Grenfell Tower And Westminster’s Assault On Local Democracy

Kensington and Chelsea town hall

The latest casualty of the Grenfell Tower fire is local democracy

One of the key ideals of democracy – only ever half-heartedly observed in the United Kingdom – is the principle of subsidiarity, the notion that higher levels of government should take on only those duties which cannot be performed at a lower level by local officials more directly accountable to local people.

Most people would agree that local people are best placed to make decisions that directly affect them and their communities. Of course, in Britain this is balanced out by our terror at the thought of a “postcode lottery” when it comes to public service provision, that gnawing feeling that someone, somewhere might be getting a better deal from the government and that it would be far better if we all resign ourselves to the same low standard of uniform mediocrity than witness excellence in some places and failure in others (see the Cult of the NHS). But generally speaking, the principle of subsidiarity makes sense to people when it is explained in abstract.

It is sad, then, to see that the latest victim of the Grenfell Tower fire is (thankfully) not another person, but rather the ability of local councils, elected by local people, to manage their affairs in the way that suits them best. This was manifested today by Communities Secretary Sajid Javid’s request that the CEO of Kensington & Chelsea council submit his resignation as an act of public contrition for the council’s chaotic and disorganised response to the disaster.

From the Guardian:

The chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea council, Nicholas Holgate, has resigned after being asked to do so by the communities secretary, Sajid Javid. In a statement Holgate said that Javid “required the leader of the council to seek my resignation”.

His resignation comes after a tide of criticism of the council, not only for the way it responded to the Grenfell Tower tragedy but also for historical neglect of poorer residents of the borough and a neglect of social housing.

Holgate said: “Serving the families so desperately affected by the heartbreaking tragedy at Grenfell Tower remains the highest priority of the council. Despite my wish to have continued, in very challenging circumstances, to lead on the executive responsibilities of the council, I have decided that it is better to step down from my role, once an appropriate successor has been appointed.

He added: “Success in our efforts requires leadership across London that sustains the confidence and support of central government. There is a huge amount still to do for the victims of the fire, requiring the full attention of this council and many others. If I stayed in post, my presence would be a distraction.”

The local council has instead been instructed to “work in a new way with different partners” going forward until the disaster relief efforts are concluded.

In some ways this speaks to the urgent need to reform Britain’s lacklustre civil contingencies protocols, which (as this blog discussed yesterday in detail) were proven not fit for purpose, with contradictory guidance about who has ultimate ownership for disaster recovery and unclear lines of communication between local government, national government and the emergency services.

But more worrying, from a democratic perspective, is the fact that the Communities Secretary has the power to unilaterally intervene and demand that a local council fire one of its own officers – for any reason, let alone mere bad optics.

Personally, I have never seen the great wisdom in councils hiring Chief Executives to effectively run their jurisdictions. One wonders what the job of councillors is supposed to be, if not that very thing. Far better to have directly elected mayors with real executive responsibility – and in the case of London, powers should either be vested in the office of Mayor of London or in elected mini-mayors for each individual borough – who are then responsible for running the machinery of local government.

To separate out the roles of political leadership and administration is itself to subvert the democratic process, as elected councillors are essentially divesting themselves of any direct responsibility for running their own fiefdoms while giving considerable power to a typically overpaid and unremarkable individual who is not directly accountable to voters. This gives local elected officials “plausible deniability” when anything goes wrong – including disasters such as the Grenfell Tower fire. Rather than holding local politicians to account for their failures, instead the unelected CEO is offered up as a sacrifice to soak up the public rage while elected officials serenely glide on as though nothing had happened. This is no model for democracy.

But even though the CEO model is clearly flawed, it certainly should not be any business of central government in Westminster how the people of the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea manage their affairs. If people were politically engaged and had the will to do so – and if local elections were more than a glorified opinion poll in the gaps between general elections – then the local people could demand that the council dismiss their chief executive, or else punish the ruling party at the ballot box. But because we in this country look to central government to solve literally every one of our problems (and central government happily grants itself the authority to try), most people don’t care how their local government is organised. Turnout figures for any local election make this immediately plain.

Ultimately, there are two dangers here. The first is that by forcing the resignation of the Kensington & Chelsea Council chief executive – a huge overreach of authority by an already overcentralised Westminster government – we essentially paper over all of the cracks and flaws in our emergency response protocols. Rather than asking deep and searching questions about what went wrong at every stage of the process, we instead simply pat ourselves on the back for having forced one particular figurehead (or scapegoat) to resign and congratulate ourselves for a job well done.

But the second danger is the continued, seemingly limitless growth of the state. What is the point in having local elections or having a layer of local government if its decisions and appointments are to be arbitrarily second-guessed and overruled by Westminster? Sajid Javid is accountable to nobody in Kensington & Chelsea, and yet he saw fit to dismiss a local official whom local officials had entrusted with the running of the borough. This is appalling, and people should be outraged.

Never mind that the mere presence of an unelected borough chief executive is itself a shameful abdication of responsibility by local politicians and one of the key reasons why there are so few opportunities for elected officials to gain real executive experience in local government before seeking higher office. Ultimately, if Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council want to run their administration in this ludicrous way and the people are lethargic enough to allow it to continue, then Westminster has no business meddling in their affairs and picking and choosing who should be allowed to perform that role.

Some aspects of government – such as emergency response and disaster recovery – clearly require the close interaction of different levels of government and a variety of different agencies. But who Kensington and Chelsea council choose to keep in the position of chief executive should have absolutely nothing to do with Sajid Javid, Theresa May or anybody else in central government.

When it comes to designing protocols and procedures which clearly spell out how these different levels of government and different agencies work together during the emergency response and disaster recovery phases, there is clearly a vital role for national government. That is exactly the kind of high-level central planning that national government is designed to do. But when it comes to deciding who can and cannot serve in a position reporting to local government, Westminster needs to butt out. It sets a terrible precedent and undermines what little local democracy we actually have in Britain.

