London fire: May's office rebukes council for ending meeting

The British prime minister's office rebuked a local government council Friday for abandoning a meeting on the fatal high-rise fire in west London because journalists were present, as pressure increased for more accountability in the disaster that killed at least 80 people.

Theresa May's Downing Street office criticized the borough of Kensington and Chelsea for aborting its first council Cabinet meeting since the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Citing a ruling from Britain's High Court, May's office pointed out that it was vital for people to retain confidence in democratic systems.

"The High Court ruled that the meeting should be open and we would have expected the council to respect that," the prime minister's office said in a statement.

The council, which owns Grenfell Tower, also faced criticism Friday after reports that it chose a more flammable material over another in renovating the building to save money. Built in 1974, Grenfell Tower had recently been refurbished to add cladding to conserve energy and improve the look of the building

A report Friday in the Times of London cited documents showing that the council chose aluminum composite panels for the renovation project rather than a non-combustible zinc alternative. The decision saved the council around 300,000 pounds ($390,000), the Times said.

The panels are part of the exterior cladding blamed by many experts for allowing the fire to rapidly spread throughout the building, trapping many residents in their homes before firefighters could reach them. It may be the end of the year before the final death toll is known.

Tests conducted on panels from around the country have revealed that 149 samples have failed fire safety tests — a 100-percent failure rate. An independent panel formed to address fire safety advised landlords to follow interim measures involving checks and precautions, but didn't require the immediate removal of all cladding.

The Downing Street comments will put pressure on council leader Nicholas Paget-Brown, who on Thursday abruptly ended the first Cabinet meeting since the June 14 disaster. Paget-Brown initially sought to bar journalists from the meeting, then scrapped the session after media organizations won an injunction allowing reporters to be present.

Paget-Brown said that the presence of the media would "prejudice" a public inquiry into the disaster planned by the central government.

Opposition Labour Party Councilor Robert Atkinson, whose ward includes Grenfell Tower, challenged Paget-Brown loudly, yelling: "An absolute fiasco, this is why I am calling for your resignation."

Amid a mounting cry for accountability, the chief executive of the organization which manages Grenfell Tower has agreed to "step aside" to assist with a public inquiry into the fire. Another senior council official, Nicholas Holgate, chief executive of the Kensington and Chelsea council, has already been forced from his post.

Paget-Brown has acknowledged that things had gone wrong in dealing with the aftermath of the fire and apologized.

Frustration has been high in the north Kensington neighborhood as people left homeless struggled to put their lives back together. They've protested their treatment, accusing the government of ineptitude and lack of concern for their plight.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan London said residents felt let down — and that the meeting on Thursday had done little to change hearts and minds.

"The lack of confidence in the local authority has not been restored since the fire," he said. "The idea that the first discussion from the council, that the meeting should be behind closed doors and then is abandoned because of a court order, beggars belief."

The depth of need for the victims is great. The Red Cross said that 3.2 million pounds ($4.15 million) had been raised, and that excess donations of clothing and other goods would be distributed to charity shops nationwide to raise more cash for those who had lost everything.

Authorities have been at pains to promise accountability for the donated funds, and police have said they would "robustly investigate" anyone who tried to capitalize on the suffering of so many.

In the first such action, authorities charged Anh Nhu Nguyen, 52, on suspicion of fraud by false representation. Police said he tried to claim financial compensation by saying he had lost his wife and son in the blaze, and conned charities and the council. An investigation found that he lived in another part of London and didn't have a wife or son.

Nguyen didn't enter a plea Friday at Westminster Magistrates' Court and has been ordered to remain in custody.