On becoming leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council a month after the Grenfell Tower fire disaster, Elizabeth Campbell promised change. In a brief speech to fellow councillors and victims of the fire in July, Campbell used the word ‘change’ eleven times. Considering Campbell’s own role in the council’s sustained asset strip of North Kensington, the words were never convincing. But they were rendered meaningless in January when the council tried to sell a vital community building to property developers to build flats for the rich. In failing to push through the sale, the Conservative council now looks weaker than ever.
Early this year K & C council were moving full steam ahead with their plans to sell Canalside House, home to numerous local charities, community groups, small businesses, and a hub of support for victims of the June 14th fire. Plans to sell the historic building on Ladbroke Grove and move its residents to a wholly unsuitable replacement on Latimer Road were put on hold following the fire, after resident organisations pointed out to the council that they had been filling in the gaps vacated by the local authority in providing emergency relief work and supporting the North Kensington community.
How do we know about the plans to sell? A council scrutiny committee meeting was filmed and posted online (the Canalside section starts after two hours). The details are in this Urban Dandy article.
An Executive Decision was issued by the council: Canalside was to be sold to developers to build flats, none of which would be social housing or realistically affordable for most people.
In addition, the move, which was instigated in 2016 by the sleight of hand of disgraced former deputy leader of the council, Rock Feilding-Mellen, was an existential threat to most of the Canalside residents as they would be unable to operate in an absurd hot-desking arrangement, in a small building, away from decent transport links.
The 2018 decision to sell Canalside represented a resumption of long-standing policies of asset-stripping community resources and properties in North Kensington. After a short post-fire hiatus, the council’s true agenda was back: a shock doctrine for a community reeling and traumatised.
At the January committee meeting, the council, represented by Deputy Leader Kim Taylor-Smith, Councillor Matthew Palmer and Director of Corporate Property, Richard Egan, told a series of lies to try to push the sale through. They lied about having consulted residents, they lied about the residents’ feedback, they lied about the state of the building. They closed ranks and derided the whimper of dissent from the Labour councillors present as “a banal conversation”. Drawing on vast reserves of conceit, they huffed at the tepid opposition, they puffed at the questions, but they could not blow Canalside House down…or strip it from the community and gift it to property developers. Behind the bluster, something was wrong, something had changed.
The three men at the council meeting displayed the presumption of divine right that Conservative Party toffs love to lord over their supposed inferiors. The bullying tactics they employed were as chilling to observers as the decision itself.
Following a tyrannical templete: they attempted to achieve something clearly against the interests of the population; behaved as if it was in the interests of the population; ridiculed any opposition to the plan; hung on to the last possible moment; then when the diabolical plan was no longer politically viable, abandoned it and stated that there was never any intention of doing it really, claiming that they are in fact wholehearted, community-minded folk just like you ‘n’ me.
How did these people survive, politically, the national disaster of the Grenfell Tower fire and their botched response? They were propped up by the desperate minority national government, no doubt. But these individuals, remarkable only in their unremarkableness, have clung to power in Kensington, despite being apparently responsible for a political agenda that wrapped Grenfell Tower in highly flammable material in pursuit of profit, threatened legal action against residents who warned of the fire risk, and then left the community itself to marshal the emergency response.
What makes these well-to-do politicians want to stay in what is, ostensibly at least, pubic service? The answer may be that they are broken people, empathy driven out of them first by the private education system, then by a fanatical belief in capital and wealth. Kensington became a goldmine, rather than a community. To retain a sense of self, and to maintain their positions of power, which come with lucrative spin-off careers, these politicians are required to tell lies to their constituents on behalf of the people they truly serve: the obscenely wealthy, often referred to as the one percent. The council of Kensington and Chelsea are the class enemies of most residents the borough, certainly those in North Kensington.
Before we are accused of descending in to a speculative polemic, let’s get back to what is not up for debate…
How the Sale was Stopped
The residents of Canalside House and the Kensington and Chelsea Social Council wrote to the councillors expressing their unanimous rejection of the plans to sell the building and relocate residents. On the evening of Thursday February 8th, Urban Dandy published the story, detailing the objections of the residents and exposing the deceit of the council. The article was soon disseminated by local activists and there was a furious online response from the local population.
Overnight, the council did a 180. High-level meetings were cancelled; concerned people of power expressed their alarm to RBKC, and soon anybody involved was receiving emails like this:
I don’t know where they got my email address from, but the message was understood: stop telling people the truth. The propaganda I received came as a relief. Canalside was no longer being sold and the council publicly committed to its refurbishment. The building’s virtues were extolled by the same local government that had, so recently and so avariciously, written it off.
Dandies 1 Tories 0
So, the lies told to try to force the sale of a vital community asset were followed by lies so transparent as to lead concerned local residents to ask what is really going on. Why don’t they just state that they would love to sell off North Kensington’s community spaces but politically it is no longer viable? A whole community, seen as heroic by many after the response to the Grenfell fire, is being fobbed off with press releases and propaganda. They are trying to ‘manage’ us and our expectations. But we are not to be managed…
If Urban Dandy and a few committed community organisations can scare the Tory council into abandoning a multi-million pound property plan, think what North Kensington can achieve if it speaks with one voice. The council’s conceit was exposed: not only do they lack the talent and vision to run the borough, but they are also seriously wounded, politically, and now is the time to make demands and set an agenda for creating a thriving North Kensington for us and our children. Now is the time for vigilance and reckoning.
While the community has been forced to put in the hours to save Canalside, demand justice for Grenfell and hold the council to account, RBKC’s cabinet has continued to waste their lives in service to a rapacious agenda they probably cannot even identify, so profoundly internalised has it become. It is known to many as neo-liberalism, and it is deadly.
The local council and the Tory media want to “regain the trust” of the North Kensington population, but that is an unrealistic and ultimately meaningless goal. The issue is not trust, it is power. The Canalside capitulation tells us two things about the Conservatives in Kensington:
– They cannot be trusted
– They are weak and scared of your power
Kensington and Chelsea council have repeatedly claimed to have changed tack following the Grenfell Tower disaster. The community has called their bluff, and we have our collective foot on their neck. They can be booted out of office at the local election on May 3rd if enough people register to vote.
Perhaps, in a desperate late attempt to cling to power, the council leader will invoke the concept of change another eleven times. For her it is an abstraction, a word to be used to manipulate and deceive. For the North Kensington community, change is something we need and it is now something we now hold in our hands.
By Tom Charles
Thanks to Jen
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