Barry Quirk has revealed the scale of Kensington & Chelsea RBC’s efforts to rehouse those made homeless by the Grenfell Tower disaster, which are costing the authority £350m.
Mr Quirk – who became the central London borough’s chief executive in the chaotic aftermath of the tragedy – spoke exclusively to LGC about the impact of the fire on the council, its efforts to reach out to local communities and the lessons from the fire to those in local government leadership roles. LGC timed the publication of the interview, which took place last month, to coincide with the first anniversary of the tragedy.
Of the 210 households made homeless from the tower and walk, only a “handful” – four or five households – had not accepted a permanent offer of accommodation, Mr Quirk said. In the interview last month, he said 48 of these were in emergency accommodation, still awaiting the conversion of their home, 10 of them with children.
Officers are “discussing with each individual household what’s right for them,” in relation to the nature of their new home, Mr Quirk said.
“The process isn’t that we find a property and offer it to someone and then, if they decline it, we offer them another one and say ‘you’ve got to move into it’,” he said.
“Of course, there’s lots of practical, personal and psychological reasons why people say ‘I want this property but I want this done to it’. Or ‘no, I don’t want that one, it’s not quite what I wanted and I want to wait for another one’.”
Mr Quirk gave the example of households who had chosen to re-enter Grenfell Tower to visit their gutted former flat: “That can alter your approach to ‘am I going to move on?’. Everyone’s response is different and we’ve got to be respectful of every individual.” The council is not merely “meeting needs” but showing “duty and obligation, as a council, as the landlord of people who’ve survived this terrible tragedy,” he said.
He admitted there had been hold-ups in converting purchased properties to be fit to rent by a social landlord, for instance with appropriate fire doors, and delays due to the legal challenge of ensuring householders did not lose out on the conditions they had in Grenfell Tower, such as the ability to exercise the right-to-buy. However, all were likely to move into permanent accommodation “in the next few months”.
As part of its obligation, the council is offering support to “all people who are bereaved by this incident, not just those in Kensington & Chelsea”.
The response to the tragedy – including the purchase of about 250 properties in a borough where the average home value is £2.2m – is hitting the council financially. Mr Quirk said it spent £50m last year from its revenue budget and planned to spend £40m this year, £37m the following year and £12m in 2020-21.
In addition to this: “The capital spend is in the £230m level… Some of that has been funded from reserves, some from increased borrowing power that the government has afforded us. In total, if you were to add it up, it’s over £350m probably. Our turnover is only £150m.”
Kensington & Chelsea’s reserves were depleting from 160% of turnover in March 2017 to a predicted 25% of turnover in March 2019. Mr Quirk said analysis showed the borough was projected to move from having the highest to the second lowest reserve level, as a proportion of turnover, in London over this period.
He said both officers and the council’s new political leadership had risen to the challenge.
“I would say the response of the politicians here, the leader, the deputy leader, has been nothing short of remarkable,” Mr Quirk said. This was “in terms of the leadership they’ve given but also their response to directing resource, agreeing to the advice that’s been given about things, working with government, being prepared not to do things that normally authorities would do because doing that thing would be improper, inappropriate in the circumstances”.