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Local government has lost trust over Grenfell – we need a strong voice to earn it back

Paul Masterman
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Coverage of the Grenfell disaster has moved on to endless speculation on the causes of the fire and what could have been done to prevent it.

But there is one clear fact: until the fire and police investigations are done and the inquests and public inquiry held, there are no clear facts.

Any early analysis of how local government protected, supported and communicated with its residents before and after Grenfell must be considered in this context. Anything else, including this column, is not even a first draft of history; it is notes towards that first draft.

But there are some early things we can say about communications.

First, let’s agree as the disaster unfolded what Theresa May called the “failure of the state, local and national, to help people when they needed it most” was as much a failure of communications as anything else.

Yet let’s also accept that the fire was such a horrific event that even the best resourced communications team would have struggled to give residents all the information and support they deserved.

Against a backdrop of significant cuts in the size and remits of local government comms teams, it clearly proved even harder in such horrifying circumstances. This is why the current drive by the comms profession to share learning across the public sector and to pool resources must continue and be stepped up urgently.

Second, 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.

As Georgia Gould (Lab) has proved in Camden, communications is leadership. Trust may only be given if you get out from behind your press statement and engagement strategy, show humanity and honesty, listen to people not talk at them and admit when you have got things wrong.

As Cllr Gould found, it’s messy, difficult and chaotic at times but she and her council have shown true engagement in the raw.

Third, trust is hard to gain and easy to lose. Local government’s hard-earned reputation for competence has been shaken badly over the last weeks.

There is a huge effort going on behind the scenes, led nationally by the Local Government Association, London Councils and others, to resource, coordinate and provide advice for the important work of communicating with and supporting residents and to make tower blocks safe.

People in distress have to be the priority, not filling spaces on breakfast television sofas merely to add to the dangerous speculation, but local government needs a stronger voice nationally sooner rather than later.

If the sector is to make itself worthy again of residents’ trust then we need a leader and a plan - and we need them now.

Paul Masterman, independent consultant

 

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