Planning and Housing

30.08.17

Time to revisit community engagement and rebuild trust

Source: PSE Aug/Sept 2017

The Grenfell Tower disaster revealed a number of sizeable flaws in building health and safety regulations in the UK. PSE’s Josh Mines talks to Dr Karen McDonnell, occupational health and safety policy adviser at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), about what councils can do to ensure safety concerns don’t slip through the net.

The tragic event of 14 June in Kensington, West London, which saw more than 80 people lose their lives in the Grenfell Tower blaze, captured the attention of the nation. The image of the high-rise block, blackened and billowing smoke hours after the fire broke out in the morning, seemed to act as a sobering reminder of the very real inequalities that exist in modern Britain, and of a community that had been let down by the authorities who had a duty to look after them.

In the subsequent reviews of other buildings across the country, the DCLG found a worrying number of high-rise blocks across the country which had been built with the same cladding that played a part in the devastating disaster at Grenfell. An LGA statement then declared that the fire had exposed “a systemic failure of the current system of building regulation” that needed to be addressed immediately.

But another key question that still remained for councils to ask was how both Kensington Borough and its housing association, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, missed the numerous warnings from residents of the tower block’s potential dangers, and failed to take action on simple changes that could have saved lives.

 

The importance of open and honest communication

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place,” explained Dr Karen McDonnell, occupational safety and health policy adviser at RoSPA. “Open communication is fundamentally important, and key to this communication is ensuring that people have their voice heard, and that’s a lesson to be learned here.”

But what is the best way for councils to ensure this principle is applied in practice? According to Dr McDonnell, local authorities taking charge and creating clear links between themselves and community groups, regardless of whether that community is located in a high-rise tower block or in a rural village, is vital to making sure this happens.

“There has to be a consistent strategy to communicate and assist people to use their own voice,” she added. “It’s about using residents’ committees, clear information and making sure that people are informed about things like community roles, or upcoming maintenance or security alerts, and any other planned capital projects.”

As with the delivery of virtually any council service, engagement and empathy can make a huge difference to ensuring that problems do not slip through the net. “It’s important that the people delivering these projects make sure that residents are engaged in the process,” stated Dr McDonnell. “Councils can do this by putting themselves in the residents’ shoes and communicating openly and clearly.”

 

A need for defined lines of information sharing

But opening these lines of communication can often be easier said than done. Certain processes and bodies put in place by authorities are little use if residents don’t even know they are there – and more importantly, how to access and get the most from them.

“You need a defined way of sharing information between a resident committee and the local authority,” Dr McDonnell noted. “There needs to be ways where it’s not just pushing information to people, but collecting regular feedback and recommendations. It is about building respect and trust, so that people feel they can be honest and open.

“If you establish that, then a pattern of ‘we think this is an issue’, ‘we will resolve this issue’ or ‘this is not an issue’ can be formed, and then there’s an evidence base and a paper trail to prove that problems are actually being carefully considered and then dealt with.”

 

The little things matter

For councils across England, the Grenfell disaster has led to considerable reflection and recalibration of both how health and safety regulations should work, but also why they are important. Dr McDonnell stressed that the key element to keep in mind is that “health and safety legislation is not a burden”.

But the health and safety expert stated that for council leaders and executives, now is the time to revisit how they engage with stakeholders, whether that is people living in high-rise blocks or anyone else who the council serves.

“It’s all about getting the small things right that prevent these things developing,” she said. “If you are approaching a community with an update, do it with a positive outcome in mind. Miscommunication can be as bad as no communication at all.

“It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s important for people to see where they get information and then have a clear champion in the community – and a community can be anything from a tower block to a sprawling country estate. You want to ensure you recognise who the leaders are and make them understand they can be open with you, and that you will respond positively to them.”

One of the elements that has fuelled the anger felt by residents and the media against Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is that very simple reforms can make a world of difference to ensuring council-owned buildings are safe for those who use them. And this is one of the key messages councils must take heed of in the future: yes, building regulations need to be changed, but a certain amount of responsibility must also be taken at a local level.

Small changes in the way councils give information out, but also how they receive feedback, can make residents feel more comfortable in their own homes and gives them confidence that their local authority will take their concerns and opinions seriously. Putting in place this two-way process will, as Dr McDonnell reflected, not happen immediately – but it’s something that needs to start happening as soon as possible to ensure that the public sector estate is safe and secure for years to come.

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