Few people can have been unmoved by the terrible events at Grenfell Tower in west London. The images and stories that have emerged since Wednesday morning have been truly shocking.
There have been heartening tales of incredible heroism and acts of kindness, of a community pulling together in the face of disaster. As we have seen other communities in London and Manchester do when violence of a different sort has been inflicted on life and limb.
But now there is also understandable anger in the local community over the way in which residents’ concerns about safety were ignored . Distress that lives could have been saved if the community had been listened to; if it had been involved instead of excluded from decisions made over many, many years. And understandable apprehension and fear among communities in similar circumstances across the country for whom this experience feels all too familiar.
The public inquiry announced by the Government must surely look into this aspect of the tragedy if it is to fulfill its duty in the public interest. It must engage and involve the community in a way that ensures public confidence in its conclusions and that the ‘lessons learned’ (how I hate that hollow phrase) will be acted upon. It must be conscious of the role it can play in the healing process beyond words on paper. It may even do some good for community involvement in general.
For, in some ways, the unfolding events of the last few days tells you much about the muddled state of public involvement across civic society in the UK. On the one hand, of communities brought to the precipice by a lack of respect and regard for their right to be involved in decisions. On the other hand, of their continued resilience and ability to overcome whatever is thrown in their way in spite of this, of the willingness of others from far afield to show their support. I suspect that some politicians and policy-makers fear the former and romanticise about the latter. Neither is a good basis on which to build bridges with, and work alongside communities.
A similar thought occurred to me at a public involvement meeting in London last month albeit in a different context. There I heard about the inexorable disappearance of a whole support network of local voluntary and other organisations, traded off by local authorities against supposedly more efficient commissioning of services. The running assumption being that people will pull together because they always do. It is risky ground to be heading into to put it mildly. It is no foundation for social policy.
It just so happens that on Wednesday morning the team of people I was with were each asked to tell their personal story of public involvement. It was a very powerful moment for me, I heard stories of involvement and activism from colleagues with whom I have worked with for ages for the first time: more than 150 years of experience – no, I should say, passion, commitment and achievement – was in the room and that is just a rough estimate. But perhaps beneath it all was the usual angst about whether we were individually and collectively making a difference.
I encourage you to sit down with a colleague in the next few days and also share your public involvement stories whether it be in health, social care, housing, whatever. We are allowed our moments of personal and professional apprehension about what we are doing. But we should never be put off our stride by the voices that say public involvement is fluffy, vague, surplus to requirements or plain old political correctness. Two fingers to that.
If anything, the last few days tell us that there are times when community and public involvement may actually be a matter of life and death.
Have a peaceful weekend.