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Grenfell recovery: not up to the task?

Grenfell recovery: not up to the task?

Grenfell Tower, June 16, 2017. Pic: ChiralJon (Flickr, Creative Comms)

Grenfell recovery: not up to the task?

For anyone involved in social housing there is a before and there is an after the Grenfell tower fire. An old set of values and assumptions must be scrutinized and challenged. A new mindset, which values public homes and those that live in them, must take its place, writes Kevin Long.

This is true for those that manage social housing, and those that regulate that management, but it is just as true for those who work to represent tenants and residents. Housing lawyers were quick to highlight that there was little the law could have done pre-Grenfell to tackle the safety concerns raised in the years before: the lacunae lie in the legal remedies open to tenants, not in the legal aid sector pursuing those remedies. While that is correct up to a point those of us representing people living in the rented sector must still examine and rethink our own approach and challenge those same old assumptions.

Could anymore really have been made of the law before? And what now can be done after?

That process must start immediately. This is a crucial time for those residents directly affected by the fire, and for all tenants of Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) who now face an uncertain housing future. The process of recovery is underway already and will not wait for the official inquiry of Judge Moore-Bick to run its course. While that may well provide answers and guidance for the sector in due course, it will be the events unfolding now, on the ground in north Kensington and in the corridors of Town Hall, that will ultimately shape the housing legacy for this community.

Those structures being put in place to lead that recovery must then be scrutinized. Critics of this approach may suggest that this simply fuels conspiracy – of which there is enough already. But if lawyers were silent before the fire, they must be prepared to voice their concerns now.

The Secretary of State’s Grenfell recovery taskforce is a natural place to start. Announced in the immediate aftermath of the fire in July, its first report was due by end of last month.

This body was first outlined on 5 July 2017 in an announcement in which the government pledged to send-in an independent taskforce of outside experts to take over control of key functions from the council’s housing manager, KCTMO (Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation). It would provide immediate support and offer the foundations for future recovery. On 26 July 2017 the taskforce was formally launched and its personnel announced comprising a panel of four (here):

  • Aftab Chughtai (Chair of the West Midlands Police Independent Advisory Group)
  • Javed Khan (Chief Executive of Barnardo’s)
  • Jane Scott (Leader of Wiltshire council)
  • Chris Wood (partner at Altair housing consultancy)

The Secretary of State also set-out terms of reference. While making clear this was a non-statutory intervention, this nonetheless provides a sweeping and powerful brief. The remit includes addressing weaknesses in KCTMO housing management; ensuring sound governance arrangements across the Council; advising, scrutinizing and challenging all Council recovery plans; in short it is to ‘galvanize’ the recovery effort. Engaging with the community in the rebuilding process was central to this. Equally important was its impartiality: it was to be independent from the Council, though based within it.

Concerns had already been raised that it would lack sufficient powers. Yet the remit above, while lacking statutory force, could not have been framed any broader. Further fears were raised about its location within council offices (here). Yet given its role – to steer the RBKC/KCTMO recovery from the inside – it would seem natural that it would be located at the heart of that local government.

But it is the make-up of the personnel that creates most concern to those expecting this to deliver the Secretary of State’s ambitious programme. Given the magnitude of all that happened on 14 June and after, and the breadth of the task now set by government, a panel of four seems wholly inadequate to meet this. It is unclear what support systems, if any, they have in place. All four have regular day-jobs – none of them appear to have been seconded to RBKC Town Hall to run the recovery. It is known that the taskforce sat-in during the KCTMO Annual General Meeting (held on October 17) but that aside their public presence has been largely non-existent.

Whether these four have the necessary background and expertise to run such an essential, and potentially powerful, organisation in the Grenfell recovery process is also open to question. Javed Khan comes from a voluntary sector and educational services background but appears to have never worked directly in housing services. Aftab Chugtai’s inclusion on the taskforce has already attracted public attention after one of his businesses was found to be in breach of minimum pay rules (he was duly fined by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), but that aside his background is in local business and community relations; his current main role is as advisor to the West Midlands police. Baroness Jane Scott is a Conservative peer, albeit with a solid record in local government, as leader of Wiltshire Council.

The final member of the panel though is Chris Wood, partner of Altair Ltd, a major housing consultancy. If his fellow panel members might lack direct expertise in social housing, then that is not something that can be levelled at Mr Wood who has an impressive background in housing consultancy and local government regeneration. It is his appointment though which is most perplexing, and which raises critical questions about the make-up of the taskforce, those advising the Secretary of State, and, of most relevance to RBKC residents, where this recovery might lead.

