This collaborative investigation explored the property dealings of Kensington and Chelsea in the run up to the Grenfell fire and brought to light significant new information about cash the council had to spend on the tower renovation works. For many months HuffPost UK, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and the BBC’s Local Democracy Reporting Service, worked to meticulously establish a timeline of financial decision making around Grenfell and the council’s property deals. This allowed us to reveal, for the first time, that the council had millions available to spend on the Grenfell works that it had not previously divulged.
Grenfell Tower survivor and long-standing campaigner Ed Daffarn told us following publication of our story that the information and data made public by our investigation had allowed campaigners to hold the council to account and ask questions in a way that wasn’t possible previously.
Daffarn and other campaigners said the investigation had unlocked new information about the financial priorities of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea at the time at which it was making crucial funding decisions about Grenfell Tower. Campaigners and survivors also said it vindicated their belief that the council was “acting like a property developer” before the disaster at Grenfell Tower. They questioned why the council appeared to have placed property development and profit before tenants’ safety.
In this way specifically, the investigation has enhanced the understanding of one key aspect of this horrific disaster. The investigation has also enhanced public knowledge about the financial decision making processes surrounding the Grenfell Tower renovation works and money that was available to the council.
In one key quote, Daffarn said of the findings of our investigation: “If they’d been properly focusing on fire safety, rather than focusing on this, then Grenfell might not have happened.” David Lammy MP also spoke in strong language about the importance of the investigation, saying: “If the council had used its £129m in property sales to renovate Grenfell Tower, rather than buying up other properties, 72 lives could have been saved. This forms part of a picture of gross negligence.”
The investigation had a readership of hundreds of thousands and was picked up by other news outlets including the BBC and Inside Housing. The decision making processes that led to the Grenfell fire are now the focus of Phase Two of The Grenfell Tower Inquiry.
This investigation focused on property deals made by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) in the years leading up to the Grenfell fire and how these related to the financing of the Grenfell Tower renovation works. It was an investigation very much prompted by data and led by data-driven reporting.
The investigation came about because The Bureau had gathered data using Freedom of Information requests which showed details of the properties that RBKC had bought and sold from April 2014 to July 2018. RBKC initially refused the FOI request but this decision was overturned following an internal review lodged by The Bureau. This data was not in the public domain and HuffPost UK and The Bureau both felt it raised significant questions about the financial resources available to RBKC for social housing renovations in the years leading up to the Grenfell disaster.
The data revealed by these FOIs showed how much money RBKC had spent buying properties and how much it had made from selling properties in the years preceding the fire. The data drove our reporting as we investigated how these property sales and purchases were linked to the Grenfell Tower renovation works.
RBKC had claimed that despite its healthy reserves it was restricted in accessing funds to carry out the Grenfell renovation works because of ring fencing. But our investigation showed it could have used more of the £129million it made from selling property to finance the Grenfell refurbishment. Our research analysing RBKC’s accounts showed the council had £37m, specifically from the sale of property, in the bank that could have supported the Grenfell budget at the time in July 2014 when decisions were being taken to install cheaper, less fire-retardant aluminium cladding on Grenfell Tower.
What was the hardest part of this project?
One of the major hurdles we had to overcome during this investigation was establishing the rules and regulations surrounding how councils can spend money made from selling property, and whether this money could be used to renovate social housing.
A key moment in the investigation came when we were able to establish that RBKC had used money from the sale of one of the properties in our data to pay for the majority of the Grenfell Tower renovation works. RBKC had previously claimed that despite its healthy reserves it was restricted in accessing funds to carry out the Grenfell renovation because of ring fencing. But if it had been able to use millions from the sale of one of its property to finance the works, why couldn’t it use more of the £129million it made from selling property?
We struggled to get any clarity from RBKC on this point. When our journalists first put these questions to the council, a cabinet chief suggested the money from property sales was ring fenced. Eventually the council said it worked to its understanding of the rules at the time.
We pushed further on this and eventually secured confirmation from government that RBKC was free to spend the £129m cash from property sales on the Grenfell renovation works if it had wanted to. We also forensically investigated council accounts to confirm that RBKC actually held £37million in its bank account from property sales at the time decisions about funding at Grenfell Tower were being taken.
Crucially this money was available when £300,000 was cut from the cladding budget, which led to cheaper more combustible cladding being added to the building. The cladding was a key contributor to the speed with which the fire tore through Grenfell Tower, killing 72 people and leaving hundreds homeless.
What can others learn from this project?
The core findings of our investigation show that RBKC had money from the sale of property that could have been used to prevent cost-cutting on the Grenfell Tower renovation works. Specifically, the council had £37million in the bank from the sale of property at the time when decisions were being taken to install cheaper, less fire-retardant cladding on Grenfell Tower.
Our findings show the council had greater flexibility over its funding of the Grenfell Tower works than has previously been known and show that RBKC could have chosen to use capital receipts from the sale of property to increase the budget for the Grenfell Tower renovation.
The core findings of the HuffPost UK, TBIJ and the BBC Local Democracy Reporting Service add to the understanding of the financial resources available to RBKC, specifically from capital receipts, at the time decisions were being made about the funding of the Grenfell Tower renovation works and specifically when discussions were underway in relation to cost savings on cladding for the building. The data also reveals more about the council’s investment priorities at this time.