Value Engineering – Scenes From The Grenfell Inquiry is a verbatim reconstruction of an ongoing inquiry, but make no mistake: this is a state-of-the-nation play that is every bit as important as previous examples that have tackled the NHS, inner cities and Britain’s dissonance with its role in shaping past and present events. Edited by Richard Norton-Taylor and directed by Nicholas Kent, it goes without saying that the play is ‘difficult’ to watch at times, as the testimonies of those who took the stand shed light on the horrific circumstances of the night in question and the staggering levels of corruption behind the scenes.
While the revelations will naturally trigger an emotive response from the audience, there’s never any melodrama or the raising of voices. The fact that most of what’s said is so ‘matter of fact’ is the reason it works so well. With a never-ending escalation of emotion, it would be easy to be ‘fatigued’ at some point. Instead, the play is a ‘slow burn’ – through the use of ‘dispassionate’ words, the truth is extricated from the witnesses who are naturally apprehensive.
I have to admit at one point when a firefighter and 999 operator are questioned, I thought “Typical. Give the people who were trying to help that awful night the third degree, but ignore the building contractors.” Thankfully my fears were allayed when it bcame apparent that the line of questioning wasn’t an ‘ambush’, but a way of gleaning what normal procedure was and how the emergency services had to ‘improvise’ to this unprecedented incident.
But if the emergency services did the best they could when everyone was begging for their assistance, the inquiry shows time and time again that the responsibilty for Grenfell had devolved from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to different facets of the private sector – all so-called experts, but upon questioning, revealed they only had a layman’s understanding of architecture and materials specifications. What’s worse, they had no inclination to find about what they didn’t know, no comprehension of UK building regulations and made endless assumptions that other subcontactors would make up for their deficit of skills and knowledge. In short, the people making the decisions acquired their positions through who they knew, rather than a meritocracy.
Of those who ‘faced’ the music at the inquiry, many were younger or ‘middle management’ – senior enough to take their portion of blame, but certainly not the only ones who should have, as those at the very top facilitated and encouraged their actions. Unfortunately for the ‘middle management’, they were unable to cite ‘executive priviledge’ to not testify, for fear of incriminating themselves… In such cases, even these ‘sad’ individuals elicit a modicum of sympathy.
On the night that I watched the play, there was a post-show discussion with a panel that included Yvette Williams (representative from Justice for Grenfell), Suresh Grover (Executive Director of The Monitoring Group) and Jim Illingworth (representative from BRUMLAG).
Among the things discussed, it was very evident within the play that the term ‘value engineering’ is a euphemism used by contractors to trim costs down to the bone. Under such circumstances, factors such as safety measures are given short shrift, as the bottom line is keeping expenses low at all costs… With this in mind, the construction industy knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
So why watch this play? Far from being a tragedy that happened a few years ago, the building practices that took place at Grenfell have been adopted across the UK. The same ‘inside deals’ that were made for the building contracts is the same business culture that allowed PPE-related contracts to be award by politicians to their ‘chums’, regardless of having zero experience to deliver such an important task. Once your eyes are opened to these practices, you realise that this behaviour is endemic in public life and only through the constant glare of accountability will it wither away…
© Michael Davis 2021
Value Engineering runs at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre until 20th November. On 20th November, there is also a socially-distanced matinee at 2:30pm.
Ron Cook, Daniel Betts, Sam Buchanan, Sally Giles, Polly Kemp, Phill Langhorne, Tim Lewis, David Michaels, David Robb, Howard Ward, Thomas Wheatley, Claire Lams