Wednesday 21 March 2018

'I have to accept my share of responsibility' - Council leader of Grenfell Tower quits following criticism

The Grenfell tower blaze. Photo: GETTY
The Grenfell tower blaze. Photo: GETTY Newsdesk Newsdesk

The leader of the council dealing with the Grenfell Tower fire has resigned following criticism of his handling of the disaster.

Nicholas Paget-Brown said he had to accept responsibility for "perceived failings" by Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council after the tragedy which claimed at least 80 lives.

"I have therefore decided to step down as leader of the council as soon as a successor is in place," he said.

Mr Paget-Brown thanked other London boroughs for their support, saying: "The scale of this tragedy was always going to mean that one borough alone would never have sufficient resources to respond to all the needs of the survivors and those made homeless, on its own."

He acknowledged many questions about why the fire spread so quickly would need to be answered by the public inquiry, and the council had been criticised for "failing to answer all the questions that people have".

He said: "As council leader I have to accept my share of responsibility for these perceived failings.

"In particular, my decision to accept legal advice that I should not compromise the public inquiry by having an open discussion in public yesterday, has itself become a political story.

"And it cannot be right that this should have become the focus of attention when so many are dead or still unaccounted for.

Floral tributes for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire are left outside the Notting Hill Methodist Church, in London, Britain June 20, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica
Floral tributes for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire are left outside the Notting Hill Methodist Church, in London, Britain June 20, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

"I have therefore decided to step down as leader of the council as soon as a successor is in place.

"They will appoint a new deputy leader and cabinet."

Downing Street said the council should have "respected" a High Court ruling that the press and public should be allowed into the meeting, which was originally slated to be held behind closed doors.

The first cabinet gathering since the disaster claimed at least 80 lives was halted abruptly by Mr Paget-Brown on Thursday evening when reporters gained entry.

A Number 10 spokeswoman said: "Our view is that access to democracy should always be easy and we think that is vital if people want to retain confidence in our democratic system."

Mr Paget-Brown added: "As I said yesterday, this is a huge human tragedy for so many families.

"The task for my successor is to ensure that the strengths which also characterise this place, and north Kensington in particular, are seen to play their part in bringing the community together and ensuring that this borough, the most wonderful place, can start to move forward from this tragedy."

Deputy leader councillor Rock Feilding-Mellen also stepped down, saying he would "of course co-operate in full with the public inquiry".

Protestors take to London's streets after the Grenfell Towers tragedy.
Protestors take to London's streets after the Grenfell Towers tragedy.

In a separate development, the organisation which manages Grenfell Tower in west London announced it had agreed its chief executive would "step aside" so he can "concentrate on assisting with the investigation and inquiry".

A statement from the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) confirmed Robert Black's position, two days after retired Court of Appeal judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick was appointed to lead the public inquiry into the deaths.

It said: "The board wishes to ensure that KCTMO remains best positioned to fully co-operate and assist with the inquiry and so it has agreed with its chief executive, Robert Black, that Mr Black should step aside from his role as chief executive of KCTMO in order that he can concentrate on assisting with the investigation and inquiry."

An interim chief executive will be appointed, it added.

Built in 1974, Grenfell Tower in west London was recently refurbished at a cost of £8.6 million, with work completed in May last year.

The council is also under pressure following reports that cladding used during a multimillion-pound refurbishment of the high-rise was switched to a cheaper version.

Both The Times and the BBC said they had seen official documents which stated aluminium panels were preferred to the non-combustible zinc alternative.

Reports by The Times and BBC suggested that a saving of nearly £300,000 had been made by opting for "downgraded" cladding.

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Sir Ed Davey said: "These suggestions that plans to use fireproof zinc cladding were scrapped in favour of a cheaper aluminium cladding to drive down costs are real cause for concern. This needs to be investigated fully at the public inquiry with no stone left unturned."

Meanwhile, an independent panel set up to advise on immediate safety improvements suggested that cladding which has failed safety tests may not have to be stripped from buildings in all cases.

The Independent Expert Advisory Panel chaired by the Government's former chief fire and rescue adviser Sir Ken Knight met for the first time on Thursday and issued its first advice on Friday.

It said that in any cases where panels fail combustibility tests, landlords should follow interim safety measures issued last week, which involve thorough checks on fire precautions throughout buildings but do not require the immediate removal of cladding.

And the advice added: "The Panel will engage with experts across the country to consider whether these panels can be used safely as part of a wider building external wall system, and therefore could remain on a building under certain approved circumstances.

"If, in the meantime, a landlord chooses to take down and replace cladding, care should be taken to consider the impact that removal may have on the other wall elements, especially insulation, and therefore on the overall fire integrity of the building as well as other Building Regulation requirements.

Lord Porter of Spalding, the chairman of the Local Government Association, said the Government needed to canvass the opinion of a greater number of experts amid allegations its safety testing is flawed.

Meanwhile, Anh Nhu Nguyen, 52, was remanded in custody for allegedly conning charities and the council out of almost £10,000 by posing as a victim of the disaster. He will appear before the crown court in July.

Labour councillor Robert Atkinson, whose ward includes Grenfell Tower, told of his relief at Mr Paget-Brown's resignation, saying he had "totally failed" in his role since the disaster.

Mr Atkinson told Sky News: "My reaction is one of relief because, with the departure of the council leader, perhaps the council can now start to organise itself to provide the services that the residents so desperately need."

Asked why it was necessary for him to step down he said: "Because he has totally failed in the leadership role in the time since the disaster happened, which is now almost two weeks ago."

He said his focus is on the immediate needs of his constituents, including providing them with homes and basics including hot water.

He added he believes the inquiry into the fire should be widened, describing the fallout as a "city-wide problem".

He told the broadcaster: "My focus and those of my colleagues has been entirely on providing for the needs of those who have been affected by the tragedy and the larger issues that need to be dealt with elsewhere and perhaps are not quite as urgent, but I do support the idea that the inquiry now needs to be widened because we don't just have a crisis in Kensington and Chelsea, there is a crisis right the way across the capital, with high-rise buildings and people being made to leave their homes and people feeling insecure.

"So I do think we need a national response.

"I also think that the mayor of London can have a role in this because it is a city-wide problem."

Press Association

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