Cllr Elizabeth Campbell is the Leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council.
As Boris Johnson wrapped up his speech to close the 2021 Conference in Manchester, I couldn’t help but reflect on the predicament local authorities find themselves in, here in London.
For weeks now, Councils of all political persuasions (yes, even Lib Dems control Councils here in the capital) have been all hands on deck to help evacuees from Afghanistan who started arriving after military troops pulled out of Kabul in August.
The Prime Minister said:
“I am really proud to be part of a Conservative government that will welcome 20,000 Afghan people who risked their lives to guide us and translate for us.”
Well, if operation Warm Welcome is to be the success it should be, we need Government – in particular the Home Office – to remain committed until every last evacuee is rehoused and settled in the UK.
So far, truth be told, we have been rather underwhelmed.
This is not yet another tale of yet another Council whinging about funding. It is a tale of how local authorities, like my own, step forward and take on challenges presented to them, and work with communities, volunteers, charities, and other organisations to meet those challenges – often rapidly, dynamically, and in difficult circumstances.
Here in Kensington and Chelsea, we launched an evacuee support team, a bespoke service set up from scratch pulling resources from across all departments and projects. We did this in a matter of days, with officers stepping forward from other roles, working extra hours in many cases, and teaming up with those in our professional services such as social care and education.
This team moved into hotels and has now offered support to some 800 individuals, from helping to establish ID and making sure people have clothes and medication, to helping people with directions, things to do with their children, and signposting services that organisations can provide across London.
We didn’t do this for recognition, we did it because we care.
I have visited the hotels currently in operation and catering for evacuees. Listening to harrowing stories from evacuees, it is impossible not to care about the individuals as they tell us how much they want to get on here in the UK, contribute, find work, educate their children, and support each other.
I am also extremely proud of the staff who work tirelessly to support them. It is my intention to make sure we maintain a level of support for families, but it is growing more difficult by the day.
We are now being advised that some families may be in hotels for many months to come, perhaps even longer, as suitable housing is found around the country for them. Government will of course recognise that hotels are not a place for families to reside long term, especially if some people are suffering from trauma or have medical issues or disabilities.
We hope the Government will be pulling out all the stops to rehouse them quickly, not delay and dither, or seek to blame local authorities for not coming forward – when many have already stepped forward to help, including us.
We want to work together, take joint responsibility, and we want to see Government get the funding right, get the support right, communicate better with the families and the organisations involved in the support.
If this is a long-term effort – which it will be – let’s recognise this and make sure local authorities have the support to lead locally and on the ground. We are the key to making sure Operation Warm Welcome remains just what we all wanted it to be.