Grenfell – one month on

Still not enough is being done to support the local community.

Newsnight on Thursday looked at the response so far in supporting the survivors, bereaved families and the local community after the Grenfell Tower disaster a month ago.

The programme reported on two harrowing cases of families affected by the fire. They spoke to a couple who had lost a pregnancy to what appears to be cyanide poisoning, and interviewed Nazanin Aklani who had lost her mother and aunt and was struggling to get any information at all about what had happened to them. She was incredibly brave to speak out about this on such an intimidating programme after such a terrible loss.

Mistrust in the area, exemplified by concerns over the official estimates for those dead and missing, was a huge theme. Earlier that day, Newnight’s presenter James O’Brien had hosted his LBC radio programme from a community centre in the area and spoke to several of the volunteers still working to support survivors and families and filling gaps left by the council and the official response team.

They told him they still felt abandoned, and he was clearly struck by the lack of organisation and evidence of council staff on the ground, which matches closely with what I have seen and heard. Watch O’Brien’s emotional summing up at the end of the programme here.

On Newsnight, I outlined these problems and called for more support for these volunteers, many of them part of ad hoc groups that sprang up simply to fill the needs of the community in the aftermath of the disaster:

In my second message to the emergency response team on 28 June (see my first here) I asked, among other issues raised by local people, for more support to go directly to these volunteer groups who were filling the gaps. I said:

“A number of other measures that the voluntary groups in the meeting wanted to provide, including translators and culturally appropriate counselling, are things that have been requested already from the official support operation. However, it was felt that it would be quicker and simpler and reach more people if the groups were able to commission this directly. Could funds be released to them, via a charity among the groups if needed, so that they can rapidly fill these gaps?”

Using a tiny amount of funding and lots of volunteer time to compile and translate official information, one group has now set up to start to fill this need, but there are still many vital documents not available except in English.

Survivor welfare work is being carried out and monitored by the same groups of volunteers who first staffed the relief centre and they are nearing exhaustion. This work includes helping homeless families apply for Government support, as well as the additional relief grants via the Evening Standard’s appeal (it appears many are not yet aware of these). ‘Key workers’ supplied by the council to do this one-to-one support seem to have been given too many cases each, and it looks like more resources are needed there too.

It’s hard to see why more of the money collected in the charity appeals run by both the Red Cross and the Evening Standard’s Dispossessed Fund couldn’t be used to plug these gaps and support these volunteer groups too.

Community grant schemes were set up on 1 July via London Funders and the John Lyons Charity, but these are mainly intended for the established charities in the area who have stepped up to help or put on extra services. According to the information here, the first of these grants were announced by London Funders on 6 July, with more on 13 July, and in total just £396,000 has been awarded – a tiny proportion of more than £20 million that has so far been donated. I think many who gave to these appeals assumed more would have been passed on to the people working on the ground to provide practical help.

This week at the council meeting in Kensington and Chelsea, there will be calls for the cabinet members responsible for all of this to resign from the council completely and spark by-elections. Meanwhile, the residents working so hard to support survivors, those who have yet to come forward and the wider community should be backed up with more and better resources for filling the gaps the council has left.

In Camden on Thursday we finally secured the publication of fire risk assessments for the blocks that have been evacuated after being found not only to have dangerous cladding but also deadly internal faults that led to the fire brigade calling for people to be moved out. I’ve written about why full transparency on fire safety across the borough’s council housing is needed, and why the review of what happened has to be resident-led, in this week’s Camden New Journal.