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.

 

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Top Image: British Red Cross

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The Grenfell Tower Inferno – Shortcomings At Every Level

Grenfell Tower fire inferno

The deadly inferno at the Grenfell Tower apartment building revealed more systemic and political failures than those relating purely to fire safety

I woke up early on Wednesday morning with the television still playing, the BBC News Channel showing a long shot of a burning tower block with a plume of smoke drifting away across the skyline. It looked like a miniature version of 9/11. Then came the close-up shots taken overnight as the inferno raged, the entire exterior of the building in flames, with people still clearly trapped in their apartments. It was a vision of hell.

This disaster – aptly described as “Dickensian” by Brendan O’Neill – has clearly exposed huge safety concerns when it comes to building codes and fire regulations, particularly with the type of external cladding which has increasingly been widely used to soften the harsh edges of 1960s Brutalist concrete architecture in towns and cities across Britain. I have often remarked to my wife how much nicer the serried ranks of tower blocks in nearby Swiss Cottage look with their new exterior cladding – one can only imagine the trepidation that their occupants must be feeling now, having seen Grenfell Tower burning like a torch.

Predictably, there was a rush to point fingers before the flames had even been extinguished. The Left is naturally running with the theme that the blood of the victims is on the hands of the Evil Tories, as though Theresa May had been secretly abseiling up and down the tower at nighttime, sloshing accelerant across the surface of the building before the blaze. This is deeply unhelpful. Clearly some calamitous decisions and errors have been made, and it may well be the case that criminal liability comes into play. But making a partisan issue out of a mass casualty incident before any facts are known is cynical and wrong.

Brendan O’Neill is quite right when he says:

Such a staggering loss of life in West London, worse than we yet know, and all that observers can think to say in response is “Tory scum” and “We love Corbyn”. The gap between the largeness of this calamity and the smallness and self-interest of the political response to it is vast, and increasingly nauseating. It’s as if the General Election is being restaged on the smoking rubble. I cannot remember any other national tragedy being marshalled so quickly to the cause of petty party politics. It’s dreadful. London deserves a better discussion of this horror.

Pete North does a good job of stepping back and looking at the broader systemic issues rather than seeking to pin the blame on any one person:

So Grenfell Tower is going to be heavily politicised. It’s austerity, it’s private greed, it’s too much regulation, not enough regulation, Toories and blah blah blah.

Rather looks to me like it is a toxic combination of all of the above. The outer cladding is to do with meeting thermal requirements as set out in regulation, fireproof panels were stripped out to meet requirements on asbestos and corners have been cut all over the shop.

Ultimately the failure lies with the local inspectorate. They will blame “austerity” because that’s the convenient scapegoat but ultimately it’s negligence and bureaucratic indifference. The same factors we see in many other scandals involving local authorities.

I did see that a blogger had been threatened with libel for raising the alarm. The claims made were indelicate and probably did fall foul of defamation law, but ultimately the council, probably environmental health, have utterly failed to respond to the concerns of residents. The usual institutional lethargy and arse covering we saw in Rotherham. Anything but admit fault. Similar to my own experiences when trying to confront lawbreaking bailiffs.

This seems to be how things are. Only when there is an egregious failure do we see any real activity – and is soon brushed under the carpet as soon as the immediate risks and liabilities are covered. Then it’s just a matter of time til it happens again. I would say this is a sign of the times, but actually, I don’t ever recall a time when it was any different.

The incident has been described as an accident waiting to happen. I concur. Somebody somewhere is responsible and that person needs to go to jail. Until there are serious consequences for failure we can expect this will happen time and again. But then we say this every time, don’t we?

Ironically, many of those blaming the Evil Tories are likely the same people who patrol Twitter after a terrorist attack, calling out anybody who dares assume that the perpetrator is a Muslim extremist. People who counsel calm and urge others to suspend their judgment when it comes to Islamist terror but are happy to convict conservatives of murder without trial when there is a terrible fire have a truly warped moral code, and one can have no meaningful engagement with them.

