Grenfell Tower fire: ‘Wrong and unfair’ to blame manufacturer of cladding panels, inquiry hears

It would be “wrong and unfair” to pin the blame for the Grenfell Tower fire on the manufacturer of the building’s cladding panels, the company has told an inquiry into the 2017 disaster.

Stephen Hockman QC, speaking on behalf of cladding giant Arconic, told a hearing on Tuesday that the company’s product was used in a “wholly unorthodox and irregular cladding system” on the west London tower, for which the firm “bore no responsibility”.

Arconic, formerly known as Alcoa, supplied the Reynobond 55 cladding panels with a polyethylene (PE) core that were used in the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower, and were later found to have fuelled the blaze which claimed 72 lives.

In 2019, inquiry chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick concluded the “principal reason” the flames shot up the building at such speed was the combustible cladding which acted as a “source of fuel”.

But Mr Hockman said this conclusion could now be placed in a “far wider” and “more accurate” context following evidence presented to the long-running inquiry.

He highlighted issues such as lack of maintenance of fire protection systems, the failure of compartmentation and reliance on the stay-put policy as some of the “extraordinary range of factors” that were “ultimately responsible for the tragedy to a far greater extent than the role played by any individual product”.

Mr Hockman insisted the aluminium composite material (ACM) panels were “capable of being used in a safe and compliant manner”.

He told the inquiry “the tragic outcome of the Grenfell Tower fire resulted not from the use of ACM PE but from the way in which it was used”.

He added: “In other words, its use in combination with a wide range of other combustible material, especially those surrounding the windows, which ought to have delayed the escape into the facade system of a small internal fire in a particular flat long enough to allow the fire brigade to extinguish it.”

He said the company had “no control” over what materials were used with its product and in what arrangements.

Mr Hockman said the inquiry had heard evidence from a facade expert who confirmed that “a reasonably competent cladding contractor ought to be aware of the combustibility of ACM cladding”.

He said anyone concerned with the choice or use of ACM had the option to check the combustibility with the manufacturer.

“None of those responsible for the refurbishment can escape their share of responsibility by claiming ignorance,” he added.

Mr Hockman’s comments were made as part of Arconic’s closing statement for the inquiry’s modules examining the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower and the marketing and testing of products used.

Michael Douglas QC, presenting a closing statement on behalf of fire safety consultants Exova, said the company was “frozen out” of the project, and Rydon, the firm that became the main contractor in 2014, had “consciously and deliberately” chosen not to appoint Exova as part of the design team.

Mr Douglas said Exova was not consulted on the choice of ACM cladding panels, claiming that Architects Studio E had approved the final cladding design without “seeking independent advice about the suitability of the proposed materials”.

He said Rydon had argued “forcefully” that ACM was an appropriate material to use on the exterior of a building, adding that they were “to blame for putting financial self-interest before all other considerations and never giving fire safety a second thought in the process”.