We are all outraged by the Grenfell Tower fire and we all want to see tangible actions taken to hold those responsible to account and prevent future occurrences. But mindlessly clapping along as the state makes yet another power grab and undermines the very idea of local democracy even further is not a sensible response to last week’s tragedy.

Theresa May’s beleaguered government has enough to be getting on with at the moment, without acting like a glorified parish council on top of everything else. We must stop encouraging Westminster to do so, and demand a revolution in local government instead.

 

Kensington Town Hall Protests - Grenfell Tower

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A State Of Unpreparedness: Lessons In Disaster Recovery From The Grenfell Tower Fire

Grenfell Tower fire - disaster relief - Red Cross

The chaotic government response to the Grenfell Tower disaster has made it worryingly clear that despite extensive legislation and incredible local spirit, Britain’s civil contingencies and disaster preparedness protocols are not fit for purpose

“The Government’s handling of risks and emergencies in recent years has failed to inspire public confidence. In a range of crises, from the Foot and Mouth outbreak through to the grounds for war in Iraq, official predictions or capabilities have been found wanting. The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 tenders reassurance by the promise of systemic planning and activity in civil resilience, though defence lies beyond its scope. The wide-ranging powers in the Act have the capability of delivering on the promise. But, as shall be revealed [..] efforts will be hampered because the legislation is hesitant and uneven.”

– Clive Walker and Jim Broderick, The Civil Contingencies Act 2004: Risk, Resilience and the Law in the United Kingdom

And so, on Sunday, the inevitable happened: the government took over direct control of the Grenfell Tower disaster relief efforts from the beleaguered Kensington & Chelsea borough council, following days of disturbing reports about a lack of proper coordination on the ground.

At the government’s request, the British Red Cross has now expanded from providing psychosocial support, fundraising and donation processing services to being the primary coordinator of the community assistance centre, distributing donations and being the single point of contact for anybody needing help. While organisations like the Red Cross had been on-site in some small capacity even while the fire still burned, they are now to significantly step up their presence and the type of support they are offering.

The Times reported:

The British Red Cross was drafted in to help with disaster relief in west London last night after Theresa May admitted the initial response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy was “not good enough”.

The charity, part of the International Red Cross, which is more usually deployed in war zones and after natural disasters in the developing world, was recruited to give “psychological support” to survivors and the emergency services.

May praised the response of the fire brigade, police, NHS services and the local community as “heroic”. But in her first admission that the official response failed survivors and relatives of the dead, she added: “Frankly, the support on the ground for families who needed help or basic information in the initial hours after this appalling disaster was not good enough.”

Senior staff at Kensington and Chelsea council were ordered to stay at home yesterday after ministers decided they were not doing a good enough job.

Instead, officials with crisis experience were sent in from Westminster and other councils as well as Whitehall departments.

More disquieting accounts of the local council’s failure to get a grip:

A senior government source said Kensington council had been “decapitated”. Ian Austin, the Labour MP, said: “Isn’t it a good job that we’ve got charities and aid workers ready to step in when one of Britain’s richest councils can’t sort its own mess?”

While Paul Waugh provided this rather more encouraging update on Tuesday:

At last, the authorities seem to be getting some kind of grip on the response to the Grenfell Tower disaster. The PM chaired the first taskforce meeting yesterday and last night had some stats that showed progress, with £200,000 being distributed yesterday from the £5m emergency fund.

The Grenfell Response Team – a pan-London, Whitehall, police and British Red Cross effort – said 78 families were on course to be rehomed locally by Monday night. And 126 hotel places have been found. DCLG expected all councils to tell it by last night how many tower blocks needed extra safety checks.  Testing of samples of cladding begins today with all councils told to assess their building materials.

It is heartening to see the situation finally being stabilised, but it is also slightly worrying that it took a Cabinet-level intervention – with the prime minister taking personal charge of the taskforce only to delegate the heavy lifting to the Red Cross – to bring what is effectively (considering all of the worse possibilities lurking in the shadows) a mid-sized disaster relief campaign back under control.

But at this point they had no option. It has become increasingly clear since the Grenfell Tower fire that while our emergency services are incredibly brave and well-trained, there is no similarly disciplined and well-equipped group able and fully prepared to step into the void to help deal with the humanitarian consequences of a disaster once the first responders have done their job.

Frustratingly, it quickly became evident that the huge outpouring of public support for the survivors and bereaved was not being effectively harnessed and proactively directed to those in greatest need – not through any absence of goodwill but because of a failure to properly plan and delineate responsibilities.

And as the days wore on following the tragedy, there grew a disquieting sense – first highlighted on this blog, and later expanded upon – that our civil contingency procedures are not working properly, and that ultimate responsibility for dealing with the aftermath of a mass casualty incident with major damage inflicted is currently falling down the gaps between central government, local government, charities and private citizen volunteers, none of whom have an incentive to take ultimate ownership or be the public face of the response. And so a giant flaw in Britain’s emergency planning measures revealed itself.

The lynchpin of Britain’s emergency response protocol is the Gold-Silver-Bronze (or strategic, tactical and operational) Command structure, which was designed to coordinate the response of emergency services to a serious situation but which in actual practice is also used to organise preparedness for other events such as football matches and concerts.

But the Gold-Silver-Bronze Command structure – established after the 1985 Broadwater Farm riot, strengthened by the 2004 Civil Contingencies Act and invoked as part of standard practice in response to the Grenfell Tower fire – is clearly inadequate to dealing with the aftermath of a disaster from the point when the “blue light agencies” (fire, police, ambulance) have brought the immediate issue under control.

The Gold Command structure is useful primarily for coordinating the activities of first responder agencies from a strategic and tactical level. It has far less applicability when it comes to dealing with the human aftermath in the event of displaced or homeless people, where the police have only a limited role and the fire and ambulance services almost no role. The British Red Cross, for example is not wired in to this command structure as a matter of course, even though it has become evident that no other British agency possess the expertise and experience in dealing with the humanitarian aspect.

