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We have not seen the last resignation over Grenfell

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LGC’s essential daily commentary 

“It was clear that the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea couldn’t cope. It is right that the chief executive officer has resigned.”

So said the prime minister in her Commons statement today about the Grenfell Tower disaster.

This came the morning after Kensington & Chelsea RBC chief executive Nicholas Holgate announced his resignation – he says as a result of communities secretary Sajid Javid forcing his council leader’s hand.

Mr Javid has so far not confirmed or denied that he did indeed force the chief executive out.

A Department for Communities & Local Government spokesman said: “The appointment of chief executives is entirely the responsibility of the local authority.” However, the DCLG hasn’t recently won many awards for straight-talking openness. Yesterday, when asked if full business rates localisation was dead, it said it would “help local authorities to control more of the money they raise and will work closely with local government to agree the best way to achieve this” only for news that it is, to all intents and purposes, over to emerge less than an hour later.

Thus the only figure to carry the can for the Grenfell tragedy so far is an unelected local government official, albeit a senior one. Council leader Nick Paget-Brown (Con), Mr Holgate’s political master, remains in post, although it has been reported that he has offered his resignation to colleagues, only to be turned down.

This is not to say Mr Holgate should receive sympathy. Something dreadful has happened on his watch. Kensington & Chelsea clearly made major mistakes both before and after the disaster. A number of senior local government figures who spoke to LGC privately said both he and Cllr Paget-Brown should have already chosen to fall on their swords.

The charges against K&C include its failure to listen and act upon the safety concerns of residents, its failure to demonstrate oversight of the Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation and the fact that its building control signed off apparently substandard work on Grenfell Tower. Although some difficulty is inevitable in the aftermath of such a major tragedy, the council’s failure to bring in outside support and to show local leadership are damning. More broadly, it has to some extent failed to demonstrate the level of compassion that the human toll of such a horrific event demands.

However, there is some irony that the forcing out of Mr Holgate emerged on the same day that the government revealed 600 tower blocks could contain the cladding which proved so deadly at Grenfell Tower. There is clearly a national problem with identifying which cladding is permissible and to warning local areas of potentially dangerous building materials.

Since the Lakanal House fire in Southwark in 2009 the government has had warning of some of the dangers of fire safety in tower blocks. It will surely be the case that a central focus of the Grenfell Tower public inquiry will be on the inaction that ensured. Then housing minister Gavin Barwell in October announced a review into fire safety in tall buildings. In March a DCLG spokesperson trotted out the usual line that this would be published “in due course”. Then the election got in the way, then Grenfell happened.

Far from Mr Barwell being held culpable, he is now Theresa May’s chief of staff. Local government may note some irony that he is being blamed by many for the DCLG’s inaction. Mr Barwell impressed many in local government for his appreciation of the value of social housing and his desire to act – in contrast to the inaction in much of the rest of his old department.

Mr Javid – the minister ultimately responsible – remains in post. His tenure has been marked by inaction on so many fronts: the demise of business rate reform, the slowdown of devolution and now – most seriously – this. Mr Holgate has gone, Cllr Paget-Brown will no doubt not be long behind him. And, surely Mr Javid’s days must be numbered.

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