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Legitimacy to lead - some lessons from Grenfell

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A commentary on a discussion at the NLGN conference this week 

Almost two years after the Grenfell fire took the lives of 72 people, three community leaders who have been helping to unite and heal the local community since the tragedy discussed the lessons they had learnt from their experiences at the NLGN’s annual conference yesterday. 

The panel discussion brought Barry Quirk, chief executive of Kensington & Chelsea RBC, together with Abdurahman Sayed, the head of the Muslim cultural heritage centre Al-Manaar in the borough, and Reverend Dr Michael Long, the minister of Notting Hill Methodist Church.

Apart from the extent of the horror that unfolded, what made the Grenfell tower incident unparalleled was the lack of legitimacy the local authority had at the time to deal with the emergency, said Mr Quirk.

“These were very difficult circumstances – around 200 families made homeless and many hundreds of people bereaved, and there was no legitimacy for us to lead because we failed to keep people safe in their beds at night,” he explained. 

“An organisation builds legitimacy not by talking, which we are very good at in the public sector, but by doing. You have to be as honest as the day is long, because if you mislead people, you are done for.

“Good intentions are not enough without legitimacy.

“Nothing was good enough to meet the challenge, because it had to be built on co-design but for that you needed legitimacy.”

“When people don’t know what to do, they tend to do nothing – we are facing that problem now as a nation.”

Mr Sayed was the first to pioneer a community/faith based professional therapeutic counselling service as part of the response to the fire tragedy, and is one of the leading coordinators of inter-faith and inter-community relations in Kensington & Chelsea.

“We were not at all prepared for the fire,” he admitted. ”It happened at midnight and there was an immediate expectation that it would be under control in a few hours – it wasn’t until midday that we realised what a huge problem it was. We opened our centre to become an emergency response centre first and later developed bereavement support and counselling.”

He says that while the government’s initiative for tackling radicalisation, Prevent, has been controversial in other parts of the country, in the aftermath of Grenfell, it has had a positive impact in Kensington & Chelsea.

“The community has shown how united it can be. It crossed all boundaries,” he said.

But Mr Sayed criticises the local authority for what he describes as “an absence of leadership and coordination”, and feels his centre was fortunate that nothing more drastic went wrong.

“There were four to five of us in our centre doing what we could but there was a lack of coordination of volunteers, which could have been done from day one. We tried to make sure we had volunteers with the right intentions and background but I feel looking back that things could have gone drastically wrong if people had had bad feelings towards any of the vulnerable people, because we had no way to check their backgrounds. We even had volunteers driving down the M40 to help.

“We were never trained or prepared for this.

“A lot of artisan groups tried to push us left and right [politically] – but we were not in that business. There were lawyers trying to enlist survivors, and we didn’t want to promote their interests. We stood our ground, and this enabled us to take a new bridging role between the community and the local authority themselves and host meetings between the two, because organisations felt credibility in our organisation.”

Mr Quirk joined Kensington & Chelsea as interim chief executive in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017, agreeing to take on the role permanently in September 2017.

He says that working in a disaster situation requires emotional leadership, which is why the faith community were very active and present after Grenfell.

“Lots of new organisations emerged so it wasn’t just established organisations we were dealing with. It was about grasping that very complex reality.

“Kindness, gentleness and compassion, these are critical things which we have needed to have. We haven’t in the past, with our ‘quest for excellence’ and such pursuits. We need to be able to appreciate how to be compassionate.”

His thoughts were echoed by those of Revd Long, who says that for the local authority, having “the opposite of a defensive posture” when dealing with the public in such a situation was important. “I remember a public meeting in our church where there was a humility, if not apology, from the local authority representatives there, which really broke new ground,” he said.

Although Kensington & Chelsea faced criticism for how it dealt with the fire and its consequences, Mr Quirk says he has “great admiration” for those who worked through the crisis.

“We were doing things that had never done before,” he explained. “Normally in the public sector, you have the support of rules and procedures and are mindful of the consequences of not following them. But none of the guidelines were of any use to people making decisions at that time.

“The critical thing was the quality of the judgements made.

“We are now looking at the lessons we learnt, but hopefully these lessons won’t be of use to anyone - maybe in other countries.”

Mr Quirk claims that there has been a dramatic policy shift at his council since Grenfell, to putting the community first in all that they do.

He cites as an example the council’s dedicated service for the bereaved and survivors.

“I am absolutely proud of the work that has been done,” he said. “But this is early days. We are not even two years since the fire, but the vast majority of people [178 households] are now housed in permanent accommodation, which is very good.

 “But with less council housing, most people now live in the private sector and we are in danger of seeing the landlord tenant relationship as community relationship – which it isn’t. Local authorities need to really understand what community is and where their responsibilities lie.”

For Revd Long, looking back at what could have been done better after the fire, he says that one of his biggest regrets is not initially taking down all of the phone numbers of the volunteers they accepted to work with survivors. “We wanted to contact all our hundreds of volunteers to debrief them, because some of them had put themselves under severe stress – it was disturbing for them dealing with deeply damaged people

“We felt we had a duty of care to those people, which we didn’t execute how we should. There was a feeling of just being overwhelmed in the first few weeks.”

But not everybody was welcomed to volunteer through his church, he recalls. “When people looked creepy – there is no other way to say it – I threw them out. A BBC journalist found cocaine in the toilets in the first few days after the fire.

“Fortunately we avoided trouble on the streets, but there were ugly scenes outside out building.”

Revd Long added that it was a shame there was no visible coordination by the local authority at the time.

“There were conversations with local councillors, but we needed much more.

But a saving grace was a meeting that was held in those first few weeks to get the community leaders in one room – new and old. This gave them the means to communicate with each other from then on. “It made a huge difference to have some coordination,” he said.

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