This is a design flaw that has lurked unnoticed for a long time. The vast majority of incidents in which the Gold-Silver-Bronze command structure is utilised, from football games to terrorist attacks, do not take place in residential settings – so once a situation has been brought under control and the locality is cleared, non-injured people can be reasonably expected to find their way home and fend for themselves. There is no humanitarian aspect, so to speak, as soon as the last victim has been put in an ambulance and carted off to the hospital or coroner.

But in the event of a disaster such as Grenfell Tower, where domiciles themselves were destroyed, there is often no home or alternative shelter to go to. After the fire, people found themselves homeless and in the well-meaning but erratic initial care of various community groups, religious organisations and the local Kensington and Chelsea council, outside any formal command structure overseen by government.

Unfortunately, the council’s role in coordinating the response and the amount of effort required on their part was not properly spelled out in advance in our emergency planning laws. Ironically, the level between Gold Command and Central government, which once defined the role of regional government offices in responding to a disaster, was abolished under the previous Conservative-LibDem coalition government.

Thus, in yet another example of the gross overcentralisation of all aspects of British government, local councils were effectively cut out of the loop when it came to disaster response, at least formally speaking. This is probably why it took the better part of a week – and was trumpeted as a huge achievement when it finally happened – for Kensington & Chelsea council workers assisting in the relief effort to even be issued with official council staff vests so that people could easily identify them and seek assistance.

From the Guardian:

At the Westway centre where the relief effort is being coordinated, there appeared to be evidence of much greater efficiency in efforts by councils, the Red Cross, the NHS and other officials to help residents after days of chaos. For the first time employees of Kensington and Chelsea were visible wearing nylon vests marking them out as council staff.

This, apparently, is what happens when you cut an entire layer of government out of emergency planning and disaster preparedness protocols without properly thinking through the consequences. Even wearing matching clothes becomes a challenge. We should be glad to hear that the relief effort is now finally being coordinated more effectively, but one wonders what is the point of local government if it is to have no formal role (let alone overall responsibility) for keeping citizens safe and ensuring their welfare following a disaster?

It need not be like this. When I first flagged concerns about the Grenfell Tower disaster relief operation on this blog, I recounted my experience of watching state government, local government and voluntary aid organisations working seamlessly together following a deadly tornado in Missouri:

I happened to be living in the American Mid-West when a huge tornado ripped through the town of Joplin, Missouri back in May 2011, killing 158 people and levelling entire neighbourhoods. Driving into town two days later, it looked for all the world as though an atomic bomb had gone off. Whole blocks of houses were reduced to matchsticks. Big box retail stores had been blasted away so that only their steel frames remained standing. Even big, solid buildings like churches and a concrete-constructed hospital were damaged beyond the point of repair.

And yet within almost no time, there was real organised and disciplined aid on the ground, delivering help and comfort to people who needed it. Charities like the American Red Cross and Samaritan’s Purse sent convoys of trucks with aid and facilities such as washing machines and tumble driers so that people suddenly made homeless could do their laundry. Medical trucks administered tetanus shots to people, like me, who mucked in to assist with some of the repairs. The insurance companies sent mobile offices on the back of trucks to process damage claims. Churches organised the making and delivering of meals to those who needed them. And crucially, mobile command centres helped to coordinate the response, so that the appropriate help reached people who needed it while avoiding duplication of effort wherever possible. Honestly, the response was a sight to see and something I’m not likely to ever forget.

And all this in a town of little more than 50,000 people, far away from any real centre of political power or commerce in America. One shudders to think what might have happened if the Grenfell Tower fire had taken place somewhere further from the beating heart of our own democracy, perhaps in Sheffield or Newcastle or Glasgow.

In some ways, perhaps, the response might have been better – with fewer local resources to be brought to bear on the challenge, more may have been sent by other regions and leaders may not have been so quick to assume that somebody else was taking charge. Equally, the Grenfell Tower response may have suffered because people assumed that being in London, the logistical and welfare planning would take care of itself.

Ironically, the government’s own document – “Emergency Response and Recovery: Non statutory guidance accompanying the Civil Contingencies Act 2004” – discusses at length the importance of this phase. They even give us this helpful Venn diagram:

Civil Contingencies - Disaster Recovery - Grenfell Tower

 

There is no lack of consideration given to all of the aspects on which a proper Disaster Recovery plan should touch – see page 83 onwards in the report.

But the guidelines also go on to give these instructions:

5.2.1. The local authority is the agency responsible for planning for the recovery of the community following any major emergency, supported by other local partners via the Local Resilience Forums (LRF). In most cases, it will be sensible for top tier local authorities to lead but all local authorities and Category 1 responders should input. If there is more than one top tier local authority in the LRF, they should work together to co-ordinate recovery planning.

5.2.2. Following an emergency, the local authority will usually co-ordinate the multi-agency recovery process, including by chairing and providing the secretariat for the RCG, with support from the full range of multi-agency partners as necessary.

5.4.1. Activation of the Recovery Co-ordinating Group (RCG) is initiated by the local authority, usually following a request by / agreement with the Strategic Co-ordinating Group (SCG). An important part of the work of the RCG during the response phase of an emergency is to develop a recovery strategy (see paragraph 5.4.4) and inform the SCG of this strategy to ensure decisions made by the SCG do not compromise medium to long term recovery.

So the local authority – in the case of Grenfell Tower that would be London’s Kensington & Chelsea borough council – is nominally responsible for the “recovery of the community”, yet was partly cut out the direct interface between national government and the emergency services (through the Gold Command structure) when regional government offices were disbanded following the Coalition reviews.

To make things even more confusing, this document was produced by a group called the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, established in 2001 as a department of the Cabinet Office tasked with overseeing emergency planning in the UK. And we learn from the Metro newspaper that in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, Police and Fire Minister Nick Hurd “chaired a meeting of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat” to “coordinate the response to the disaster”.

So who was really in charge of the disaster relief response effort? Nick Hurd, in his role as chair of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat meeting following the fire? Katharine Hammond, director of the CCS since 2016? Theresa May, for ordering that the CCS convene in the first place? Kensington & Chelsea borough council, in accordance with the leadership role assigned by the CCS’s own guidelines, published in 2005 and updated in 2013? Central government, in its role as the “platinum” COBR level sitting above the Gold-Silver-Bronze command structure? Piers Morgan? Bigfoot?

