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Grenfell must make chiefs more empathetic and caring, says Quirk

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Barry Quirk has urged Kensington & Chelsea RBC officers to “change the nature of public service professionalism” by spreading compassion and empathy through the council’s entire organisation.

In an interview which took place last month but was published by LGC today, the first anniversary of the Grenfell fire, in which 72 people died, the council’s chief executive spoke to LGC at length about how the “civic should support the civil”, giving his institution a purpose beyond “just focus on its functions and its services and its cost effectiveness”.

Mr Quirk initially arrived at Kensington & Chelsea at a time its managerial and political leadership was widely regarded as having failed to show compassion following the tragedy. The inability of a council in perhaps the country’s wealthiest area to support its most vulnerable residents drew widespread condemnation.

“I’m saying to managers here, this appalling learning that we’re having to do – learning about being more compassionate, empathetic, caring for those people we’ve duties and obligations to from the Grenfell tragedy – should really enthuse the rest of our organisation, so that we’re changing the nature of public service professionalism here,” said Mr Quirk.

“It’s not just about service excellence… Bluntly the issue is what we’re doing to increase civility and to increase the positive impact the council has to support the system and communities in a place.”

Councils in areas with high housing demand and “outsourced” housing functions have “not been connected with their community much” and need to do more than merely ensure services are excellent, said the Kensington & Chelsea chief.

“The principal reason why local government exists is to help communities to live together and to improve the place,” he said.

“We talk about ‘place shaping’, but that’s really been a mask for how we can increase development, how can we draw in resources from outside to build our place and to compete with other places.”

He urged leaders to “think more about community building, community development, making this community a more cohesive – not just safer stronger and resilient but actually a dynamic community where people respect one another and are tolerant”.

Asked about the lack of trust in Kensington & Chelsea RBC, Mr Quirk said he told officers and members: “Trust and reputation is what other people think of you. Character and acting properly is what you should be doing.”

He said the council’s character should be “other regarding and focusing on the needs of the community and the needs of the people”. If the council consistently, reliably and authentically behaved in this way, “then people will trust us”. But the pursuit of trust was “not why we’re doing it… we’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do”.

The council has jointly with Hammersmith & Fulham LBC appointed an executive director for the environment and communities, a new role designed to address a lack of “accountability for the public realm”.

Organisationally, Mr Quirk has restructured his management so he has five direct reports rather than the 16 he had when he arrived. “If you have 16 direct reports, in my experience, it’s too many,” he said. The management is now “more corporate and less siloed”, he said, adding: “Ratchetting up that corpocracy is the only way I can ensure a proper response to Grenfell.”

Mr Quirk says he rarely has meetings at which civil servants are not present. Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government officials are heavily involved in the ongoing work at the Lancaster West Estate, in which Grenfell stands. This includes determining the future of the tower site, “which is not a matter for this authority” and being determined by the ministry and London Gold, who are “creating a community-led approach”.

“We need to make sure that that area, the lived experience of that in the future, is better than it was than in the past. Not just the look and feel but the lived experience, the social, the cultural and economic opportunities,” he said.

“That community strategy will go over the longer term – it’s about two years, five years, 10 years, a generation.”

‘Moral urgency made me move’

Barry Quirk has said “moral urgency” convinced him to move from his longstanding role as Lewisham LBC’s chief executive to head Kensington & Chelsea RBC’s widely criticised management.

Mr Quirk stepped in to help within days of the fire after winning the agreement of his former borough’s then mayor Steve Bullock (Lab) with the argument that “humanity comes before anything else”.

While he expected the posting to be for weeks or days, Mr Quirk said he felt “moral urgency” to stay when Kensington & Chelsea’s leader and chief executive resigned soon after his arrival. Mr Quirk disclosed that the former chief, town clerk Nicholas Holgate “didn’t leave for another three or four weeks” after his resignation.

“Obviously some people had to leave, it made absolute sense for them to leave, but I felt it was important that there was a responding organisation,” said Mr Quirk, who is approaching retirement age.

“I was looking to wind down I suppose this year. And I thought well I might as well wind up.

“The most difficult thing I suppose is we as public officials, as public servants and the politicians, are trying to help people solve the problems that the people subject to the problems, understandably and possibly rightly believe that we caused, or this institution caused.”

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