The recently published report by the Independent Task Force into the Grenfell fire recovery makes frustrating reading. Leaving aside the detail, the bigger picture is one where the Grenfell survivors are caught in the middle of an experiment to reconstruct on the fly a local authority which all concerned agree failed abjectly in its initial response to the tragedy.
Central to any understanding of the situation must be a recognition that, along with the more tangible destruction of lives and property, the other big casualty has been trust, with Grenfell activists reportedly refusing to recognise the authority of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Rather than accept this loss of trust as an over-riding factor which would warrant radical intervention to secure the well-being of the survivors, the Taskforce has been forced to limit its role to chivvying the local authority along, to get it to mend itself in real time, so to speak.
‘Tries hard, could do better’
There is no reason to suspect that improvements are not being made, as the Task Force claims, but against this has to be set the Taskforce’s clear message about the need (now five months after the fire) for an upping of the pace. Who cannot be dismayed by comments such as
‘at best these are green shoots of recovery’
‘For the recovery effort to begin we feel it is essential that RBKC identify actions for immediate focus that will begin to make a difference on the ground in a matter of days and weeks.’
The Taskforce’s role is restricted to the making of just such judgments. Regrettably, the survivors are reduced in the meantime to being guinea-pigs in an administrative experiment. Here, the government can be accused of misjudgement if it ever thought the pace was likely to be faster following the approach it decided to adopt, or complacency if it thought that the risks of slow progress could ever be acceptable.
Taskforce without force
In setting up the Taskforce the government has simply put one set of senior bureaucrats to work to help another set of senior bureaucrats sort out their mess. This is not to call into question the competence of either team as bureaucrats, nor their good intentions, nor their commitment, but to demand whether the strategy has been appropriate when viewed from the perspective of the survivors. In short, should the job of the Taskforce have been to help one set of bureaucrats do their jobs better, or should it have been to ensure, by hook or by crook, that the job was done – which it patently has not been?
It does not help that the government does not seem to be entirely clear what the role of the Taskforce actually is. When the Taskforce was originally announced, Sajid Javid’s statement claimed that ‘initially’ it had been asked to
‘ensure that all the immediate housing needs resulting from the fires are fully and promptly addressed by RBKC’ [emphasis added].
This would have been a useful objective, but it is not actually reflected in the Terms of Reference and is certainly not reflected in what has transpired. In fact Labour commentators such as John Healey pointed out exactly what the shortcomings of the ToR were, noting the omission of any powers or obligation that would enable it to secure objectives on the ground.
Healey might also have mentioned the omission, as an absolute minimum, of a requirement to report back to the government whether key objectives were really being met in good time by the improvement process that the Taskforce was presumed to be bringing about. That said, one could reasonably have hoped that a Taskforce committed to the well-being of the survivors might have taken the initiative, early on, in making clear the need for more effective intervention and the limitations of its own remit when seen in the context of producing results.
Apparently, however, it is comfortable enough with the impact of its relationship with the incoming management at RBKC to consider that sufficient progress is being made – despite the raft of proposals in the report – such that no new ‘radical’ intervention to be needed. Most people reading the report would come to exactly the opposite conclusion and the Taskforce itself is now open to accusations of complacency.
The most depressing practical outcome of the current approach is that large numbers of survivors are still living in emergency accommodation rather than self-contained dwellings, as documented both by Sajid Javid in his statement to Parliament following the publication of the Report and, on a more human scale, by the recent Guardian newspaper report which notes that this affects over 200 ‘Grenfell’ children. It is difficult to think of a more stark indication of failure, given that government regulations brought in in 2004 are intended to prevent use of such accommodation except in an emergency and even then only for a maximum of 6 weeks.
Given that money seems to be no object and, moreover, that the emergency accommodation is likely to be at least as expensive as self-contained temporary accommodation, this is a puzzle that demands to be solved in the light of the 10,000+ empty and so-called 'second homes' in the borough. This is the key issue from the ‘empty homes’ perspective and it should not be allowed to go away.
When Jeremy Corbyn and John O’Donnell called for empty homes to be requisitioned in the days after the Grenfell disaster, we questioned that realism of what they seemed to be proposing as an immediate intervention. But no one should doubt that a focused approach to accessing empty and second homes could have delivered satisfactory housing over the five months that have now elapsed, particularly if the government had been minded to smooth the path with whatever tweaks to regulations might have been required and there had been an adequate relationship with the survivors.
Absence of evidence
Returning to the Taskforce Report, further frustration lies in the lack of factual description of what has been done or why the initiatives to get the survivors into better accommodation – whether permanent or temporary – have failed. If practical lessons for the future are to be learned, they won't be garnered from material that is as vague and general as this.
We have to read between the lines to attribute the failures in part at least to the lack of trust in the housing agencies involved, along with a significant level of disorganisation in the delivery and support processes.
Absence of policy
The Report does at least seem to confirm a key point made in our own draft review of the relationship between empty homes and the Grenfell fire, namely the inadequacy of current disaster planning in relation to the provision of temporary accommodation. The Taskforce notes that:
No local authority could develop a response to a disaster of this magnitude without help from other local authorities, public services and government. The support required by survivors and their re-housing needs, for multiple hundreds of households would alone challenge any local authority’s resilience.
Yet, as our afore-mentioned contribution discusses, delivery by individual local authorities under statutory homelessness provisions is exactly what current government guidelines seem to envisage and which seem to have been accepted without comment or even scrutiny in the Pitt report into the 2007 floods. [See pages 4 to 6 of our Contribution and associated footnotes].
Invisible medium-term needs
And the invisibility of temporary/medium-term accommodation as an issue is actually perpetuated by the Taskforce in that it makes no mention of it amongst its 13 detailed recommendations, referring only to permanent re-housing (point 4). One would have thought the most urgent priority would be to get households out of what is patently highly unsatisfactory hotel/b&b/emergency accommodation.
The need for an Inquiry
The inadequacies of the recovery process and the failure of the Taskforce intervention to produce results in any acceptable timescale now bring into stark relief the need for a proper Inquiry into the post-fire response, whether as a formal part of the Moore-Bick Inquiry or via a newly constituted body. Anything less simply perpetuates the marginalisation of those affected by the Grenfell disaster that has already been widely publicised in the context of the causes of the fire itself and seems to be reflected in the absence of any real involvement of affected households in the direction or delivery of the recovery process.
Provision for homeless households
The over-riding priority, though, must be to secure for the survivors the housing and support they need – now.
But equal priority must be given to the recognition that many of the issues faced by the Grenfell survivors are also experienced by thousands of households thrown into homelessness, year in, year out: their needs too must be addressed. Homelessness is always traumatic.
The Taskforce report is downloadable from here.
 See the Commons Briefing Note SN02110 on Households in Temporary Accommodation for fuller details. This also documents the strategic callousness and indifference which characterises government policies around the financial aspect of temporary accommodation, policies which reduce many homeless households to penury while pouring countless milions into the pockets of private landlords.