It seems that we have protocols in place that are not worth the paper they are printed on – guidelines which foresaw a potential role for local Tourist Boards and even English Heritage in disaster recovery protocols, and yet failed to anticipate the degree to which the Grenfell Tower survivors and bereaved relatives of the victims would come to rely on the Red Cross and an army of disorganised but good-hearted independent volunteers to pick up the government’s dropped ball.

If the British Red Cross (rather than local government) is to be called upon to take operational control of the recovery process following any disaster with significant humanitarian implications then this should be clearly specified and written down in procedures, both to avoid confusion and duplication of effort but also to give the Red Cross a fighting chance of being ready to step into this role in the many various potential emergency scenarios tracked by the government.

In many ways, this would be a brilliant and quintessentially conservative solution – rather than forcing the state to duplicate services and expertise already provided by the charitable sector, instead we formalise their role and integrate them more tightly into our national emergency planning protocols. Rather than seeing the horrific Grenfell Tower disaster as an opportunity to expand the boundaries and competencies of the state even further, instead we formally recognise that voluntary organisations are best equipped to translate a huge and overwhelmingly generous public response into meaningful assistance for disaster victims.

But even if we don’t adopt this approach – even if we create a new government Disaster Recovery Agency to do the same job – at this point we just need to make sure that somebody, anybody is clearly given ownership of this phase of the emergency response process, as well as the authority and resources required to do the job.

Ultimately, it should not have taken the national government five days to recognise that our existing disaster recovery processes – in this case, seemingly half-heartedly managed by a local council whose role in the process was made murkier, not clearer, by recent guidelines – are inadequate to even a medium-sized incident in the heart of our capital city.

The Grenfell Tower fire had exposed serious failures, not just of political leadership (which this blog has covered extensively here, here and here) but crucially of planning and organisation. And we do not live in the kind of quiet, uneventful era where such government confusion and incoherence, broadcast to the entire world on television and the internet, can be permitted to continue.

This is a national security issue as much as an humanitarian one. And the worrying gaps in our civil contingencies protocol must be filled, quickly.

 

UPDATE: 21 June (15:55)

In her Commons speech following the Queen’s Speech, Theresa May finally acknowledged some of these failings:

 

The prime minister also stated that in addition to the judge-led inquiry the government would also consider implementing a Civil Disaster Response Taskforce to look at how disaster recovery processes can be strengthened and improved.

From Hansard (my emphasis in bold):

I would also like to say a few words about the disaster at Grenfell Tower. The whole country was heartbroken by the horrific loss of life and the utter devastation that we have seen. I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to the friends and families of all those who lost loved ones. Today, we also think of those who survived but lost everything. One lady I met ran from the fire wearing no more than a T-shirt and a pair of knickers. She had lost absolutely everything.

Let me be absolutely clear. The support on the ground for families in the initial hours was not good enough. People were left without belongings, without a roof over their heads, and without even basic information about what had happened, what they should do and where they could seek help. That was a failure of the state—local and national—to help people when they needed it most. As Prime Minister, I apologise for that failure and, as Prime Minister, I have taken responsibility for doing what we can to put things right. That is why each family whose home was destroyed is receiving a down payment from the emergency fund so that they can buy food, clothes and other essentials, and all those who have lost their homes will be rehoused within three weeks.

There will also be an independent public inquiry, chaired by a judge, to get to the truth about what happened and who was responsible, and to provide justice for the victims and their families who suffered so terribly. All those with an interest, including survivors and victims’ families, will be consulted about the terms of reference, and those affected will have their legal costs paid. Because it is clear that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has not been able to cope with the scale of the tragedy, we will also develop a new strategy for resilience in major disasters, which could include a new civil disaster response taskforce that can help at times of emergency. We must learn some of the lessons of this and previous disasters when bereaved families have not had the support they need.

Good. This is exactly what needs to happen – a thorough review of the way that Britain’s emergency services, voluntary organisations and different layers of government respond to the aftermath of any incident with humanitarian implications.

This blog’s concern would be that Theresa May’s instinct for authoritarianism and centralisation makes it more likely that we will see an entirely new agency created as an outcome of this review, paralleling much of the work already done by voluntary and charitable organisations such as the Red Cross. We should actively guard against this approach during the Taskforce once it is established.

But duplication of effort and concerns over the size and scope of the state must take a back seat to public safety. First and foremost, local and national government should be empowered to keep the people safe and provide for their welfare in the event of disaster through the application of clear and realistic protocols. Following the Grenfell Tower fire, these protocols were found wanting. Hopefully now we will take the action needed to make them fit for purpose.

 

Grenfell Tower fire - disaster relief - Red Cross - 3

Top Image: British Red Cross

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People Don’t Want Theresa May To Emote, They Just Want Her To Lead

Theresa May - Grenfell Tower fire - London Fire Brigade

Not the “Princess Diana Effect”

Sadly, Brendan O’Neill has jumped on the Theresa May apologist bandwagon, mocking the prime minister’s critics for supposedly demanding that she “perform” for us, wearing her emotions on her sleeve as she weeps with the survivors and bereaved relatives of the Grenfell Tower fire victims.

Apparently by criticising the prime minister’s slow, tone-deaf response to the tragedy and its aftermath we are behaving like a baying mob seeking emotional catharsis rather than concerned citizens with legitimate fears about the quality of leadership that Theresa May is providing. But this is to misunderstand the nature of the public anger directed at the prime minister, and assumes that the hard left socialist agitators who shout the loudest are somehow representative of all of May’s critics. They are not.

O’Neill writes:

Do people want Theresa May to weep in public? Allow herself to be pelted with rotten fruit? Make herself available for cries of “murderer” even though it’s ridiculous for her to be accused of murder? What if it isn’t in her nature to show her feelings to strangers — should she still do it? For the good of the nation? I’m finding this climate of emotional retribution quite ugly, I must say. The public’s urgent questions and anger over Grenfell are being channelled by some into a narrow, cartoonish anti-Toryism designed to hurt May and help Labour. To refight the General Election on the ruins of this building strikes me as a far more callous thing than May’s inability to emote for the cameras.

