The top floors of the blackened Grenfell Tower. Picture courtesy of Chiraljon on Flickr(CC BY 2.0).
The week that was: 17 July – 23 July
The fifth full week after the Grenfell Tower disaster was dominated by the first full council meeting since the fire, where the agenda was pushed aside and residents from North Kensington were given a platform to vent their anger and demand changes to the council’s way of dealing with them. The council agreed to all motions put forward by the opposition and the new council leader promised radical change.
Monday 17 July:
Jeremy Corbyn called for Theresa May to broaden the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire, by including a panel of people representing the survivors, an inquiry model used in the 1999 Macpherson report into racism within the police. He also asked for the inquiry to be done in two stages: an initial stage covering the the actual fire and a second stage examining possible “systemic failures that may extend from local to national government and beyond”, looking at councils and fire services and the outsourcing of social housing responsibilities.
Tuesday 18 July:
At a two-hour meeting at the Notting Hill Methodist church, angry questions were raised by residents who wondered why less than £800,000 of the the £20 million raised by charities and individual fundraisers had been disbursed to affected residents. Barry Quirk, the interim chief executive of RBKC, explained that various charities controlled the money, not the council. The charities, in turn, have said they have to ensure that the money is properly accounted for and that it reaches the right people. Many also continued to insist that the death toll is much higher than officially stated, and others talked about the failure of the authorities to offer counselling.
Wednesday 19 July:
The first council meeting after the Grenfell fire turned into a meeting where the councillors listened to survivors of the fire for most of the almost four hour long meeting. The meeting was at times rather disorderly and many angry voices were heard. Some 100 visitors saw the proceedings via the webTV broadcast a large video screen in the Great Hall, while another 200-300 saw the broadcast on a large screen placed in the Town Hall forecourt.
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.
The meeting elected Elizabeth Campbell as new council leader, who in her speech promised radical change, and it approved the appointment of Barry Quirk as interim chief executive. A public petition for better resident influence over the plans for the Silchester estate was accepted as it was in line with the council’s decision to halt all current development plans and provide much better cooperation with residents in the future. Another public petition, requiring the immediate resignation of the cabinet and a halt of all council building projects and regeneration plans, was in part accepted due to the decision to halt all development plans. The Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors supported the demand to dissolve the cabinet and called for external commissioners to be brought in to run the council.
There were four motions from Liberal Democrat and Labour councillors. The first motion called for more inclusion and consultation with minority parties in the future, “so that decisions made reflect the diversity and needs of the borough.” The second motion asked the council to support the demand that the Home Office reverses its decision that undocumented individuals (i.e. illegal immigrants) who are willing to step forward to help the police establish if any undocumented persons had perished in the fire, should be submitted to the normal immigration rules after a 12 month period, and therefore risk being deported. The third motion called on the council to establish “a Grenfell Education Fund in order to address the additional educational challenges and barriers that the young survivors and witnesses of the Grenfell Tower disaster will face over the remaining years of their education.” The fourth motion called on the council to demand that the cabinet uses some of the reserves to provide the widest possible choice of housing for those made homeless, and to ensure more social housing in ongoing developments, listing six specified developments in the borough. All four motions were unanimously accepted by the council.
The Guardian revealed that the council last year raised more money from the sale of two council houses in St Luke’s Street in Chelsea than it spent on Grenfell Tower’s new cladding. The two three-bedroom houses netted £4.5 million, while the cladding cost £3.5 million. They were among a dozen council houses sold off by the borough in the year to April, raising £8 million. The financial records obtained by the Guardian furthermore revealed that the council earns £11m a year from leasing its large property portfolio to tenants, including fashion designer Stella McCartney and the Notting Hill preparatory school.
Friday 21 July:
The council sent a letter to all victims made homeless by the Grenfell fire, promising to rehouse everyone within 12 months, giving priority to bereaved families, those with members with a serious mental, physical or learning disability, and those with dependent children. No household will be forced to accept what they are offered and will not be penalised for declining an offer. Those who were leaseholders will be offered support to acquire a new leasehold flat, but if they are not able to do so, they will be entitled to social rehousing under the same rules as those who are social tenants. Nobody will have to pay rent or utility bills during the first year. After the first year, the rent will not be higher than what the household paid at Grenfell Tower or Grenfell Walk, even if rehoused to a larger home. Each household will receive £5,000 plus £500 per person over 16 from the Government, and a £10,000 fresh start grant.
After a Freedom of Information request to the council, the website Who Owns England? was able to reveal that the council’s latest figure for the number of empty properties in the borough is 1,857, an increase of 458 since April 2017. Of these, 696 have been empty for more than two years, some more than 10 years. Many of the properties are regard to be part of the “buy to leave” phenomena, where foreign investors buy property in London as pure investment without any intention of living there.
Sunday 23 July:
One of the council’s two Liberal Democrat councillors, Linda Wade (Earl’s Court), repeated in a letter to the Guardian what she had said during Wednesday’s council meeting, that the borough should do away with the current cabinet system and go back to the old a cross-party committee system, as that “would reflect the diversity of the borough, and importantly ensure that the actions of councillors are accountable through their attendance and voting record.”