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Grenfell must now contribute to local government's rejuvenation

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LGC’s editor Nick Golding on the one year anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire.

As we reflect on the Grenfell Tower fire disaster one year on, we look to the public inquiry to learn more about how the tragedy arose.

It is hard to believe Kensington & Chelsea RBC will not be censured for its inability – partially indirectly through its tenant management organisation – to listen to residents’ safety concerns. Through the inquiry we will discover why the council decided to cut the cost of refurbishment by using cheaper cladding that turned out to be flammable.

However, the fact that more than 30 councils nationwide have subsequently sought government assistance to fund the removal of unsafe cladding shows a similar tragedy could have struck – indeed could still strike – many other places. It is surely not the case that all of these councils are incompetent or callous. With there being a desperate shortage of social housing councils surely previously felt there was a legitimate case to cut costs on cladding (to a type that was after all not banned by regulators) to allow finite resources to be used to refurbish a greater number of social housing units, for the benefit of more residents. It may well be that the inquiry determines the government’s failure to set clear and enforceable safety standards for cladding and the cladding industry’s failure to supply safe products contributed more to the blaze than K&C itself.

There is a broader issue at stake here than blame. It is organisations, both public and private, putting the interests of people at the heart of their business. How can a cladding firm or the regulator overseeing its product not be assured of its safety? How can a government not take a national leadership responsibility over building standards rather than pass the buck onto councils? These organisations are failing in their most basic responsibilities if they fail to fulfil these tasks. And, from a local government perspective, how can a council not demonstrate that it has the interests of its community, particularly its most vulnerable members, at its heart?

Kensington & Chelsea chief executive Barry Quirk expands on the latter issue in an LGC interview this week. He urges managers to show compassion and for their organisations to reconnect with their communities. They need to be “other regarding”; “community development” should be at their core rather than merely economic growth which does not benefit all. As Mr Quirk sets out, service improvement should no longer be the only goal: councils are responsible for something bigger than this.

Councils, as the democratic custodians of place, need to reach out, showing that they are caring organisations that are in touch with all parts of their communities. Far from cowering, now is the time for local government to be bold: strong leaders, both managerial and political, must find new ways of re-engaging those previously largely ignored; new visions need to emerge. Grenfell Tower was a disaster which shamed local government. But it can also be a disaster that contributes to the rejuvenation of local government.

By Nick Golding, editor, LGC

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