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Grenfell: ‘Heartbroken’ building control officer accepts ‘serious failings’

2 October 2020
John Hoban

The building control officer who oversaw the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower described himself as “truly heartbroken” about the 14 June 2017 disaster that killed 72 people and accepted that he made “serious failings” in his work.

But, giving evidence to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, John Hoban, who worked for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, said his department was “under-resourced” and that he was coming into the office at weekends to try to keep on top of his workload of around 120 separate jobs.

Cladding suitability

Lead counsel to the Inquiry Richard Millett QC probed Hoban on his work checking the suitability of materials for the building.

Hoban said he knew by early March 2015 that ACM panels were going to be used as rainscreen material on the outside of the building. He didn’t mention in his original witness statement that he had checked the BBA certificate. Asked why not, he said: “It’s something that I’ve always done, but I just didn’t put it in my answers…I should have.”

Hoban agreed that he regarded BBA certificates as reliable and accepted them without question. But he admitted that he would not read them in detail but would instead “pick out the points that concerned me”.

Hoban also admitted that when looking at the BBA certificate for Reynobond ACM cladding “maybe I just looked at the first page”, even though the page relating to fire performance came at section six of the document.

Millett pointed out that the certificate made it clear that the cladding was available with both a polyethylene core and a fire-retardant version. He told Hoban: “If you had read this certificate at all carefully you would have understood that there were two different products.” Hoban answered that he could not recall.

Asked if he had an understanding at the time of what polyethylene was at the time, Hoban replied: “No.”

Asked if he had any thoughts on whether the certificate applied to panels regardless of whether they were in a face-fixed or cassette system, Hoban replied that “it’s not something that comes to mind”. He added: “As far as I was aware, Reynobond was class 0.”

Millett said: “I think what you’re telling me is that you looked at the BBA certificate, you looked at page one, you saw it was class 0, and you didn’t look into it further.”

Hoban replied: “Most probably”.

Hoban said: “I was dealing with a considerable number of projects at the time, and perhaps I didn’t spend as much time as I should have looking at the documents at that time.”

Millett probed Hoban about a March 2015 email from Harley with a specification. The specification mentioned using Styrofoam as an insulation material for the glazing and Hoban admitted that he didn’t know whether or not it was a material that would comply with the guidance in 12.7 of Approved Document B because he didn’t check.

Continuing, Millett asked Hoban about the P2 panels on the project, to be comprised of an outer and inner skin of aluminium 1.5mm in each case, with a core of 25mm of Kingspan TP10 rigid insulation.

Millett asked if Hoban agreed that Kingspan TP10 was not a material of limited combustibility. Hoban once again said he would need to see the BBA certificate and agreed that he did not check.

Millett asked: “Therefore it would follow that you never queried the use of these materials, even though the specification was sent to you, with either Studio E or Rydon, or for what it was worth, Harley?

Hoban replied: “Yes.”

Celotex insulation

When it came to the Celotex insulation, Hoban said he became aware that it was being used when he saw it on site and looked up information about the material on Celotex’s website. He also recalled asking Rydon, Studio E and Harley for details about the work but found it “difficult” to obtain information. He added: “I wish I’d been more formal, but I was trying to work with them.”

Referring to a Celotex datasheet about RS5000 when it was launched in August 2014, Millett pointed out “in fairness” to Hoban that it stated that the product was “suitable for buildings above 18 metres in height” but it also detailed how in the elements of the system tested to meet the BS 8414 fire performance test included 12mm fibre cement panels, a 12mm non-combustible sheathing board, and plasterboard. Millett added that underneath details of the system tested, it added in bold: “The fire performance and classification report issued only relates to the components detailed above. Any changes to the components listed will need to be considered by the building designer.”

Hoban said he couldn’t recall that qualification in the datasheet and that it wasn’t something he spotted at the time.

Millett said: “Just to summarise where we have got to: by early March you know that there are ACM panels going on the building. And at some stage you discover that there is RS5000 going on the building. You look up RS5000 on the Celotex website, but you don’t get any further than seeing that it’s suitable for buildings above 18 metres. And you don’t examine precisely why that was so. Would you accept that that was a serious failing on your part?”

Hoban replied: “At the time, I felt that was…okay. I see now that’s not.”

Cavity barriers

Millett then went on to question Hoban about the cavity barriers around the windows at Grenfell Tower. He asked if Hoban had ever been to site to check if they were installed. Hoban said that the windows were generally either “not in” or “in” and covered, which meant that he could not inspect the cavity barriers.

