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Comment | Grenfell's systemic failures must be tackled

Mark Hansford

Grenfell. A heart-breaking tragedy that is beginning to look more and more like a systemic, industry fail. But what is to be done?

The true picture from the 14 June tragedy was only just beginning to emerge as the last issue of New Civil Engineer went to press three days later. But since then that picture has become a truly horrible one. It is one of complacency and poor judgement; one where the dreaded “value engineering” has come in to play; and one where the engineering seems have been pushed down the road of cost-cutting at the expense of the ultimate industry goal: safety.

The question now for our industry is going to be: how hard were these engineers pushed? Or did they move willingly? And, with (at time of writing) cladding samples from 200 towers around the UK having failed building research and testing body BRE’s initial combustability tests just how many engineers have gone down that road?

It is getting very hard to see this as anything other than mass dereliction of duty by the entire system: by the engineering profession that got too complacent; by the finance people who felt able to push for ever greater savings; by politicians local and national for creating the environment; and by the watchdogs – including the media – for going too soft and allowing previous, serious, warnings to go unheeded.

For New Civil Engineer the key question is around the engineers. And if we start from the presumption that most civil engineers are decent, honest people; people who, given the chance, research the options, make recommendations based on fact and allow others to make the decisions, ultimate criminal culpability will likely not rest with them.

But is that sufficient on a moral level? Just how many engineers knew in their gut that something was not quite right at Grenfell? How many more out there are there right now?

For me there are chilling parallels with the Hatfield rail disaster.

There, the civil engineers responsible for managing that section of rail line knew that maintenance was overdue; knew that the rail that ultimately fractured and sent four people to their deaths needed to be replaced – the replacement rail was even lying next to tracks ready to be installed. But there, those civil engineers did not act, so squashed were they by the system. They did not feel able to insist that the work be done; they did not even insist on speed restrictions being imposed.

The criminal investigation that followed resulted in attempts to bring manslaughter charges against senior management failed and instead landed on the five civil engineers deemed most directly responsible.

They endured five years of hell before they were all ultimately acquitted.

New Civil Engineer’s post-trial interview with one of the acquitted, Nick Jeffries, remains our most harrowing ever as he recalls the pressures he and his colleagues were under, and the moral dilemmas they faced. He is totally open about the guilt he felt, the pressure placed on him and the mental illness he suffered as a result – and how life will never be the same. I feel for those who may be feeling the same at Grenfell.

While no individuals were ever successfully held to account at Hatfield, the tragic event did bring about the end of the then Railtrack and the creation of Network Rail with a completely renewed focus and responsibility for track maintenance. In essence – the industry changed.

Similar change is surely needed in the social housing sector now. If, six weeks on, one part of the Grenfell picture is clear it is that roles and responsibilities for crucial safety issues are unclear. Who signed off on the refurbishment? Who was responsible for annual safety checks? 

What qualifications did they have? What level of assessment was completed and where can that assessment be found?

New Civil Engineer is calling for greater transparency in this area. We want annual health checks of these buildings made a legal requirement, with these checks conducted by an appropriately qualified professional, and for all these health checks to be published promptly and publicly.

We want Grenfell to serve as social housing’s Hatfield.


Readers' comments (2)

  • Where is the report on the present state of structural stability of Grendel Tower?

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  • Have any Cardington-style fire tests, i.e. full-scale and under near-realistic fire scenarios, been conducted for these cladding systems/methodologies?

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