The ‘Grenfell Industry’Council Accused of Misspending Disaster Recovery Funds
Sam Bright speaks to survivors and the bereaved, who believe that funds allocated to help them following the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire have been squandered by a council they compare to the ‘Mafia’
Mariko was physically dragged out of her home on the morning of 14 June 2017, her legs pounding against the exit stairway of the building.
A fire had started not long after midnight in flat 16, situated on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower, which in a few hours turned into a deadly inferno. By the time the sun rose over north Kensington, west London, the block of flats had been incinerated – with only a smouldering shell remaining.
The fire had been allowed to spread due to several defects with the building, it is claimed – flammable cladding and insulation, the absence of a sprinkler system, and insufficient cavity barriers.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, there was an unrivalled outpouring of collective grief. Families across Britain stared at the news in horror, as reporters informed the nation that 72 people had died in the blaze, stranded on stairwells or trapped in their flats, with countless more injured. Within 48 hours, two crowdfunding campaigns for the families of the victims had received a total of £2 million.
“I have fixed a deadline of three weeks for everybody affected to be found a home near by,” the then Prime Minister Theresa May said on 17 June. “The fire at Grenfell Tower was an unimaginable tragedy for the community, and for our country. My Government will do whatever it takes to help those affected, get justice and keep our people safe.”
But this has not been the experience of Mariko.
Like many others, she was housed in a hotel while the rubble still steamed in her old home. The hotel room had two beds for a family of five – Mariko, her husband and their three children. Mariko, who is disabled and is unable to use her legs, was forced to sleep in her chair.
Hers was a disabled room, but it wasn’t fully adapted to her needs, meaning that she couldn’t take herself to the toilet. She regularly soiled herself.
Moved to a second hotel, a leak had sprung in Mariko’s room, tripping the electricity. She sought refuge in a local Chinese restaurant, after the council asked her to stay with a friend or relative, she says. Originally from Japan, with broken English, she had no one to call.
This process repeated over and over again, with Mariko’s family forced to live in hotels for 18 months after the fire.
She is now in a permanent flat, having moved in a year ago – but even that has come with problems. There have been five fires in the flat due to faulty appliances – including a sheet of paper lodged in the hob extractor that set alight one meal time. The smoke stains on the ceiling are traumatic for Mariko, who lives with the memories of the Grenfell Tower fire.
“Eventually I couldn’t go in my own kitchen,” Mariko says. “It was too upsetting.”
Responsibility for helping the bereaved and survivors has fallen on the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) Council – an authority that is the subject of corporate manslaughter allegations, for its role in the structural defects that incubated the fire.
Yet, as political and public attention has slowly dissipated, many victims are still engaged in a belligerent, exhausting war with the council to provide for their basic needs.
Byline Times has spent the past fortnight speaking to the bereaved and survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire, as well as the wider community. They claim that the RBKC has been squandering funds, ostensibly devoted to victims, while steadily marginalising dissenting voices.
The Grenfell Recovery Fund is a five-year £50 million budget, to be spent by the RBKC until 2024, designed to provide “services for bereaved and survivors and the wider community”.
The fund is roughly split into two pots: one for the bereaved and survivors, known as the Dedicated Services budget; and one for the wider community.
In 2019-20, £2.56 million of the £4.5 million Dedicated Services budget was spent on council staff salaries and council property costs. £601,000 alone was spent on “management” salaries, with a council spokesperson telling the Evening Standard last year that just two managers were employed with this budget.
Aside from managers, the staffing budget pays for dedicated workers who – in theory – act as personal agents for the survivors and the bereaved, fielding their requests and chasing up enquiries within the council. These individuals are paid in the range of £40,000 a year.
In contrast, the bereaved and survivors are granted a £1,000 budget every year if they are an adult, and £2,000 a year if they are a child. This money is not simply deposited in the accounts of the victims on a monthly or annual basis, however. The council controls how and when this budget can be spent.
“My dedicated worker gets paid her salary for supporting me, and she can spend it however she wants,” Maryam, a survivor of the fire, says. “Yet I don’t get to spend my money how I want. How is that fair? This causes all of us so much pain and grief.
“England is supposed to be the fairest country in the world, but here I have no rights. I feel like a slave, because a slave has no rights.”
The council has repeatedly insisted that survivors and the bereaved requested dedicated workers in the aftermath of the fire, and that feedback about the dedicated staff members is generally positive.
“The Dedicated Service provides tailored support to bereaved and survivors and we worked closely with them to co-design the service,” a council spokesperson said. “We heard clearly that people wanted named, dedicated workers to provide personalised support in recovery, including through the current pandemic. 97% of bereaved and survivors are accessing the service and 86% of people rated the support from their worker as good or very good over the last six months.”
