May says sorry to Grenfell Tower fire victims for lack of support
By Laura Smith-Spark and Angela Dewan
LONDON (CNN) — UK Prime Minister Theresa May apologized Wednesday for the government’s failure to give families the help they needed after the devastating fire that gutted a high-rise apartment building in London last week.
“The whole country was heartbroken by the horrific loss of life and the utter devastation that we have seen,” May told lawmakers following the official opening of a new session of Parliament.
“Let me be absolutely clear. The support on the ground for families in the initial hours was not good enough. People were left without belongings, without roofs over their heads, without even basic information about what had happened, what they should do and where they could seek help.
“That was a failure of the state — local and national — to help people when they needed it most. As Prime Minister, I apologize for that failure. And as Prime Minister, I’ve taken responsibility for doing what we can to put things rights.”
Protesters who marched in London as Queen Elizabeth II formally opened the new session of Parliament called for justice for the victims of the blaze at Grenfell Tower and warned against any coverup as investigators probe what happened.
May conceded Saturday after meeting with some of the survivors at Downing Street that the initial response “was not good enough.”
Her statement Wednesday spells out further how the residents will be helped. The measures include:
Each family to receive a down payment from emergency fund Everyone to be rehoused within three weeks An independent public inquiry to be chaired by a judge All those with an interest, including the survivors and victims’ families, to be consulted and help with legal costs provided
May said it was clear that the local authority, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, could not cope with the disaster and that steps would be taken to improve future efforts.
“We will also develop a new strategy for resilience in major disasters, which could include a new civil disaster response task force that can help at times of emergency,” she said.
At least 79 people are dead or missing and presumed dead following the fire that tore through the 24-story Grenfell Tower, home to 125 families, in the early hours of June 14.
As well as the public inquiry announced by the government, the police have launched a criminal investigation into the blaze.
Luxury apartment complex
As efforts continue to find permanent housing for those made homeless by the fire, the government said Wednesday that 68 apartments in a luxury London housing complex in Kensington Row would be allocated to Grenfell Tower residents.
The acquisition of the flats, built as new social housing within the swish development, was a “significant step” toward meeting its promise of rehousing families from Grenfell Tower within the local area, it said in a news release.
Prices for apartments in the complex, located about 1½ miles south of Grenfell Tower in a highly desirable area, start at £1.6 million ($2 million) for private buyers, according to Britain’s Guardian newspaper. Photographs of show apartments for sale highlight their plush interiors and extensive views over London.
The homes acquired by the government will be a mix of one, two and three bedroom flats across two blocks, the news release said.
Extra construction staff have been taken on in a bid to get the social housing apartments ready as soon as possible, it added, with work due to be finished by the end of July.
“The residents of Grenfell Tower have been through some of the most harrowing and traumatic experiences imaginable and it is our duty to support them,” Communities Secretary Sajid Javid said in a news release.
“Our priority is to get everyone who has lost their home permanently rehoused locally as soon as possible, so that they can begin to rebuild their lives. The government will continue to do everything we can as fast as we can to support those affected by this terrible tragedy.”
While the affordable housing won’t be as luxurious as those for private sale, the news release states that “each home will be fully furnished and completed to a high specification.”
Authorities are carrying out housing need assessments before offering apartments to those made homeless by the fire, with 110 done so far.
CNN’s Lorenzo D’Agostino contributed to this report.