Grenfell Tower residents complained two years ago of 'cheap materials and corner cutting' in block's refurbishment

Allegations come after reports that cladding used in the work contained a flammable plastic core despite a fire resistant alternative costing only about £5,000 extra

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The Independent Online

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.

Numerous survivors of the blaze have claimed the exterior cladding was linked to the way the fire spread so rapidly up the outside of the tower, with one describing the flames “coming up really fast, because of the cladding, [which] just caught up like a matchstick.”

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 is not yet clear whether anyone ever looked into the residents’ warnings.

Grenfell Tower Fire protesters enter Kensington Town Hall

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.

Although this may have been a legitimate cost-saving exercise by the council, the Grenfell Tower fire has led to questions about whether enough money was spent on the building, which is situated in the northern, poorer part of one of the wealthiest boroughs in the UK.  Questions have also been raised about the funding of 4,000 similar high rises around the country and whether they can now be considered safe.

Peter John, leader of Southwark Council, where six people died in the Lakanal House tower block fire in 2009, has complained that spending restrictions imposed by central Government are limiting local authorities’ ability to build safety features into high rises.

He told the BBC: “You don’t hear of tragedies like this happening in private blocks. It is a scandal, an absolute scandal that it only seems to befall public housing and social housing”.

In January 2016, residents of Grenfell Tower took their concerns about cheap materials and poor workmanship to a meeting of the council’s Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee.

Minutes of this meeting confirm that councillors were addressed by Edward Daffarn, lead representative of the Grenfell Tower Residents Association.

London fire: Flames engulf Grenfell Tower in Kensington

Mr Daffarn, 55, who this week nearly choked to death as smoke engulfed his 16th floor flat, complained of “poor workmanship” and “the lack of response to legitimate complaints”.

The minutes added: “He concluded that there was a need for urgent scrutiny of the management of the works that had been carried out.  He said residents had been belittled, ignored or side-lined and their day-to-day concerns downplayed.”

The minutes also show that the Conservative chairman of the committee Quentin Marshall:  “Agreed that a working group would be commissioned at some point in the future, but that this was dependent on a number of factors including the conclusion of existing working groups and the review work conducted by the TMO.”

Six months later, in June 2016, residents on the Grenfell Action Group complained: “No form of investigation has occurred and the Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee seems determined to turn a blind eye to the abuse and ill-treatment of which we so bitterly complained.”

The Independent has contacted the council and TMO for comment, but it was not immediately clear whether any action was ever taken to look into the residents’ complaints.

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.

She said: "Whenever we tried to contact the council directly they would not actually let us. They would say we have to speak to them through the TMO.

"Whenever we had concerns they were just ignored, or people who were raising the concerns were considered troublemakers.

"We were not listened to at all.  Although we knew about the safety issues, we were just ignored. It looks like they chose to ignore us."

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."

The council has also issued a statement in which it said: “We have heard a number of theories about the cause of the fire at Grenfell Tower.  All of these will be thoroughly investigated as part of the formal investigation which has already begun.”

Rydon has been contacted for comment. It has repeatedly said that all the refurbishment work carried out at Grenfell Tower met both building and fire regulation standards and was signed off by the council.

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