Ross Clark jumps to the same baseless and rather condescending conclusion (those silly plebs want to see emotion, but we enlightened people are above such base considerations as whether or not the prime minister can act like a real leader in public) over at the Spectator:

If she still hasn’t got the message, it is this:  you are expected, Mrs May, to go and blub before the cameras. You are expected to hug, to hold and say that you share everyone’s pain, that you will not rest until you can make sure that tragedies like this will never, ever be allowed to happen again. That you might have been working behind the scenes since Wednesday on an appropriate regulatory response to follow the disaster counts for nothing at all; it is just tears, please.

The idea that Theresa May is some kind of heartless creature who has not been affected by the Grenfell disaster is absurd. I have never met her, but it is quite clear from the look in her face that she is she is as shocked by the whole thing as we all are, one or two psychopaths aside. It is just that she has a very English facet of character which, until a couple of generations ago, was seen as an asset: she has an aversion to showing emotion in public.  

As a public figure in modern Britain, however, this will no longer do. What used to be called a stiff upper lip is now seen as fault, if not a disability which requires treatment. The new rules of emotional correctness demand not just that you care but that you can cry with the people.

This is asinine. I don’t think that any sane critic of Theresa May wants the prime minister to “weep in public” or “blub before the cameras”. That’s not what this is about. The problem is not Theresa May’s failure to behave like the most unhinged of Princess Diana mourners and rend her garments in front of the television cameras. The problem is her complete and utter failure to lead, at least according to any modern definition of leadership in the age of television and social media.

Would Theresa May have been subjected to angry, painful and politically awkward scenes had she gone to meet the survivors and volunteer disaster relief workers in public, the day following the fire? Of course. But as a leader, you suck it up. Even if the people heckle, you show up and let the victims of Britain’s worst fire since the Second World War know that their plight and their concerns are receiving the direct and personal attention of the head of government.

It isn’t that a prime ministerial visit would make much of a tangible difference to the relief efforts. But the visual would have been very powerful, and that counts for a lot when it comes to public sentiment. I wrote the other day of examples of politicians in America mucking in and helping with disaster recovery efforts as a means of showing solidarity and giving the appearance of engagement. Neglecting to do so, and then only relenting a day later and agreeing to meet the affected people in tightly controlled circumstances, away from the television cameras, is a failure of leadership plain and simple.

That’s why Theresa May has to go. Either she doesn’t realise that her behaviour has consistently fallen short of the standards expected of a 21st century leader, or she does realise but is incapable of improving her performance. And unfortunately, Brendan O’Neill has conflated his justified distaste with the way that left-wing agitators from Jeremy Corbyn on downwards have sought to exploit the tragedy for political gain with the erroneous idea that Theresa May’s lacklustre response to the crisis (and leadership in general) should therefore be immune from criticism. It shouldn’t.

Is there a cartoonish anti-Tory sentiment out there? Absolutely. I have been writing about it and criticising the left’s reduction of conservatives to two-dimensional cartoon villains more or less constantly since I started this blog in 2012. And are many of the hysterical accusations being hurled at Theresa May completely outlandish and hysterical? Yes, of course they are. But Theresa May has also opened herself to vociferous and fully justified criticism thanks entirely to her astonishing failure to lead or carry out the basic entry-level requirements of a modern head of government.

This is not the same as demanding that Theresa May “performs” or emotes for us, or leads us in some kind of cathartic national therapy session. This is about demanding that the prime minister either steps up and acts like a leader, or quits the field so that somebody else can do the job.

As a country we are drifting at the present time, and Theresa May bears the overwhelming share of responsibility for this fact. Acknowledging this fact and holding the prime minister to account for her repeated abdication of leadership does not mean validating the separate, cynical attacks of the hard left.

On the contrary, it is our duty to demand strong and effective leadership, and to refuse to settle for Theresa May’s pitiful approximation of the same.

 

Theresa May - Downing Street

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More Concerns About the Grenfell Tower Fire Response

grenfell Tower fire donations - coordination effort

The public response to the Grenfell Tower inferno has been astonishing, but the coordination of relief efforts on the ground has been worryingly inconsistent. America learned important lessons after Hurricane Katrina. We now need to learn some of those same lessons.

Three days after the awful fire which destroyed Grenfell Tower, made hundreds of families homeless and resulted in a death toll which may creep up to three figures, there are alarming signs that some of the problems with coordination and delivery of disaster relief efforts that I previously worried about on this blog have still not been resolved.

The Daily Telegraph’s live blog gives a stark account:

A number of residents left homeless by the Grenfell Tower fire have not even been given a toothbrush despite the volume of items donated following the tragedy, a pastor has claimed.

Derrick Wilson, from the Tabernacle Christian Centre, one of the many which collected donations after Wednesday’s disaster, said he had heard harrowing stories of people still without aid.

Mr Wilson criticised a lack of co-ordination from the council and said his team had been forced to deliver items directly to those affected.

He said that volunteers found around 60 residents, evacuated from the block to accommodation in Earl’s Court, who still had nothing.

The 53-year-old said: “We have just heard some harrowing stories because of the lack of co-ordination.

“We sent out people to find out where these residents are and at Earl’s Court we just found out a number of residents had not received even a toothbrush. They are very angry but they are not really saying much.”

He added: “Some of them, they haven’t received anything, they haven’t got any money.

“They are only being given bed, breakfast and dinner – nothing in between. So what we are doing now is setting up everything from here.”

Mr Wilson said: “There is just confusion, the council doesn’t know what they are doing. We are afraid that these things would be taken away and just dumped, stored…”

This was worrying on Day 1, alarming on Day 2 and is now frankly inexcusable on Day 3. It is rapidly becoming evident that there is no carefully thought-out master plan for how to respond to the aftermath of an incident of mass destruction, that critical phase when the immediate crisis is brought under control but the people affected by it are most in need of assistance.

