Southwark LBC chief executive Eleanor Kelly has spoken about a tumultuous year in which she oversaw the aftermath of the London Bridge terror attack and played a major role in the response to the Grenfell Tower fire disaster.
In an exclusive interview with LGC, Ms Kelly admitted the events of 2017 had taken their toll and urged other councils across the country to test their resilience and do more to prepare for unexpected events.
Having experienced traumatic events at close quarters, Ms Kelly said it was “surprising how it hits you”.
For her, it happened while she gave a speech to apprentices in Southwark’s offices in July – about a month after terrorists had killed eight people and injured 48 others in and around Borough Market, near London Bridge. It was the first time she had spoken publicly about the incident.
“It hit me that they [the terrorists] had come here,” said Ms Kelly. “Until then I hadn’t actually let it hit me. We just dealt with it.”
Ms Kelly, who also played a lead role publicly fronting the Gold Command operation in Kensington & Chelsea after the Grenfell Tower fire, said that too had had an impact, not just on her but all of the staff involved.
“They are not robots. For most of us [officers] you do have to sit down before you fall down because it does take that toll,” she said.
In her capacity as “shadow gold command” to City of London Corporation’s chief executive John Barradell, Ms Kelly regularly appeared in front of not just angry and grieving residents but the spotlight of the nation’s media.
Ms Kelly said one businessman recently remarked the situation raised her profile.
“That annoyed me so much, that someone would think you did it for you own self-aggrandisement… nothing could be further from the truth at all,” she said.
In a career spanning 43 years, Ms Kelly said the Grenfell Tower fire “was of a completely different order and magnitude” than “any of us [involved] had ever experienced before”.
Kensington & Chelsea RBC has been repeatedly criticised by the prime minister and communities secretary for its immediate response to the fire in which it did not take up outside offers of assistance.
At the height of the response, nine chief executives and 600 staff were drafted in from other London boroughs to help with the recovery operation. Ms Kelly said “nobody would have that sort of capacity” and added the vast majority of the frontline work was done by Kensington & Chelsea’s staff.
“As an organisation I think they have been done down a bit,” she said.
Before the first terror attack of the year in Westminster in March, Southwark LBC had tested its resilience in February.
Drinking from a ‘Keep calm and drink tea’ mug, Ms Kelly said: “I have a colleague who hates it when I say ‘the harder I work, the luckier I get’ but it is absolutely true. It’s not about luck, it’s about judgement.”
She also commented on exclusive LGC research revealing councils’ emergency planning budgets have been cut by 29% since 2010.
Ms Kelly said there will be “varying abilities across councils” to respond to unexpected events and she urged other councils to test their resilience, and get to “know their organisational strengths” and weaknesses.
“You never know what’s going to hit you next, but you can be certain something will hit you at some point in time,” she said.