Residents devastated by the Grenfell fire have spoken of their “disgust” in learning of Kensington and Chelsea council’s multi-million pound property deals while it was cutting costs on renovations to the tower.
An investigation by HuffPost UK, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the BBC Local Democracy Reporters Service has revealed that the council made £129m from selling property in the years leading up to the tragedy – money which could have been spent on the improvement works.
Mother-of-three Tasha Gordon fled from her nearby home on the night of the fire. She was visibly shocked by revelations that the council had been spending huge amounts of money buying property.
“It actually does make me feel really upset, really sick. I think it’s disgusting,” she said.
She stayed with her sister Natalie, who lived in Grenfell Tower, until a few months before the blaze which claimed the lives of 72 people.
Gordon recalled the tower “where hundreds of families lived. Kids playing on the landing, waiting for their family to come up in the lift” and lamented that more money was not spent on the building work there.
She said: “These figures are so high, that they didn’t want to add a few extra thousand pounds to renovate the tower properly where hundreds of people lived for all those years.”
The council has previously claimed legal restrictions meant it could only use rental income from local authority housing to pay for renovation works. But this was not the case.
In fact, the council’s own documents show £6million of the Grenfell works was paid for with proceeds from the sale of council property – basement units in Elm Park Gardens in Chelsea.
The government has confirmed to us that councils are free to use money from the sale of property to fund improvements in housing stock.
This new information means the council had a far larger pot of money available to invest in its council housing than it has previously acknowledged – including on Grenfell Tower.
If you have paid a little bit more in the first place – we are talking about human livesAntonio Roncolato, who lived in the tower for 27 years
Our investigation also found the council had £37m in the bank, specifically from the sale of property, at the time when funding decisions over Grenfell were being taken.
Antonio Roncolato, 59, a hotel restaurant manager who escaped from his home on the tenth floor of the tower said: “They are there to serve.”
He added: “I was trapped in there til about six o’clock in the morning. I almost lost my life.
“If you have paid a little bit more in the first place – we are talking about human lives.” He lived in the tower for 27 years.
Joe Delaney, who sits on the committee which scrutinises Grenfell Tower related issues including housing, mental health support and funding, said the council’s involvement in property speculation was “absolutely 100% wrong.”
He added: “Their job is to serve the public, how is playing property developer serving the public? That’s not what we have councils for. ”
Delaney has given harrowing evidence to the Grenfell Inquiry about his desperate attempts to wake tower residents on the fateful night in June 2017.
He felt the council’s quibbling over a few hundred thousand pounds on Grenfell, despite having such a vast property portfolio, “shows that they weren’t interested in improving Grenfell Tower at all.”
Yvette Williams from campaigning group Justice4Grenfell said “without a doubt” more should have been spent on the work at Grenfell.
She condemned the council’s involvement in buying and selling its multi-million pound property portfolio as “a public disgrace”.
She added: “The entire community knew or had some knowledge that the local authority was operating as a corporation. It appears as if they were acting as property developers rather than providing an essential public housing service. Again an example of profit before people.”
Viviana Rullo and David O’ Connell, evacuated from their home close to the tower on the night of the tragedy, also criticised the council’s actions.
It’s what people have thought all along, but it still makes it disgustingDavid O’ Connell, who was evacuated from his home close to the tower
O’Connell said: “This just goes to prove that’s exactly what they were doing – people were dismissed as cranks for saying it – buying property, behaving like property developers and selling off assets to fund property speculation. That’s the last thing a council should be doing.
“It’s what people have thought all along, but it still makes it disgusting.”
Rullo was part of the Grenfell Action Group, a residents’ organisation which campaigned for better housing in the Lancaster West estate, which included Grenfell, and said: “It’s not what the council’s for. I find that an absolute undeniable conflict of interest to have a council be a property developer. Property developers should not run the council.”
Kensington Labour MP Emma Dent Coad and Golborne ward councillor in the north of the borough said: “It is no surprise to me that RBKC council has been involved in dubious property deals.”
She claimed the council intended to offer Hewer Street, which it bought for £8.5m, for private rental. “This was not only, I felt, outside the council’s remit, but also a huge financial risk. Property values fall as well as rise.”
Jacqui Haynes who lives on the Lancaster West estate near Grenfell, said her reaction “should be outrage, it should be disgust”.
She echoed the words of the council’s chief executive Barry Quirk who took up his post after Grenfell who reportedly said that the council had acted as “property developers masquerading as a local authority”.
Now the council is working with the Lancaster West Residents Association to draw up plans of what they want to see on the estate and try and rebuild trust in a shattered and traumatised community.