Tower on fire

Grenfell: from tower block to funeral pyre.

Picture: Natalie Oxford. Twitter: @NatTheSpookyBat

Value Engineering

Scenes from the Grenfell Inquiry

Birmingham Rep


Theatre reviewing is not normally seen as a political function, nor does it usually make you feel angry or ashamed of what we, have a nation, have become, but then along comes Value Engineering, and a window into the stark world of them and us, rich and poor and buck passing so swift and often that it must resemble the ball bouncing round a spinning roulette wheel.

Grenfell Tower was a non-descript brutalist tower block from 1974, an uninspiring 24 stories of drabness with 129 flats overlooking the luxury and wealth of Kensington and Chelsea, perhaps the richest borough in Britain. To the 600 souls who lived there it was home, their little kingdom.

On 14 June, 2017, a minor fire broke out in a faulty fridge-freezer on the fourth floor. It set off a smoke alarm and was seen to be smoking at around 00.50 am when the fire brigade were called. By 1.30 flames had reached the roof. It was to burn for 60 hours or so and resulted in 72 deaths.

The Grenfell Tower inquiry was ordered by Theresa May the day after the fire and it held its first hearing on 14 September 2017.

Those are the bare facts, and that is all this verbatim play by Guardian journalist Richard Norton-Taylor gives us – bare facts. No comment, no interpretation. These are the words as spoken with every cough, erm, ah and pause.

Simply extracts from evidence and questioning of protagonists – so far - in the worst residential fire death toll since the World War II. 


The chairman, retired judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick played byThomas Wheatley

What comes through is that this was a tower block housing the have nots, largely ethnic minorities, people with no power, no influence, no voice and no say over what was happening to them and their homes.

We also saw the worst excesses of business, hardly capitalism's finest hour. Manufacturers being less than honest about the products they were pushing, architects, contractors and sub-contractors deciding safety and building regulations were someone else’s problem, not their concern, indifference and incompetence on an industrial scale,  all allied to an attitude of making as much as possible for doing as little as possible as cheaply as possible.

And then there is value engineering, a phrase from the US during WW2 when labour, raw materials and components were in short supply and suitable alternatives had to be sourced, and were often found to be not only cheaper, but sometimes better or even added extra functionality. Same or better quality at lower cost.

At Grenfell, you suspected that the principles of value engineering had been perverted into the much simpler principle of cost cutting.  The Tenant Management Organisation, (TMO) set up to run Kensington and Chelsea’s housing stock, wanted to hack £800,000 off the lowest tender price to bring the bid from the preferred bidder, Rydon, in line with their budget, a budget that sensible logic might have indicated was perhaps under costed and set too low for safety.


Richard Millett QC, played by Ron Cook, the counsel to the inquiry

The job was down as refurbishment, but it appears, in reality, it was more to tart up a drab concrete block with a layer of cladding to make it less of an eyesore for the wealthier neighbours. Its value to the tenants was negligible if anything at all. The homes of 600 people were effectively being made less of a blot on the more affluent landscape.

There is no explosive testimony in the inquiry, just the forensic questioning of witnesses in what was, and still is, the main thrust of the inquiry, Phase 2, investigating the wider implications beyond technical and operational details of what happened when the fire broke out.

The play’s two and a half hours is a gruelling watch, and remember this is condensed from months of hearings. In my days as mainstream journalist, I sat through many a day of public inquiries and they challenge Mogadon for their soporific effect.

This was edited highlights as we see the corporate representatives interrogated and watch them tap dance their way through questions. There are the architects, Studio E, who do not see it as their responsibility to make sure their plans follow current building regulations, not that they seem to have actually known what the regs were, then main contractor Rydon, who never question the sales pitch of the cladding manufacturers as long as they were selling cheaper panels to help cut costs in the battle to save £800,000 – they apparently failed to pass on all of the savings achieved to the TMO price though, skimming some off the top for themselves.

Then there was sub-contractor Harley Curtain Wall responsible for covering the tower block in the flammable panels that just needed the blue touch paper of a minor fire to create a real life towering inferno, they had problems, among others, with safety cavities to prevent fire spread by a chimney effect, some were  insufficient, some were missing and the chimney effect became a super spreader. Finally we had the Peter  Maddison, played by David Michaels, director: assets and regeneration of the TMO, waving aloft a budget of less than the lowest tender price, which perhaps says as much about the budget costings as the companies competing for the £8 million plus contract. His answers were well rehearsed speeches until he was brought to heel by Richard Millett and forced to answer questions about secret meetings and deals with Rydon before the contract was even awarded.

There is nothing new in this play, no startling revelations, no smoking gun - just a depressing litany of corporate greed , indifference allied to incompetence, at best, amorality at worst, putting profit before people, bottom line trumping integrity as a matter of course. It reveals an underlying lack of control, lack of oversight, a confusion, ignorance and failure of regulations, of deregulation to make cutting corners easier and all amid the pare to the bone and to hell with the consequences policy of austerity.


Michael Mansfield QC, played by David Robb asking "why did this happen"

At the start Richard Millett QC, played by Ron Cook, the counsel to the inquiry, has a word of caution about buck passing – rather like telling football teams not to kick the ball.

The set is a simple inquiry room with a central desk for the chairman, retired judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick (Thomas Wheatley), a desk to the right for Millett and staff and a desk, left for witnesses with screens to display memos and emails referred to in evidence, documents which posed far more questions than answers.

Witnesses conveniently forget details, dates, meetings. Potential evidence was found to have been “binned” as “not needed”, meetings were “off-line” or, as those not familiar with management speak might say, secret,  while a senior building control officer of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, who you suspect had a workload way beyond safe oversight, admitted he did not know the fire safe zinc panels had been changed for the cheaper and flammable aluminium composite panels – value engineering at its worst – until they were being installed.

The final word comes from Michael Mansfield QC, played by David Robb, perhaps the best known QC in the country and barrister for the Bereaved, Survivors and Residents group (BSR).

He tells us that “It is one thing to work out how the fire was caused, and how the deaths were caused; the bigger question is: why did this happen?

We fade to black with the names of the 72 victims on the screen before a stunned and silent audience. This is not entertainment, not even drama in the conventional sense, but, my word, it is compelling theatre. To 20-11-21.

Roger Clarke


Now in its fifth year the inquiry’s own schedule runs to May 2022, while a corresponding police inquiry will not submit evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service until the inquiry publishes its report.

The tower is currently covered in a protective wrap to preserve any forensic evidence and is scheduled for demolition.

The inquiry website with past statements and documents and schedules for the inquiry can be found HERE

The inquiry can be followed live on YouTube HERE

In Birmingham 30,000 are still living in unsafe homes, out of 700,000 nationally. 

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