Cllr Kevin Davis is the Leader of the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames and the lead member for health at London Councils.
When New York was attacked on 9/11 the world watched. What evolved from that momentous days was the “war on terror”. Since that time all global cities have been on watch for terrorist incidents and London has been no exception. In recent times London has dealt effectively with terrorism both in its prevention and its actions when attacks get through.
From the immediate aftermath of 9/11 arose what at the time was an unlikely hero. Prior to the attacks, Rudy Giuliani was seen as a somewhat dispassionate figure who seemed to spend more of his time at City Hall looking to hand out fines to jaywalkers then he did bringing the city together.
Yet 9/11 ended up defining him. He was the voice of the City in the unfolding tragedy and the man who New Yorkers took comfort from and felt the warmth of his care. He did not seek to apportion blame or to start inquests, he fought to help and put all of the city’s resources to the comfort and protection of those dealing with the aftermath of this catastrophic event.
A quote from his autobiography, On Leadership, has always struck me. He said:
“Courage is being afraid, but then doing what you have to do anyway.”
I am not about to draw a conclusion that Grenfell Tower is London’s 9/11 because that would be facile. But the scale of the disaster is one which has shaken Londoners and the wider nation in the scale and devastation of the loss. In my own London Borough we immediately wrote to all residents in council owned blocks and I spent some hours walking the towers with our Borough Fire Commander and council officers.
In the mind of any council leader, with such responsibilities, would have been what my reaction would be if this happened in Kingston?
I hope I would have rolled up my sleeves and got on the front line to help support the newly vulnerable and grieving? I believe I would do that, but I would also probably have doubts that I would be in the way.
I hope that my councillor colleagues would also feel it their duty to get out onto the streets, but may well have the same thoughts about being an obstacle in a rescue operation. I hope I would recognise immediately that we faced the worst disaster to have hit London since the 1940s. But would we have time to think in the melee of decisions and problems with which we would be confronted?
Would our immediate thoughts have turned to trying to cope or would we have immediately sought the help of the wider London family and hope through their London Resilience and Gold Commands that they could bring some order to the chaos? What I do know is that I would believe it my role to be there for local people and let those paid to run the Borough get on with running the Borough.
This brings me to my problem of who leads the Leaders in a London wide emergency?
In New York it was the Mayor who stood for New York in the midst of that devastation and spoke directly to people and for people. Giuliani never once talked about the ‘war on terrorism’ or sought to apportion blame for the inevitable failures of airport security or national Government.
I am fearful that in the tragedy of Grenfell our Mayor has let down Londoners by not leading us in the way a City Mayor should in a time of disaster. There have been not so subtle and obvious attempts to blame the Tory Council or Government cuts, even before the tragic week was finished. The most recent request to send in commissioners, and by Implication “throw out the Tories”, is not going to get people rehoused faster, nor is it going to help support the wider services that Kensington and Chelsea need to continue to provide to their residents.
Kensington will need support from central Government and London Government in the aftermath of the tragedy but wholesale removal of the Councillors cannot be the answer and is merely a Labour ploy to say “Tory bad, Labour good” when it comes to London. Even this week, at the Local Government conference, Sajid Javid was ambushed by Labour council leaders determined to press for the expulsion of Kensington and Chelsea Council and for their replacement with unelected bureaucrats.
If Commissioners are needed in Kensington then why not in Camden where, if reports are accurate, there has been a far greater failure by the Council in allowing buildings to be occupied with so many dangerous inherent faults?
At times of tragedy I would hope politics would be laid aside. The Mayor should be above throwing mud at this time and should be focusing on using every ounce of energy he has to lead us and his administration through this desperate time where in reality all politics and levels of Government have failed the people of Grenfell. The real issue that London and the Mayor will need to consider is that, such is the nature of our city, we now seem far better prepared to deal with terrorist incidents than we are to deal with the rare tragedy of a devastating fire.
The Mayor can say he has no powers or remit because he has not been given it by Government, but that is not the point. As Giuliani showed at 9/11, leadership is about “doing what you have to do anyway” and today’s political leaders need to be awake to the fact that politics and lives are not coloured dots being moved around a checkerboard, but are real people who want to believe and trust their politicians.
If the last year of political defeats, failures and personal tragedy have taught us anything then it is we should be using politics as the power for good it can be, rather than a game where we fail to lead, apportion blame, and let people down again.