council, which owns Grenfell Tower, told residents a working group would be commissioned “at some point in the future” to investigate their worries. But in June 2016, six months after receiving this promise, the Grenfell Action Group claimed nothing had been done.

… It has also emerged that in order to save money, Kensington and Chelsea council ditched Leadbitter, the original proposed contractor, and instead went with Rydon’s cheaper bid for the refurbishment work.

In July 2013 the council’s Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee proposed to “market test the works through an open tender” after noting: “Leadbitter currently estimate the cost of the works to be £1.6m above the current, proposed budget.”

Rydon eventually completed the refurbishment in May 2016, for £2.5m less than the £11.278m quoted by Leadbitter.

… Olesea Matcovschi, chairwoman of the residents association for the Lancaster West Estate, which contains Grenfell Tower, said tenants who raised concerns about the building were considered “troublemakers” by the council.

… Responding to the anger of local people, Kensington and Chelsea Council leader Nick Paget-Brown insisted: “It’s not a question of wealth, it’s not question of economy. This was a major refurbishment of a tower.”

He told Sky News: “Clearly something has gone tragically wrong, but the intention was to improve the quality of the housing, and to ensure heating systems, boilers, central heating, insulation was improved. That was the whole purpose of doing this renovation.”