POLITICS

Panic As Grenfell Tower Survivors Locked Behind Fire Escape At Town Hall Meeting

'The UK accuses other countries of a lack of human rights. Why don’t you care about human rights here?'

20/07/2017 07:51 | Updated 20 July 2017

Panicked Grenfell Tower survivors hammered their fists on a fire escape door to get into a council chamber to share their story with power-holders.

The first Kensington and Chelsea council meeting since the disaster was a night filled with drama as victim after victim of the horrific inferno took to the podium to direct fury and pain at the ruling Tory council.

Shouts of “murderer”, “stand down now, and “shame on you” filled the air when Councillor Elizabeth Campbell was officially appointed as the authority’s new leader.

And, with a protest burgeoning in the street outside Kensington Town Hall, anger reached fever pitch when Campbell revealed the Tenants’ Management Organisation (TMO) - which alongside the council repeatedly ignored residents’ concerns about fire safety – would not be immediately broken up.

But the moment which brought the tragedy back into its sharpest focus came when survivors were left to desperately bang on a fire escape door.

“Why is the fire escape locked?” one survivor cried out to Campbell.

Another despairing resident was heard to shout: “I do not want anyone trapped. I’m already traumatised as it is”.

Others screeched: “You’ve locked us in” and “you cannot lock the fire escape.”

A crowd gathered as one of the many hefty security guards manning the event tried to figure out what had happened.

It was eventually unlocked and survivors who wished to speak queued up to speak.

An Iranian woman was the first of many to break down in tears as she held aloft the key to her now-fire ravaged Grenfelll flat.

Via an interpreter, she said: “The UK accuses other countries of a lack of human rights.” Adding: “Why don’t you care about human rights here?”

She added: “I beg you, do not play a game with us. I beg you, do not tell us lies. I beg you, do not waste our time.”

More than three hours later the meeting came to a close when the same woman collapsed and paramedics rushed to her aid.

This morning, newly-appointed deputy council leader Kim Taylor-Smith told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that he and Campbell would not be offering their resignation. 

Ed Dalfarn, who pens the Grenfell Tower Action blog, rose to face down councillors, staring them in the eye as he said: “Do you remember when we came to you about power surges, when we almost burned to death in 2013?”

Campbell was later accused of rolling her eyes at him.

She faced calls to stand down throughout the night, including from Eve Wedderburn who had collected 1,500 names for a petition.

Resident Mahad Egdal yelled: “I do not trust you, I do not trust your party.

“Why can’t you listen to each of the people who came from the fire?

“I don’t want you, the dead don’t want you. You have let the dead down, and now you want to come for the living.

“The people must choose you, and they have not chosen you. So madam, step down.”

He added: “You are so disgraceful you are disgracing us now. You are dehumanising us.”

“You are selfish - you do not deserve our presence.”

Eve received a standing ovation at the end of an eloquent speech in which she told councillors “you are discredited before you begin” and “we fear your cosy relationship with developers, stand down”.

She said: “We do not recognise your right to govern our community.”

She added: “The problem here is not perception, but your actual culpability in an actual crisis.”

Campbell appointed a new cabinet and chief executive but could barely be heard as anger erupted again and again in the packed public gallery.

She said: “I am deeply sorry for the grief and trauma that you are suffering.

“I am truly sorry that we did not do more to help you when you needed it the most.”

PA Wire/PA Images
A survivor of the Grenfell Tower fire during a meeting of Kensington and Chelsea Council at Kensington Town Hall in west London

When repeatedly challenged she added “lessons will be learned” and “there will be change” before admitting the tragedy had proved “our attempts at community engagement have been hollow”.

Most business on the agenda had to be put to one side as there was no realistic prospect it would be dealt with.

One resident spoke because her brother and sister-in-law could not because “their pain is too huge”.

She said: “I think you should be highly embarrassed by the response,” adding that it had been “totally inadequate”.

The family of the deceased “are being treated like cattle”, another woman said.

“How can we have faith in you, come to you guys for help?”, another woman from the public gallery said. “You are trying to silence the dead. We will not be silenced.”

Another resident said the treatment of the fire victims’ families had been “disgusting”, adding: “We’ve been swept under the carpet.”

PA Wire/PA Images
Newly elected council leader Elizabeth Campbell

Robert Atkinson, the leader of the Labour opposition on the council, repeated his party’s call for commissioners to take over the running of the Conservative-run council.

One man who had lived in Grenfell Tower since birth stared at councillors in disbelief as he told them residents have not been rehoused despite five weeks passing since the fire.  

He added: “There have been fires before. They have never spread like this one did.”

Another survivor, called Khalid, said: “Me and my mum, she’s 90 years old, why have we not been rehoused yet?”

He told them he was living in a hotel with his family but he just wanted to rebuild in a permanent home.

“Four star, five star, 16 star; it’s all the same to me. I just want somewhere to restart my life.”

PA Wire/PA Images
People protest ahead of a meeting of Kensington and Chelsea Council at Kensington Town Hall in west London

The Labour group leader repeated his call for commissioners to take over the council and for the TMO to be abolished.

“Such is the anger and distrust right across this borough that nothing the ruling Conservative group says tonight will convince the people,” he said.

Campbell revealed 400 new social housing units would be made available over the next five years adding: “We will not hold back from spending the borough’s reserves.”

The council has come in for harsh criticism for sitting on £274m on its balance sheet, but Campbell said that will now be brought into play.

She also offered three commitments:

  • To change the culture of the council.

  • To listen to and support the local community.

  • To change the way social housing was managed.  

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