LGC’s essential daily commentary.
Leadership focus #1: The LGC Interview: Safeguarding children ‘keeps me awake at night’
Leadership focus #2: Gavin Jones: Social reform challenge demands new forms of leadership
Leadership focus #3: The Trajectory: Rob Bridge, Welwyn Hatfield BC
Today’s news that Barry Quirk has been appointed interim chief executive at Kensington & Chelsea has been widely welcomed. Announcing the appointment Kensington & Chelsea leader Nick Paget-Brown (Con) described Mr Quirk, who has held the top job at Lewisham since 1993, as London’s most experienced chief executive and said he was “pleased that he will be able to lead our staff at this critical time”.
Questions of leadership are among the many issues that have been raised by the terrible tragedy that occurred at Grenfell Tower last week, the effects of which will be long felt in the community of North Kensington and beyond.
As more and more tower block residents across the country discover their home may be unsafe, leadership from local government has never been more vital - whether the properties are council stock or managed by an external organisation. At the last count 14 tower blocks in nine council areas had been found to have combustible cladding. (Not the 600 government spokespeople had wrongly suggested yesterday afternoon).
Yesterday LGC reported how one of these councils, Camden LBC, had apparently acted within hours to start the process of removing problem cladding from its affected blocks.
As one council chief told LGC today, in a situation so grave you need to forget about bureaucracy, forget the procurement regulations and “just think like a resident and get it done”.
Camden’s quick actions, which includes 24/7 patrols of the affected-estate’s corridors, will no doubt have provided reassurance to residents not only that they can sleep safely in their beds, but also that their council genuinely cares for their wellbeing.
Fairly or not, that is not an impression residents of Grenfell Tower and North Kensington got from Kensington & Chelsea before the fire and the slow response afterwards only compounded this mistrust.
Many in the sector feel Kensington & Chelsea’s response has let them down. There are undoubtedly major questions to answer about emergency preparedness and the authority’s delay in accepting help.
But should Nicholas Holgate have been forced to resign?
As LGC noted yesterday, there are still questions for the political leadership to answer. Rather than chief executive, Mr Holgate’s official job title was town clerk - a moniker that rather belittles the head of an organisation that spends about £600m a year on services and surely serves to create a primary ethos of administration rather than public service.
The decision to hold next week’s cabinet meeting, the first since the disaster, entirely in private also raises questions about the culture of the organisation, a culture that the political leadership must take responsibility for.
Mark Rogers, Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers past presidet, told LGC it should not have taken intervention from the secretary of state to prompt both the political and managerial leadership to take responsibility for the catastrophe.
Association of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers acting chair Tracey Lee said the apparent involvement of the communities secretary raised a worrying point of principle and said she would be concerned by “inappropriate interference”.
There is probably not enough information in the public domain to judge yet whether it may have been appropriate for the secretary of state to step in, but it is certainly regrettable. As one senior local government source noted this afternoon, Mr Quirk’s speedy appointment by Kensington & Chelsea shows the sector is now, at least, putting its own house in order.