Three days after the disaster, survivors are being sheltered in a dispersed assortment of churches, mosques and community centres, and the bountiful aid so generously provided by members of the public is clearly not reaching everybody in need. Rather than hearing harrowing stories about the fire, we are now also hearing “harrowing” stories about the impact on survivors of the uncoordinated emergency relief response. Something isn’t working properly.

Hammersmith & Fulham councillor Joe Carlebach, who went to assist with the relief efforts as a volunteer, gives an even more concerning account over at Conservative Home:

There were a small group of young volunteers with mega phones doing their best to organise huge numbers of volunteers to sort and box mountains of food, drink, clothes, toiletries, and toys. What they lacked in management and organisational experience they made up for with dedication, commitment and raw emotion.

I set to work helping form human chains (and being part of the chain myself) for the sorted goods to be moved quickly to the road side waiting for transport for. I met a great variety of people, not just from London but all over the country. They all came with one thing in mind – to do what ever they could to help.

I talked to members of a mosque from North London, a businessman who owned a chauffeur business in Sutton, a prison officer, a Sainsbury’s check out assistant, a taxi driver form Ealing… I could go on, but I think the theme is clear.

There was a significant amount of confusion around where the sorted goods should go to be stored and what transport there was available to help move it. I made several calls to local businesses in an attempt to get trucks and vans to come to site and collect the aid and many, including Olympia Plc, responded quickly and sent several vans (at short notice) to help.

Whilst there was an overwhelming feeling of goodwill for the emergency services, and a wonderful spirit of community pervasive throughout the area where I worked, there was also a growing feeling of anger. At this point it was not directed at the cause of the fire or even at who was responsible, though I dare say that will come in time. It was focused on: where was the help that many had been expecting with the relief effort?

Where were the soldiers to help with the transport of aid? Why were families left on their own to undertake the heartbreaking task of searching the hospitals for missing loved ones? If ever there was a time for a show of force by the authorities, this would be it.

Yes. Where was/is the coordination, the people who bring real organisational skills and have experience in disaster relief to situations such as this? And why did nobody consider calling in the Army Reserve, as other countries frequently do to assist with the logistical aspect? Just because the Grenfell Tower disaster took place in an urban rather than a rural setting does not mean that logistics and transport will take care of themselves. It’s great that proactive councillor from a neighbouring borough had the foresight to call local businesses to request support, but why was this not already being done?

More:

It also has to be said that the visit of many politicians to the site with no tangible results in terms of assistance did not help. It seemed they came to look, not to assist. These are not my words but those of many I spoke to.

Yes. I wrote about this the other day. While senior politicians mucking in to actually help with the recovery process might not make any great physical difference in the grand scheme of things, the visual is powerful and the image projected is one of a political class who actually care rather than one which is alternately terrified of the people and eager to use their suffering as the backdrop for a round of cynical, party political point-scoring.

The examples I gave:

Consider US Vice President Mike Pence and Missouri Governor Eric Greitens actively mucking in and helping to sweep up damage caused by vandalism at a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis. Or consider Governor Greg Abbott of Texas, who despite suffering third degree burns from an accident while on vacation still managed to leave the hospital and travel to Dallas to show solidarity and leadership after five city police officers were shot and killed in an ambush.

Do such gestures make an actual practical difference to disaster responses? Not really. But they are highly symbolic and can make a huge psychological difference. Pictures speak volumes, as any leader worth their salt knows.

Turning up and pitching in to help out is basic Leadership 101 in the United States. Apparently our more aloof senior politicians in Britain have not yet received the message.

The Huffington Post then gives this account of Theresa May’s latest cringeworthy television interview, this time with BBC Newsnight:

After fleeing Kensington, she struggled in a BBC Newsnight interview that was meant to focus on the £5 million aid package for the fire’s victims.

After May described what victims had told her, Emily Maitlis said people needed to hear her say: “Something has gone badly wrong. It is our fault. We acknowledge that and accept responsibility.”

“Something awful has happened,” May began. “This is an absolutely awful fire that has taken place.”

Maitlis interrupted to ask whether she would admit she misread the public mood by not going to visit the victims until now.

May answered that she had worked to “ensure the emergency services have the support they need”.

Maitlis told the prime minister: “But that’s three days on prime minister. This is Friday evening. They needed those things in place on Wednesday.”

The presenter described the support efforts for people made homeless by the fire as “chaos”, adding: “No one was in charge.”

May’s answer focussed on the £5 million: “What I have done today is ensured that, we, as a Government, are putting that funding in place for people in the area.”

Ignoring Maitlis’ questions about how victims would get the money, May said: “This has been absolutely terrifying experience for people.”

Again, put aside the mounting evidence of Theresa May’s robotic ineptitude and inability to command the situation – I have written extensively about the prime minister’s inexcusable failures of leadership, here and here.

No, what’s most concerning here is interviewer Emily Maitlis’ assertion that three days on from the fire, there is still a lag in getting the emergency services and aid volunteers the support that they need. Nor does there seem to be any kind of mechanism in place for disbursing the £5million aid package announced by the government, or a clear idea of how the money will be targeted to do the most good.

Instead, it seems as though the government is willing to make sweeping general pledges but then throw the ball to others when it comes to delivering on them:

 

All sensible measures, but it is one thing to draw up a list of promises in Downing Street and quite another to translate that list into tangible action on the ground. And it is still far from clear how these pledges will be delivered, or who will deliver them.

As I made clear in my previous pieces, to point out these various failures is in no way an attack on those goodhearted people who are freely giving of their time, money and resources to help the survivors and the bereaved, and do as much as possible to reduce their suffering. With the exception of the prime minister, the failure is systemic, not personal.

The community spirit and public generosity on display since the awful fire took place have been gratifying to witness. But it is not enough to praise the London spirit and take satisfaction in a job well done. In some cases and in some aspects the job is not being done well, not due to lack of effort but due to lack of advance planning for disasters and an uncoordinated response.

