After having been formally elected as new council leader after Nick Paget-Brown on Wednesday 19 July, at the first full council meeting after the Grenfell disaster, Elizabeth Campbell began her acceptance speech by asking the chair, current mayor Marie-Therese Rossi, to be allowed to address the victims, survivors and community groups of Grenfell and North Kensington, instead of the chair and the members of the council chamber, which is customary. She also said that she would like to invite any survivors wishing to do so, to speak after her. The mayor said she was happy for both these things to happen.
“We meet at a time of unimaginable grief and sorrow. The Grenfell fire is the biggest civilian disaster in this country for a generation, and in recent weeks I have been meeting survivors, speaking to those dealing with the aftermath of the fire, and staying in touch with those still living in the shadow of the tower. The stories I’ve heard are heartbreaking, humbling and life-changing in every sense.
Families have been torn apart, their loved ones lost forever and their communities broken up – and the victims of this tragedy have been let down by this council.
At the council meeting, Elizabeth Campbell made several pledges to radically change the RBKC council’s future relationship with the residents. Picture from the webTV broadcast of the council meeting.
We did not cope well enough in our initial response to the tragedy, and I know that you have heard me apologise for our inadequate response, and tonight I reiterate that apology to you directly:
No ifs, no buts, no excuses – I am deeply sorry for the grief and trauma that you are suffering. I am deeply sorry that we did not do more to help you when you needed it the most. I want to thank community groups and volunteers for your extraordinary work. You went above and beyond, and continue to do so. I understand why you’re so angry, and I’m determined to do everything in my power to help.
And now, as the new leader of your borough, the place that is your home, I want to commit to real action. We need to do so much more, and work even harder to support and care for you. The cross-London, cross-public and voluntary sector Grenfell response team has made an exemplary start, and I want to thank John Barradell and Eleanor Kelly for their leadership of the Grenfell response team. I want to thank them for ensuring that the help that was so urgently needed was given as quickly as possible. More than 600 staff from local authorities across London and beyond have been working around the clock, all with one objective: to help the survivors and victims of this tragedy. And my priority, as new leader, is to continue to provide this vital, practical and personal support to the victims of Grenfell, right now and in the many months and years to come.
Finding new homes
The next practical step is to find you, the survivors, a permanent new home. We’re talking to each and everyone of you who’s lost your home. We are working with you to fully understand your needs, and we will keep an open mind and show flexibility and sensitivity to your preferences.
I’m sorry this is taking so long and that many of you are still in hotels. That is not where you want to be. I also understand that many of you wish to remain in the borough, and many of you want to return to live in the North Kensington area. I understand that you do not want to loose contact with your community – a community that has displayed such strength and dignity in the face of this disaster. I fully understand why you would want to remain close to those you know and care for, where your children are at school and where you’ve put down roots.
We have already got 68 units in Kensington Row ready to move in to. We’re now working with the government to agree the terms of an offer to tenants, and we expect this will be ready within a fortnight, and today we have bought a further 31 homes in Hortensia Road.
We have been scouring the borough for appropriate homes to buy and, I can tell you, we have identified about 20 units on the market in North Kensington, and we will buy them if we can. I am not going to hold back from spending this borough’s reserves. Reserves are built up to be spent in a crisis, and this is a housing crisis which we are going to overcome.
As the council chamber’s public gallery has such limited seating capacity, the webTV broadcast was shown for some 100 persons in the Great Hall.
On top of the 99 unites we have secured, we aim to build or purchase a further 300 social housing units, and we are going to deliver them quickly. That will be a total of 400 new units in the next five years.
Now, we cannot fund all these new homes just out of reserves, so I’m going to be knocking on the doors of the government and of the mayor of London, and anyone else I need to, to ask them to help me deliver these homes.
The government has offered local authorities the prospect of bespoke housing deals, so we are going to look at how we can secure a deal for North Kensington; a deal which allows us to break the chains on borrowing against the housing revenue account, to have more flexibility, and how we spend right-to-buy receipts, and to work more closely across boundaries with other local authorities. I am prepared to think out of the box to finance our ambitious plans.
Grenfell Tower’s future
But let me make the following assurance: Nothing is going to be built on the site of the Grenfell Tower without the full participation of survivors and their families and those living in surrounding homes. I can guarantee that the future of the tower site will be led by the community.
I’ve been speaking to residents of the Grenfell walkways, who for weeks had no hot water and endured huge disruption. I know that you all witnessed the horrific fire. I understand that you find it difficult to return to homes where your children can’t sleep. I understand why you are still in a hotel accommodation.
