Grenfell Tower fire: healing wounds could take a generation

It could take a generation “to heal the wounds” between the Grenfell Tower community and the local council, the borough’s new leader said today.

In her first interview since becoming Kensington and Chelsea’s leader, Elizabeth Campbell apologised to residents who had been badly let down and vowed to hold an independent review into the borough’s failings.

She revealed her toughest challenge would be “getting it right” for Grenfell residents who as the fire blazed “were on the phone to their wives or children, or video link, and watched them burn.”

And she promised the town hall would be prepared to look at wider social issues if residents felt the remit of the official public inquiry ended up too narrow.


Grieving survivors ahead of the meeting in Kensington (Getty Images)

It came after Communities Secretary Sajid Javid announced yesterday he was sending in a specialist taskforce to help the borough cope in key areas including housing and community relations.

The council has faced a tide of criticism over its response in the aftermath of the tragedy which claimed thw lives of at least 80 people. 

Mrs Campbell acknowledged there was still deep anger in the community that would take years to heal. 


The charred shell of Grenfell Tower in west London (Reuters)

“I don’t think there is a short-term solution, I don’t think you can say in the next month or a year or whatever, I think this is a generational thing,” she said. 

“I hope that over time we’re able to heal the wounds and able to come together as a community so we can move forward.”

“Don’t let me give you the impression that I think everything is rosy and wonderful in North Kensington. I accept totally people’s anger,” she told the Standard.  

She also: 

welcomed the Government’s decision to send in a taskforce: “Frankly this is a disaster of national proportions and we cannot cope as a small borough on our own”.

admitted the council needed help to bridge the “chasm” that had arisen with local communities

promised to follow up her apology with actions. “You can say whatever you like but you actually have to show by your record what you are doing.”

Mrs Campbell, 55, who cut short a holiday to return to London when the scale of the disaster became clear, acknowledged she had a huge task ahead. 

“One of the first things I’m going to do is get a review of what went wrong in those first few days. We need to be open and transparent and make sure that those things don’t happen again,” she said.

“If there’s anything outside the [public] inquiry, once we know, that we can help with, we will.” 

The council will be helped by the taskforce of experts with the new team phased in as the current Grenfell response team is gradually wound down. 

She claimed the prospect of external commissioners taking over the whole council, as demanded by Mayor Sadiq Khan, had never been raised. 

“We were honest enough to say that ‘we can’t cope with this on our own’ but also that we want to be cooperative, we want to work with the Government,” she said.

“Other areas are generally quite well managed and can tick over. But we need to concentrate on Grenfell.”

Local Tories came under intense pressure to have a clean break from the past to restore faith in the council after Nick Paget-Brown quit over its handling of the disaster.

Although Mrs Campbell was a K&C cabinet member until May, she had resigned by the time of the fire. She denied there would be any conflict of interest. 

“I’ve just been absolutely straight. I have collective responsibility but we are not the only country that put up cladding. All over the country, this is a national problem.”

The new council chief, who takes over officially on July 19, claimed other boroughs would have faced similar challenges. “I don’t think any council in the country could have coped with anything on this scale. It’s unheard of.”  

She defended the council from criticism over only permanently rehousing 14 families so far, although 139 had been offered new homes. 

Theresa May had promised it would happen within three weeks. 

Mrs Campbell said many of the families were deeply traumatised so it was “too soon” for them to take a decision on where to live. 

“Imagine if it’s you and you have three kids, two of whom are missing, and somebody says we’re going to offer you a two-bedroom flat. You say well that’s great, but I’ve got two missing children”.

Others had hesitated because they were offered homes in tower blocks or within view of Grenfell Tower, or had concerns over distance from children’s schools or suitability for the elderly. 

Mrs Campbell, whose ward contains Sloane Square and the Chelsea Flower Show, rejected claims wealthy Kensington had overlooked the poor living in its midst. 

“I absolutely acknowledge some people feel that way,” she said. “It’s very easy to say there’s lots of rich here and they don’t care about the poor. 

“But look at the outpouring of donations, of volunteering across all classes, all colours, all creeds. I don’t think what happened on the ground in the aftermath bears witness to that”. 

She denied she was out of touch with the borough’s poorer residents, citing 16 years of council experience, including stints running education and the children and families portfolio. 

“I utterly reject any notion that I don’t understand what is going on the ground. Quite a lot of my working life has been dealing with the most vulnerable in society,” she said. 

The councillor criticised shadow chancellor John McDonnell for his comments that victims were “murdered” by political decisions. “It’s a pity that when you have a national tragedy, instead of coming together, you try to stoke things up,” she said. However, she praised local Labour councillors.

She admitted the Tories could be punished in next May’s local elections. “We need to prove that we’re putting the council on its best foot forward.”

But dealing with the aftermath of Grenfell is her immediate priority. “I think this is a generational thing. I hope that over time we’re able to heal the wounds and come together as a community”.

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