Failing Grenfell Again

Tribune Magazine by Emma Dent Coad 30.04.2019

Almost two years after the tragic fire in Grenfell Tower, local MP Emma Dent Coad explains how Kensington and Chelsea Council have systematically failed its victims.

As the second anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire approaches, there is a feeling of desperation and growing panic in the air from those with responsibility for rehousing the homeless. 

This also applies to those responsible for the mental and physical well-being of the community, and for the long-term future of a neighbourhood which will always bear the scars of what happened on 14th June 2017.

This determination to get everything under control, to clear the decks, to get back to ‘business as usual’ has produced a hardening of attitude from some who should know better.

There are officers in the Council, and indeed councillors of all political persuasions, who have worked admirably, and been patient, kind, empathic and understanding with the hundreds of affected people they have met. 

Then there are the others.

Bishop James Jones’ Charter for Bereaved Families was established in response to the treatment of families of the Hillsborough disaster. In late 2017, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council signed up to the Charter and its six principles which commit the Council to the following: 

  1. In the event of a public tragedy, activate its emergency plan and deploy its resources to rescue victims, to support the bereaved and to protect the vulnerable.
  2. Place the public interest above our own reputation.
  3. Approach forms of public scrutiny – including public inquiries and inquests – with candour, in an open, honest and transparent way, making full disclosure of relevant documents, material and facts. Our objective is to assist the search for the truth. We accept that we should learn from the findings of external scrutiny and from past mistakes.
  4. Avoid seeking to defend the indefensible or to dismiss or disparage those who may have suffered where we have fallen short.
  5. Ensure all members of staff treat members of the public and each other with mutual respect and with courtesy. Where we fall short, we should apologise straightforwardly and genuinely.
  6. Recognise that we are accountable and open to challenge. We will ensure that processes are in place to allow the public to hold us to account for the work we do and for the way in which we do it. We do not knowingly mislead the public or the media.

However, the hiring of a large and well-funded Media Communications team at the same time caused concern, and some of their actions since then have rung alarm bells. Loud and often. I could give countless examples, but here are a few: 

  • The Leader of the Council, in October 2018, nervously stated at Full Council that she knew nothing about the soil toxicity tests carried out in late 2017. This is despite the fact that half of North Kensington were aware of minutes of a meeting she had attended nine months previously to discuss that very issue.
  • Countless examples of MediaComs and senior councillors downplaying the number of families made homeless by the fire. In essence only people from the Tower and Walk are counted, not those from the adjacent blocks. Currently the number of homeless households is 67. 
  • Constant misrepresentation of the state of the council’s finances; they still have decent reserves, have found £7 million to extend Leighton House Museum, and £400,000 a month for legal services.
  • Reports of poor treatment of some survivors and bereaved by some officers and councillors, incidents of which have been witnessed.
  • Reports of comments by officers and councillors, including the use of racist words, to describe the community, as well as racist comments made within the Council. I met two former BAME officers who left because they could no longer tolerate this but refused to report it.

While defending the Council’s indefensible actions at every turn, MediaComs refuse to support traumatised survivors who have been hounded and persecuted by the press. 

The government-appointed Task Force is about to report back for the fourth time. They have demanded cultural change for which there is little evidence. Instead, I see the Council placing their own reputation above public interest, I see candour only when it suits their purpose, I see few learning from past mistakes. Officers and councillors too often defend the indefensible, and too often affected people are treated with disdain. 

Quite a few of the 186 households who have moved into permanent accommodation are unhappy for various reasons and have come back to me for help. When they ask to be moved, they are treated as a nuisance. When one expressed his anger in words, he was called “volatile.” 

These families are treated as troublesome rather than troubled. I have heard of four suicides, two additional attempts and one sectioning in the past few months. It would be wrong to attribute them directly to the Council’s ineptitude and lack of care, but it is clear that many local people are struggling emotionally and mentally, and not getting the help they need from the £50 million of targeted NHS support. 

The Council claims to have bought 300 properties for households made homeless. If 186 households have now moved in, what’s happened to the remaining 114? No one will say.

While spinning their webs with tales of community meetings, people being “engaged,” graphics, graphs and indecipherable management speak, the truth does eventually leak out.

Meanwhile, councillors dig in their heels. Comments reported in recent months have included “haven’t we [senior Tory councillors] suffered enough?” and “I don’t know why we’re wasting so much on mental health, they all seem fine to me.” 

The “exciting and innovative” Council Plan and Review of the Scrutiny Process, currently being rushed through, would reduce councillors to community engagement officers and leave the decision-making to just nine senior councillors. 

And this after the proposed Plan had “engaged” just 28 people in the whole of North Kensington, a number fewer than that which North Ken Councillors could “engage” on a local shopping trip. And the third Task Force Report said they must improve scrutiny.

Then there is the disastrous, unpopular and indefensible determination to end the Grenfell Recovery Scrutiny Committee, when it was just turning a corner and beginning to function. 

A Council that has learnt so little cannot absorb such a large quantity of sensitive work. But no dissent is accepted. We must get back to “business as usual,” as a senior Director told me. 

This flies in the face of the Task Force and Grenfell Recovery Strategy, which both state clearly that we should never consider returning to the previous administration of the Council which let 72 people burn to death in front of their families, friends and neighbours.

We have some lovely, empathetic, community-minded millionaires in Kensington, and not all vote Labour. But those in charge at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, many of whom can afford a high life of yachts, polo games and Lamborghinis, are not of that ilk. 

I’ve met Brexit-supporting Tory MPs from the Home Counties with more empathy. One told me “they should have got the army in to house people, and the Commissioners in to take over the Council on day one.”

We need a team of people with intelligence, experience and humanity to deal with a mess of our Council’s own making. For as long as people are determined to point the finger of blame elsewhere for their own failures, I and many of my community will continue to distrust them.

Our demand is for #CommissionersNow.

Bishop John James’ report on Hillsborough was called The Patronising Disposition of Unaccountable Power. It has never been more apposite. Anyone interested to know why, almost two years on, those who suffered at Grenfell are still denied justice should read it.

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About the Author

Emma Dent Coad is the Labour Party Member of Parliament for Kensington.

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