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3 officials resign amid outcry over Grenfell Tower fire

New York Times

LONDON — Three officials involved with Grenfell Tower, the apartment building where at least 80 people died June 14, announced their resignations Friday, as the political fallout over Britain's deadliest fire in decades intensified.

Nick Paget-Brown, a Conservative, stepped down as head of the council of Kensington and Chelsea, the wealthy London borough that owns the tower, Friday afternoon. Rock Feilding-Mellen, a Conservative who had been in charge of housing for the council, stepped down as deputy leader.

Hours earlier, Robert Black, the head of the management company that ran the 24-story building and oversaw a renovation that included the installation of flammable cladding, also resigned.

The resignations occurred as new evidence emerged that the management company, which started the renovation in 2014, had chosen a less fire-resistant form of cladding to save nearly 300,000 pounds.

The fire, which left hundreds of people homeless, has opened debates over inequality, deregulation, austerity and governance. It is the subject of a public inquiry, led by a retired judge, as well as a criminal investigation. And it has cost several people their jobs, including the council's chief executive, Nicholas Holgate, who was forced out shortly after the fire.

Paget-Brown faced numerous calls for his resignation after a council meeting he led Thursday ended in mayhem and acrimony when he tried to exclude reporters, saying that their presence might "prejudice" a government inquiry into the tragedy. The journalists had obtained a court order admitting them to the meeting.

Paget-Brown's effort to block the reporters drew a rebuke from Prime Minister Theresa May, who had already seized control of the emergency response from the council, which was faulted for a lackluster handling of the tragedy. "The High Court ruled that the meeting should be open, and we would have expected the council to respect that," her office said in a statement Friday.

In a statement, Paget-Brown said he only tried to block the journalists because he had received advice from lawyers not to discuss the fire in public. "As council leader, I have to accept my share of responsibility for these perceived failings," he said, adding that "it cannot be right that this should have become the focus of attention when so many are dead or still unaccounted for."

Paget-Brown indicated that he would remain a councilor — a position to which he was first elected in 1986 — but would step aside as leader. Feilding-Mellen, who was first elected in 2006, also said he would remain on the council, though he resigned as deputy leader.

Kensington and Chelsea is one of London's wealthiest boroughs, but it also contains large sections of housing built for people of modest means. Many residents have for years accused the council of allowing penny-pinching to override fire safety when the building undertook the renovation, which was completed last year.

The government is racing to test cladding on high-rise buildings across the country. As of Friday, 160 buildings in 47 areas had failed fire-safety tests, officials said.

The Times of London, citing leaked emails and meeting minutes, reported Friday that Artelia UK, the project management consultants overseeing the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower, had come under pressure to reduce costs.

One email from the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization to Artelia discussed several options for slashing cladding costs and suggested that using cheaper aluminum composite panels, rather than panels made of zinc, could yield a "saving of 293,368 pounds," about $380,000.

The BBC, which also cited documents it had obtained, reported that the money saved by using aluminum "cladding in lieu of zinc cladding" was part of a broader package of savings that brought down the total cost of the project to about 8.5 million pounds from about 9.2 million pounds.

Brian Meacham, an associate professor of fire engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, said that in general, the more expensive zinc cladding may have been less combustible because it has a less flammable insulation — some of it made of mineral wool fiber — than the aluminum composite cladding.

(STORY CAN END HERE. OPTIONAL MATERIAL FOLLOWS.)

Grenfell Tower, which opened in 1974, is owned by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea but is managed by the quasipublic management organization. Black said that he wished to focus on "assisting with the investigation and inquiry."

On Thursday evening, after Paget-Brown was forced to relent from his opposition to admitting journalists, he prematurely ended the meeting after 20 minutes — earning him swift criticism from Mayor Sadiq Khan of London and from Sajid Javid, the secretary for communities and local government, who called for greater transparency.

The council's top Labour leader, Robert Atkinson, called the way the meeting was handled "an absolute fiasco" and urged Paget-Brown to resign, according to a video of the proceedings published in the British news media. He also suggested that the Conservatives, a majority on the council, were trying to obfuscate the reality of what had happened at the tower block.

This week, the government appointed Martin Moore-Bick, a retired appellate judge with a background in commercial law, to lead the public inquiry into the disaster. May told members of Parliament that the investigation would "leave no stone unturned."

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