Kensington and Chelsea Council has voted to scrap a committee tasked with scrutinising the authority’s response to the Grenfell Tower fire, prompting angry protests outside the Town Hall on Wednesday evening before the decision was passed.
Meetings about the aftermath of the disaster that killed 72 people in June 2017 will now take place in north Kensington, instead of at the Town Hall itself, and involve a “wider remit” with great involvement of residents.
Council leaders said the move was designed to empower community representatives by creating a “residents’ forum”.
But critics said the decision will reduce scrutiny of the council. Committee layman Joe Delaney told The Independent the council was treating Grenfell like a “PR crisis” while the community dealt with a “humanitarian crisis”, and that it wanted “Grenfell to go away”.
Six scrutiny committees, including the Grenfell Recovery Scrutiny Committee (GRSC), were formed in the aftermath of the fire. The other five committees handled housing and property, families and children, adult social care and health, public realm, and executive and corporate services.
This will now be replaced by four committees, which will be overseen by one main overarching scrutiny body.
The council’s opposition Labour group proposed amendments to the restructure that would have meant keeping the GRSC, but these were rejected by council leader Elizabeth Campbell when she returned from holiday on Monday.
Group leader Pat Mason told The Independent: “Bereaved families have already told the council they do not want the Grenfell Recovery Scrutiny Committee to be scrapped. Who are we to tell these people they are wrong? We have to listen.”
Following the vote, Councillor Mason said his group will no longer appoint members to the new scrutiny process. He said: “We will still sit at meetings, but we will be out now, and we will begin our own scrutiny process of the council’s response to Grenfell in North Kensington.
The decision to abolish the committee was made last month at a “resident’s conference”, but Emma Dent Coad, Labour’s MP for Kensington and Chelsea, told The Independent only 15 people turned up to the meeting in addition to 77 others who contributed to the consultation in writing.
She said in a borough with over 155,000 residents, this was “not a representative figure”. “It shows how good they are at community engagement when it comes to making decisions about changing an entire system of scrutiny and about spending tax payers’ money,” she said. ”And on that basis, they decided to go ahead with it.”
Ms Dent Coad said the council was “whitewashing what happened with Grenfell” with the new changes and “they don’t want all these angry people who they have failed confronting them at the Town Hall.”
Council representatives supporting the changes said the new system will mean greater engagement with government ministers who will participate in meetings with residents in North Kensington.
But Councillor Robert Atkinson challenged the claim, stating the new process of holding council powers to account was an attempt to “actually downgrade scrutiny, and that is wrong.”
Residents are now urging the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to step in and take over the council under “special measures” without delay.
But a spokesperson from the ministry said: “The council is responsible for making executive decisions relating to scrutiny and have set out a new approach to answer questions from the community.
“The independent Grenfell Recovery Taskforce has been providing support and challenge to [the council] in their response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy since July 2017 and has submitted four reports directly to the Government on the council’s progress.”
A damning government Taskforce report about the council’s response to the North Kensington community in the aftermath of the fire stated that the authority was “going backwards”.
In response, council leader Ms Campbell said on Wednesday evening: “We are not going backwards, we are going forwards. Scrutiny of this council and its decisions on Grenfell are not being scrapped. The changes are driven by the need to learn lessons of the Grenfell tragedy. After months of consultation and discussion, scrutiny of the council is being strengthened."
Members of the public sitting in the gallery responded with rage, telling the chamber, “we don’t want it abolished”, “you’re not listening” and “you don’t act in our interest”.
After the meeting, Moyra Samuels from campaign group Justice for Grenfell said council members “failed to serve the needs of the Grenfell-impacted community” and that the changes proposed were not legal.
She said campaigners intended to challenge the move and force council decision-makers to the negotiating table “so they start to listen to the voices of the community”.
Ms Samuels added: “We cannot have this Tory-run council, especially in the light of Boris being elected, imposing things that will damage our recovery. If a decision is made, a decision can be changed. This is not a democracy, it’s a dictatorial imposition and we can’t have that, not after Grenfell. So we will do everything it takes to turn this decision around.”
In a statement, a council spokesperson told The Independent the changes from September 2019 would ”increase resident participation” in the scrutiny process and “give greater power to communities to hold all public agencies involved in Grenfell recovery to account”.
“The creation of this new public meeting would replace and expand upon the many of the functions of the Grenfell Recovery Scrutiny Committee,” the spokesperson said.
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