The Conservative leader of Kensington and Chelsea has resisted calls to resign in the face of mounting criticism over the chaos and paralysis that gripped the council in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats called for Nick Paget-Brown to stand down on Sunday as the government, in a tacit admission the council had failed to cope, said it was drafting in civil servants to help.
Opposition councillors are angry at the way council leaders appeared to freeze when confronted by a disaster on the scale of the fire. They said they were kept in the dark and repeatedly given incorrect assurances that accommodation had been found for residents.
The Conservative-led administration, whether from pride or some other reason, had failed to return calls from neighbouring councils offering to provide accommodation and other help, the councillors said.
Other criticisms included: a failure to communicate with survivors and their families; a lack of visible staff on the ground providing advice; a failure to distribute any of the money being donated; and a failure to ensure surviving residents were allocated suitable accommodation nearby.
The Labour leader on the council, Robert Atkinson, said the leadership had lost all credibility. “They have lost control,” he said. “They seem mesmerised by the gravity of the situation.”
Atkinson called on Paget-Brown, his deputy and senior officials to stand down, saying they had “collapsed on the job”.
“There must have come a point on Wednesday or Thursday when they realised they were out of their depth,” he said.
The council posted a notice on its website saying the town hall had closed for the weekend following an angry protest on Friday and that staff were working from other sites. It said hoped to reopen the town hall on Monday.
Some councillors, including Conservatives, proposed holding an emergency session to discuss the crisis. But others resisted, believing that it would not be productive and, with tensions running high, could become a target for protests.
Paget-Brown, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s The World at One, defended himself and officials against the criticism, saying staff had been on the ground since soon after the fire started. “All I’m keen to say is there is an effective, coordinated relief effort on the ground and I’m sorry if people have not seen that.”
Asked if he felt guilty, he replied: “I feel terrible about the whole position we find ourselves in. Asked if he would resign, he said: “That’s not a matter for now.”
Jeremy Corbyn, speaking on ITV’s Peston on Sunday, joined the criticism, saying that, in spite of being the wealthiest borough in the country, the council seemed to lack the resources to deal with a crisis of this magnitude.
The Liberal Democrat MP Ed Davey also cast doubt on Paget-Brown’s leadership. “There are growing questions for the Conservative-run council, both [about] the lead-up to the fire but crucially now in the terrible aftermath,” Davey said. “What is happening to the money being sent in? Why are survivors being put in hotels without money to buy food? Why is there so little coordination?”
Davey, a former cabinet minister, added: “This is a fiasco built on a tragedy, and the council leader, like the prime minister, does not appear to be getting to grips with the crisis. If he is incapable of doing so, he should go.”
Linda Wade, one of two Lib Dem councillors in Kensington and Chelsea, described a “conspicuous void in leadership” nationally and locally, saying there was frustration over the council’s invisibility, failure to communicate with survivors and with people who want to help, such as offering space in their houses.
Asked if Paget-Brown should resign, Wade said: “Yes. I like him personally but I think it is symptomatic of the kind of culture at the council … Meetings are held in a nice way but lack rigorous scrutiny.”
Councillors echoed Wade in describing Paget-Brown as personable, with one suggested that some of the council’s problems had been inherited from his predecessors.
Atkinson said he was not given to calling for resignations but that there was a clear case for Paget-Brown, his deputy and others in the hierarchy to go. “I can’t think of another example of an event in national life involving a council where it would be more appropriate for a leadership and those supposedly advising them to resign,” Atkinson said.
He dismissed Paget-Brown’s claim of a timely, effective and coordinated relief effort at Grenfell Tower, blaming the failure on the hollowing-out of experienced officials. He said the council had reacted effectively to previous crises, such as the 1999 Padddington rail crash.
Atkinson praised some departments, such as the family and children’s service, which helped get children to school. “But there was no strategic presence,” he said.
Eve Allison, a Conservative councillor, said last year’s refurbishment of Grenfell Tower should have looked inside as well as outside the building.
She told BBC One’s Breakfast:”All too often we’re a little bit too concerned with how the immediate streetscape looks, how a building fits into other buildings, does it detract from the immediate streetscape.
“I was not involved with the actual planning of the recent refurbishment … [but] from what I’m hearing it would have been ideal if part of the refurbishment package had looked at actually trying to gentrify inside, not just outside.”