Millett said: “Did you not ask to see, to check? Do you agree that checking on site is one of the primary functions of a building control officer?”

Hoban said: “I saw the other cavity barriers going in, which were exposed, but the windows were enclosed at the time…I didn’t ask.”

Millett asked: “Do you accept that your failure to identify the missing cavity barriers generically around the windows on this building was a fundamental failing on your part?”

Hoban replied: “I should have checked – as I say, I saw the other ones and I didn’t feel it was necessary to have a window exposed.”

Millett said: “I’m bound to put it to you, Mr Hoban, that the failure to check the window openings for the presence of cavity barriers fell below the standards of a reasonably competent Building Control inspector. Do you accept that?”

Hoban said: “As I say, in hindsight, yes, but I didn’t see it as an issue at the time.”

Under-resourced

While giving his evidence, Hoban explained how, in April 2015, he was given another area to look after which he said added 55 jobs to his workload and he felt it was a priority to go and look at those jobs and find out what stage they were. As far as Grenfell was concerned he said he didn’t have any “major concerns” because there were two clerks of works on the job and a number of levels of supervision.

“My main priority at that stage was dealing with this new area that I was dealing with, and jobs where things were not going right and could escalate into major problems.”

Asked if he was relying on the clerks of works to “get it right” at Grenfell, Hoban replied: “No, I’m not relying on them to do my job but I have to prioritise where I visit and I can only do so many visits in a day, in a week.”

Hoban said he asked for help in April 2015 because he had been given a new area and was struggling with his workload but “none of these suggestions were taken up”. He added: “I felt I was in a position that I couldn’t refuse. I was instructed to deal with an additional area, and I had to take it on.”

Hoban also pointed to health issues that he was having which meant he had to attend various hospital appointments and sometimes go home early because he was unwell. He mentioned to his superiors that he had high blood pressure “on a couple of occasions”.

Millett asked if there were no facilities or resources offered to him to support him to make sure that he could do his building control job on Grenfell to the best of his ability.

Hoban replied: “I felt I couldn’t escalate it any further…I did say on a number of occasions in the office that we needed more staff. I felt that we were under-resourced. In September 2013, five of my colleagues retired and Michael Winn passed away. Subsequently Hilary Wyatt…went into the planning department and I got her area, and then…I got Celia’s area in April and I was told I was in a better position than my colleagues to deal with that. I was coming in at weekends to try to keep on top of my work. I used to go to bed at night with a notebook, thinking about…jobs, and some nights I wasn’t sleeping at all.”

He added that he felt unable to escalate the problems because there was a “culture within the department”.

“Ambiguous and confusing” regulations

In a sometimes tearful conclusion to his evidence, Hoban said he felt that the Building Regulations at the time, particularly the approved documents, were “ambiguous and confusing”. He said: “We can see that with particular reference to Approved Document B in the new volume that has come out, because it is a lot more clear.”

He went on: “The other observation I would like to make is that in the period from 2013 to 2017, when I left Kensington, the building control department lost 10 surveyors who had 230 years’ experience and there was one replacement, who was a graduate, and I don’t believe that’s the correct way to run a department.

“If we had a regulatory body like we had with the Greater London Council, and the regulations and Building Acts and constructional byelaws that we had at that particular time, and a support network of the experts that administered the regulations at that time, I don’t think we’d be in a position where we are now, sitting here talking about people that lost their lives.

“All these buildings with flammable cladding, and the stress and the uncertainty that leaves with the people living in those buildings now…we’ve got hundreds, hundreds and hundreds of buildings with materials that could cause a fire at any time, and it’s still up there.”

Finally, he said: “I am truly heartbroken about what happened that night, particularly for those who lost their lives: the children, the brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, fathers, mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers that lost their life. I also have never forgotten the people that night that got out with their lives. Their lives have changed so dramatically since then, and likewise the people or the families that lost loved ones that night. You know, their lives will never be the same, and I just want to say that I’m truly heartbroken for them.”

