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“I want people brought to court and charged with corporate manslaughter,” says director Nicolas Kent of those culpable for the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, which killed 72 people. The worst residential blaze in the UK since the Blitz is the subject of Grenfell: Value Engineering – Scenes from the Inquiry, the latest of eight “tribunal plays” Kent has created with former Guardian security editor Richard Norton-Taylor from verbatim courtroom material. Previous subjects included the inquiries into the Arms to Iraq scandal and Stephen Lawrence’s murder.
Here, the two men concentrated on phase two of the public inquiry which examined those – Kensington and Chelsea Council, its arm’s length tenant management association, architects, contractors, and so on – responsible for the botched 2016 refurbishment that turned Grenfell into a firetrap. “It exposed fraud, lies, cover ups, what Richard Millett QC called ‘a merry-go-round of buck-passing’, a kind of subtle-ish corruption and incompetence,” says Norton-Taylor. “Classism and racism also come out, given most of the residents were from ethnic minorities, a lot of them disabled, and poor-ish.”
Grenfell was built in the early Seventies to provide council housing for up to 600 people. It had no sprinkler system and a single escape stair; any fire that broke out could supposedly be contained while other residents obeyed a “stay-put policy”. After a fire in 2010, questions were repeatedly raised by residents about the maintenance and safety of the block. In 2015/16 Grenfell was reclad to make it look less shabby next to a spanking new school.
Building firm Rydon got the contract, on the proviso that it made savings of at least £800,000 on its original £9.2m bid – the “value engineering” that gives the play its grim subtitle. Aluminum composite cladding over flammable polyethylene insulation was substituted for the original zinc. Some fire safety tests were fixed, others simply ignored or treated as somebody else’s problem. Fires in buildings with similar cladding, including others in Kensington, were dismissed. “It was a disaster waiting to happen,” says Norton-Taylor. “And it was also avoidable, which makes the tragedy even worse.”
When a fire broke out at 12.50am on June 14 in a fridge-freezer in flat 16 on Grenfell’s fourth floor, the panelling acted as a chimney, feeding the conflagration up through the flammable insulation and around the building: it took around 20 minutes to reach the roof. Despite the rapid spread of smoke and flames the “stay put” policy was not abandoned until 2.47am. “Do you know how wide the emergency staircase was?” says Kent. “Two abreast. For 600 people. It was ill-ventilated and had unclad gas pipes running through it. The gas was not turned off until the following morning, when the fire was still running.”
Kent turned down an immediate offer from the Bush Theatre to interview survivors on the ground for a verbatim play: “I couldn’t think of anything I was less well-equipped to do, and I didn’t want to intrude on grief.” Nonetheless, he began liaising with lawyers for the BSR (bereaved, survivors and residents) groups, including Michael Mansfield and Imran Khan, with a view to creating a new tribunal play.
He and Norton-Taylor attended the inquiry when it began, watching online when the pandemic hit, and decided to restrict themselves to the sections dealing with the guilty parties rather than the victims. Norton-Taylor says that Kent is always “very strict” about using only testimonial evidence, although there must have been a temptation to include then-PM Theresa May’s initial failure to visit Grenfell, and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s later suggestion that residents lacked “common sense” in following fire brigade advice.
What can a play add to the reams of media coverage? “There is an appetite to understand the background of what happened,” says Norton-Taylor. A play can “fit it all into a picture”, the way disparate news reports can’t. Kent adds that the tribunal shows have an impact beyond the core audience: the Stephen Lawrence play, The Colour of Justice, staged at the Tricycle Theatre in 1999, was seen by 23 per cent of the Sunday night viewing public when it was screened by the BBC. Also, the significance of this inquiry – and any subsequent criminal actions – go beyond the tragedy of Grenfell, touching the estimated 700,000 people still trapped in UK flats with unsafe cladding, which makes them both terrifying and near-impossible to sell.
Norton-Taylor’s distillation of weeks of material, including complex technical information, is damning. Arconic, which made the cladding panels, knew since 2011 that they performed badly in fire tests. Celotex, which made the insulation, “exploited the lack of knowledge” among building inspectors of the problems of combustible materials, according to Stephanie Barwise QC. There’s a constant shifting of blame and responsibility between representatives of architects Studio E, contractors Rydon, the Tenant Management Organisation and cladding installation specialists Harley, and complaints that regulations are either “complicated” or not fit for purpose. Most witnesses are combative or slippery, but some are abjectly sorrowful.
These wrangles take place against a backdrop of austerity cuts on top of decades of deregulation, and what Norton-Taylor calls “grubbiness”. Harley appointed the 25-year-old son of an employee as project manager of Grenfell. Rydon pocketed some of the savings made in the “value engineering” of the project. There seems to have been a chumocracy operating in the allocation of contracts. Although the fire service comes in for criticism too, not least for the “stay put” strategy, there’s heartbreaking testimony from an officer who climbed the tower to find a teenager, and a control room officer forced to tell residents what their “best bet” for survival would be.
Kent and Norton-Taylor – both septuagenarian white man – also faced criticism when the mostly white, mostly male cast for the play was announced. They were accused of poor taste, of centring the experiences of white lawyers rather than black and brown families, of making money from a tragedy. Kent points out that the production is not-for-profit, and proceeds from the printed script will go directly to the Grenfell Foundation.
“All the company people – the baddies, villains, the people who lied – are all white, and mainly but not all men,” says Norton-Taylor. To the charge of insensitivity, Kent says: “I would hate to traumatise anyone any more. I have huge compassion for what people went through. Although all [the names of those killed, injured or rendered homeless] is in the public domain, we have anonymised residents, changed sexes and changed floor and flat numbers.” He has been in touch with residents’ groups and Justice 4 Grenfell. For him, the heart of the play is a speech by the black QC Leslie Thomas, quoting James Baldwin and emphasising the baked-in social and racial inequality that led to Grenfell.
The show will be co-produced by the Playground Theatre, which lies in the shadow of the tower, but is too small to host the production. It will be staged at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill, and then briefly at Birmingham Rep. There will be 50 tickets at each Tabernacle performance priced at £5, or £2 for concessions, for local residents; Grenfell families can attend for free and Kent and co have been working with ten local schools on an education programme.
As with previous tribunal plays, Grenfell: Value Engineering appears before the inquiry publishes its report. When that happens, the question will turn from one of blame to one of remediation. As well as justice for Grenfell, Kent wants justice for those (including the show’s general manager and executive producer) trapped in unsafe flats. Currently taxpayers, including those in social housing, are footing the bill for monitoring buildings and eventually making them safe, but the firms who built and clad them – “among the biggest multinationals in the world” – are not. “Why are poor people living in social housing having to pay to put this right?” says Kent. “It’s iniquitous. Absolutely iniquitous.”
Grenfell: Value Engineering: Scenes from the Inquiry is at the Tabernacle, Notting Hill from October 13 to November 13. thetabernaclew11.com