An outsider assessing Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKC) from a distance can be forgiven for believing that the council has become a more progressive, liberal, and democratic institution since the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017. This illusion is sustained by the local authority’s exhaustive public relations policy and an absence of political or media scrutiny. In this induced amnesia, RBKC keeps a firm grip on North Kensington. But the council’s approach to the north is arguably more regressive and undemocratic than at any time in its history. A study conducted in the early years of the borough sheds light on the dynamics at play.
In 1963, the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea was formed by a merger of the separate K and C boroughs through the London Government Act. In 1967, Professor John Dearlove of the University of Sussex began researching the relationship between RBKC’s decision-makers and those seeking to influence policy, referred to as interest groups. For years, Professor Dearlove attended council meetings and learned about community issues, publishing his findings first in an academic journal[i] and later in a book[ii].
In the 1968 local elections, London turned blue, the Conservatives winning control of 28 councils to Labour’s three. The 2022 results reflect a changed city with just six councils controlled by the Tories and 21 by Labour. But RBKC stands apart from the wider city, remaining a Conservative safe seat throughout, and the only remaining Tory council in inner London. But it has been a divided borough, with North Kensington council wards tending to vote Labour, and two now-abolished parliamentary constituencies, Kensington North, and Regent’s Park & Kensington North, returning only Labour MPs to the Commons between 1945 and 2010.
The stark contrasts of the borough were present from its inception. The London Housing Survey in 1968 stated: “one of the most distinctive features about the Royal Borough […] the sharp contrast between North Kensington and the rest of the Borough”[iii]
Professor Dearlove noted the north’s higher number of manual labourers, its overcrowded homes, lack of open spaces, and higher proportion of children. Relating these disparities to his research, Dearlove saw the social, economic, cultural, and political divide between the north and the rest of the borough reflected in the contrasting interest groups interacting with council decision-makers, with northern residents inclined to seek innovation, change, and sometimes the reversal of the council’s policies.
Dearlove expanded the previously accepted definition of an interest group – private associations promoting their interests by seeking to influence policy rather than by nominating candidates for election – to incorporate groups who might not articulate specific demands but whose interests were already being attended to in policy and who wanted to keep it that way.
Dearlove heard Conservative councillors express preordained preferences for which policies should be pursued. Ideological biases “frequently served as arguments which were used by councillors to reject policy lines…urged on them by interest groups or the minority party.”[iv]
Dearlove gave examples: one was a petition from residents of a North Kensington block of flats who wanted the council to purchase the properties following the financial collapse of the owner, Davies Investments. The residents wanted RBKC to either administer the block or sell it at a profit to a housing association. Housing associations were keen, and the district valuer had set a price at which RBKC could have compulsorily purchased the building. But the council rejected this idea on ideological grounds and the flats were bought by a private developer. A Tory councillor explained: “the people who have acquired the property are property experts and know what they are doing and should be left to get on with it.”[v]
At another meeting, Conservative councillors rejected a proposal to charge rates (what we now call council tax) on empty residential properties, with one councillor stating that to charge a landlord in such circumstances would be unfair because it would deter them from “trying to let it at the highest price.”[vi]
RBKC’s Duty – 1968
The revolutionary fervour of 1968, in the United States, across Europe, even in Powis Square, must have felt a long way away from Kensington Town Hall for Dearlove when he interviewed 47 Conservative councillors and officers that Summer. He found that RBKC decision-makers judged interest groups based on three factors: who they were; their policy demands and their style of presentation.
Dearlove’s interviews revealed that councillors and officers considered it their duty to ensure:
- The council played “a fairly small role…limited to the provision of statutory services.”
- Low public expenditure, to meet the “needs of the ratepayers” (i.e. low council tax).
- Balancing “providing for the underprivileged, housing and welfare services” with not “overburdening” car owners, ratepayers, a “certain type of resident.”
- “The value of self-help, self-reliance and voluntary collective effort as opposed to government activity in the solution of public problems.”
- Promoting and maximising the private administration of housing.
A council officer told Dearlove that the council could easily do more for residents, but stated: “we don’t make much use of permissive legislation, and that’s policy…every year it somehow comes about that only the essential is considered.”[vii]
League Table of Interests – 1968
The academic asked RBKC’s representatives to rank 20 local interest groups that had been active in ‘67 and ‘68. At the bottom of the league table, the groups considered ‘not helpful’ by the Conservatives, were Kensington & Chelsea Tenants Association and Kensington & Chelsea Inter-Racial Council. Dearlove: “The acceptance of those groups would involve not only the imposition of an additional burden on the council but could also involve the possible reversal of existing commitments.”[viii]
At the top of the table were interest groups whose presence in the public sphere jived easily with RBKC’s “favourable attitude to the voluntary principle, low taxation and private collective effort rather than government effort in the solution of public problems.”[ix] These favoured groups provided information and services that supported decision makers’ existing policy preferences; those who “instead of just shouting, get down to doing something”[x] as one councillor put it.
These preferred groups included Kensington Housing Trust and Campden Charities. RBKC’s motivation? From housing trusts, the council made money on loan interest as well as being relieved of some of the responsibility of providing affordable homes; charities likewise provided certain essential services, enabling the council to focus on its ideological priorities. Dearlove found an exact match between the favoured interest groups and the council’s policy predispositions. Moreover, favoured groups were found to use styles of communication considered “proper and correct” by RBKC, specifically they would raise concerns by contacting a local councillor “in a quiet, non-public way”[xi]. No favoured groups ever organised protests, campaigned via the media, or submitted petitions. All of these means were considered “a form of pressure”[xii] and therefore were dismissed, along with those who practised them.