I wrote the other day about how much more organised and proactive aid efforts often tend to be in America, which may be counter-intuitive to many readers who have recently heard lots of smug, politically motivated comparisons of Theresa May’s ineptitude with former President George W. Bush’s failure to get to grips with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

But since that awful failure of the federal government, improvements and changes have been made. When I witnessed disaster recovery efforts up close, in response to a huge deadly tornado in the Mid-West, they were a well-oiled machine:

I happened to be living in the American Mid-West when a huge tornado ripped through the town of Joplin, Missouri back in May 2011, killing 158 people and levelling entire neighbourhoods. Driving into town a few days later, it looked for all the world as though an atomic bomb had gone off. Whole blocks of houses were reduced to matchsticks. Big box retail stores had been blasted away so that only their steel frames remained standing. Even big, solid buildings like churches and a concrete-constructed hospital were damaged beyond the point of repair.

And yet within almost no time, there was real organised and disciplined aid on the ground, delivering help and comfort to people who needed it. Charities like the American Red Cross and Samaritan’s Purse sent convoys of trucks with aid and facilities such as washing machines and tumble driers so that people suddenly made homeless could do their laundry. Medical trucks administered tetanus shots to people, like me, who mucked in to assist with some of the repairs. The insurance companies sent mobile offices on the back of trucks to process damage claims. Churches organised the making and delivering of meals to those who needed them. And crucially, mobile command centres helped to coordinate the response, so that the appropriate help reached people who needed it while avoiding duplication of effort wherever possible. Honestly, the response was a sight to see and something I’m not likely to ever forget.

We need to learn some of those lessons and apply some of this best practice here in Britain. The disaster relief aspect in particular is certainly not a party political issue, but it is a vitally important issue in terms of social cohesion and even national security. We need to get this stuff right, and we need to make sure that better plans are in place to deal with future incidents, especially if – God forbid – there is a larger scale humanitarian disaster, perhaps resulting from a terrorist attack.

The problem seems to be the failure of any one involved party to take ultimate ownership of the relief effort. National government is partially paralysed following the indecisive general election, and in any case is led by a prime minister whose leadership skills seem to have gone entirely AWOL. Furthermore, Westminster seems to have no grand plan or desire to lead the effort, preferring instead to pledge a sum of cash and leave it for others to work out how best to put it to use.

Local government is similarly ineffective, as numerous eyewitness accounts have now now shown. And the slower Kensington & Chelsea council are to respond, the angrier people get (as we saw with today’s storming of the town hall by protesters), which then makes the council even more defensive and prone to error, a negative spiral which is now already well underway.

That leaves the charities, community organisations and private individuals who have borne the brunt of the effort and gone above and beyond the call of duty, but who do not necessarily have the organisational expertise to coordinate a disaster relief effort on this scale. Very specific skillsets are needed to manage a situation such as this, including logistical knowledge, communications expertise, public health guidance as well as legal, housing and insurance advice.

Charities can only hope to coordinate all of these tasks adequately if they know that they are explicitly expected to do so upfront and given the resources to do their work. Local government would seem to be a much more natural fit for these responsibilities, but government is so centralised in Britain that local authorities would struggle to maintain any kind of readiness given their reliance on (squeezed) funding from central government and inability to raise taxes of their own. And even if the funding was there, it seems increasingly evident that there are no longer any real civil contingency plans to speak of. Perhaps they were all considered obsolete and scrapped when the Cold War came to a close and history “ended”.

The net result is that Britain’s current civil contingency plans for a medium-sized disaster like the Grenfell Tower inferno seems to be “make it up as we go along” mixed with “muddle through and hope for the best”. This isn’t really good enough, but neither is it likely to change so long as ultimate responsibility for coordinating disaster response efforts falls down the gaps between national government, local authorities and the charity sector.

As the official public inquiry into the fire grinds on and answers are sought as to how such a grievous lapse in fire safety could have been tolerated, we should also spend some time conducting a post-mortem investigation of the disaster recovery effort. It is likely to show an amazing outpouring of financial and tangible assistance which sadly were not put to their best immediate use because nobody in Britain plans for the nightmare scenario anymore, and nobody is ultimately responsible for standing ready to execute against the plan even if one existed.

Yes, there are lots of lessons to be learned from this scandalous fire and its aftermath. And they are far too important to become fodder for some party political blame game.

 

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The Grenfell Tower Fire, Labour’s Cynicism And Theresa May’s Abdication Of Leadership

Tower block fire in London

By seeking to overtly politicise the Grenfell Tower tragedy, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party have overplayed their hand. But far-left protests and anti-Tory incitement must not excuse Theresa May’s unforgivable failure to exercise basic leadership skills

There is a bizarre new defence of Theresa May’s response to the Grenfell Tower fire doing the rounds, in which some people are claiming that public anger at the prime minister’s refusal to publicly meet with survivors and grieving relatives of the victims is somehow comparable to the way that the British people lost their collective cool over the death of princess Diana, demanding more and more conspicuous displays of emotion from politicians and the Royal Family.

Here’s Guardian, New Statesman and Spectator writer Stephen Poole scoffing at those who were angry at the prime minister’s aloofness:

 

Others have contrasted the prime minister’s cowardly behaviour (and her risible excuse that “security concerns” prevented her from meeting the victims) with the fact that the Queen managed to put in an appearance together with Prince William, to meet the people and offer some consolation.

Here’s the BBC making that very point, gleefully contrasting the Queen’s behaviour to that of Theresa May:

Mistakes that have included the significant time that elapsed before the Queen visited the site of the Aberfan disaster in the 1960s and the “Show us you care” newspaper headlines that were printed 20 years ago, in the days following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

As Theresa May is learning to her cost, it is a tragedy with a growing political dimension. There is a howl of pain and anger being directed at an establishment which has the royals at its heart.

There’s the talk of the divide between rich and poor. The Queen’s grandson is a millionaire prince living in a palace in the same borough as Grenfell Tower.