Thank you, Councillor Beinazir Lasharie, for welcoming me into your home and for introducing me to your neighbours, so I could understand at first hand your real concerns. I now know that many residents of the estate have long-running complaints, and many feel they have not been listened to, either by us as a council or the TMO. So tonight I pledge to work collaboratively and sensitively with residents to make the walkways a better place to live. We will work with you and your excellent residents association on upgrading the homes you live in and to improve the walkways. And I can state for the record, that I have no intention of asking people to move out while we do so.
Much of what I’ve said tonight I cannot do alone. At the town hall I need a committed team of councillors and officers to help me. Beyond the town hall, I am very grateful for the ongoing support of my neighbouring boroughs, voluntary groups and our government.
The new cabinet
I have said this council needs to change, and tonight I’m appointing a new leadership team to help me make that happen.
I’m appointing Kim Taylor-Smith as my deputy. Together we will work on our response to the Grenfell tragedy. Kim is going to make sure we find homes for all those whom lost theirs in the fire. He is going to listen to what people want and he is going to take a long, hard look at the TMO. Unfortunately, due to legislation and other restrictions, we simply can’t make changes to the TMO overnight. So, in the meantime, this council will supplement TMO services on the Lancaster West estate by directly providing those services that residents need today, tomorrow and next week.
I have asked Mary Weale to be lead member for Communities. Mary lives in Kensington, and I’m delighted that Eve Allison has agreed to work with Mary as her deputy on this vital community portfolio, as Eve brings with her a wealth of knowledge of North Kensington.
We also have a borough to run, so I’m making a few other appointments to my leadership team:
Will Pascall will be my other deputy, responsible for ongoing borough services. Will is K&C through and through. He was elected in Chelsea, and [was] born in and lives in Kensington. I have asked Kensington councillor David Lindsay to take responsibility for Corporate Services, and Emma Will is going to continue to lead Family Services including Education, while Charles Williams will take responsibility for Adult Social Care and Public Health. Gerard Hargreaves will be the chief whip.
On the plaza between the library and the town hall, a second TV screen had been set up and was watch by some 200 people.
Need for change
This is a new leadership team which has been appointed to change the way we do things. We need to change, and to change fundamentally, if we are ever to regain the trust of you, our community. As a council, we have long been proud of our connections with local community groups. Compared to many other authorities in London, we have continued to give direct grants or to commission services from many. many community groups. But the tragedy of Grenfell has demonstrated to me that this is false pride. We have been found wanting. The people of North Kensington have inspired me with their spontaneous energy, with their compassion and with their kindness. They have showed us how hollow our previous efforts of community engagement now look.
Our focus on achieving service excellence may have paid dividends in the past, but the world in which we now operate is extraordinarily different from our world of just two months ago. We now need to put the resources and the capabilities of the council at the disposal of our community. Our residents have witnessed a kind of “retreat from the street”, where politicians and managers alike appear to have studiously avoided the public for the comfort of meetings and political or professional discussions. This must stop. We need to rebuild our credibility with our community, and we need to do that brick by brick, decision by decision. And we need to engage all community groups: those with whom we have longstanding relationships as well as those who have emerged spontaneously in the last month.
And we will help meet the needs of the victims and the survivors of the Grenfell tragedy. Recover starts with your leadership, not ours, and that is why I want us to follow your lead. This recovery will be community led as well as community inspired. The spirit of civic action, which we witness in North Kensington, will nurture a renewed sense of purpose and action in this council.
So, finally, I want to make three further commitments:
Firstly, the culture of this council will change. In practical terms, that means we will create a future for this borough together we you, our residents. Our councillors and senior executives will not decide this for residents, but with residents. We will rethink all our plans for regeneration in this borough. We will work with residents to create new plans, and you will vote on any results. If people vote against it, then we will go back to the drawing board together and start again.
Secondly, how we work for and with our community will change. We need to understand and appreciate the strength that is within our neighbourhoods, the very strength that stepped into the void after the fire, and we will listen and support that network of support, rather than preach to it. We should be at one with our community groups, listening to their expertise and experience, and helping you to work with us to bring on young people, support old people, and nurture the community links that keep places strong.
And, finally, how we deliver and manage social housing will change. Mixed communities are what makes this great city tick. What binds people from different backgrounds, different cultures and religions isn’t about a postcode, it’s about being human. What happened after the fire, when the community came together in such an incredible show of human strength and compassion, will humble me for the rest of my life. It has changed me and it will now change this council – and change starts here.”