THE BLOG

Councils Cannot Deal With Disasters Like The Grenfell Fire

07/07/2017 11:42 BST | Updated 07/07/2017 11:43 BST

Councils deal with housing issues, social care issues involving children and older people and people with disabilities. They deal with the collection of rubbish - planning applications and numerous other important local issues.

Most of the those working for councils up and down the land are conscientious and hard working and do a good job.

One problem is that most local residents are only vaguely aware of how councils work and who is in charge of them. Hardly any voters know that councils are made up of salaried council workers and officers doing the actual work and elected councillors who set the targets and strategies for the council often along political lines and ideologies.

The dreadful Grenfell Tower fire has brought to light a lot about the nature of councils - not so much what they can do well but what they cannot do.

Having worked for a council and the police and having been involved in local politics and elections I think the Grenfell Fire tells us several things.

One of the major weaknesses of how local councils work is the pretence around 'consultations' with local residents.

In my experience most consultations with local people are little more than 'rubber stamp' exercises. They are often done to be seen to be done but there is rarely a reality in allowing ordinary citizens - especially poorer ones with little influence - an actual say in what the council does.

When relations with local people do go wrong - with or without a consultation - relations become polarised and local people can quickly become the enemy - as the council turns inwards and ignores them.

In theory all local people in any area should be represented by an elected councillor - but often smaller groups of citizens will not get actual support - especially if they are poorer and less influential.

They can be left in a vacuum of representation and yet assumed to be represented.

The Grenfell fire has - in my view - highlighted another major weakness around most councils up and down the land - that they could ever deal with something as traumatic and disastrous as an incident such as this fire.

It is a nonsense to expect a local Council to move from everyday matters of meetings and processes around welfare and planning and disposing of rubbish - into a world class disaster recovery role involving allegations of neglect and possible crimes and mass death.

I doubt that any Council in the land could step up and provide the leadership and urgency of actions required at a terrible disaster like that at the Grenfell Tower.

I heard one one London MP suggesting that all local Councils should have a book somewhere on how to deal with this sort of situation - as if this is anything near what is required.

There needs to be another set of resources ready in the UK to step into the role of disaster recovery - providing people with experience of disasters and the gut wrenching trauma involved in dealing with people who have suffered loss and who may be angry and traumatised themselves.

We cannot and should not delude ourselves that local councils can suddenly step up and deal with something so terrible as the Grenfell Tower fire - or worse.

As I understand the theory of it - the Government could step in and bring in further resources and leadership but in the case of the Grenfell Tower fire have for the most part chosen to leave it in the hands of a failing local Council to continue to let the victims down for weeks after the terrible fire itself. Only now are the Government sending outside 'specialist' - only time will tell if they are the people with the right experience and skills.

Presumably the Government - if they choose to - could send in the military to supplement local efforts - but are they any more experienced in dealing with civil disasters? They would bring disciplined and brave soldiers to lend support - but experience of civil disasters and disaster recovery?

So for me the Grenfell fire highlights a couple of things - it doesn't surprise me that relations between the local council and poorer residents had broken down - most councils cannot and do not actually consult with local people in any meaningful way.

It does not surprise me that a local Council could not morph overnight from an organisation dealing with everyday council matters in a world class PR and disaster recovery resource providing leadership and direction to hundreds of traumatised citizens and dealing with the intensity of world media interest.

The government appears to have sat on its hands and left Kensington and Chelsea Council to continue to fail its most vulnerable citizens in this particular case - this for reasons we may never get to the bottom of.

In a more general sense - anyone who thinks that Councils are necessarily capable of dealing with major disasters like this is wrong. We can ignore this issue for another few years of course, until the next disaster occurs.

This country needs another resource - another agency with experience necessary to deal with the gut wrenching trauma of this sort of situation. This is unlikely to happen of course since it would cost money at a time when the prevalent political ideology that saving money trumps pretty much everything else.