Delays over Grenfell’s landlord clearing a backlog of fire safety actions on its buildings that endured for years were “out of my control”, a former health and safety manager told an inquiry.
Concerns over the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation’s (TMO) struggles to fully resolve actions in a timely manner were being raised right up until the day before Grenfell Tower’s deadly 2017 fire, an inquiry into the blaze heard.
Janice Wray, a former health and safety and facilities manager for the TMO, said she experienced “frustration” over the delays, highlighting issues with the performance of contractors and resource constraints, with actions being “out of my control”.
During her evidence to the inquiry on Tuesday, Ms Wray was repeatedly questioned over why the TMO failed to complete fire risk assessment (FRA) actions identified by its fire assessor within recommended timeframes.
The inquiry has previously heard that, as of March 2014, before the introduction of a new online recording system, there were some 1,400 outstanding FRA actions in its backlog.
Under cross examination by Richard Millett QC, lead counsel to the inquiry, Ms Wray said she was unable to explain why so many actions had accrued at that time and acknowledged it was “a lot”.
The inquiry heard how Ms Wray’s role involved receiving FRA reports and logging these in an online record management system.
Actions would be assigned to other relevant teams, with the recommended timeframe for them to be completed, and Ms Wray monitored their progress.
The inquiry was shown a series of documents on Tuesday indicating the problem of the FRA backlog persisted over a period of years.
Consultancy firm Salvus was contracted by the TMO in September 2009 to do FRAs on housing stock deemed high risk that the TMO ran for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC).
The inquiry heard the programme concluded on May 2010, but minutes from a TMO health and safety committee meeting in January 2012 said a “significant number” of FRA-related actions remained “outstanding”.
Mr Millett said such items were meant to be resolved within three months or a plan of action agreed within six months, but the TMO was “still having a problem in completing FRA actions from that programme over a year and a half later”.
Ms Wray agreed with Mr Millett when he asked her if by “even taking the latest date you were 12 months behind in completing some of the FRA actions?”
“Were you concerned by that?” he asked. Ms Wray replied: “Absolutely.”
Former firefighter Carl Stokes, who has previously given evidence to the inquiry, was later awarded a fire assessor contract after the Salvus high-risk programme.
In her statement to the inquiry Ms Wray noted it could be “challenging” to get FRA actions resolved and was given a “variety of explanations” as to why they could not be completed more quickly.
Ms Wray said she meant the experience was “frustrating”, adding: “I was chasing people and meeting the team leaders and taking along stats and escalating further up the organisation.”
“Sometimes it felt that things were still not moving as quickly as they should,” she said, adding: “It’s frustration in that it’s out of my control yet I really need to try and achieve it.”
She said delays could be linked to the “performance of contractors”, adding: “Sometimes it was that contractors were getting towards the end of their contract and were sort of a bit disinterested and (it was) quite challenging to get them to do what they required to do by the contract.”
Ms Wray said there seemed to be “an endless series of reasons” for the backlog, to which Mr Millett replied: “They sound like excuses rather than reasons.”
“I can only tell you what I was told,” she replied.
Mr Millett asked if there was a problem that people “weren’t taking it seriously”, but Ms Wray said she did not think this was the case.
A statistics paper prepared by Ms Wray for a TMO health and safety committee in July 2015 showed that there were 814 outstanding FRA actions at the time.
Asked again to explain why this was, Ms Wray said: “I’m really struggling to give you answers to these questions, because the actions fell outside of my control.
“We asked questions, we challenged, but I can’t really give you a definitive view from the teams who weren’t completing the actions.
“Because no doubt there were lots of things that I was not aware of. I know, as we’ve said, that there were sometimes issues with contractors, there were sometimes issues with volumes of work, but I can’t really give you a meaningful answer because I don’t have it.”
The inquiry also heard that at a TMO health and safety meeting on June 13 2017, the day before the Grenfell fire, Barbara Matthews, a TMO director, “expressed concern” at the volume of FRA actions that remained outstanding.
Asked if she accepted closing down actions was still an issue, Ms Wray said a “tremendous” amount of progress had been made “but it was still a position we were pushing on to improve”.
“So yes, there were still things that needed to be attended to,” she added.
The inquiry heard that the issues persisted despite the TMO commissioning a 2013 safety management review which recommended actions were taken to clear the backlog and establish a process to monitor and track actions.
Asked if anything changed in processes as a result of this report, Ms Wray said the TMO became “more rigorous” about what it had in place and would “continue to refine” the information it had.
When asked if she had asked for more resources to help bring the backlog under control Ms Wray said she suspected not “because there wasn’t any more money to be had”.
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