What does it mean to have an impact locally? For Dearlove, it meant a group being able to influence policy. For certain interest groups in the north who didn’t pass RBKC’s three filters of approval (who they were, their policy demands, and their style of communicating) this meant watering down their demands and style of communication to have a chance of impacting policy. Such contortions caused groups and individuals to lose grassroots credibility and forego the support needed to represent others in the pursuit of change.
Dearlove’s research identified RBKC’s default setting: low taxes and clean streets for the rich; the bare minimum permitted under the law for the rest. This level of class bias triggered occasional pushback. Dearlove witnessed four instances of what he described as “fairly anomic interest articulation”[xiii] from the public being met with the mayor clearing the public gallery on the basis of “disorder.”
The public was permitted to attend council meetings “but they may not participate or take part”[xiv] the mayor told them.
The earlier quote from a Tory councillor in 1968 – “instead of just shouting, get down to doing something” – was no isolated utterance. In 1967, the leader of the council lost patience with the Kensington & Chelsea Council Tenants Association, telling them publicly that RBKC were “not bad landlords (and) when we’ve had bad relations it’s because the tenants are communist-led and egged-on by their councillors.”[xv]
This ambivalence and anger towards campaigners for better conditions has remained a feature of local dynamics. It was reprised recently by Cllr Taylor-Smith, Deputy Council Leader and Lead Member for Grenfell, Housing and Property, by far the most consequential politician in post-2017 North Kensington. Facing the complaint that the council’s Grenfell Assembly had little or nothing to do with Grenfell, Taylor-Smith claimed: “it is often one of a small, but very vocal group, who are very much against any Council initiatives, but do not represent popular opinion.”
There’s no room here to run through the track record of RBKC’s ‘change’ policy instituted after the Grenfell Tower fire. But the impact of the council’s refusal to implement fundamental change has undoubtedly contributed to the most neglected areas of the north of the borough sliding deeper into poverty[xvi].
Compared to Dearlove’s findings from the early years of the borough, post-Grenfell RBKC presents a more complex picture, partly due to the public relations approach the council deploys, which, by definition, is deceptive and confusing. While 1960s council decision-makers were clear about their priorities, at least in their interviews with the academic, the 2017-2022 iteration has found new ways to disregard the communities and interest groups of the north, while simultaneously peddling a story of ‘culture change’.
Have a look at the council’s management structure (before the May 2022 elections):
Most attending meetings with RBKC councillors and officers experience this structure as a web spun to keep decision-making from local people who don’t pass the three filters. For example, under ‘Directors/service heads reporting to Executive Director of Environment and Communities’ we see Tunde Olayinka, Director For Communities. This officer hosted The Curve Community Meeting in February, a trauma-fest in which local people were offered no means to impact the decision to close the council’s primary Grenfell recovery centre.
The role of the Director For Communities at this meeting was not to direct anything, least of all the communities in that room. The agenda was printed on cheap off-white paper, the flyer featured all the vocabulary that signals an official con: “Help decide,” “come and influence,” “really need you and your local knowledge and expertise,” “a chance for the Grenfell-affected community to come together to start co-designing the new Curve Residents’ Steering Group,” “oversee the budget,” “community conversation,” “be involved,” “process of co-designing” and more. Written by people who use words as a means of reinforcing process, rather than to accurately describe something, it was propaganda, the defining characteristic of RBKC’s communications.
The RBKC management structure forms a vortex, sucking in ideas that then vanish because the people whose minds produced them aren’t considered worthy. The three filters identified by Professor Dearlove live on.
Comparing RBKC in 2022 with Dearlove’s observations of the 1968 iteration, it can be argued that the current council is actually worse in terms of its openness to democracy and empowerment of people in the north of the borough. Let’s stick with The Curve to provide some evidence.
In 2018 a board of governors was appointed to The Curve, by way of interviews conducted by pillars of local civil society. The governors were there, ostensibly, to hold the council to account over its management of this focal point of post-fire activity. I was one of those governors, on a board that was approximately representative of North Kensington’s demographics. We quickly realised we weren’t governing anything. Understanding the value of space and buildings to the community’s future, and in a bid to salvage something from months of frustrating engagement with RBKC, we drew up a proposal to turn The Curve into something very different to the trauma incubator it had become.
Looking at Dearlove’s definition of RBKC’s three filters (who we were, our policy demands, our style of communicating) you would think that The Curve’s governors might have stood a chance at influencing policy.
Who we were: governors of the council’s own building, appointed by the council via their chosen interview panel.
Our policy proposal: With initial financial support from the council, The Curve would become an independent centre for both trauma recovery and employability in the industries of the future for North Kensington residents. The key features of the proposal were to make The Curve a centre of genuine holistic recovery and to offer serious options and guidance for young people seeking to upskill and engage fully in the economy.
Our style of communication: We presented a business plan containing frequent references to entrepreneurship and enabling people to become economically self-sufficient.
Of the three filters, only the policy proposal filter can explain RBKC’s rejection. As with 1968, an interest group that wanted to see transformative policy was rejected by the council. The governors’ proposed business plan was potentially transformative for local people and would have guaranteed a building for long-term community use. But, in a meeting with the Executive Director of RBKC’s Grenfell Team, Robyn Fairman, the proposal was not even considered. Decisions on The Curve were made at the Town Hall and anything that didn’t match what had been preordained wasn’t of interest.
Fairman absorbed some of the verbiage of the governors’ vision into the council’s austerity plan for the area before leaving with a pay-off of just under £500,000 of taxpayers’ money in 2021.
With The Curve closed, the empty building is an allegory for an institution stuck in another era, regressive and undemocratic. Meanwhile, local communities aren’t stuck for solutions and ideas. Yet we continue to be frustrated and disempowered.
By Tom Charles @tomhcharles
Thanks to Sara Soliman Riaño