The victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster were among the poorest people in one of the richest council areas in Britain.
There remains widespread disgust that a wealthy council and its tenant management organisation were unable both to ensure the safety of Grenfell residents and to properly coordinate a response when tragedy struck. The public inquiry should explain why this happened (and whether had Kensington & Chelsea RBC immediately called on the extra resources available it would have made any meaningful difference).
While it is wrong to think an area’s wealth should somehow protect it from tragedy – disaster can strike both rich and poor – it is certainly true that financial shortfall can contribute to it. This is the case if money is not available to provide safe housing or public services; to defend against flood or fire; to regulate private sector services; or to prepare a response to something bad happening.
It is therefore deeply worrying that an LGC investigation reveals councils’ emergency planning budgets have been cut by 29% since 2010. Clearly to cut spend on emergency planning is unwise – in many respects it is the ultimate decision that comes back to bite the protagonist.
But the same could be said about cutting children’s services budgets (surely investment in the younger generation will pay dividends?) while reducing expenditure on social care hits the most vulnerable adults. Similar arguments can be made against cuts to housing, public health, environmental services or regulatory services, while the retention of spend in regeneration, culture and skills supports future wealth, fulfilment and opportunity.
The truth is most of the options remaining for council cuts are unpalatable. Either the most vulnerable suffer, prosperity diminishes, a place’s appeal subsides or less is done to prevent the problems of tomorrow.
Emergency planning cuts (like police and fire spending reductions) fall into the latter category. They have the result – as Emergency Planning Society chair Tony Thompson put it – of meaning “some councils will be on a wing and a prayer and will be hoping an emergency doesn’t hit them”.
London is the only region to have bucked the trend of emergency planning cuts, probably as a result of boroughs responding to a 2016 exercise which showed serious shortcomings in emergency response. Other regions have been hit even harder by austerity than the capital and their councils’ leaders or chief executives have had little option but to cut back on emergency planning this decade. Most are acutely aware of the risk to which they could be exposing their local population.
No doubt when future disaster strikes and a council fails to respond adequately, its leadership will be lambasted. The terms of reference of future public inquiries will inevitably focus more on decisions made locally than national spending constraint. However, responsibility for foolhardy emergency planning cuts lies firmly at the doors of the government, not local leaderships perennially caught between a rock and a hard place.