The Grenfell Tower disaster has not been local government’s finest hour in terms of their apparent response to the emergency. So, if the media reports on the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) have been accurate, their behaviour clearly differs from the LGA’s statement that, “Emergency planning is a key issue for local people and the reputation of councils and fire and rescue authorities can depend on the effectiveness of planning and response.” But to compartmentalise this is a reputational issue alone would be wrong, as lack of emergency response may highlight wider performance problems. It is therefore not surprising that the chief executive of RBKC, Nicholas Holgate, resigned after being asked to do so by the communities secretary, Sajid Javid. It transpires that Javid required the leader of the council to seek Holgate’s resignation, according to various media reports.
The Local Government Act 1999 enables the Secretary of State to intervene in the conduct and operation of local authorities. Whilst government does not use the instrument lightly, there are plenty of examples from some authorities graded as poor under the extinct Comprehensive Performance Regime to the scandals surrounding Doncaster, Rotherham and Tower Hamlets. Javid clearly had a sanction at hand when dealing with the troubles at RBKC.
The resignation of the Chief Executive may be insufficient at addressing what are possibly wider performance and governance issues, as there are clearly significant weaknesses in the ability of the authority to discharge its duty in responding to emergencies and in providing competent civic leadership. Let’s take the first issue on emergencies. The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 places a duty on local authorities to stablish a clear set of roles and responsibilities for those involved in emergency preparation and response at the local level. RBKC would have been acutely aware of such requirements given its location within one of the world’s greatest capital cities and densely populated parts of Britain. Irrespective of the public inquiry, the government could ask two key questions:
- Why was RBKC so seemingly slow at responding to an emergency situation?
- Why was RBKC unable to perform an important fundamental duty towards its population in such as situation as Grenfell Tower?
- Was the authority’s political leadership sufficiently competent to deal with resourcing emergency planning
There are questions regarding governance issues related to RBKC both in terms of its ability to respond to the immediate emergency from a political and managerial leadership perspective and the more historical aspects related to the purported complaints by Grenfell Tower residents on the high risk nature of the property.
As a London based authority, RBKC may not be alone in terms of its apparent lack of competency to discharge its statutory duties. So, we need to learn fairly quickly why RBKC fundamentally failed in order to address wider weaknesses throughout the rest of local government. So over and above the Javid’s intervention regarding Holgate, further examination is required to investigate the root cause of RBKC’s failure through Sections 10 and 11 of the Local Government Act empowering inspectors to investigate in detail the operations of RBKC, but without prejudice to any immediate police investigation.
Typically, an intervention usually results in the organisation being placed into a process of turnaround led by government appointed commissioners or consultants. Turnaround processes naturally differ from one authority to another. In the most extreme example, councillors may find their decision making powers withdrawn. At the other end of the spectrum, turnaround may focus upon business process re-engineering focussed on a particular issue. To situate where RKBC could fall within the spectrum would be mere speculation.
In terms of wider values, the aftermath of Grenfell Tower has not portrayed the ability of local government to respond and lead at times of crisis very well. The woefully inadequate responses by managerial and local political leadership are well publicised and sufficient for government redress. This distressing situation may well provide an important wake-up call but also highlights policy changes as a reaction rather than by prediction. Returning to the LGA statement, local government’s reputation can rest upon the ability to plan and effectively respond to emergencies.
Philip Whiteman is a Lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies. He has research interests in the impact of central government and regulators on the role, service delivery and performance of local government and other local bodies.