Details matter
Wood’s company Altair Ltd is a major consultancy firm in the housing field. Formed in 2010 its testimonials page demonstrates that it has become the go-to consultant across the social housing sector. It has worked extensively for the regulator, for local government, and for housing associations. Those ties run right across a multitude of housing providers. And they extend directly to KCTMO itself.

One former client of Altair Ltd’s work is Robert Black, former chief executive of KCTMO who in the face of government pressure stepped down on June 30th this year. In 2016 Altair had run a successful away day for KCTMO following which Mr Black recommended their services (here). It was Chris Wood himself who led the day. This may seem a trivial or minor conflict. Yet there is nothing trivial about Grenfell tower: details matter. And there is nothing minor about corporate manslaughter, charges that this Board may now face.

But Altair Ltd’s links to KCTMO run much deeper than a single away day. The timing of that day is significant; it is recorded in KCTMO Board meeting minutes as taking place in November 2016. Those minutes also noted the recent retirement of Jeffrey Zitron, who had served as a director of KCTMO from May 2009 until June 2016. But from 2011 onwards, as well as serving as a director of the TMO, Mr Zitron was also a director elsewhere: alongside Mr Wood, on the board of Altair Ltd.

None of this might matter if there had been no fire, or if there was now no taskforce. But instead we have an emergency institution set-up directly by the Secretary of State with sweeping powers to tackle the weaknesses of KCTMO management and governance. Those failings are such that the police have reasonable grounds to suspect corporate manslaughter. They are weaknesses that coincided with Mr Zitron’s seven year tenure at KCTMO and which Altair Ltd, his company, has now been tasked with the job of repairing. While Mr Zitron has since stepped down from the Altair board, he did so as of 27 July 2017 (the Secretary of State announced the taskforce on July 26th). And he remains a director and shareholder in Aquila Services, which in 2015 had become Altair’s parent company.

How was it that Mr Zitron’s co-director Mr Wood was put forward by the Secretary of State as an appropriate nomination? More pertinently, why did Mr Wood accept the role given his business partner’s long-running involvement with KCTMO at Board level?

Whatever expertise Altair might have been able to bring to the taskforce, surely this conflict alone should have ended any possibility of an appointment from amongst their ranks. As we seek to unravel the mess of mismanagement and failed regulation that created the backdrop to the Grenfell fire these historic ties to KCTMO arguably represent part of the problem, not the solution. They now appear to undermine all the key pledges made by the Secretary of State – of independence, of impartiality, of outside expertise. As with any potential conflict of interest it is perception that often matters most. Nothing will bring such perception into sharper focus than the fire of 14 June and a still unknown number of dead.

And where does this leave KCTMO residents, whose engagement is so central to the taskforce’s remit? Already attention is turning to the direction of RBKC housing management. At the recent AGM proposals were put forward by the KCTMO Chair for membership to vote to end the TMO, with a reconstituted TMO body set-up in its wake and RBKC council as sole member. Amidst alarm that this might enable the TMO to dissolve itself and escape corporate responsibility, the meeting was adjourned, with the motion put back to a later date. But fears had also been raised about where this proposed new body might take the future of RBKC’s council housing.

Someone has to manage RBKC’s 9,000 plus council homes. It is seems clear that it will no longer be KCTMO. Equally though there is concern that RBKC, as a council landlord, cannot, or will not, take back this role. Stock transfer to a housing association is naturally the other main option, but given the record of major regeneration projects in recent years, this is also likely to be met with strong local resistance. Altair Ltd, like Mr Zitron’s former consultancy Hacas Group, specialise in such projects.

Attention had quickly focused on those perceived systemic weaknesses within the institutions of local government and how they may in part have contributed to the disaster of 14 June: conflicted interests, complacent outsourcing, a lack of accountability, a vacuum of expertise. These were the concerns raised by tenants of KCTMO over its regeneration of Lancaster West in the years before the fire. They are themes that are right for examination as the institutions for recovery take shape. And while housing lawyers may not have been able to provide easy remedies to such concerns in the past, we must at least be prepared to lead that process of scrutiny now.

This starts with the government taskforce. When it was announced there were legitimate questions raised, over its powers, its operational centre, and the experience of its panel. Whether this panel of four, three of whom had no specialist housing background, were truly the best equipped to lead such a vital part of the recovery process remains open to serious doubt.

But the most troubling issues appear to lie not in any lack of experience, but in the ties that link it to the very body it has been constituted to rescue, and the direction down which its one source of expertise might now choose to take RBKC’s housing stock. The taskforce was an opportunity to break from the past, and to put down an early marker about the government’s new approach to the sector. The post-Grenfell housing mind-set should have started there. Instead, with its makeshift composition and with its tangled ties to KCTMO’s past, it represents all that was wrong with that pre-Grenfell housing world.

This article was published on November 7, 2017