“It’s now public information because you are telling us,” replied a stunned Bob Doris, convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government and Communities committee, his right eyebrow cocked so high it had almost turned 90 degrees on his forehead. Before him sat Raymond Barlow, the assistant head of planning and building standards of Glasgow City Council. Speaking in a tone that emanated local government bureaucracy, Barlow had just declared live in Committee that the council had identified combustible cladding similar to that of the Grenfell Tower on private blocks throughout the city, but that “it’s just not public information yet.” If saying would but make it so.
Nevertheless, the Scottish National Party leader of Glasgow council Susan Aitken gave it her best shot. She vanished for a week from public appearance, all interviews denied – suddenly become a “wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie”. Her office under pressure clarified that 57 properties had been identified as having at least some ACM (Aluminium Composite Material) cladding, however “there is no suggestion that these buildings are a particular fire risk”. Asked whether the fire and emergency services had been notified, Barlow demurred they had not, because he had referred the information to the ministerial working group.
The lack of information is palpable, More than a week after the facts first emerged, I chatted to residents at one of the developments thought to be affected, and discovered residents still had not been informed. On Friday 29 September, the council finally confirmed that letters would be going out.
After the Grenfell fire, that is believed to have claimed at least 80 lives, it was not just the future of families and a community which burned up, but public trust. Excoriating rage poured out from members of the community. Officials who had failed to protect residents flailed haplessly in the aftermath. The official death statistics still do not seem to match unofficial tallies. Contemptuous mistrust of officialdom courses not just through the streets around Grenfell, but across the country, in blocks and schemes, and in council houses. And it is justified.
It is inconceivable that a surveyor, for instance, would fail to inform the owners of a nice detached house of potential fire hazards, for weeks on end. Yet when I talked to residents of another high rise, reactions ranged between confusion and total ignorance. Jack, a friendly middle-aged woman walking her dog, claimed she had received a letter from her factor saying that their cladding was not the same as Grenfell. However, she then saw STV report that her block might be affected, and became concerned. She pointedly explained that “there are not sprinklers on every floor”. Other residents said simply that they had seen media reports but had been told nothing, either by private building managers or the council.
Repeated attempts to get Glasgow council to provide residents with more information failed. Paul Sweeney, a Glasgow MP wrote asking for clarification. Having not received an acknowledgment let alone a substantive reply, he personally went to the Council Chambers looking for answers, to no avail. An emergency question was raised in the Scottish Parliament by Pauline McNeill MSP. The Scottish government, whom the council had claimed to have informed, criticised the council’s response “The ministerial working group was certainly left with more questions than answers, in a similar fashion to what the Local Government committee experienced… there are aspects of this experience that are less than desirable,” said Angela Constance the communities secretary. After refusing to speak to the media for a week, Aitken finally released a statement on 26 September in her Evening Times column, apologising “that information emerged in the extremely unhelpful way that it did”.
The lessons of Grenfell are not being learned. It may well be important that the council informs the government of fire risk. But it is the residents and owners who need this information most. This is not just so that they can feel safe – the council has said that there is no reason to believe the Glasgow blocks are in danger – but to secure the bond of trust that has been eroded since long before Grenfell, even where council houses are not affected.
When the deadly smoke snaked up through Grenfell on that tragic day, some residents did trust the outdated instructions that they had been given, to stay put and wait – many perished as a result. Others distrusted the advice and left swiftly. Trust, and mistrust, in dire situations can be a matter of life and death itself. Bad advice, lack of up-to-date information or contempt for official negligence are corrosive in undermining that trust even in situations far short of rare tragedies like Grenfell.
In a caustic irony, just two weeks before the crisis, Aitken launched a “Transparency Tsar”, to probe past decisions of council administrations. Now she has become so successfully transparent that she can no longer be seen by the human eye. Yet this is far more important than the failings of a single administration. Local authorities remain one of the most untransparent levels of government. Even in Grenfell’s shadow, they seem likely to stay that way.