A large chunk of the Dedicated Services budget, £595,000, is spent on property costs – namely two floors of office space in 17 Old Court Place, just a couple of minutes walk from Kensington High Street, yet nearly 40 minutes from the Lancaster West estate which housed Grenfell Tower.
17 Old Court Place is the epicentre of the council’s Grenfell operation, situated among luxury flats and corporate office blocks – a world away from the circumstances of the Grenfell community. What’s more, the building is adjacent to the local fire station. If you search for ’17 Old Court Place’ on Google Maps, you will see a fire truck within metres of the front door, as pictured below:
“It’s upsetting to see the fire trucks,” says Hamid, of the Grenfell Next of Kin group, who lost his father in the fire. “It reminds you of the night it happened. It brings it all back.”
17 Old Court Place is heavily guarded, with security personnel on every floor. Hamid and his family were initially refused entry when they first visited the building. Every person needs a Grenfell United membership card in order to gain access, but no one had told Hamid.
“It’s traumatising. The sound of the fire engines. Even the look of the fire station near our space, it triggers anger,” adds Hisam, also of the Next of Kin group, who lost six members of his family in the fire. “The armed guards look at you like a terrorist whenever you walk up to the building. The atmosphere is inappropriate – this is supposed to be our space.”
A portion of the Dedicated Services budget, £550,000 this year, is devoted to “commissioned services” – health, education and employment schemes to assist those in need. All those who spoke to Byline Times were unequivocally disillusioned with these services, which they described as wasteful and ignorant to individual needs.
“They are spending money for nothing,” Maryam said. The individuals told anecdotes of massage sessions, donkey rides and pancake mornings offered to the Grenfell survivors and next of kin. “At one point there were almost certainly more massages being offered per square mile than anywhere else in the country,” a representative for the Next of Kin group claimed.
According to the bereaved and survivors Byline Times spoke to, the council didn’t pay them a visit in the wake of the fire, to ask about their personal needs or the needs of the wider community. Instead, the services have been commissioned by officials alongside a small steering group of survivors, the bereaved and members of the community. Consequently, many victims feel as though they have not been given a meaningful voice in their own recovery – that services have been imposed on them by a higher authority, rather than through the consent of all those involved.
Hamid, for example, has subsequently moved out of Kensington, and doesn’t want to travel across London to access the council’s services. He asks why the council couldn’t have visited one afternoon and asked what he wanted.
“They could have asked if my father liked gardening. And if I said yes, they could have paid for a nice garden to have been built at the back of my house, for my mother to enjoy.” This small gesture would have been much more appreciated than spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on impersonal services, he says.
The council seems to have acknowledged that it made some misjudgements. Callum Wilson, head of Dedicated Service, said last year: “We recognise that some people may not always agree with some of the decisions the council takes about the dedicated service… I appreciate we haven’t got everything right and we are busy making improvements.”
The council also says that it has slashed some staff costs, claiming it has reduced “management staffing costs across the service by half between 2019/20 and 2020/21”.
However, for many people, the damage has already been done – especially individuals who have been denied access to recovery services altogether.
Sisters Raheheleh and Massomeh are living in the UK on six-month rolling visas, having arrived from Iran just after the fire. Trapped on the top floor, their mother and aunt died in the blaze.
They are here to take part in the public inquiry into the disaster, yet have been barred from accessing support services. In fact, they struggle to take part in ordinary life, prevented from even applying for a UK driving license, as they have no recourse to public funds – a condition of their time-limited visas, which blocks them from using certain state services.
“I can’t live here in peace. I don’t have any rights. I don’t have an identity. And I don’t know how to handle it anymore,” Massomeh says. “What kind of humanity and justice is this? What kind of a law is this?”
They are suspended in tortuous limbo, ostracised by the country responsible for the death of their beloved mum and auntie. They think it is particularly warped that the RBKC is tasked with caring for the bereaved and survivors, when the council has been accused of criminal negligence. “It’s like handing the gun back to the murderer, rather than arresting him,” they say.
Raheheleh and Massomeh are part of the Next of Kin support group along with Heyelom, whose son failed to escape the burning building. Heyelom was living in Italy at the time and says he has suffered similar treatment, due to his visa restrictions.
“They say I’m not eligible,” he says, “as if I’m not a father who has lost his son in the fire – as if I don’t count. If the dedicated services are there to support the families that have lost loved ones, and yet they tell you that you’re not eligible, what is the point of it?”
Yet only half the budget is spent on survivors and the bereaved. In 2020-21, a further £5.65 million will have been spent by the council on the wider community – and it appears as though this budget has been plagued by the same issues.
