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Michael Gove is on the warpath. In the Housing Secretary’s crosshairs are the private contractors and suppliers to the Grenfell Tower.
In Gove’s view, they were to blame for the rapid spread of the fire which killed 72 people in West London in 2017.
According to Gove, they now have a duty to put right other high-rise towers and apartment blocks that carry the same insulation and cladding materials as Grenfell. In typical Gove fashion, he has not held back in his criticism, accusing cladding company Arconic, of engaging in “shameful practices” and displaying “an abhorrent culture of disregard for the safety of residents in their homes.”
He claimed that Kingspan, the Irish insulation maker, “is a company that gives capitalism a bad name”.
Again, his characteristic, guns-blazing tactic includes using all fronts, including social media, to put his message across.
Anyone reading his department’s postings, and there is much more, could be forgiven for supposing Arconic, Kingspan and the other firms involved in the 2016 installation of cladding and insulation at Grenfell were entirely responsible for the terrible inferno and loss of life.
You see, it’s all the fault of the greedy, grasping commercial sector, putting profits before people’s lives. The Secretary of State ends one diatribe with: “My Government Department will continue to be driven by its commitment to protect people in their homes. People who bought their rented homes in good faith and whose safety continues to be threatened by your products deserve better from the companies who have exploited their basic need for a home. Those companies who do not share our commitment to righting the wrongs of the past must expect to face commercial consequences.”
It’s an election year, and for Gove, putting himself in the shoes of the little man is a key part of the Tory strategy. By targeting private business he is exploding the age-old myth that the Tories are on the side of big business.
Again, though, anyone would think that the public sector had no role to play, that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where Grenfell stands, central government and London Fire Brigade bore no responsibility – that the tragedy was all down to the commercially rapacious profit chasers.
Which is why it comes as a surprise, then, to read that Arconic and Kingspan are not the worst offenders – that the worst is the local royal borough council, and that Gove’s own government and the fire service shoulder more of the burden than Kingspan ‘that gives capitalism a bad name.’
The Bindman Settlement
While the Grenfell Tower inquiry continues on its pain-staking journey, nine of those organisations, commercial and public, involved in the disaster undertook an ADR, an alternative dispute resolution, as a way of ensuring compensation reached the victims’ families and those forced from their homes in shorter order than if they’d waited for any potential litigation to conclude.
Represented by teams of lawyers, they agreed to meet before a senior judge who would determine the sum to be awarded and apportion their contributions.
In May last year, it was announced that the ADR was to pay £150m to those affected. But how that figure was broken down was not revealed, apparently for reasons of commercial confidentiality.
I’ve seen the percentage breakdown and it shows, top on 35.84 per cent is the borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Next is Arconic on 22.84 per cent. Then, Rydon (builders), 10.84 per cent, Celetex (manufacturer of most of the insulation) at 9.84 per cent. The fire service’s share is 5.84 per cent, the same as the Government’s, Exova (fire testing) is 3.24 per cent while Whirlpool, which made the fridge where the fire originated and Gove’s target Kingspan are in for the smallest portions, 2.84 per cent each. The accuracy of the figures has been confirmed.
The ‘Bindman Settlement’ – so-called after the leading London law firm where the nearly two years worth of detailed, behind-closed-doors discussions were held – was mediated by Lord Neuberger, the former president of the Supreme Court. In all, 900 people, including those who lost their relatives and those required to relocate, agreed to the out-of-court settlement. The ADR route was chosen after a claim was lodged at the High Court in 2021.
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Five of those involved in the Grenfell refurbishment, which is when the cladding was added, chose not to participate in the Bindman process: CEP architects, Studio E architects, CS Stokes fire safety assessor, Harley Facades and Artelia project consultants.
“Some firms stepped up and others didn’t,” said one of the Bindman signatories. “We took the view that you can’t be a proxy where responsibility is concerned.”
The settlement does not have any bearing on the Grenfell Tower inquiry. Nor does it impact any potential criminal action. “Who paid what doesn’t necessarily reflect blame,” said the signatory.
Nevertheless, in the absence of the official inquiry’s findings, it is the nearest we have to apportioning fault.
Possibly, because the percentages are supposed to remain secret, Gove is confident he can lambast the companies, confident of not being challenged – and he can choose to ignore the larger role played by the public sector.
That the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the Government also happened to be led by Tories at the time of the tower’s refurbishment in 2016, is something else Gove may be keen not to dwell upon.