HQN Blog: Grenfell Inquiry – Why expert evidence is terrifying for boards

Grenfell must change the way we do things for ever. We are starting to see the experts’ reports to the Inquiry. If they are right, we have a long road to travel on safety. This is a big deal for your board.

Let’s get one thing clear. For a lot of its history the board of the Kensington TMO was just like any other housing board. It had a very similar mix of the great and the good. And at times it had industry heavyweights round the table. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you are better than them. It is for the Inquiry and the courts to say what the TMO got right and wrong. Time will tell. But we can learn a lot now from the submissions to the Inquiry.

Let’s see how sharp you are. This is a minute from a TMO board meeting.

“Grenfell Tower Refurbishment – close liaison with London Fire Brigade and Fire Risk Assessor throughout the duration of the project. At the conclusion of the work some of the operational firefighters from the local Fire Station attended an onsite briefing where the contractor demonstrated the fire safety features of the building.”

Yep that’s what they were told. What questions would you have asked? Would you have asked any? Everything looks fine doesn’t it? It wasn’t.

What does a real expert make of it? Here’s what Professor Torero says in his evidence. The language is hard going. But the verdict is lacerating for all of us. So, read it.

“The regulatory framework relies very heavily on competent professionals to provide the necessary interpretation that will bridge the gaps and resolve the ambiguities left by functional requirements, guidelines and standardized tests. Nevertheless, a competent engineer should be capable of interpreting the requirement to 'adequately resist the spread of fire over the walls…having regard to the height, use and position of the building' within the context of the needs of the fire safety strategy in the case of a specific tall building. In the case of the fire safety strategy of Grenfell Tower, 'adequately resist' should have been interpreted as being 'no' external fire spread.

"There is currently no definition of what is the competency required from these professionals, or skill verification approaches that should be used, so as to guarantee that those involved in the design ... implementation, acceptance and maintenance of these systems can deliver societally acceptable ... levels of safety. There is a need to shift from a culture that inappropriately trivializes 'compliance' to a culture that recognizes complexity in 'compliance' and therefore values 'competency,' 'performance' and 'quality.' Otherwise, the increasing complexity of building systems will drive society in unidentified paths towards irresponsible deregulation by incompetency.” [My emphasis]

If he is correct we are not good enough. And we need better advisors too. Note the use of the term engineer. That is someone who knows what they are doing and can prove it. The professor is setting the bar high and no wonder.

I was appalled by the reaction to the Hackitt report. She suggested that we need to take a systematic approach to safety. What did a lot of the sector say? No, we want to go back to ticking boxes. Get someone to tell us that such and such a component is safe, and we will use it thus washing our hands of all responsibility. Hackitt and Torero give that idea short shrift. It never was that easy and it never will be that easy. When is there ever one single solution to a problem?

Where does this leave boards? On one level it is terrifying. Mistakes can have fatal consequences. And the assurances you thought you had turn to dust. No one will want to be on a board, will they? Then things will grind to a halt.

There is a way to sort this out. It is time for the assurance industry to step up. Let us have no more tick box internal audit reports. Please stop asking consultants to churn out pointless governance reviews. I call them Feng Shui reports because they drone on about the layout of the room. Who cares? It doesn’t matter a jot. Then there are the drive by stock surveys that miss the bleedin’ obvious.

It seems to me that lots of money is wasted on phoney assurance. Stop that and spend the money instead on the sorts of experts that Torero talks about. They will really help boards to sleep at night.

But boards will need to work harder and smarter. There is no way round that. I was flabbergasted when I read that new councillors in a borough that also had fire safety issues were complaining about 600-page long planning papers. Don’t forget these are key to safety, you must start from the right point. Their answer was to ask for speed reading courses. It might be better to go for training by experts. Then you can ask for sharper reports that get to the nub of the matter a lot quicker.

As you read what the experts have to say about Grenfell you quickly realise that regulation can’t stay as it is. We are going to have to bring back inspection or something like it. The IDA’s these days look mainly at the money. Yes, that is a big deal. But it is not as important as safety. You’ve got to say that our current system of regulation is not fit for purpose to put it mildly. It was set up with the wrong priorities. The RSH (or someone) will be asked to get a grip on safety by the government. That is certain. You can expect to be inspected on how you keep tenants safe. And you must show that you listen to their concerns and act on them. But this time there will be no one size fits all official guidance (like the old Audit Commission KLOEs) or tick boxes to help you. Hackitt and Torero are right to put an end to spoon feeding. That’s when good people switch off and things go badly wrong.

By Alistair McIntosh, HQN Chief Executive