Grenfell Tower – A Complex Supply Chain Will Be Examined as Culprits Sought

It is hard to know where to start with the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy. It is one of those events where one just cannot bear to think about the victims and what they went through during their final seconds, minutes or even hours. Our hearts go out to everyone affected and Spend Matters will make a donation to the Red Cross appeal – I’m afraid I’m deeply suspicious of random “Just Giving” appeals these days.

It showed again unfortunately that Theresa May is not a leader, and basically cannot communicate in any meaningful fashion with real people. My feeling was that she would stay for a couple of years and get a good way through the Brexit negotiations, but now I wonder. If she is going to allow Jeremy Corbyn to become a sort of Prime Minister of the People even while she is in office then she needs to go sooner rather than later. I mean, for goodness sake, either don’t go to the site at all, or go and talk to some residents. If you can’t handle that human interaction, you shouldn’t be PM and you certainly shouldn’t be leading the Brexit negotiations either.

But that’s not the main point. As the investigations into the cause, we are going to see a whole range of procurement and supply chain issues coming to the fore. We have already seen a lot of invective directed against Rydon Construction, the contractor who carried out the refurbishment work on the block, and Harley Facades, who installed the cladding panels that may have been a causal factor in the rapid progress of the fire. We know now that Omnis Exteriors manufactured the aluminium composite material (ACM) used in the cladding, so we are looking at a complex multi-tier supply chain here.

There are emerging claims that the panels used did not in fact meet the building standards, but it may also be the case that those standards were vague enough that there was genuine confusion about which panels did or did not meet them.

However, we should be cautious. If the panels were supplied as specified, properly installed, legal, and approved for use then it is hard to see how and why the manufacturers and installers should be blamed. Similarly, if Rydon delivered the work that they were contracted to do, met the specification, quality standards and performance indicators that one assumes were stipulated in the contract, then again, they should not be blamed. If that is the case, the questions will eventually come back to the housing body, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO)  and to Chelsea and Kensington Council, which owns KCTMO.

The questions for those two bodies include how they ran the competition that appointed Rydon, and most crucially, whether the specifications allowed a refurbishment to take place that led in part at least to the fire.  Was the specification for the work appropriate and complete?  And how were bids evaluated – were any corners cut in the winning bid because price played a major role in the selection process?  It has been suggested that choosing the panels used saved a few thousand pounds compared to more fire resistant cladding. Then, there may be questions about how well and closely the contract was managed.

There is also a possibility that the cladding is not the major, or only cause. There are stories about recent heating works in the building, and perhaps the fire spread internally so quickly because something went wrong linked to that process?

Or it may be that the contractor, the cladding manufacturer and the Council come out of this as relatively “blameless” in legal terms anyway. Maybe it was the regulator at fault. Maybe nobody did anything illegal or even incompetent, but the panels should never have been allowed to be used in tower blocks. Perhaps building regulations should have stipulated a higher standard of cladding, or installation of better alarms, sprinklers, even an external fire escape. A review of building regulations relating to fire safety was promised by the government in 2016 but has not yet been published.

If it comes back to those issues of regulation, might the government itself – the ultimate law maker – be the body charged with corporate manslaughter? Or will this all end up in an unsatisfactory “no-one is to blame” or “everyone is to blame” report? It is hard to see how those possibilities would satisfy those so tragically affected. In any case, we will try and take a look at these questions as more facts emerge.


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Voices (3)

  1. Paul Ireland:

    IanR you raise some important procurement issues and questions related to cost pressures possibly over-determining the sourcing decision. These will, hopefully, be thoroughly examined in the public inquiry, but there are so many other questions (some of which are highlighted in Peter’s excellent blog) that also need to be considered. My comment focuses on cost pressures.
    Since the introduction of the more collaborative forms of contract in the early 1990s I have studied the application of best practice PSCM and the causes of poor practice in the construction industry. This tragedy unfortunately shows the importance of procurement and sourcing and how there should be a focus on understanding the trade-off between cost (price and TCO) and quality (functionality and delivery).
    For the majority of clients sourcing on a one-off basis, the pursuit of the lowest cost solution may be appropriate. However, as construction is not a core/internal capability, the development of the detailed specification is supported by external experts and the adherence to standards and regulation should guarantee a minimum quality and guard against such tragic events. For this project, a high-rise residential property, the pursuit of the lowest cost solution is inappropriate. The investigations and inquiry will put the entire procurement and sourcing process under extreme scrutiny, but the use of the lowest-cost cladding elements that provide the lowest fire protection is quite rightly a key focus.

  2. Dan:

    Local Government cuts are a red herring – Council rents go into the Housing Revenue Account, and this has not been subject to the same cuts as Councils.

    I think we all know how the issue of specifications work – the surveyors who officially write the specification don’t know enough about the cladding industry to do this, so they approach their friendly neighbourhood cladding company who informally gives them a specification for their particular brand of cladding. Procurement regulations are satisfied by using the magic words “or equivalent” after it, but no equivalent will ever be offered by the company that buys and installs the cladding.

    The drivers for the particular type of cladding seem to be driven by the appearance of the building, as this was mentioned numerous times in the planning permission application; presumably because of complaints by local residents concerned by the impact on local property values. Its probable that the cladding was chosen for this purpose, it was assumed that it met fire regulations as a minimum, and no further consideration was given to this.

    For me, this is the main issue for public procurement, as this method of arriving at a specification is rife.

  3. IanR:

    A terrible tragedy. I wasn’t sure I should post this but it seems that no-one is raising what may be a deeper rooted issue.

    Whilst blame may or may not fall directly to one individual or an organisation, it does strike me that after 8 years of deep cuts to public services and in particular easy targets such as local authorities, that these local authorities have to find any way to save money and I feel that means that a culture has emerge where opportunities to remove cost or quality (whilst remaining legally compliant) are at the forefront of everyone’s mind, whilst keeping fingers crossed that that will be good enough.

    So if a firm offers a cladding £2psqm cheaper than the best fire retardant version but which still meets fire and building regs (which I appreciate is now a central question) then we would be criticised for not taking the cheaper option.

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