The Inquiry continues

Comments

It seems that Mr Hoban had been placed in an impossible position. His “serious failings” are no doubt a direct result of that. In an earlier report, Mr White the clerk of works is said to have commented that he wished “… we could go back to what it was when I started”. No doubt Mr Hoban feels much the same. Regrettably Mr White’s wish will not be fulfilled – those happier days are gone forever. Also regrettable have been government policies in repealing the London Building Acts, replacing them with the discredited and “not fit for purpose” Building Regulations, and abolishing London’s first class and properly resourced building control regime – then a part of the Greater London Council’s Architect’s Department.
I worked for the GLC in building control from 1974 until its abolition in 1986 and I firmly believe that if that regime were still in existence neither the Grenfell fire nor anything like it could have occurred in London. There was no serious shortage of staff and no oppressive workload, there were numerous knowledgeable and experienced colleagues to consult, a supportive and accessible management, a ready availability of specialist advice – including the Fire Brigade, the Structural Engineering Division and the Council’s Scientific Branch and, most importantly the legislation was fit for purpose, clear and unambiguous, as were the various codes of practice issued by the Council.
True enough the Department’s building control function was costly, but any financial savings that may have been achieved over the years by the diminution of standards and supervision will be dwarfed by the costs resulting from the Grenfell incident and all that will follow from it.
I too wish we could go back.

Charles Worby, 4 October 2020

I hope that the Architects, Project Managers and Contractors involved are grilled as deeply in respect of their basic responsibility as Professional Designers and Contractors. This is without even touching on responsibilities under the (CDM) Construction DESIGN! and Management ! Regulations which in this case appears to have completely failed.
Peter Anderson

Peter Anderson, 4 October 2020

Disgrace. ! Question the Building Inspector and assess his role BUT DONT make him the Scapegoat. He doesn’t DESIGN or BUILD the Building. ?(CDM)?
Peter Anderson

Peter Anderson, 4 October 2020

I read this report and the previous not with ‘rubber necking’ ‘I told you so’ but with sadness. It is not just this incident that shows the failings in the curret state of the industry. There are failings all round, and that includes Education, Professional & Trade bodies, Main Contractors, Sub-contractors Manufacturers and Suppliers too as well as Goverment who set these regulations. We are safer on site, but we are seemingly all trying to ‘rush’ everything. Why can we all be given time to do the job of Construction properly – from the design right through to the occupation., rather than constantly being pushed by money – in the end that’s what it all comes down to. To quote Dame Judith, a race to the bottom. In this case it has cost lives. It’s time the industry told clients no: we need time. afterall you don’t drive a car straight off the production line that hasn;t been fully designed and fully tested. In this case that’s what has happened.

Michael Smith, 5 October 2020

My colleagues and I in Building Control have a genuine heartfelt concern for the way in which John Hoban is being questioned and portrayed. It is clear that he is a conscientious, hard working and dedicated surveyor, working in a team where there simply are not enough staff. The poor man was working weekends and stressing all night about his work. Where was his employers duty of care to staff, where are the managers and directors who ran the department into that critically short staffed state? Are they going to be questioned?
He asked for help and didn’t get it. Appalling. Realistically we feel that John Hobans position could happen to anyone of us in Local Authority Building Control. Most councils have several vacant positions and most surveyors are doing the work of several surveyors, over loaded, trying to do their best and quite frankly working their socks off. It’s tragic that John Hoban is being blamed in this way. Local authorities need to learn from this, cutting back on staff numbers is not effective cost saving. It’s dangerous.

Anon., 5 October 2020

The Building Control inspector role is not to approve products and materials that will meet the criteria of the regulations. If Mr Hoban has been provided with a BBA certificate then the onus is on the designers to clarify which product is be specified. It is understandable why Mr Hoban would assume that the Class 0 product would be installed. Likewise this would be the same situation with the Celotex that a composite panels would be installed with appropriate fire rating.
Building Control would not have inspected this or other developments to the extent the enquiry is trying to insinuate particularly when there was extensive supervision along with clerk of works. Documentry evidence would be expected from those on site daily.
It will be a miscarriage of justice if Mr Hoban is the scapegoat for KCTMO, the designers and the design & build contractor

Clive Stapley, 5 October 2020

Over the years the Building Regulations as well as the guidance relating to them has blotted to an unmanageable level for any one person including the BCOs. BCOs are expected to be jacks of all trades as well as a master of them all! Everyone believes they are experts on everything, when even the experts in their fields are getting it wrong.

They are expecting an unrealistic level of scrutiny from inspectors as the police of the building industry. After all you don’t blame the police if they drive past a burglary, you wouldn’t expect them to check every house just in case, but you would hold them to account if they ignored an apparent crime.

The whole industry needs a shake up. The employers, design team, contractors, enforcing authority and the regulations need looked at. Most design information is sub-standard, contractors don’t request inspections and BC are left in an under resourced impossible position.

Gordon, 6 October 2020

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