U.K. Rejects Demand to Replace Officials After Deadly Fire

U.K. fire officials
The remains of Grenfell Tower  in London. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s government on Saturday rejected demands that she appoint commissioners to run the local council blamed for mishandling the response to the London high-rise fire, as the crisis deepened over who should be held accountable for the 80 deaths in the blaze.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan had asked May to take the unusual step because he said the elected council for the borough of Kensington and Chelsea has “lost the trust of local residents.” But installing commissioners there would place the tower-fire crisis even closer to May and her Conservative party.

The council owns Grenfell Tower, a 120-apartment, public-housing complex that was destroyed in the June 14 fire, and is made up of 37 members of the Conservative Party, 12 from the Labour Party and one Liberal Democrat.

Council leader Nick Paget-Brown resigned Friday, saying he accepted responsibility for the “perceived failings” of the council and said its members would elect a new leader at its next meeting.

But Khan argued that all members of the council were tainted by its response to the disaster. Fire survivors and neighborhood residents have protested, accusing local officials of ineptitude and a lack of concern for their plight.

“It is crucial that the commissioners are people of high standing and probity, have a genuine empathy for local people and the situation they face and be untainted so that all residents of Kensington and Chelsea can have confidence in them,” said Khan, a senior figure in the opposition Labour Party.

But British Communities Secretary Sajid Javid, a Conservative party member whose department supervises the borough, said now was not the time for the central government to get directly involved.

“We will be keeping a close eye on the situation,” Javid said. “If we need to take further action, we won’t hesitate to do so.”

The frustration underscores the political and economic divisions in Kensington and Chelsea. Grenfell Tower is located in one of England’s most deprived neighborhoods, according to a government ranking that combines factors such as income, employment, education and access to housing. Yet it sits alongside the posh enclaves of Notting Hill and Holland Park, areas that attract wealthy expatriates, investment bankers and corporate managers.

Political experts understood why May declined to appoint new council leaders.

“There is a degree of deniability, as it stands, between the council and the government,” said Tony Travers, a professor of government at the London School of Economics.

Such a separation will be important as Britain holds a judge-led public inquiry into the causes of the tragedy.

May has faced public accusations of being insensitive to residents in the days after the blaze, but the council has been on the front line of the fury from residents as it deals with the nuts-and-bolts issues of helping hundreds of people obtain food, clothing and shelter.

But critics say that the Conservative government should be held accountable for deep budget cuts to local authorities that may have contributed to the disaster in the first place, such as cuts in fire services and inspections.

Appointing commissioners to oversee a local government would be unusual but not unprecedented. Commissioners were brought in to run the London borough of Tower Hamlets in 2014 amid concerns about how the council handled public money.

Paget-Brown, who had resisted calls to quit in the two weeks since the blaze, stepped aside after May criticized him for abandoning a meeting on the Grenfell Tower fire because journalists were present. Paget-Brown initially sought to bar journalists, then scrapped the session after media groups won an injunction allowing reporters to be present.

Paget-Brown said the presence of the media would “prejudice” a public inquiry into the disaster. Two other borough officials have also resigned – but many of those affected see it as too little, too late.

“I think they all need to resign,” Joe Delaney, a Grenfell resident, told Sky News. “If they really want to see if they have the support of the local community, they should immediately force by-elections in all of their wards.”

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