This week: Barry Quirk, chief executive of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea 

Why he matters: Mr Quirk is one of the UK’s most respected public sector leaders and thinkers. A longtime chief executive at the London borough of Lewisham, the Grenfell fire in June 2017 saw him move north of the Thames to shoulder the biggest challenge of his career.


Barry Quirk vividly remembers watching Grenfell Tower burn after receiving a message from his son telling him to turn the television on.  

“It was the most terrible thing I’d ever seen.” 

The chair of a tenants’ association before he began his storied career in local government, he could not believe people in London in the 21st century were dying “in their own home, which they’ve rented from the council”. 

This, he felt, made Grenfell different from previous tragedies in the capital — such as the Marchioness disaster — because it involved “a collapse of the state compact [to] keep people secure”. 

The next day, the then Lewisham chief executive offered to help in “any way he could”.  
Within a week, he was advising his beleaguered Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea counterpart and, within two, he had taken over the job on an interim basis. 

Mr Quirk remembers he “had just written a chapter in a book on the importance of empathy and ethics in public service” and that, despite being about to “wind down into retirement”, claims he “never thought” about saying ‘no’ to the offer once his major had agreed. 

He acknowledges the fact he did not have a “career to make” made his decision to step into the interim role easier, but “the moral arguments and what I could contribute” were his only real motivators. 

Mr Quirk was on the ground so quickly at RBK&C that almost all of his initial focus had to be on finding the surviving Grenfell residents “good quality, temporary accommodation” and then permanent homes. 

The council focused on “the immediate demands of accountability” to the Grenfell residents, and learned to “improvise” so that even its “very good” disaster response plans did not fail that test. 

Mr Quirk quickly realised the council would have to be sensitive to the emerging politics of the situation. 

“All disasters have a very strong political dimension to them,” says the RBK&C CEO, but, at Grenfell, the fire quickly became “a totem about inequality, about the indifference towards social housing. 

“All disasters reveal prior grievances and discontent and, of course, elevate and amplify it. That’s completely right and understandable. They also draw comment from national commentators, journalists and others.” 

This meant that even while the council was trying to “solve the immediate problems”, it was aware “people were writing books and columns and making films”. 

Mr Quirk advised his colleagues to keep their eyes on the ball: “I said, ‘Look, this event has its causes and it has causes of its causes, [but] we’re not here to deal with [them]. We’re here to deal with the immediate consequences and to make sure that the follow up consequences work. We’re here to deal with recovery and we’ve got to make that right.’” 

This approach did not stop Mr Quirk challenging individuals about “commentary that was unhelpful to the practicality of getting things done”.  

Encouraged by incoming RBK&C leader Elizabeth Campbell, the council decided, in Mr Quirk’s words, to “be fully disclosing, open to scrutiny, open to challenge” — despite the difficulties this would inevitably create in such a fevered atmosphere. 

This approach, he says, meant the borough was able to avoid the siege mentality so often adopted by public organisations under pressure. 

This active “disclosing” inevitably generated more inquiry, which in turn meant an increase in the council employees involved in answering those questions. 

“We were criticised for having too many people dealing with [media and other enquiries], but I’m afraid that’s what you have to do.” 

Not since Aberfan

Even while he directed his new council to resolutely focus on “practical” efforts during 2017, Mr Quirk knew the fire would change the borough forever and the local authority would have to respond to that. The local government veteran believes you must go back more than 50 years to the Aberfan disaster to find a “catastrophe” likely to leave such a mark on a specific place. 

After about six months at RBK&C, with the initial emergency over, Mr Quirk sent a message to staff. It said: “None of us leaves our personal selves at the door when we arrive at work. We not only bring our talents and experience with us, we also bring our personal values and humanity.” It added council employees should “act differently and be seen to act differently. Only then will we begin to renew our moral purpose of improving the lives of all residents of Kensington and Chelsea.” 

The message was criticised by some as playing to a simplistic ‘before and after’ agenda. Mr Quirk remembers his intention differently. 
“The essential point I was making is that when it came to the challenges that we were facing in trying to respond to [the fire], we had to be ‘other-regarding’ not full of professional ‘self-regard’. Local government has lots of professional groups, planners, accountants, auditors and social workers, for examples. People owe their fidelity to their profession, not necessarily to their institution, nor to the place that they’re serving.  
“My point [was that] our obligation was not to worry about what people were saying we did [or did not do], but about what we’re doing now [to help resolve problems]. If we can be more ‘other-regarding’, then we’ll operate in ways that are more trustworthy. The only way we will build credibility is by acting [in this manner] day by day by day.” 

Mr Quirk set off to talk to as many staff groups as he could. 

