Cllr Nick Paget-Brown is standing down as Leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council. This is the right decision and it should have been taken earlier. The obvious reason is the scale of the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire. Over two weeks on, the official death toll has reached 80 and corpses are still emerging.
It may well be found that this “accident waiting to happen” could just have easily have taken place in Camden or Cambridge, Newham or Norwich, Sheffield or Sunderland – or many other areas where cladding on high-rise buildings has been found to fail urgent new safety tests. But it didn’t. It was also, as Cllr Paget-Brown himself has said, “possibly the worst tragedy London has seen since the end of the Second World War.”
Perhaps it will be found that Cllr Paget-Brown acted as conscientiously as could reasonably be expected by seeking and following the best available specialist advice from his officials.
There is the terrible, seductive, power of “groupthink”. Some initiative conforms with all the regulations – perhaps pages upon pages of them with all the boxes ticked. Or a council leader is told it does. So that’s all right then. Already we hear the demands that if a hundred pages of regulations failed to prevent a tragedy then surely the obvious answer is to have two hundred pages of regulations. No doubt the council leader will also have been told that the cladding was “standard practice” widely used elsewhere. Furthermore there would have been the justification of spending huge sums of money to save lives. A moral crusade for energy efficiency given the thousands who die from cold homes in the winter and the extra cost of staying warm in the winter as the wind whistles past on the 21st floor.
Still, the buck stops with Cllr Paget-Brown. I’m sure he had good intentions. He might not even be found to be culpable in the sense of having been negligent at any specific stage – at least no more so than scores of his opposite numbers. Yet he was the Leader. We are familiar with the textbook Crichel Down scandal in 1954 regarding compulsory purchase of land – Thomas Dugdale, the Minister of Agriculture, resigned even though the blame was with his civil servants.
Before the fire it was generally accepted that Kensington and Chelsea was a well run Council. This was a borough with clean streets, low Council Tax, good schools and public services. It performed well across a range of measures. A survey found 80 per cent of local residents felt the Council was doing a “good job”. The difficulty is that any reference to that now has a “But other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?” feel.
There was also the Council’s inept response to the crisis. Avoiding media interviews was arrogant and secretive. Again it may well be that other councils would have come across as plodding in their response to a disaster on such a scale. Certainly compared to the immediate help provided by the local community. Bureaucracies tend to be inflexible. As Danny Kruger wrote in The Spectator:
“The reason we need the Big Society is that the Big State is no good at this stuff.”
Not that it would have been easy. The pressure was immense. Coping with the immediate emergency needs and the demands of the media would take place amidst urgent meetings with lawyers, insurers, central Government, and many others. Yet the challenge of leadership is to rise to such challenges and that test was not met.
For all the righteous anger, putting in commissioners to run the Council would be a mistake. What is needed is more accountability with new leadership – not anonymity.
A better approach is to require full transparency – not just for Kensington and Chelsea but other local authorities with housing stock as well and housing associations. I have already called for the publication of Fire Risk Assessments online for all the housing blocks they own. That would be an obvious start.
Restoring trust will not be easy. It goes much wider than Kensington and Chelsea. It also goes beyond fire safety to a wider debate about what a disaster tower blocks have proved and the way these ugly buildings have impoverished people and divided communities.
The way to begin is to be straight with people. Full disclosure is needed.