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Grenfell cladding promoted rather than resisted spread of fire, inquiry told

Fires involving flammable cladding have become the ‘archetypal form of mass fire disaster’ since the turn of the century, a lawyer said.

Fires involving flammable cladding have become the “archetypal form of mass fire disaster” since the turn of the century, a lawyer has told the Grenfell Tower public inquiry.

Stephanie Barwise QC said the 2016 refurbishment transformed the high-rise from “virtually incombustible concrete” into a structure wrapped with material that could go up in flames “more quickly than dropping a match into a barrel of petrol”.

She said incidents including the Knowsley Heights fire in 1991, Garnock Court fire in 1999, and the Lakanal House fire of 2009, should have informed the London Fire Brigade’s contingency planning.

Ms Barwise, representing survivors and the bereaved, said: “Since the turn of the century, both internationally and in the UK, fires involving external cladding systems have become the archetypal form of mass fire disaster.

“This fact put construction and fire engineering professionals on notice of the imperative to develop their risk assessment systems accordingly, and also ought to have informed London Fire Brigade contingency planning.”

However, the inquiry heard that witness statements from more than 250 firefighters revealed it was a blaze beyond the LFB’s “operational contemplation”.

It is also clear that it was a fire beyond their training or indeed the London Fire Brigade’s operational contemplation. We say it should not have been Danny Friedman QC

Danny Friedman QC, also representing survivors and the bereaved, said the “significant failure of foresight” was a violation of the state’s responsibility to ensure that adequate policies were in place to respond to such incidents.

He said: “The near-universal view of those witnesses is that this was a fire utterly beyond their professional experience. But it is also clear that it was a fire beyond their training or indeed the London Fire Brigade’s operational contemplation. We say it should not have been.”

Ms Barwise said the tower’s cladding system had “patently” promoted rather than resisted fire spread on June 14 last year.

Quoting Dr Barbara Lane’s expert report commissioned by the inquiry, she described the insulation as “woefully low” in relation to the required standard.

She said her team understood that “the ignition of the polyethylene within the cladding panel produces a flaming reaction more quickly than dropping a match into a barrel of petrol”.

Gaps in the windows were plugged with a material derived from crude oil – “the perfect medium for flame spread at the edge of the window”.

She said: “The combination of this highly combustible material and omissions of cavity barriers amounts to a collection of catastrophic failures in construction safety.”

Ms Barwise said the use of polyethylene cladding – “now openly described by some in the industry as petrol” – constituted a “material alteration”.

This means the refurbishment went against building regulations that stipulate any works to a building must not render it less compliant.

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