At the time of writing we are in the middle of the ‘pen portraits’ stage at the Grenfell Tower fire inquiry, where relatives of deceased victims have the opportunity, if they wish, to talk about those they have lost and the circumstances in which they lost them.
It is hugely painful for the relatives, and has likewise affected anyone who can bear to watch proceedings. These people must also take care of themselves. Of the 11,000 people suffering varying degrees of trauma, are many who have ‘trauma by proxy’ – they are traumatised simply by hearing the horrific stories of what happened.
But it is positive that the inquiry has started in this way, as it humanises a process which many have found dehumanising.
It had started badly last July when it was revealed that the judge, chosen by the Prime Minister, had previously made a very unsympathetic ruling about a social tenant in Westminster being housed, against her will, in Milton Keynes, leading to accusations that he gave the “green light for councils to engage in social cleansing.” The judgement was later reversed by the Supreme Court, but this did not instil confidence.
Then there were questions over his legal record, which specialised in marine accidents. Ships do not incinerate 71 people over the long course of a day, in front of their family and friends.
The refusal to accept core participant status to Grenfell’s ward councillors, and other Labour councillors who had battled the Council and KCTMO for many years about poor management and the condition of property and repairs, did not bode well either. The other unfortunate decision – to refuse additional panel members – was made by the Prime Minister, but the judge could have advised otherwise. The half-way solution to engage only two panel members for just the second phase of the inquiry satisfies some, but not all.
We will have to see how the rest of the inquiry unfolds, but with certainty it will be very detailed and very painful. The eventual report and any recommendations must be uncompromising – and implemented without delay. No more Lakanals. No more Grenfells. No more excuses.
We know less at present about the police investigation, as they are keeping progress under wraps. This is understandable given that there may be corporate manslaughter charges; the company could be fined, and if individuals can be found accountable, they can be jailed.
The rehousing process is another area of huge concern, which takes up a good deal of time. I regularly visit displaced people in their hotels and I can tell you that the figures given out by the council and government do not tell the whole story. They only count those from the Tower and the adjacent Grenfell Walk – not those from the walkways, many of whom were moved out a year ago as their homes were not deemed safe, did not have heating or hot water, or because tenants were too traumatised to return.
So when you hear the official numbers, you can double it, at least. And if you read the tabloids – which you really shouldn’t- you will hear stories of cupidity and greed, and displaced families refusing to return or to take up offers of decent and appropriate homes because they are holding out for something better.
This is nonsense. We are looking after 250 Grenfell affected people, many of whom are waiting for suitable offers of housing, and none of those whose cases I know in detail are holding out for luxury apartments. They just want a home appropriate to their needs. And the council, which states they bought 300 properties, seems unable to provide them.
This is particularly true in the case of people with specific needs. Some are so traumatised that they will only accept a ground floor flat, or a flat with sprinklers fitted. Some have been so hounded by the press that they want somewhere very private. Some want to be very near their former neighbourhood. Some want to be as far away as possible. And then there are many with children, and a surprising proportion of people with disabilities.
Some people had lived there a long time and had become disabled in later life, but most extraordinary is that KCTMO had a policy of moving people with disabilities to the lower floors of the Tower. So we have 30 households needing accessible properties, but just two such properties available, which may not even be the right size.
All of this, as you can imagine, has taken a huge toll on people stuck in hotels and other temporary accommodation. Many have lost their jobs, or are having difficulties at school, or have dropped out of university. Physical and mental health is deteriorating at an alarming pace. The potential consequences are unconscionable.
Some MPs have suggested that Kensington and Chelsea council is given a deadline by which to house everyone, and if they fail, the government should send in commissioners to take over the rehousing process. But the government has already set deadlines. In June last year, it was three weeks. It then stretched to three months. Christmas was then proposed. Then in January the then Secretary of State for DHCLG admitted that some may not be housed before the year anniversary.
Just how much worse must it get before the government admits that the ‘jewel in the crown’ of local authorities, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea council, has utterly failed its statutory duties?
For pity’s sake – send in commissioners now.