In coming to the site, the Queen was acting as “head of the nation” – a focal point at a moment of considerable pain. She was also providing her prime minister with a masterclass in how to respond on such occasions.

I think it needs to be made clear that Theresa May’s critics are not demanding that the prime minister engage in some kind of performative emotional labour on our behalf, or to be principal therapist to the nation. This is not like the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death twenty years ago, when there were virtually Grief Police on the streets making sure that everybody was appropriately sombre and baying crowds gathered outside Buckingham Palace until the Queen showed up to personally examine the mountains of flowers.

On the contrary, May’s critics are simply expecting the prime minister of the United Kingdom to show some basic emotional intelligence and political common sense. They rightly expect Theresa May to display fundamental leadership skills instead of skulking fearfully in 10 Downing Street, terrified at the prospect of a negative interaction with members of the public.

Sadiq Khan managed to go on a walkabout and meet rescue workers and victims, and he was willing to endure heckling and visible public anger in the process. Why can the prime minister of this country not do the same, in the face of what may prove to be the most deadly fire since the Second World War? Yes, people would have shouted at her and emotions would have been very raw. But you know what? As leader of the country you stand there and you take it. You absorb the hate and you try to deliver a message of condolence, solidarity and action, even if the public anger makes it almost impossible to get your message across and the whole thing makes for awful TV. That’s just what you do.

Can anybody seriously imagine Margaret Thatcher, John Major or Tony Blair not having met personally with the Grenfell Tower fire victims were they in office at the time? Gordon Brown had the personality and empathy of a tree stump and he would have suffered through the indignity in order to show solidarity with people who are suffering something far worse than an awkward political situation.

David Cameron would have rolled his sleeves up, put his Wellington boots on and showed up to help, and probably ordered most of his Cabinet to do the same. And yet Theresa May thinks it is acceptable to sweep in by motorcade, confer briefly with the emergency services, avoid the victims altogether and then dash back to Downing Street without acknowledging the volunteers or the survivors, choosing instead to give a sterilised TV interview from back inside Downing Street.

This is Leadership 101, people. I am starting to think that there may be something physically or mentally wrong with the prime minister at this point – the utter collapse of her authority, the inability to regain her political footing, her unbridled terror and fear of any interaction with the public and her seeming unwillingness to do the basic things which are expected of the office of Prime Minister are getting mighty hard to explain away due to a mere confluence of unfortunate events or simple “bad luck”.

Obviously one should refrain from attempting to make any kind of remote diagnosis, but if the prime minister is having some kind of breakdown or stress-induced episode then she needs to resign immediately for the good of the country. And if she isn’t, then she is quite simply the worst leader Britain has suffered in nearly forty years, and she needs to resign immediately for the good of the country.

(The prime minister finally – partially – acquiesced and made a highly controlled and sterilised visit to some of the victims and volunteers this afternoon. At this point, entirely due to her own lack of leadership, public rage had reached such a boiling point that she was heckled, called a coward and her motorcade was chased down the road by angry protesters as she departed).

It is bad enough that through her inept leadership and lack of political vision, Theresa May has allowed 1970s-style Corbynite socialism to regain not just a footing in our political discourse but a very real shot at entering government and taking power. It is bad enough that the prime minister and her team prosecuted such a feeble, uninspiring general election campaign. But now Theresa May has compounded these errors by hiding away in the face of one of the worst peacetime disasters to befall modern Britain, and worse still she ceded the role of Healer in Chief to the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn.

That’s not to say that Corbyn is suddenly a saint. Far from it. The Labour leader has done everything he can to make a party political fight over something that should have united all politicians with the determination to identify the root causes of the Grenfell Tower fire and take whatever action is needed to prevent a recurrence. He has come perilously close to blaming the Evil Tories for the whole affair, which naturally has encouraged his acolytes to make that very accusation, as though Theresa May had personally ordered that the building be doused with accelerant and set ablaze. Just because this is a scandal does not mean that blood is on the prime minister’s hands.

At this point we need to keep two distinct and non-contradictory ideas in our head at the same time. Yes, Theresa May has displayed atrocious leadership skills, even by her own dismal standards, and has utterly failed to carry out the basic public duties one would expect of any other prime minister. But this does not mean that May or the Tories are culpable for the fire, or that “blood is on their hands”. This is a simplistic and reductionist take on the situation, born from the idiotic left-wing conceit that all conservatives are two-dimensional cartoon villains who actively want to harm the poor.

Therefore we should be able to condemn Theresa May in the strongest possible terms for her failures of leadership, while also condemning Jeremy Corbyn’s opportunistic scapegoating of the Conservatives as the villains responsible for the Grenfell Tower inferno. The two facts are complementary, not mutually exclusive. But ultimately, Jeremy Corbyn is simply being opportunistic as leaders of the opposition sometimes have to be. Theresa May, by contrast, has been doing everything that a prime minister should not do, and there is nobody else to blame but her.

This is not about expecting some kind of emotional performance from the prime minister. This is about expecting Theresa May to show the kind of basic leadership skills that would be expected of a small town mayor, never mind the prime minister of one of the most powerful and influential countries in the world. Theresa May couldn’t get the general election right. She can’t get the government’s Brexit approach right. She can’t even make policies consistent with her own party’s worldview or successfully articulate that vision to voters. And now she has proven herself incapable of showing basic humanity in response to a dreadful disaster.

At some point, one has to acknowledge that the game is up. Theresa May’s premiership is not going to get any better, it is not going to recover, it is not going to find stability, and every day that it is allowed to limp on, the country suffers from a lack of basic competent leadership. I don’t know whether there is some extraneous reason which has prompted Theresa May’s sudden political self-destruction, but at this point, from the perspective of what the country needs, that doesn’t matter. She needs to go, now.

This is not about expecting Theresa May to jump through emotional hoops in order to provide catharsis for a shocked nation. This is about expecting and demanding basic competence from our political leaders.

Who in the Conservative Party will step up, acknowledge that we are now drifting under the non-leadership of somebody who has proven to be completely out of her depth – in office but not in power – and force a leadership challenge?

 

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