Barry Quirk, chief executive of the council, said he “would not have made” Theresa May’s pledge to rehouse victims so quickly.
The Prime Minister was under political pressure after facing a barrage of criticism for not meeting survivors on a visit to the scene. Residents, many still without a permanent home eight months on, felt her pledge raised then dashed their hopes of being quickly rehoused.
In his first interview since joining the council, Mr Quirk told the Standard: “I wouldn’t have made that promise. I know too much about the housing in the area, I know so much about social housing in London. I would’ve looked at this and said, ‘How are we going to house people?’ To house people in the immediate environment is extremely difficult.”
Mr Quirk was chief executive of Lewisham council at the time of the June 14 fire, which killed 71 people. Within a week it was clear that Kensington and Chelsea council needed experienced figures on the ground. “I came over because of the moral urgency of the situation,” Mr Quirk said. “I’ve lived in London all my life and this is the most appalling tragedy I’ve come across.”
He expected to be there for a matter of weeks. But the scale of the challenge soon became clear.
“I knew a lot about social housing — I used to work in it and live in it — and I had experience of dealing with tragedy, although not on this scale. So I thought I could contribute something,” he said.
Mr Quirk, described as a “wise old owl” by one contemporary, is widely credited with providing stable leadership in the fire’s aftermath. He sought advice from all over, including Hillsborough, Rotherham and Christchurch, New Zealand, which was struck by a devastating earthquake in 2011.
Kensington and Chelsea was handed back responsibility for dealing with the crisis in September, although the council is viewed with hostility and mistrust by many residents.
The latest figures show 633 rehoming offers have been made to the 207 households. All of those who have engaged with the council have received at least one offer. Of these, 55 have moved into permanent accommodation and 49 have accepted offers but are in temporary homes and hotels while they wait for sales to complete and flats to be redecorated.
A further 60 are in temporary accommodation while they decide on their offer and the remaining 43 are in emergency accommodation. Fewer than 10 households decided not to engage with officials.
Mr Quirk believes the survivors are right to demand housing. “I think people should continue to advocate for the interests of survivors who haven’t yet been housed. I’ve got no problem with their impatience. They should be impatient. It’s terrible that we have a situation where we haven’t found properties that are suitable. A lot of that is about scarcity. But I don’t achieve anything by making impractical, infeasible demands on our own organisation.”
The council has purchased 300 properties, the vast majority in the Grenfell area. Mr Quirk is optimistic that the 103 households that have not accepted offers will do so by the first anniversary of the fire. “We should be in that position,” he said.
The council is working with residents on improvement plans for the Lancaster West estate, still dominated by the burnt-out hulk of the tower, and providing psychological support to residents as the public inquiry begins. The tenant management organisation, responsible for 9,000 homes, has been temporarily brought in-house. Redoing fire risk assessments is a priority.
Local elections will be held in May and Labour is campaigning hard to tip the balance of power in the borough, usually solidly Conservative. Mr Quirk said he was “prepared for any eventuality” and was “very confident” of a smooth transition whoever wins.
Of the link between town halls and communities, he said public officials have become “too detached” from locals, especially those in social housing. “We can’t worry about our reputation,” he said. “We’ve got to worry about our impact on the real world.”
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “Ministers have been clear that it’s vitally important that the council works quickly and carefully to find suitable permanent accommodation for those affected from Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk following the Grenfell Tower fire.”