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Soul-searching after Grenfell

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Reflections on Glenfell from LGC columnists

The words on everyone’s lips at the Local Government Association conference last week concerned communities secretary Sajid Javid – and not all of them were repeatable in polite company. The communities secretary attracted opprobrium from across the sector after he heaped blame for the Grenfell disaster on councils, failing to mention the possibility that central government might be in any way responsible.

Last night the communities secretary attempted reconciliation through a markedly cuddlier speech made at a Local Government Information Unit reception.

Local government feels both bruised following Grenfell and a series of terror attacks and proud, on the whole, of its response to them. The detail of recovery operations following terror attacks in Westminster, London Bridge, Islington and Manchester suggest councils generally deal well with crises.

It’s not yet clear what long-term failings leading to Grenfell can be laid at Kensington & Chelsea RBC’s door. But what is clear is that the actions of the borough in the days immediately after the disaster – refusing help from neigbouring boroughs and the Local Government Association, failing to invoke a resilience mechanism until 60 hours after the fire broke out, banning the public from meetings – were the exception rather than the rule.

The tragedy has prompted much soul-searching within the sector as officers try to establish what went wrong, what this says about the state of its civil contingency capacities and governance arrangements and how to do better. On, columnists have been reflecting on what lessons local government can learn.

Paul Masterman, independent consultant, discusses councils’ responsibility to lead their communities after tragedy strikes through clear and honest communication. “The justifiable anger and distress of the people affected by the fire must once and for all prove that top-down, secretive, highly controlled, PR-led council comms has had its day,” Mr Masterman says. 

Tony Thompson, chair of the Emergency Planning Society, emphasises the importance of sound leadership to coordinate emergency responses. He notes this, as well as knowledge of responsibilities and procedures, had been lacking in a planning exercise staged in London 2016. “The public inquiry into Grenfell may well find a correlation between the issues raised at this exercise and the response to the fire,” Mr Thompson concludes.

Stephen Baker, chief executive of Suffolk Coastal and Waveney DCs and Solace spokesperson for civil resilience and emergency planning, points out the nature and range of threats to public safety have changed in recent years. Councils are drilled to respond to flooding, industrial disasters and even air crashes. Terror attacks and fires on the scale of Grenfell require a more “agile and flexible” approach than before, Mr Baker says. 

Grenfell raised questions about the oversight of social housing as well. The building’s residential association had reportedly complained about fire safety for some time, apparently to no avail. The building was managed by an unusually large tenant management organisation, and questions have been raised about how councils, management bodies, housing associations and residents interact. Writing for LGC Eamon McGoldrick, managing director of the National Federation of Almos, says that no governance model within housing is inherently flawed but that there are some essential ingredients to good governance – and the loss from the sector of experienced officers, thanks to austerity, has certainly not helped.

On a similar theme, Centre for Public Scrutiny chief executive Jacqui McKinlay says accountability is difficult “in a system with lots of chains and bodies” such as social housing. Moreover, Ms McKinlay said Grenfell shows governance “is about more than compliance” and is instead about “our collective responsibility to work better together … and addressing the imbalance of power between decision-makers and local people”.

Mr Javid said in his LGA speech that in light of recent events, local government and Westminster “must raise [their] game” and could not do this “from behind closed doors”. The candid discussion around Grenfell and other incidents has demonstrated that the sector needed no prompting from the communities secretary to start identifying where improvements could be made.

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