How did the humanitarian efforts to help Grenfell’s survivors fail so badly? The huge public response to the tragedy didn’t translate into coordinated care. It’s time to make sure that when disaster strikes and local councils can’t cope, people aren’t failed again.
Nearly six months on and many families who lost their homes in the Grenfell Tower disaster are still in temporary accommodation. Meanwhile the surrounding community is still crying out for wider support, and despite huge charitable donations practical problems on the ground haven’t been solved.
The Government’s initial review of the relief effort, from its Independent Grenfell Recovery Taskforce, has some stark conclusions about the ways in which the survivors have been failed.
All 20 pages of the report should shame Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKC). Findings include that it ‘currently does not have a coordinated central means of understanding the full range of survivor needs’, that recovery efforts have been ‘disjointed and seemingly rudderless’, and that failures in supporting survivors were ‘left to fester unchallenged’.
The report also finds that NHS staff have struggled to get information from the council on people who need support. Trauma support and mental health care for those affected by the fire is critical but the report says that poor support across the board ‘has left many survivors feeling let down at their time of greatest need’.
As a London-wide Assembly Member I’ve been trying to get action on these problems since I was first asked to visit and listen to their requests a few days after the fire.
Even in the immediate aftermath it was clear that the council’s approach was becoming bureaucratic and unhelpful to many traumatised survivors, while the problems faced by the wider community were being overlooked.
The Taskforce notes something else I also saw: at this point, council and Red Cross workers were actually being discouraged by the council from venturing out on to the streets, leaving devastated local people feeling both under siege from intense publicity and completely cut adrift.
I sent a series of memos trying to get urgent action on the issues people had raised. They told me that survivors in hotels didn’t have basic support or transport to the relief centre, there was lack of information and support for other local residents, an absence of any information available in other local languages, and non-existent mental health support for the wider community. These are all problems that have still not been completely sorted out.
Where I should direct these urgent requests was a real question. With no clear information on how to reach ‘Gold Command’ – the emergency services major incident command – I send my pleas for help to the Red Cross and the Mayor of London’s office.
The Red Cross team did try to sort out some of the issues, but were fairly limited to distributing aid packages and funds. So, in the end, almost all requests for action ended up back with a council that was in chaos.
Importantly, these included providing ‘key workers’ who were assigned to each family, as a single point of contact to help steer them through the process of getting help. Key workers are crucial in situations where people have lost everything and need both moral support and wide-ranging practical assistance to get their shattered lives back together.
The Taskforce report sets out how many of the council’s key workers were taken from elsewhere in their workforce, hitting capacity, and often had a defensive perspective that damaged what should be a relationship of trust with survivors.
I have heard accounts from residents of key worker failures that tally exactly with the Taskforce’s finding that, as a group, they did not have the ability to challenge the council and fight effectively for Grenfell residents, leaving many survivors without the support they desperately needed. Affected residents told the taskforce that some key workers ‘appear insensitive and more concerned with administrative convenience.’
This is appalling to hear and getting this support right from now is vital. The council is trying to recruit new, better-skilled and independent key workers but we need to learn from what went wrong and make sure that experienced people are ready to take on this role again when disasters strike.
A missing piece of the puzzle may lie at the London level. The Mayor has hardly had a role in the wider relief effort outside GLA-controlled emergency services. The council’s recovery work has been overseen by Whitehall, but there is a further part City Hall could play.
The London Assembly has been looking at the Grenfell relief effort in our Oversight Committee. We have heard from the chair of the London Resilience Forum about delays in bringing in outside help as RBKC failed to immediately activate a request for an on-call ‘Local Authority Gold’ from another borough to step in.
This was a necessary step to allow money to be spent from RBKC funds by others but handover took until Friday 16 June, two days after the fire, to be completed.
I have listened to residents completely bewildered by these delays who can’t understand why – when it was obvious RBKC could not cope – this help could not have been imposed on the council.
It’s clear that some on-call, external practical help should be available for immediate use during incidents like this to stop delays in setting up proper relief.
The difference an immediate and unconditional ‘post-emergency service’ like this could have made at Grenfell was obvious to all of us who listened to residents in those first few days.
We already have the excellent Team London at City Hall – a legacy of the 2012 Games –directing volunteers at major sporting and cultural events. The Mayor did send some of these volunteers to Grenfell from 20-29 June, but they could take on more responsibility in future. With extra training Team London members could provide a post-emergency team of independent key workers, ready to be advocates assigned to affected families, listening to their complex needs and helping them access practical help.
The key worker role is not unlike what I do as a councillor when I take on complex casework, and there are many former councillors and people with skills and experience from working at Citizens’ Advice and voluntary organisations who could be willing to take on this role when needed.
Having these kinds of people on call could have saved RBKC from diverting its personnel, worked more effectively with survivors, and saved public money overall.
Following up our last Grenfell meeting, the Oversight Committee is due to discuss the issue of the wider relief effort on 23 November, and I hope that the Mayor and GLA will agree that there is a role for them in plugging the gaps that left so many residents feeling let down after this disaster.