Today
Thu 29 July 2021

Concerns have been mounting about the local council’s use of recovery funds following the 2017 fire, reports Sam Bright

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council has pledged that it will conduct a wholesale review of how the budget for the bereaved and survivors of the Grenfell Tower Fire is used, following criticism from local groups.

The fire occurred in June 2017 in north Kensington, London, killing 72 people with countless more injured. In 2019, the council committed an annual budget of £4.5 million over five years to support the needs of those directly affected by the blaze. This is called the ‘dedicated services’ budget.

This money formed part of a £50 million Grenfell Recovery Budget, intended to assist the survivors, the bereaved and the local community – providing direct help to those in need, as well as health, mental health and educational programmes.

However, in recent times, the deployment of the dedicated services budget has been questioned, alongside the Council’s overall use of Grenfell funds. As documented by Byline Times, there are concerns among the survivors and the bereaved that too much has been spent on staff and property costs, while the victims are broadly unable to control how the money – dedicated to them – is invested.

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 agents are paid in the range of £40,000 a year.

In contrast, the bereaved and survivors are currently 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 broadly 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, previously told Byline Times. “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.”

The Council told Byline Times that 97% of approximately 700 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”.

Under pressure from councillors and local groups, its Audit and Transparency Committee promised to provide a detailed breakdown of Grenfell-related spending, which was published in May. “Frustratingly, a lot of the detail that residents and representatives were hoping for, simply wasn’t included,” former local Labour MP Emma Dent Coad wrote in these pages earlier this week.

The report itself noted that, subject to the approval of the Council’s leadership team, a comprehensive review of the dedicated services budget is set to be undertaken. This review has subsequently been rubber-stamped and its outline released by the Council.

“We want to hear from all bereaved and survivors about their views on the service as it is now and their thoughts about how the service might work in the future,” the proposal states, “to ensure the service is as effective as possible going into the last few years of service provision”.

The consultation is expected to begin in July and report back to the Council in December with its findings.

The proposal appears to acknowledge many of the criticisms of the dedicated services spending. Namely, the review will consider how to develop services that are as “relevant, targeted and effective as possible” and “increase the choice and control each bereaved and survivor has over the support they receive”, and “provide all bereaved and survivors with an equal opportunity to express their views”.

Concerns have previously been raised that a relatively small steering group comprised of survivors, the bereaved and members of the community have shaped the services provided to hundreds of people.

Perhaps most significantly, the Council’s proposal also says that it is “open to a different organisation potentially delivering the future service if that is what bereaved and survivors prefer”. This suggests that it would be prepared to consider an independent, third-party organisation handling the delivery of dedicated services – a move that has been regularly advocated for by local groups. The concern is that there is an inherent conflict of interest in the management of Grenfell recovery services by the Council, given that it is under investigation for its role in the tragedy.

However, the Council notes that, “as long as the service is paid for via Council funding, the Council will always have ultimate responsibility and accountability for the service and will therefore have to have a role in the new arrangements”.

It proposes a two-stage process for the review: obtaining the views of the survivors and the bereaved; and providing a feedback process for these individuals to inspect the Council’s draft recommendations.

It is noted that any proposed staffing changes may take time to implement, though “we would hope to have the new staffing model in place with people in post from 1 April 2022”.

As suggested by Dent Coad, there is a distrust of the Council among some groups and individuals. There will also be questions raised about why this review has only just been launched, roughly halfway through the multi-million-pound programme, when concerns have been evident for some time.

Time will tell whether this marks a new phase in the Council’s approach to the Grenfell recovery budget.

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