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Saturday, 1 July 2017

When Councils Collapse

The extraordinary failure of Kensington Council regarding Grenfell Tower has become symbolic of a much wider failure of the political system and rightly so.  Partly this is down to the horror of the events, partly down to the symbolism of the burnt out tower still louring over West London.

Even government ministers seem to have belatedly understood that the failure of Kensington Council is linked to their own policies.  As Karen Buck points out, the kind of budget cuts that local government has endured were bound to reduce its capacity.  This was predictable and predicted.  Kensington Council appears to have been in the grip of what until recently was a one party Tory state that regarded the poor as irrelevant or as a group to be wiped out from "desirable" areas and warehoused in some vaguely defined place far away.

There are now reports that suggest that this ideology directly impacted decisions over Grenfell Tower in a way that may have helped lay the groundwork for the disaster.  This is an ideology that confuses the cheapest price with value for money. 

This failure of competence has been accompanied by a failure of accountability.  The Leader of Kensington Council has finally resigned, but only after trying to sacrifice his Chief Executive instead, and only after further possibly unlawful attempts to block access to public meetings.  The sheer scale of the dysfunction has led to calls for Commissioners to be appointed to run what will be seen as the UK's ultimately failed Council.

What Does All this Mean for Brent Council?
It would be comforting to think that Kensington is uniquely bad, but I fear such a view is far too complacent.  Just as Kensington has been subject to significant cuts so has Brent.  I think it probable that Brent has probably been more effective in trying to maintain its financial resilience than Kensington, where apparently the Tory councillors felt building up a huge reserve whilst reducing the tax base of the authority was a pretty snazzy idea.

Brent took a number of tough decisions to limit spending in the 2010-2014 period, as well as a number of efforts to maximise revenues.  The big exception was Council Tax, which largely at the insistence of Cllr Muhammed Butt was frozen (except for very poor people).  This has done long term damage to the finances of the Council and pushed it into more cuts and relying more on expedients to keep its finances afloat.

Despite this, I wonder whether Brent Council still has the ability to react swiftly to disasters as it did when the Tornado struck Kensal Rise.

The second question that strikes me about Kensington is the refusal to be accountable or to engage with the public.  Decisions appear to have been made away from public view, and councillors appear to have been unwilling to face the public.  Within the Kensington Tory group, no one seems to have challenged the Leader's behaviour.  It apparently took pressure from Downing Street to make him resign.  The end result has been deeply damaging for the long term reputation of Kensington Council, and probably the personal reputations of the councillors who have failed to speak out.  I wish I had confidence that councillors in Brent effectively question decisions made in  their name, but I can't say that I do, and one day that may come back to haunt them.

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