Of course, Theresa May has once again been her own worst enemy. I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that Theresa May has simply lost whatever mojo she once had. It’s inexplicable and it happens in the blink of an eye, but sometimes a politician or leader can go from appearing vaguely competent to looking like an utter clown for no discernible outside reason. Why else would the prime minister tour the disaster site, speak to emergency service personnel but fail to publicly meet with residents? Why allow Jeremy Corbyn to become the nation’s de facto Healer in Chief and cement her own reputation as cold, aloof and unwilling to risk unscripted, difficult interactions with people suffering real hardship?

There is simply no recovering from the nadir to which Theresa May has sunk. Humiliated on the world stage having undercut her own authority by calling an election and then losing her majority, stripped of any real authority within her own party and unable to push forward with much of her own pitiful domestic agenda and still displaying the emotional intelligence and charisma of an old sock, this is just untenable.

The prime minister’s unravelling is as astonishing as it is appalling, and while none of her likely successors are remotely better in terms of policy, she nonetheless has to go. A 21st century democracy, particularly a major nation wishing to influence world affairs and defend widespread global interests, simply cannot be led through difficult times by a natural introvert halfway through a political self-destruct sequence.

May’s shameful failure to talk with and be filmed among the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire is just the latest example of the prime minister’s failure to “engage her humanity”, as Michael Portillo scathingly put it on television this evening. Sometimes as a leader you have to show up and just be among your people, even if many of them rather hate your guts.

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. And today’s most memorable pictures showed Jeremy Corbyn hugging sobbing survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire, while Theresa May’s motorcade briefly swept in so that she could stare at the charred building and confer with fire chiefs before whisking her back to Downing Street without the prime minister having to risk any difficult human interaction. The incompetence and cowardice from a basic leadership perspective is simply off the charts.

But the Grenfell Tower disaster has exposed potential issues with leadership not just at the national level, but at the local government and community level, too. From the reports I have seen on the news, together with the personal account of a friend who spent today volunteering at one of the community centres processing donations for the Grenfell Tower displaced families, it sounds as though the aid response – so well-intentioned and earnestly given – has nonetheless been worryingly disorganised at times.

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.

Some of this we have also seen take place in West London in response to the Grenfell Tower fire. Apparently more than £1 million has already been donated to various appeals and JustGiving sites, which is astonishing – as have been the number of donations of physical goods such as clothes, shoes and food.

But still it seems as though the coordination part is not yet fully in place. My friend noted that donations of clothes and toys were being collected but then sent haphazardly to different locations around the city, with no real understanding as to where the aid was most needed or where displaced families would end up. And volunteers arriving to help reported a lack of coordination at the various scattered sites – perhaps understandable, and certainly not a real impediment to mucking in and helping wherever there are obvious tasks to perform.

My friend spoke of volunteers who offered their own vans and trucks to the relief effort, but who ended up largely driving back and forth quite aimlessly, shuffling donated goods around the city with no sense of the broader plan, rather than transporting them in a coordinated way for sorting and redistribution. She spoke of fresh fruit and perishable food being delivered with no capacity to receive, store or refrigerate it. She spoke of people with significant social media followings successfully hitting up companies for funds and goods, which is fantastic – but begs the question of why the job of getting companies to donate phone chargers and other useful items was left to proactive individuals rather than being an integral part of a pre-written disaster response plan.

Accounts that I have heard suggest that overall ownership and accountability for the humanitarian response is falling down the cracks between national government, local government and the charities and community groups which are doing much of the delivery on the ground. Politically, this makes sense – nobody wants to have ultimate responsibility for emergency accommodation or the health and safety of evacuees, because there is only risk and no political upside. Kensington and Chelsea borough council have no desire to be the primary public face of the response, and nor does the Westminster government – particularly the weak government-in-flux that emerged from the general election. That leaves well-meaning community groups to do the hard work of coordination, for which they are perhaps not best suited, backed up by various charities.

