There are signs Kensington & Chelsea RBC is “beginning to reinvent itself” in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy but the pace of change and process for rehousing victims remains “painfully slow”.
That is the verdict of the independent Grenfell recovery taskforce which has published its latest report.
Although the council’s culture is beginning to change for the better, there are concerns about a lack of capacity among the council’s most senior officers to drive this forward at pace.
A small number of staff are still making too many “avoidable mistakes” when dealing with victims too, while there are fears about integrating Grenfell-related issues into the delivery of wider council services in the future.
The taskforce’s report, which was sent to housing and communities secretary James Brokenshire on 21 November but only published on Tuesday, said: “In our view RBKC [Royal Borough Kensington & Chelsea] have not yet made sufficient progress in recovery, particularly with regard to the community relationship and culture change across the organisation.
“We are still not seeing enough successful outcomes: external communication with the Grenfell community remains patchy, the programme that will help improve the social economic and environmental offer in the north of the borough is not yet fully developed, and the rate of people moving into properties remains low.”
On 20 November there were 16 households living in hotels.
The report said: “The pace of permanent rehousing remains painfully slow. That said many of the current delays are associated with works to properties to meet resident preferences.”
While there is “still some evidence of poor management and administration in the rehousing process”, the taskforce said “these appear to be isolated instances”.
The taskforce said the “leadership of the chief executive [Barry Quirk] has been particularly instrumental” in an increasing willingness within the council to take suggestions for improvement and change on board. It noted the culture of the council is beginning to alter.
“There are some signs that the organisation is beginning to reinvent itself,” the taskforce’s report said. “However, it remains the case that far too often RBKC make avoidable mistakes that negate a lot of good work.
“We hear far too often of basic errors for example meetings that are not publicised until the day before, of essential emails that go astray and are not followed up. RBKC cannot afford these kinds of elementary mistakes and greater effort should be made to avoid them.”
With a public enquiry and criminal investigation ongoing, and questions about soil in the area being contaminated, the taskforce expressed concern about the demands this is placing on the council’s senior personnel.
“In that context we are concerned whether RBKC have sufficient senior capacity and capability to deal with these pressures while also delivering on a major change programme,” the report said.
The taskforce suggested Mr Quirk’s review of the council’s communications team could have been “implemented sooner”.
The report noted how the process of winding up the tenant management organisation that was in charge of the site including Grenfell Tower at the time of the fire “appears to have been generally well handled.”
Kensington & Chelsea will need to invest more in its housing stock in general, the taskforce said and added: “The lifting of the HRA [housing revenue account] borrowing cap, may offer an opportunity to accelerate investment.”
It expressed concern, however, that “the level of management input being afforded to the Lancaster West estate [which houses Grenfell Tower] is financially unsustainable as a management model is to be extended across the whole stock and may even be financially unsustainable to continue” in that part of the borough.
LGC reported in September how about £16m of Kensington & Chelsea’s projected £17.8m overspend for 2018-19 was largely driven by costs associated with Grenfell, which are out of the council’s direct control.
Looking to the future, the taskforce expressed concern about “the readiness of mainstream services to take on board Grenfell-related work”.
The report said there needed to be “greater clarity” about service delivery but warned “the picture remains muddled”. The taskforce urged the council to ensure there are enough “skills, capabilities and resources in place” when the transition does take place.
“This requires political and officer will, as well as adequate resourcing. RBKC are going to have to look at ways to make sure this is properly funded,” the report said.
It was noted the plan is to retain the Grenfell Team “in place for some time to come” which the taskforce said was “right”.
The taskforce is due to report again to the secretary of state in spring 2019.
Responding to the report Kensington & Chelsea leader Elizabeth Campbell (Con) said: “The taskforce report rightly reflects on the unwavering commitment from staff, and the efforts of the leadership team, in making sure the Grenfell recovery remains the number one priority for this council.
“We welcome the criticism, and positive comments, because it is important to us that we continue to review, continue to improve, and that we deliver. We will make mistakes, and we would never shy away from recognising that, and I agree we need to make sure we do the basics right – as we do in many of our core services across the borough.”
She said the councils was “nearly there” with rehousing survivors but added “we will not be rushing the last few families to meet artificial deadlines, such as Christmas. It isn’t that simple, and it was never going to be.”
Cllr Campbell said the recovery strategy will be published in the new year.
This story was updated at 09.56 on 19 December to include comments from Kensington & Chelsea leader Elizabeth Campbell.