Government officials ‘did not understand the risk’ of fire safety decisions, Grenfell inquiry finds

Government officials “really failed to understand the risk” of fire safety policy decisions made in the years before the Grenfell fire, the fire inquiry has heard.

Louise Upton, former head of fire safety policy at the Department for Communities and Local Government, said officials had “lost sight” of very important issues amid a campaign of deregulation under the coalition government of David Cameron.

Upton was asked yesterday about the department’s review of official guidelines for firefighters in high-rise buildings, which focused on when the ‘stay put’ policy for residents of a burning block should be revoked.

She said several draft guidelines had not clarified the stage of a fire at which the “stay put” policy should be dropped, but her concerns had not been addressed.

Upton also admitted that no disability groups were consulted as part of a 2011 review of fire safety guidelines in residential blocks.

Asked by inquest lawyer Andrew Kinnier QC if the department could have ‘done things differently or better’ on fire safety policy, Upton replied ‘yes’.

She said: “I think we could have had more resources. I think we really didn’t understand the risk, and my team got smaller and smaller, and the focus was really on restructuring labor relations and governance of fire and rescue authorities, sort of reform program.

The inquiry has already heard that the coalition government introduced a ‘one in, one out’ policy in 2011, which meant new regulations could only be added if existing ones were removed. By 2016, the policy had been tightened to “one in, three out”.

This meant that officials responsible for reviewing government guidelines did so within the confines of a ‘regulatory budget’ where new additions had to be balanced within the larger regulatory framework.

Upton said the program was “obviously based on austerity and regulation, reducing regulation wherever we could”.

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She added: ‘There wasn’t always a sense, I guess, of proportionality around the regulations that could go. It was a very business-oriented program, which obviously lost sight of…you know, you could easily lose sight of a lot of very important issues.

Last week the inquest heard that a review of fire safety guidelines sparked by the 2009 Lakanal House fire in south London, which killed six people after the building’s substandard cladding ignited, had been significantly delayed partly because of the policy of deregulation. .

Following an investigation into the causes of the fire, a coroner had recommended modifying a passage in the part of the building regulations dealing with fire safety.

But officials then expanded that to a review of the entire 300-page section of building regulations dealing with fire safety, and then expanded it to a broader review of building regulations as a whole.

The inquest heard that almost no work had been done on the review at the time of the Grenfell fire, despite almost eight years having passed since the Lakanal fire.

The investigation into the Grenfell fire, which killed 72 people in June 2017, is continuing.

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