1 Jul 2017

UK council leader quits over London fire response

8:58 am on 1 July 2017

The head of the local council in the London borough where at least 80 people died in a tower block fire has resigned following criticism of the council's response to the disaster.

The remains of Grenfell Tower, a residential tower block in west London.

The remains of Grenfell Tower, a residential tower block in west London, after the fire on 14 June. Photo: AFP

Kensington and Chelsea Council leader Nick Paget-Brown faced calls to resign from London Mayor Sadiq Khan and a number of other senior politicians.

It comes after an aborted meeting of the council's cabinet in which leaders had tried to ban members of the public and press.

At least 80 people are believed to have died in the Grenfell Tower blaze on 14 June.

Announcing his resignation, Mr Paget-Brown said he had to accept responsibility for "perceived failings" by the council after the tragedy.

"I have therefore decided to step down as leader of the council as soon as a successor is in place," he said.

The decision to adjourn Thursday night's meeting led to a rebuke from Downing Street on Friday.

A Number 10 spokesman said: "The High Court ruled that the meeting should be open and we would have expected the council to respect that."

Council leaders claimed an open meeting would "prejudice" the forthcoming public inquiry.

But angry protests followed and Labour councillor Robert Atkinson, whose ward includes Grenfell Tower, branded the abandoned meeting a "fiasco".

Metropolitan police have released new images following the fire at Grenfell Tower.

A photo released by police shows the devastation inside the apartments. Photo: Supplied

Mr Atkinson, the Labour group leader on Kensington and Chelsea, told the BBC he was "ashamed" of the authority.

He accused leaders of "hiding from residents, they have been hiding from backbench councillors for over a week".

The London mayor demanded the resignation of the entire council leadership on Friday morning, adding the council's decision to scrap the meeting "beggars belief".

Mr Khan welcomed Mr Paget-Brown stepping down, saying: "Ever since the awful events of two weeks ago, it has been clear that the local community in and around north Kensington has lost trust in the council and that the administration is not fit for purpose.

"Last night's decision to abandon the council's cabinet meeting has merely compounded the misery for local people who are grieving, traumatised and desperate for answers."

Key criticisms of the council

Mr Paget-Brown said many "questions about the cause of the fire and how it spread so quickly" would need to be answered by the public inquiry.

He added: "The scale of this tragedy was always going to mean that one borough alone would never have sufficient resources to respond to all the needs of the survivors and those made homeless on its own.

"We have been very lucky to have the support of other London boroughs, the emergency services and community associations based in north Kensington and I'm very grateful to them."

Mr Paget-Brown said the council had been criticised for not answering "all of the questions people had". He said that was "properly a matter for the public inquiry".

But he said his decision to accept legal advice that he "should not compromise the public inquiry by having an open discussion in public" on Thursday night had "itself become a political story".

"It cannot be right that this should have become the focus of attention when so many are dead or still unaccounted for," he added.

Alongside Mr Paget-Brown, deputy council leader and and cabinet member for housing, property and regeneration, Rock Feilding-Mellen, also announced his resignation.

He said it had been suggested several times since the blaze that he should step down but he had felt it was his "duty" to back the council's efforts to help the victims.

"It will be for others to judge whether it would have been better for me to resign immediately, but I would have found it hard to forgive myself if I had ducked out at such a moment of crisis for the borough," he said.

Cladding on at least 149 high-rise buildings across 45 local authority areas in England has failed fire safety tests.

Last weekend, Camden Borough Council evacuated five tower blocks which were found to have the same flammable cladding as that of Grenfell Tower.

New Zealand Building and Construction Minister Nick Smith has ordered major city councils to find out if there are high-rise blocks here with similar panels.

Checks are still under way. In Auckland, two high-rise buildings have been found to have a combustible type of aluminium composite panel. The council said they were already in the process of being re-clad, though due to weather-tightness problems - not fire-related issues.

- BBC / RNZ

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