The legal framework covering councils’ arrangements with organisations that manage properties on their behalf means multiple organisations, companies or individuals could be held to account for failings relating to the Grenfell Tower fire.
Communities secretary Sajid Javid today announced an emergency review of fire safety at 4,000 tower blocks across the country, and legal experts are now warning local authorities to make sure all relevant policies are up to date.
A report by Kensington & Chelsea RBC in May 2016 lists eight companies involved in the £10.3m refurbishment of Grenfell Tower.
But Kensington & Chelsea retains all legal responsibilities as the landlord of the properties despite delegating significant functions to the Kensington & Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation (KCTMO).
To ensure their tenants live in safe, secure and functioning homes, councils are expected to closely monitor the performance of their housing management organisation.
But since the demise of the Audit Commission, which previously inspected almos, and an end to local government’s comprehensive performance assessment regime, this monitoring was become patchier. It was described by a senior housing official as “variable”, with significant differences in the regularity and scope of checks.
Eamon McGoldrick, managing director of the National Federation of Almos, said councils cannot “ultimately” protect themselves from being held responsible for the failings of TMOs, arms length management organisations and contractors.
But he said regular and thorough checks on performance and processes offer some assurance.
Mr McGoldrick told LGC: “If [councils] allow a TMO or ALMO to be poorly governed, not look at the make-up and skills set of its board, or check up on whether or not it is delivering the objective set - you could say there is a negligence on part of the council and then that negligence could then turn into taking some blame.”
Kensington & Chelsea as the planning authority is responsible for assessing the credibility of any proposed work, including the materials being used.
There remains strong speculation that cladding fitted as part of a £10m retrofit of the building accelerated the blaze.
Building regulations, a function still performed by Kensington & Chelsea but not by all councils as a private inspector can carry out this work, should provide a further layer of scrutiny of materials and design.
However, a report by the London Assembly in 2010 found that regulations “had not kept pace” with innovation in construction methods.
It has emerged that Kensington & Chelsea said that a full plans decision notice, considered the most thorough building regulation approval option according to the government, was not required for the Grenfell Tower refurbishment. Questions will be asked why a “completion certification” was issued instead.
Mr McGoldrick said the Grenfell Tower fire had shifted focus in the industry on the certification of products available to contractors.
The Building Research Establishment works for the Department for Communities & Local Government on fire investigations and also provides independent certification of fire, security and environmental products and services. In a report last year BRE said innovations regarding insulation had led to an increase in the use of “potentially combustible materials being applied” to buildings.
The Reynobond cladding used on Grenfell Tower is certified in the UK by the British Board of Agrément. The company Artelia UK was contracted to project manage the refurbishment on Grenfell Tower.
But Mr McGoldrick said there would be an assumption that KCTMO would also deploy a “clerk of works” responsible for monitoring the quality and progress of the work.
Mr McGoldrick also said it was unusual for a TMO to take on the scale of services that KCTMO is responsible for in the borough. He said TMOs normally operate on a smaller neighbourhood level, often beneath an arms length management organisation, and manage low level maintenance.
Olwen Dutton, a partner at law firm Anthony Collins, said councils should have instigated thorough reviews of processes in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
She told LGC: “I would be checking the housekeeping stuff. I would look at contracts in relation to not only residential buildings but other premises and making sure maintenance contracts in place are properly specific.”
Ms Dutton also said councils should be reviewing all planned building upgrades to ensure they are appropriate and could look to vary some contracts or pause projects that are underway.
Prime minister Theresa May has launched a public inquiry into the Grenfell disaster while police have launched a criminal investigation, raising the possibility of corporate manslaughter charges being brought.
In this context, Ms Dutton said all councils should be ensuring all their relevant policies are up to date. She said: “I would be asking: ’Are we very clear that we had the proper management and supervision of all the necessary policies in place?’”