Roughly £2 million of the community fund has been dedicated to staffing and property costs. The Curve Community Centre, a five-minute walk away from the Lancaster West estate, has a £1.3 million annual budget, of which 88% is spent on staffing and property.
“The Curve Centre is not value for money,” a Lancaster West resident with intimate knowledge of the scheme told Byline Times.
Meanwhile, thousands of pounds is being spent on projects that will only have a tangential benefit for the community, residents say. In 2020-21, £548,000 will be spent on art therapy for young people, for example, while £21,000 will be spent on a “barbering academy” for eight young people. £50,000 a year is also spent on North Ken News – a monthly newspaper created by the council, that essentially appears to publicise council updates.
“They’ve received so much money yet they’ve done nothing for me,” Hisam says. “They’ve wasted money on buildings. I feel as though people are being kept in positions at the expense of our loved ones.”
Hamid describes the situation as “blood money”.
“It’s like someone is eating the meat off my body,” he says – referring to the other individuals and groups, not belonging to the survivors or the bereaved, who have earned money from the Recovery fund.
“The clothes I’m wearing are from charity, and I feel as though I’m wearing the blood of my father. How can these people digest the food and wear the clothes? People gave their lives, and now their families are suffering. It’s close to four years and I still haven’t recovered.”
“Mafia” is a word that is bitterly repeated by several individuals when describing the RBKC’s actions. They believe the council – criminally liable for the disaster, many insist – is depriving the fire’s true victims of the recovery compensation and services they have been promised. Instead, it is said, the council is keeping a lot of the money in-house, while providing funding to favoured third-party organisations.
The aforementioned Lancaster West resident calls this the “Grenfell industry” – whereby council staff and external organisations benefit financially from the Grenfell label. “Meanwhile, the community has been left behind,” they say.
Of course, many individuals may support the way the Recovery budget has been spent, but our research suggests this view is far from universal.
Indeed, concern is not even reserved to the wider community. “There’s a rot at the very centre of [the council],” an RBKC councillor told Byline Times on the condition of anonymity, for fear of internal retribution. “I can’t see how this borough can continue for much longer.”
“There’s no accountability,” they added. “The borough itself should not have been allowed to be in charge of the victims and the money in the aftermath, because it is under investigation for corporate manslaughter and manslaughter through gross negligence.
“After nearly four years, the confidence and trust in the council is at an all-time low. I’m extremely concerned. I was concerned from the beginning and I don’t know what to do. Internally, the messaging is always ‘everything is lovely,’ but we know it is not.”
“Eventually I stopped asking them for help. I am fed up,” says Maryam. Many have entirely lost faith in the system, feeling as though their trauma has been compounded since the fire. “Our voices have been stolen,” Hisam claims – pointing out that several bereaved individuals have been forced to organise under the Next of Kin banner, in order to get a hearing.
This stands in stark contrast to the promises made in the immediate aftermath of the fire. Hamid recalls that the singer Adele, the Royal Family, and the then Communities Secretary Sajid Javid visited his family – visible emblems of the many promises that they would be looked after.
However, as public attention waned and the political agenda shifted, people like Hamid have been left isolated – forced into a prolonged battle with local leaders they do not trust.
“My mum said: if the Queen gave me her palace, I wouldn’t be happy,” Hamid, who lost his father, recalls. “She said: I want the same house – the same tables and chairs – and I want my husband next to me.”
“The money doesn’t matter to me,” Hamid adds. “But when I see people taking advantage, it makes me upset.”
They believe their demands are reasonable: recovery money distributed fairly to the survivors, bereaved and local community; an independent audit of the money spent so far; and personalised help, tailored to each family, individual and group.
“There needs to be some form of repercussions, because it’s becoming such a joke,” one Lancaster West resident told Byline Times. “But the joke isn’t on them – the joke’s on us.”
Labour MP Dawn Butler says that the Grenfell Tower fire “was one of the worst tragedies in British history, yet many of the bereaved and survivors have been abandoned by local and national leaders”.
“They appear to have been treated with neglect and even contempt, despite the heartbreak and trauma they have experienced. It’s time the Conservative-led council and Boris Johnson’s Government actually started listening to victims, rather than seemingly feathering their own nest with Grenfell recovery funds.”
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government told Byline Times to contact the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea instead.
“Grenfell recovery is the council’s number one priority and we allocated £50 million to support recovery for the bereaved, survivors and the local community,” a council spokesperson told Byline Times. “This is money for services, not for individuals, and is entirely separate from other sources of funding.
“The council has been open and transparent about the use of Grenfell recovery funding and we have set out clearly how we will work with the bereaved, survivors and residents to shape the next phase of the programme.”
The local Conservative MP, Felicity Buchan, did not respond to Byline Times’ request for comment.