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Jacqui McKinlay: The lessons for leadership post-Grenfell

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In the aftermath of major incidents and disasters, councils often swiftly turn to governance – to understand if decision-making could be changed or improved to lessen the likelihood of something similar happening again.

In the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell fire, the situation in Kensington & Chelsea RBC was no different – but the context was that of one of the most significant losses of life in this country in peacetime, and an operational response to the disaster which was, at the time, only just ramping up. That response continues, as people are rehoused and as the tower is forensically examined.

Back in July the council resolved to bring in an independent organisation to carry out a review of its approach to governance, including whether to adopt the committee system. But the scope also responded to concerns expressed in some quarters that the council was disconnected from the needs and aspirations of some local people, and that the Grenfell fire was part of the consequence of this disconnection.

Our expertise in governance and scrutiny, and independence, meant we were brought in to lead on this governance study and partnered with the Democratic Society to deliver the public facing elements of the work. We talked about the scope of the work with the council’s executive and corporate services scrutiny committee in September 2017. The bulk of the evidence gathering – interviews, committee and meeting observations, surveys and the reading of a large amount of background papers and documentation – happened between October and February. Our findings were put to the council at another scrutiny meeting in early March. We expect a formal, detailed council response in July 2018.

What did we recommend? Kensington & Chelsea’s challenges on governance are not unique, but the Grenfell tragedy has put them into a sharper relief. We suggested to the council that the core of improvement had to come with a change in culture – a change in the relationship between members, officers and the public. We suggested a set of principles that could underpin this cultural change, and that could underpin the other improvements we recommended. On their own, these principles are general – their value comes from the fact they resulted from conversations with the public and in being applied consistently and systematically to everything the council does, and in particular how it makes decisions.

Accompanying the principles are a short series of recommendations. These mainly set out how we think that the council needs to continue having a conversation with local people – from setting its new strategic direction, to how the decision comes to be made on governance cross-borough, and area-by-area. These are issues that require community dialogue and while our report sets out some of the options to inform that conversation, it’s no substitute for that conversation happening.

As Kensington & Chelsea’s new arrangements are put in place, we recognise that there is an immediate call for the council to be more responsive and open to influence and dialogue, and for that purpose we have suggested that the council set up a “listening committee”, which would travel around the borough and provide local people with an opportunity to give their testimony to the leader and cabinet, raise their concerns and make their voice heard. Supporting these recommendations for further dialogue are a range of options, informed by detailed evidence, which set out some of the potential changes that the council could make – subject to the development of a borough-wide conversation about these issues.

In thinking about lessons for the sector from this review – they are many and numerous. However, one significant factor during our evidence gathering was the passion, energy and commitment from residents, resident associations and other voluntary or community groups to play their part in bringing about change for the better. The challenge for Kensington & Chelsea, and for all councils, is establishing how this reshapes not just engagement and consultation but all aspects of civic and community leadership. How does this impact on shaping the council (and councillor and officer) of the future and how do we let go whilst maintaining the democratic foundation that is so critical to local government’s success?

This work is the very first step in what the council recognises is going to be a long journey as it seeks to understand how it can begin to rebuild trust with local people.

Jacqui McKinlay, chief executive, Centre for Public Scrutiny

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