Council leader pledges ‘new era of resident safety’ in wake of Chalcots crisis
Georgia Gould says things went wrong locally but fire safety problems are result of 'national, systemic issues'
06 July, 2017 — By Richard Osley
Georgia Gould at the Local Government Association conference
TOWN Hall leader Georgia Gould said “national, systemic issues” had led to the fire safety crisis in council housing – but it was up to Camden to help bring in a “new era of resident safety”.
She was speaking as she announced that she expected some tenants to be allowed to return to their homes on the Chalcots estate at the end of next week, although others may have to wait longer to go back to their flats.
Unveiling a series of immediate measures, she said the council would:
– appoint a new “director for resident safety”;
– publish an “enhanced fire check” of every council block in Camden;
– train tenants on fire safety.
She has also pledged to make available past fire risk assessments at the Chalcots, the summary of which was revealed in the New Journal last week. Cllr Gould was speaking during her first major speech as leader to a full council meeting on Monday night.
Privately, Labour Party colleagues said the to-do list she had prescribed for the council and bold promises about working to change national attitudes had created an instant checklist of how her leadership of Camden Council would be judged in years to come. It is accepted among many councillors that, although she has only been in charge for seven weeks, a tragic and extraordinary sequence of events has left her facing head-on the biggest challenge faced by a Camden Council leader in recent memory.
“The events of the last week raise a number of major issues around fire safety, building regulation and around Chalcots PFI contract,” she told the meeting. “I never want our residents to have to go through something like this again. And I believe the people of the Chalcots estate deserve answers. As do the hundreds of thousands of residents living in blocks with potentially unsafe cladding around the country.”
She added: “There have clearly been national, systemic issues and I want Camden to lead the way in carving out a new era of resident safety. As soon as we have people safely back in their homes we will plan an independent review which will transparently address the major issues.”
All-member meetings at the Town Hall are often played out with political jousting and occasional heckling. But on Monday, councillors thanked each other for their volunteer work at the evacuation rest centre, which ran at the Swiss Cottage Leisure Centre for six nights, and stood in silence for two minutes for the victims of the Grenfell tower disaster and recent terrorist attacks.
“It should never have taken Grenfell to raise these concerns and we collectively have a duty to make sure that something like this never happens again,” Cllr Gould said. “We stand ready to add our independent review to the national conversation.”
While the meeting was without its normal political edge, both Labour and Conservative members have separate concerns about whether the fire safety crisis is being politicised. Labour members were angry last week when local government secretary Sajid Javid said Camden was “missing” 1,000 fire doors on the Chalcots, the word “missing” being disputed. Speaking at the Local Government Association annual conference on Monday, he angered Labour councillors again by drawing Camden into a discussion on how Kensington – where the council leader and chief executive have resigned – had responded.
“There have been failures in successive governments of different political colours in both national and local government,” he said to a question from the floor. “You mention Kensington, we’ve seen what’s happened in Camden in recent days as well.”
Cllr Gould was in the audience and responded by challenging the government to work with Camden. “I’ve been incredibly proud of how councillors of all parties in my borough have stood shoulder to shoulder with residents to respond to a very distressing week,” she said. Mr Javid said he had “nothing but admiration” for how tenants had responded, and said the evacuation had been done “in the best way possible”.
Local Tories say they will not be accused of politicising the crisis while some national Labour figures have directly blamed the horrific scenes at Grenfell on the Conservatives.