8 Jun 2018

Revealed: Internal emails show council chaos in the wake of Grenfell disaster

A cache of emails, obtained by Channel 4 News, reveals how Kensington and Chelsea council struggled to cope with the crisis in the days following Grenfell fire.

A cache of emails, obtained by Channel 4 News, reveals how Kensington and Chelsea council struggled to cope with the crisis in the days following Grenfell fire.

The leader of the council at the time, Nick Paget-Brown, complained about a “complete media s***storm” and condemned journalists for asking questions.

The emails also reveal that he received a series of nasty death threats from members of the public.

Nick Paget-Brown, who resigned in the wake of the fire, said the media “comprehensively trashed” the council’s efforts and reputation.

He wrote in one email: “There are some disgusting people around who are keen to politicise a tragedy. I am trying to avoid giving them satisfaction.”

Amidst the chaos, councillors were told that communication with survivors was failing, while one email was titled simply: “Who is in charge?”

The disclosure comes nearly a year after the tragedy, which killed 72 people.

The emails also reveal:

  • How the Royal Family requested an urgent report on the disaster
  • That there was “official concern” about safety “if the main tower falls”.
  • The council leader claimed the government was “getting panicky” because of national housing policy
  • How offers of help and support poured in from individuals and businesses
  • How council bosses were inundated with a flurry of threats and hate mail

Four days after the fire, Nick Paget-Brown was sent advice from an individual reporting “on the ground” who warned the council that “communication is very poor”.

It said: “The expectation that they [“the community”] will know how to find help in comparison to the type of people we are trying to help is the real gulf. There are language problems, lack of education and understanding how anything works.”

The email added: “These are separate local communities… Rather like gangs, they don’t go into another territory, and we need to understand the makeup of the area.”

The council leader was also advised to “take the building down as soon as possible because otherwise it will just become a memorial, and with carnival this summer it does not bode well”.

Mr Paget-Brown forwarded the advice to the council’s then chief executive, in case there were “any useful ideas”.

The emails were released following a Freedom of Information request by Channel 4 News. But the council refused to name the person who wrote the advice.

In the weeks following the fire, the council came under heavy criticism as Ealing Council and the Red Cross were drafted in to help them deal with the crisis. Mr Paget-Brown resigned the following month.

But, before he left, he complained that there was “extreme media misrepresentation” about the council’s response. And, in emails to colleagues, he suggested that the council “develop some [media] lines and take advice”. Amongst those he criticised was Channel 4 News.

After a series of media interviews, the council leader explained: “I felt that the borough’s reputation had been so sufficiently trashed that I could do little further harm.”

“The media distortion of what the Council is doing is atrocious,” he said in another email.

Mr Paget-Brown also advised a colleague to avoid answering questions from Channel 4 News, after an interview with our presenter, Jon Snow.

“My advice would be not to attend,” Mr Paget-Brown wrote. “They will want answers that we cannot provide and which are properly a matter for the public enquiry. Jon Snow made the awful comment about social cleansing and said to me on air that now the Tower has gone will we be building housing for rich people?”

In other emails, the council leader expressed concern about his “exhausted staff”.

“Hard working officers from this Council and many others are doing their best to mitigate the consequences of this unparallelled tragedy,” he Mr Paget-Brown wrote. “Their contribution has been dismissed by the media and we are seeking to address this.”

The council leader was personally subjected to a stream of threatening messages from members of the public.

“Go to the top of Grenfell Tower and throw yourself off,” one person wrote to him. “I hope you get burnt to death by your social tenants…you and your council deserve it.”

Another email to the council leader called him an “oily little scumbag”, adding: “I wonder how you can sleep at night….?”

As the council tried to control the situation after the fire, emails reveal how they privately struggled to deal with the crisis – and issued briefings to the government and the Royal Family.

The Royal’s request for information came via Lady Elizabeth Arnold, their official representative for Kensington and Chelsea. In an email to council bosses, two days after the Queen met with survivors, the council was told: “The Palace would like a report in by first thing tomorrow morning.”

Another email, sent internally between councillors, was titled “Who is in charge?”. In it, Mr Paget-Brown reiterated that the council “would not be able to handle the scale of this tragedy alone”.

Two days later, he wrote: “We need help from other Boroughs which we are now receiving.”

He said: “Government getting panicky as housing policy is conflicted.”

In the heat of the crisis, offers of help came from all sections of the community. One property management company offered some temporary accommodation for the victims. Others offered kind words and advice.

But some offers fell on deaf ears. One email claimed that people “can’t find any one central person who is collating this info– Help please.”

Another offer – which was first made on the day of the fire, by a hostel run by nuns – was also slow to be responded to. Four days later, they emailed again saying: “Our offer still stands but we have been unable to contact anybody who can coordinate the matter.”

“We [have] not had any reply.”