The news has been dominated over these last weeks by the Grenfell Tower tragedy – and rightly so. The dreadful fire itself and its causes, the care and treatment of survivors, the responses of government and of Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council – all these raise questions which are of urgent and wider public concern.
Other local authorities – including our own Leeds City Council – have been subjected to detailed scrutiny, especially of the safety and fire precautions in their High-Rise housing stock.
We’re pleased to say Leeds has passed with flying colours – Leeds is not Kensington. The safety of its tenants has always been a top Council priority.
But there’s a less obvious difference between Leeds and Kensington – one which affects how a local authority can respond to tragedy. That difference takes us to the heart of how local authorities run their services – and to the way they have been encouraged to run their services.
Kensington’s services are massively outsourced [provided by private companies], Leeds has more inhouse activity [provided by the Council itself]. The difference that makes can be seen in the local Leeds’ response to its own recent tragic events – the Boxing Day floods in 2015.
Neil Walshaw, Labour Councillor for Headingley Ward, explains.
“ I’m happy to say that Leeds City Council has checked all its Council run property – High rise and other housing. I can reassure tenants that the cladding used on them is fire-retardant. We are now working with private landlords to examine their practice and ensure safety.
A year ago, the Labour Council took a decision to install sprinklers in all sheltered housing. Our leader, Judith Blake, is now asking for this in all flats. We’re still waiting for the government to put its money where its mouth is in the aftermath of Grenfell. We’re cash-strapped and need cash not words to undertake that work. So far the Tory government has refused to commit to the funds needed to install sprinklers.
But we have assured our tenants that our system of daily checks for rubbish in entrances to flats, our regular fire inspections and our construction methods – which ensured fire breaks in our High Rise properties – have all been designed to protect them.
There are lots of small fires in flats. Thanks to all these built-in precautions, in Leeds none of them has led to a major fire.
Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council obviously face many questions about their own construction methods. But they did not respond well to the tragedy. And here in Leeds we think we know one reason why this is so.
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is a hollowed out council – a flagship of Tory attitudes to local government, in which services are outsourced. The Council employs as few people as possible itself, directly.
The difference between Leeds’ response to the floods of 2015 and RBKC response to Grenfell demonstrates the effect this can have on resilience. There are simply fewer people able to step in immediately to help.
Council people are public employees – and they have a public service ethos and attitude. When the Leeds floods occurred on Boxing day 2015 – local councillors stepped in immediately – getting their hands quite literally dirty. [I could tell you some ripe stories about what we waded in over the following days. . . .]
But so too did Council officers and others who worked for the council. People gave up their days off, came along after work. They saw the problems of Leeds’ people as THEIR problems – and stepped up to help.
I’m not suggesting workers in privately-run services aren’t just as sympathetic to other people’s difficulties. But they just don’t have that direct connection, that view of their jobs as a public service. Outsourcing undermines resilience.
It’s also the case that RBKC had placed their housing stock under what’s called ‘Arms’-length management’. That means they do not take the same direct responsibility for their housing and tenants. That was done in Leeds in the past. As a Labour council, we’ve been taking this housing back under direct Council control. Our responsibility, our public service ethos again.’
Neil’s comments remind us that there are unintended consequences to government policies.
We can all see the direct results of the cut backs in local government spending since the LibDem/Tory Coalition took power in 2010.
But there are other results of the drive away from public services, publicly provided.
The recent election suggested that the British people are increasingly unhappy with that relentless shift.
They deserve better.