A NEW scrutiny committee responsible for holding Kensington and Chelsea Council to account over its handling of the Grenfell Tower disaster in June (News, 15 June) is to be chaired by an Hon. Assistant Curate at St Clement’s, Notting Dale, the Revd Robert Thompson, who is a Labour councillor for North Kensington.
The Grenfell Recovery Scrutiny Committee will look critically at the work of the Grenfell recovery programme, and also the deputy council leader, Kim Taylor-Smith, and gather evidence from the people affected by the fire to help inform its agenda. The first meeting was held on Tuesday.
Fr Thompson is one of two Labour representatives on the committee, alongside seven Conservative councillors, and four lay people who have yet to be confirmed. He would like to see a cash injection from central Government to prevent Kensington and Chelsea from “eating up” its reserves by buying properties to rehouse survivors.
“It is very difficult for us in the minority group to have a strong critical voice, because eventually you hit a brick wall. You are not in power; so you do not make decisions,” he said on Monday. “But our committee has the Conservative chairs or vice-chairs of other scrutiny committees, in which councillors can be critical of ways in which a council is working, regardless of the political party they represent.”
The diverse community of North Kensington will be represented by four lay members, including one from Lancaster West Residents’ Association, and one from the Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre Al Manaar. Two more places have been reserved for a volunteer community organisation, and the survivors group Grenfell United, which has not yet decided whether to take up the place.
The community has had “mixed reactions” to the committee, Fr Thompson said. “Many people see it as just another ‘talking shop’ of the council, that we are not going to get anything done, which is why I want to make it action-orientated. There is a general lack of trust in local democracy because of both the failings of the local authority in the immediate aftermath, and, historically, how the Grenfell Tower was refurbished.”
St Clement’s was at the heart of the response to the fire, in which at least 66 people died, and hundreds were left homeless (Feature, 29 September). Politics and ministry have become indistinct, Fr Thompson said. “A lot of what I do politically is fuelled by a sense of justice from within the Christian tradition. I believe that we must keep investing in parishes in urban priority areas, like ours, to give a voice to the marginalised: those voices which are not heard or listened to in society.”
He pointed to the Grenfell Action Group, which lobbied for better fire-safety regulations before the incident, and to the lack of investment from governments past and present in “decent” social housing. “Regeneration in a parish like ours, where the cost of housing is so extraordinarily high, raises issues of community cohesion, stability, and human flourishing.”
His appointment was welcomed by the Vicar of St Clement’s, the Revd Dr Alan Everett. “Robert’s credibility in this fractured and wounded community is second to none. The situation is unprecedented, but his identity as a priest and his active involvement in the parish will help him to build trust, as well as constructive engagement with the local authority.”
The committee will meet every three weeks, but there is no timescale or plans for a final report, Fr Thompson said. Its 13 members will not deal with historic issues being raised by the inquest, but will, instead, be gathering evidence, conducting site visits, and monitoring issues as they arise, including the welfare of younger people.