His plea was that RBK&C would be “better defined by our response than we are defined by the tragedy itself, and that is therefore up to us to respond positively to this challenge”. 

In taking this approach, Mr Quirk was attempting to appeal beyond the “grooved, professional behaviour of people to their intrinsic motivation, about why they joined public service in the first place”. 

He told his staff the fire had created “the most, intense, acute level of stress and trauma and need experienced by the public [and the way] in which we respond to that will define us and we will help define the changing nature of public sector professionalism”. 

Mr Quirk’s goal was for his colleagues to draw as much “professional self-esteem” from how much people thought they cared as from how much they knew.  

In social work, for example, the challenge the department accepted was that while continuing to deliver a technically “excellent” service, it should find a way to “demonstrate through their actions that they are intrinsically motivated to help and support [service users]”. 

But improving the emotional intelligence of the organisation was not the only challenge. Mr Quirk began to realise the council, despite many good services, was “less than [the] sum of its parts” and that a greater focus needed to be placed on internal and external collaboration. 

Mr Quirk is keen to stress his intention was “to challenge the pre-existing culture and to make it more coherent and corporate [as well as caring], not to reduce subject expertise and professionalism. You can’t do good if you’re not good.” 

He explains: “The key thing is that we redefine the added value of the public sector [from a] transactional relationship with people to a relational [one]. 

“We’ve just got [an] outstanding [rating] in children’s services… and at the heart of [the rating] is not [just] that the service is excellent, it’s [that] the relationships between social workers and the families are excellent. And that creates the conditions for really good quality practice.”

Redefining fairness 

One of the ways in which the council decided to show it cared was by taking “collective ownership” for meeting the needs of the Grenfell survivors and other borough residents. 

Housing in the borough had been outsourced to a management company. This arrangement was ended, and the service brought back in-house. Consent was also key. Permission to take every step was sought from the Grenfell survivors.  

Crucially for RBK&C, Mr Quirk felt the council could not simply rely on its democratic “legitimacy”. 

The power “to close this down, close that down, to do this, to decide that, doesn’t simply come through the ballot box”, he says.  

“Elections help legitimacy because it gives democratic accountability.” But, as trust in politicians has “corroded”, that accountability has become “fragile”.  

Public bodies, he says, must “build a licence to operate… with the people most affected [by that operation]”.  

It was while pondering this Mr Quirk had perhaps his biggest revelation. 

“I realised that my previous approaches to fairness wouldn’t work here.” 

Throughout his long career, Mr Quirk had taken the traditional “rules-based” approach to making decisions. 

Whereas in the NHS this usually involves following clinical best practice, in local government, explains Mr Quirk, the focus is on consequences.  

“[For example], do we knock down a building to the disbenefit of the people living next to it, if there is a broader benefit to the hundreds of people around them? And if we do, how do we [fairly] compensate the people that are losing [out]?  

However, the RBK&C chief executive realised the scale and nature of the wrong done to the Grenfell survivors had “never occurred before” and was not covered by “the conventional calculus” used to make “fair” decisions. 

The council had, for example, to “set aside the conventions” about who got housed, where and when. Whatever the claims of other RBK&C residents or those wanting access to scarce council resources, “the survivors and bereaved from Grenfall had suffered a much greater unfairness”. 

This meant making some very tough decisions. The royal borough is the “most expensive part of the country”, remarks Mr Quirk, adding that “not one of the managers I employ can afford to live here” and favouring one group inevitably had serious consequences.  

As time went on, Mr Quirk and colleagues sought to learn lessons from other communities who had suffered similar cataclysms.  

“We learned a lot internationally, particularly in America where natural hazards create a lot of these disasters,” he remembers, adding valuable lessons were also gained from studying the response to earthquakes in New Zealand and recent disasters on the continent. 

Mr Quirk is full of praise for the NHS’ response to Grenfell. 

He says he worked “more closely with the mental health trust [Central and North West London] in the first six months [following the fire] than in 20 years at Lewisham”. 

As well as supporting those directly affected by the tragedy, the council took care to make sure its staff were able to shoulder the considerable emotional burden the aftermath of the fire created for many — including those not working in housing or the response to the disaster. 

Lessons were learned from professions such as fire-fighting and social work, which had well-established support systems   

“We invested a lot in people’s psychotherapeutic support,” says Mr Quirk, “and continue to do that.”  

The interview over, Mr Quirk stops HSJ as we head for the door. He is keen the piece mentions he is not seeking to pretend he has all the answers and any success the council may have had since his arrival has many authors. Reflecting one last time on the response to the 2017 tragedy, he comments: “We’re still in the middle of it.” 


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