As the ashes of the Grenfell Tower fire settle and outrage gives way to demands for practical action, all eyes are slowly turning towards the future. What next after one of the worst British tragedies in modern history?
At least 80 people lost their lives, although the actual figure, experts say, is likely never to be realised. The response from public authorities to this heart-breaking aspect of the disaster has been one of the major sources of consternation among residents, but the immediate aftermath was bitter for several reasons.
A grief-stricken nation was swept up in a bout of accusations and blame. Protests outside the council hall eventually gave way to the resignations of Kensington & Chelsea RLBC’s chief executive and leader, as well as a cabinet reshuffle; for its shoddy response, the borough will forever be synonymous with the disaster.
Now, the Met is saying there are ‘reasonable grounds’ to suspect the council and the organisation which managed the tower block of corporate manslaughter
Authorities across the country have scrambled to investigate their own housing stock, while every decision has been painstakingly scrutinised in the press. Through this publicity, often unwarranted, the reputation of the sector has undoubtedly taken a hit.
Then there were the comments of the secretary of state, Sajid Javid, who claimed local government was facing a ‘looming crisis of trust’ and suggested there were ‘deep-set issues’ in ties between communities and authorities.
But now, discussions must move to action. How is government – local and central – working to rehouse those affected? How does the nation ensure nothing like this ever happens again? What can be done to reassure a public whipped up by fear and frustration? How can authorities patch up the wounds of a divided and deeply affected community?
The strands of inquiry are bottomless. But after several agonising weeks, the Government has finally appointed a team to its Grenfell taskforce, designed to support Kensington & Chelsea RLBC in developing and implementing a long-term recovery plan following the tragedy.
Former Society of Local Authority Chief Executives president Mark Rogers tweeted his disappointment that the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) made the announcement rather than the Local Government Association (LGA). Some are questioning whether Whitehall taking charge over the taskforce is a suggestion of its lack of faith in the sector.
However, it is worth noting that, despite the Government’s hostile attitude towards local government in the aftermath of the fire, the team features two high profile figures from the sector: Wiltshire Council’s fearless Tory leader Baroness Scott and former Newham LBC chief executive Chris Wood.
The members of the taskforce have clearly been handpicked for their specific skillsets. Mr Wood is a three-time housing director for London boroughs and an expert in estate-based regeneration. Aftab Chughtai was recognised in the New Year honours list for services to community relations. Baroness Scott is a no-nonsense politician who turned Wiltshire from an outdated authority into a modern unitary. Javed Khan is a charity chief with an impressive background in local government and organisations focused on victim support and communities.
The taskforce was set up with the initial goal of ensuring the council immediately meets the housing needs of all survivors, has the capacity to establish a long-term recovery plan, improves housing management and comes up with a plan for the tower site in collaboration with the residents.
However, the Government believes the remit and composition of the taskforce might evolve in response to reports and advice from the panel.
The taskforce will be based alongside the borough in Kensington and supported by the DCLG. An initial report will be issued by the end of October.
Questions remain as to whether the taskforce – which does not have executive powers and has been appointed only to advise, support and challenge the council’s recovery plan – will have the teeth to drive the necessary change. Many, including the council’s opposition members, will be disappointed that the DCLG fell short of sending commissioners into the authority.
The DCLG’s accompanying notes emphasise that interim chief executive Barry Quirk will retain all responsibilities of a chief executive and head of paid service, including those of resource allocation, while the council remains responsible for delivering all the services expected of a local authority.
Communities secretary Sajid Javid said he was determined that ‘everything possible is done to support the local community’ following the disaster, adding: ‘This includes ensuring an effective recovery plan is developed which takes into account the views of the local community.
‘The new Taskforce has extensive experience in this area and will provide the council with the expertise needed to deliver this important work.’
However, his opposite number, Labour shadow communities secretary Andrew Gwynne, was critical of the time it took for the taskforce to be set up, and claimed it fell ‘far short of the action that is needed’.
He said: ‘Residents of Kensington and Chelsea have made it very clear in the past weeks that they do not trust the leadership of the council, and nothing from central government has been done to address this.
‘The objectives set by the Government for the taskforce show that they are aware of these problems, but there continues to be a real issue of accountability.
‘Delivery of these objectives remains the responsibility of a council that has shown it is not equipped to deal with the task ahead, and Sajid Javid has refused to step in and take on the responsibility himself to ensure that survivors, still homeless after this tragedy, get the support they need.’