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30 Jun, 2017 11:00

Kensington council shuts down Grenfell meeting after journalists demand access (VIDEO)

Kensington council shuts down Grenfell meeting after journalists demand access (VIDEO)

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s first cabinet meeting since the Grenfell disaster descended into chaos on Thursday, when a high court allowed journalists into the chamber. The council had barred the public and survivors from attending.

The meeting was branded an “absolute fiasco” after Tory council leader Nicholas Paget-Brown took the 11th hour decision to shut it down.

Paget-Brown said the meeting had been compromised by the presence of the press. It had originally hoped to keep the meeting private, but a high court order requested by the Guardian and five other newspapers forced the council to let the press in.

“We can’t have an unprejudiced discussion in this room with the public inquiry about to take place if journalists are reporting and writing about it,” he said.

He was confronted by Labour councillors and some of the press, who thought the council leadership’s response to the events of June 14 had been inadequate and disrespectful of the victims.

“What you’ve done is actually used this as an opportunity for you to make a statement and nobody else gets to say anything at all,” Labour councillor Robert Atkinson shouted at Paget-Brown during the Thursday evening meeting.

“You could have issued that statement, in fact you should have issued that statement, eight days ago. An absolute fiasco. This is why I am calling for your resignation, not because of what happened with the fire, but the sheer and ongoing incompetence that this council has shown ever since it happened.”

On Friday, Atkinson told BBC Radio 4 he is “ashamed” of the council following the last minute shelving of the important meeting.

“I think there was utter chaos and I am ashamed of the way the council proceeded. They have been hiding from residents, they have been hiding from backbench councillors for over a week,” he said.

Atkinson also criticized the way in which the Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) had dealt with the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower.

“From the way that the paperwork is now coming out they clearly were not up to the job and didn't know what they were doing,” he added.

The TMO has been severely criticized by Grenfell survivors and residents of the surrounding estate for not having listened to their concerns about fire safety prior to the disaster.

The cladding installed around the building during renovation works has been partially blamed for the spread and speed of the devastating blaze.

At least 80 people have been confirmed dead as a result of the fire.

The Times has even reported that emails and minutes of meetings between the TMO and the refurbishment works’ consultants show that cheaper cladding was chosen as part of a cost cutting exercise.

For a “saving of £293,368” they opted for aluminum rather than zinc panels, even though the costlier zinc panels would have been non-combustible. The aluminum tiles turned out to have a flammable polyethylene core.

‘Lack of confidence’ in inquiry

Meanwhile, the retired Court of Appeal judge appointed to deal with the public inquiry, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, has warned that the investigation might not be broad enough to satisfy all surviving families.

“I’ve been asked to undertake this inquiry on the basis that it would be pretty well limited to the problems surrounding the start of the fire and its rapid development in order to make recommendations about how this sort of thing can be prevented in future,” Sir Martin said after visiting the site of the tragedy.

“I’m well aware the residents and the local people want a much broader investigation and I can fully understand why they would want that. Whether my inquiry is the right way in which to achieve that I’m more doubtful.

“I will give that some thought and in due course give a recommendation, but there may be other ways in which the desire for that investigation could be satisfied.”

Residents and survivors also expressed little trust in the inquiry and in the senior judge’s expertise for a matter of this nature.

“He seems to want to keep the scope very narrow, to do with why the fire spread so quickly, while we are more looking at why was it started in the first place, why were residents ignored?” local Joe Delaney told the Press Association.

TMO chief quits

The chief executive of the Kensington and Chelsea TMO, Robert Black, stepped down on Friday afternoon, saying he had to “concentrate on assisting with the investigation and inquiry.”

A statement from the group, which is responsible for nearly 10,000 homes, said: “The board wishes to ensure that KCTMO remains best positioned to fully co-operate and assist with the inquiry and so it has agreed with its chief executive, Robert Black, that Mr Black should step aside from his role as chief executive of KCTMO in order that he can concentrate on assisting with the investigation and inquiry.”

An interim executive is to be nominated.

 Speaking about warnings from residents about fire hazards to the building, Black said the group had “no expectation this would happen, we are absolutely devastated by it.”

Downing Street telling off

The news comes after the Communities & Local Government Secretary, Sajid Javid, criticized the council’s move to scrap its first cabinet meeting due to the presence of the press.

“Access to the democratic process should always be open and transparent – I would urge all levels of government to always favor this approach so people can retain confidence in the system,” Javid said on Friday.

Downing Street too has condemned the 11th hour decision by Kensington and Chelsea leader Paget-Brown. A  spokeswoman said Prime Minister Theresa May  “would have expected the council to respect” the High Court ruling that allowed journalists to attend the meeting, rather than shutting it down.