Now compare this disorganisation to the scene at US airports when Donald Trump’s ill-considered travel ban saw hundreds of travellers refused entry or detained at the border. In that case, lawyers immediately descended upon airport arrivals halls and self-organised legal aid triage centres to help refugees, US visa holders and citizens who were being impacted by the policy. Any new lawyers arriving to lend their assistance were then quickly identified and routed to wherever they were needed most.

Now, one cannot directly compare the white collar effort of resisting/subverting a dubious immigration ban with the hard physical and logistical work required to address a disaster like the Grenfell Tower fire. But I think we can still learn something from the proactivity and coordination aspect which often seems much stronger in America, where the federal government is more remote and civic organisations are much more capable of stepping up quickly in times of need.

For the avoidance of doubt, this is not a criticism of anybody who is selflessly giving of their time and money to help people in need. The response from faith communities and civic groups has been heartwarming, just as it was after the heinous terror attacks in Manchester and London Bridge. But the wonderful London spirit alone is not always enough. That spirit needs to be coordinated and channelled in the right direction, to make the best possible use of the time, money and talents that people freely offer up in times of disaster.

If somebody has knowledge of housing or insurance law and can potentially help people find accommodation or deal with an insurance claim, for example, they shouldn’t be stuck filling boxes with donated toothpaste. Donations should be better coordinated and where possible, the official response needs to speak with one voice rather than through a multiplicity of separate Twitter accounts.

This is a tragedy, and in so many ways the disaster has brought out the best in the British people, with communities coming together to assist the survivors and numerous people donating their money and their time to the recovery process. But it has also exposed flaws, some of which (like Theresa May’s appalling leadership skills) we already knew about and others (like the organisation of relief efforts) which perhaps we did not.

Once again Theresa May proved herself to be a leaden, unresponsive prime minister without either the courage or emotional intelligence to lead the country. But it also seems as though the organisation of relief efforts on the ground has lacked coordination and struggled to fully leverage the amazing influx of aid and assistance. Again, this is in no way to criticise the individual efforts of anybody who is freely giving of their time and resources to help people beset by tragedy. But neither is it enough to mindlessly praise the strong community spirit, as if by rote, without asking questions as to whether the response could be better planned and coordinated, and whether this ad hoc approach would cope if there were an even larger scale disaster, or if the epicentre was somewhere else in the country, far away from the beating heart of central London.

It is a fact that we rely on the government to assist us and provide us with services more than would be the case in some other countries, particularly the United States. And to some extent we are entitled to demand a more comprehensive service – we certainly pay enough in taxes to expect government to be on call 24/7, even if bitter experience shows us that we will continue to receive RyanAir level service for an Emirates level fee. But has this general reliance on government eroded the ability of civil society to respond effectively to major domestic disasters, particularly at the all-important level of local coordination?

At present it feels a lot like this aspect is falling down the cracks between national government, local government and charities/community organisations. Somebody needs to take ultimate ownership. Perhaps this should be national government (through a new agency such as the United States’ FEMA), since Westminster already takes the vast bulk of our taxes and probably ought to show us something in return. Perhaps it should be local government – and certainly we generally should aim to be empowering local government more and more rather than perpetuate the overcentralisation of services in Britain. Or perhaps it should be charities, provided that they are organisationally capable of providing that coordination role.

We mourn the victims of the Grenfell Tower inferno and the suffering of their loved ones, of course we do. And we should refrain from partisan finger-pointing before the facts are known. Which makes this the perfect time to begin a sober discussion about the way we deal with the aftermath of major disasters, either terrorism-related or not (as in this case), so that we can do an even better job the next time that tragedy strikes.

We take it for granted that our emergency services and first responders will do a brave, heroic job, and they always do. But if there is room for improvement in the way we coordinate a response in the hours and days following such tragedies – the humanitarian aid and relief aspect – then we should not shy away from having those discussions.

 

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