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Grenfell Tower council apologises for putting profits before people in borough | Grenfell Tower fire

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The flagship Conservative council that owned Grenfell Tower has said sorry for putting profits before people in a series of deals, struck before the 2017 fire, that leased out public property for commercial gain.

The apology, issued by Elizabeth Campbell, the leader of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC), related to the sale of leases on a public library, a teacher training centre used by council staff working in family, children and educational services, and a building housing a Citizens Advice bureau, to private school operators including Notting Hill preparatory school, which charges £21,000 a year per pupil.

The prep school sublet part of the Citizens Advice building to the Pret a Manger sandwich chain. The assets were all in the more deprived north of the borough close to Grenfell and part of a wider property strategy for the area aimed partly at boosting revenues to the council.

A fourth transaction related to the council’s £25m purchase of an adult education centre that it planned to turn into a mixed use development including private housing. After a local campaign against the move the council sold it to the Department for Education for £10m.

“Before 2017 the council did not find the right balance between financial benefits, and social benefits,” Campbell said. “Too often the council put the narrow goal of generating commercial income above the broader aim of delivering benefits to our wider community. We fell below the bar on consultation, transparency, scrutiny, and policy. We cannot say hand on heart that residents were involved every step of the way, or that the council put their interests first and foremost, and for that we apologise.”

Later this year council leaders and officials involved in the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower will face cross-examination at the public inquiry into the fire on 14 June 2017, which claimed 72 lives. It has already heard how cost-cutting on the refurbishment between 2012 and 2016, resulted in cheaper, more combustible cladding being used. It heard how the council’s builders treated residents who objected like “rebels” and accused them of being “vocal and aggressive”.

Just weeks after the fire RBKC halted property development projects and key councillors in charge of the schemes resigned, including the cabinet member in charge of housing, Rock Feilding-Mellen, and the leader, Nick Paget-Brown.

Campbell’s apology came as the council released an independent report into the transactions that found shortcomings with scrutiny of decisions but concluded there had been no wrongdoing.

Campbell said “no wrongdoing does not mean you were doing everything right”. She said there was is a “depth of feeling and mistrust that still exists between the council and parts of our communities”.

“We will continue to shift our focus so that, wherever possible, we put social value and community interests first, beyond property, and in all we do,” she said.

A response to the independent report by the council’s chief executive, Barry Quirk, set the council’s failures in the context of the 2010 austerity policies of David Cameron’s coalition government, which required local authorities across the country to find new ways of raising funds.

“The period from 2010 established new orthodoxies in local government as the then government’s approach to fiscal consolidation led to substantial reductions in central government or national taxpayer-financed support for local government,” he wrote. “In the period from 2010 to 2017, councils’ ‘core spending power’ was dramatically reduced. Across London, the ‘spending power’ of councils was reduced by an average of 32%.”

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