Kensington & Chelsea RBC has come in for stinging criticism for its initial response to the Grenfell Tower fire disaster.
grenfell tower statistics
The fire that dest the 24-storey tower block in the early hours of last Wednesday claimed at least 79 lives and has left more than a hundred households homeless.
It was not until Friday, about 60 hours after the fire broke out, that Kensington & Chelsea invoked an established resilience response mechanism to bring in help from other areas of the capital. That morning neighbouring Hammersmith & Fulham LBC told LGC it had offered assistance but the approach had been declined.
The request for help followed a visit from the prime minister who met residents on Friday afternoon.
In a statement released following the visit Theresa May said the “support on the ground … in the initial hours after this appalling disaster was not good enough”, including “huge frustrations” that people could not get through on the council’s hotlines.
She ordered “more staff be deployed … wearing high visibility clothing”.
Following the council’s call for assistance, gold command procedures saw chief executives and senior officers from the City of London Corporation, Brent, Bromley, Ealing, Hackney, Harrow, Hounslow, and Southwark LBCs and Westminster City Council form a Grenfell fire response team. The team also included central government, British Red Cross, Metropolitan Police and London Fire Brigade representatives.
Speaking on behalf of that team Eleanor Kelly, Southwark chief executive, also acknowledged the initial response was inadequate.
“People are angry, and rightly so,” she said.
A Kensington & Chelsea spokesperson told LGC council staff had been working to assist victims since the early hours of Wednesday morning and continued to do so. They said “a full account of what was arranged when will be made available when the pressures diminish”.
Council leader Nick Paget-Brown (Con) told the BBC on Sunday it was “inaccurate” to say the local authority was not present and three emergency centres for victims had been set up on Wednesday morning.
He said: “The last thing after a tragedy of this enormity is to wonder whether we have got the right high-vis jackets.”
Kensington & Chelsea has also faced criticism from some parts of the media for having high levels of reserves and for underspending on its housing revenue account for four years in a row.
The council’s draft statement of accounts for 2016-17 shows the council had £283m in usable reserves on 1 March this year, including HRA reserves of £21.3m against an annual income of just under £56m. In 2016-17 it spent £20m less than it received in income from rents, equivalent to a 36% underspend.
However, finance experts told LGC it was legally very difficult for councils to spend general fund reserves on HRA expenditure, which is ringfenced.
Meanwhile, the council spokesperson said the reserves were being considered for future regeneration schemes and plans to increase the amount of affordable housing in the borough. Capital spending had increased in recent years, they added.
Jo Miller, president of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers, told LGC there would be lots of questions for both central and local government to answer.
“It’s really important we leave no stone unturned, however uncomfortable that’s going to be,” she said.
“It’s happened because of failure, it will have to bring about profound change in housing, in what we focus on, in leadership and emergency planning.”