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Grenfell: Former RBKC building control manager denies ‘culture of bullying’

6 October 2020
John Allen

The former building control manager at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s (RBKC) building control office has denied that a “culture of bullying” existed within the department around the time of the Grenfell Tower disaster.

John Allen, who took voluntary redundancy from the department and left in 2018, having served as building control manager from September 2013, was responding to counsel to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry Rose Grogan at a hearing yesterday (5 October).

Grogan asked Allen about the culture within the department following evidence last week from building control officer John Hoban who said he felt unable to voice concerns about his workload.

Allen said he did not experience difficulties allocating sufficient resources to discharge his department’s duties. He said: “With a small team there are times when you can’t guarantee the influx of work. So unlike approved inspectors, local authorities are required to take whatever application comes in. So there would be times as an office – didn’t happen very often – where there may be a sudden influx of work in a particular area…but that would be fairly rare.”

He said he was “as supportive as I could possibly be” of Hoban and confirmed that they had previously discussed some of Hoban’s health issues “that I tried to help him with”.

Asked why he had confidence in Hoban’s ability to interrogate manufacturers’ information for products used on buildings with the requisite level of skill and care, Allen said: “Because he’s the senior building control surveyor, I had every faith and confidence in his ability. It’s a core function to first of all look in the Building Regulations and work out what is the requirement that applies in the particular circumstance, and then looking up the data and making sure that element of it is as the Building Regulations, in whatever certificate you are looking at.”

But Allen said he couldn’t account for why combustible Celotex RS5000 insulation had ended up on the building. “Presumably a builder’s put it there… so the people carrying out the work, the builder and architect, the responsibility for compliance, the first stage is they need to make sure that it complies with the Building Regulations,” he said.

Grogan asked Allen if it was a failure on his part to ensure that Hoban was competent to be able to scrutinise documents about Celotex.

He replied: “I would have monthly meetings, at times weekly meetings, and I would be there to help them… The procedure we have wasn’t for a second check or sign-off, and that was the procedure that I was following, and also followed when I was being managed before I was the building control manager.”

Grogan continued: “Mr Hoban also didn’t interrogate the claims on the BBA certificate in respect of the ACM panels. You were his line manager. Do you accept that you failed to ensure that he was sufficiently aware of the need to check the test evidence in respect of all materials used on Grenfell Tower’s cladding system?”

Allen replied: “Well, as I said , the first thing is for the building control officer to check the requirements of the Building Regulations, in part B in this case, and then to check whatever the product is against their test certificate and make sure that’s the case. At the time, I didn’t know the detail of the project because I wasn’t responsible in dealing with that project, apart from the period when I was looking at the pre-application meeting, and, as I said, there wasn’t a process at the time of second checking.”

He added that the workload in the department was “manageable, definitely” at that “people didn’t do more hours than was needed to”, nor was he aware of anyone having raised safety concerns.

Accusations of bullying denied

Grogan went on to show Allen an email from Robert Albrow, a former building control surveyor within the department, dated 16 June 2017, days after the Grenfell Tower fire, to Graham Stallwood, executive director for planning and borough development at RBKC.

The email made accusations of bullying within the department. It read: “I wish to offer my unconditional support to the building control officer concerned. I worked for RBKC as a senior building control surveyor for many years and mostly had a positive time.

“It is however with regret that I feel the need to repeat the concerns I had with the management team at the time, all of which are well documented. I sincerely believe surveyors’ concerns were never taken seriously. On one occasion, I utilised the Council’s Whistle Blowing Policy. Even then the management team failed to follow the panel’s recommendations and acted contrary to published guidance.

“I am also in possession of documentation whereby I specifically asked a builder to ‘open up’ an element of work to later find John Allen undermined my decision and approved the work without speaking to me about these issues. At the time, I asked John to make a site note to this effect, which he failed to do. To cover my back, I sent him an email, the response I got was that it was inappropriate to enter an email dialogue when he’s sat in the next room. I read this to mean no paper trail. Needless to say, the note never got recorded.

“You will also observe I questioned workloads across the department.”

“Be under no illusions, I believe the department is afflicted by a culture of bullying, and surveyors’ concerns are not taken seriously when raised.”

Asked if he was aware of the issues being raised at the time, Allen said: “Well, I disagree with the whole essence of it. I was aware of this correspondence or something like it. I could talk personally about Rob Albrow – there were various disciplinaries and grievances and things went over with personnel for quite a long time… I did employ him to start with as part of the management team and I was helping at one stage when he came from another team to the team that I managed… but safe to say that the context I refute absolutely.”

When asked if he was aware prior to the restructuring at RKBC building control of concerns about safety not being taken seriously, Allen replied: “Absolutely not.”

The Inquiry continues.

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