In July an independent review of Kensington and Chelsea Council’s governance was concluded and the council adopted twelve recommended “principles of good governance” . To assess how the council has fared in applying their new democratic principles it is worth considering an ongoing example: Canalside House, the North Kensington community hub currently under threat of “demolition” by the local authority. Is there any evidence of a change of approach to the local community?
The Centre for Public Scrutiny, experts on effective decision-making, were commissioned to carry out the independent review, which was funded by the Local Government Association. RBKC welcomed the subsequent report and adopted “12 principles of good governance we should embed in the council.” The 12 Principles are bespoke, designed specifically for RBKC to act on its claims to want to “change” following the Grenfell Tower fire.
The council’s own report endorsing the CPS recommendations was titled ‘CHANGE AT THE COUNCIL: THE COUNCIL’S RESPONSE TO THE INDEPENDENT REVIEW OF GOVERNANCE’ (their capitals) came four months after the independent review, suggesting serious consideration and a real commitment to action on the part of the local authority, who stated: “the council recognises that it (sic) essential to put these principles into practice.” The council’s leadership are to be held to account on this by the Executive and Corporate Services Scrutiny Committee.
The council leaders who hold the relevant portfolios and who endorsed the report were Elizabeth Campbell (leader) and Cllr Gerard Hargreaves (responsible for Communities and Culture).
Have the 12 principles been put in to practice?
Canalside House is an acid test of whether “change” has come, is still in the post, or is just Newspeak.
The Canalside story can be read in more detail here, but in short, the building is one of the few remaining Kensington assets preserved for community use. It is under threat of demolition to make way for private housing developments out of the price range of most North Kensington residents.
We spoke with members of the Canalside User Group, which represents all the Canalside organisations, to discover whether or not the council has been putting its policy into practice.
Principle 1. “Connecting with Residents”
“The council hasn’t connected with us at all. They haven’t visited, but our building is to be demolished and us moved. They seem to want us to go to a hot-desking space, but that’s not suitable and would mean the end for most of us”.
2. “Focusing on What Matters”
“We work with vulnerable people, children, BME community groups, small businesses, we’re the lifeblood of North Kensington and support for Grenfell. But the council seems more focused on building unaffordable properties”.
3. “Listening to Many Voices”
“They haven’t listened to us. That would require them speaking to us and that hasn’t happened. We emailed Kim Taylor-Smith (deputy leader of RBKC) a few times but he didn’t get back to us until he decided to inform us our building would be ‘demolished’
It’s not just us, they have ignored local activists and the Kensington and Chelsea Social Council when they’ve asked about Canalside”.
4. “Acting with Integrity”
Kim Taylor-Smith, 9th February 2018: “Kensington and Chelsea Council has no plans whatsoever to sell off Canalside House”.
RBKC Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee, 13th September 2018: For a proposed new housing development, “part or all of the Canalside House site will require demolition”.
5. “Involving Before Deciding”
“We have not been involved at all”.
6. “Communicating What We Are Doing”
“We find out about their decisions by watching videos of scrutiny committee meetings or waiting for the documents from a scrutiny committee meeting. That isn’t communicating with us”
7. “Inviting Residents to Take Part”
“We’ve had no invitation. In 2016 we were presented with a fait accompli when they wanted us out. Despite this Centre for Public Scrutiny report, what has changed in two years?
The wider community, who used Canalside House after the fire, have not been consulted. This is a council building, but the council are ignorant about what goes on here”
8. “Being Clearly Accountable”
“The council staff we’ve spoken to are in agreement that Canalside House shouldn’t be under threat. But the decision makers are not present, they don’t get back to us. We emailed Taylor-Smith a month ago, he promised a full reply. Nothing. Who are they accountable to? Where is the scrutiny of the lead councilors?”
9. “Responding Fairly to Everyone’s Needs”
“To completely ignore the needs of the resident groups at Canalside and everyone they represent is not responsive or fair. It suggests another agenda. We’ve attended their ‘listening exercises’ around North Ken but what difference do they make?”
10. “Working as Team”
“You know they’re not doing that”
11. “Managing Responsibly”
“This is the very antithesis of taking social and economic responsibility. Their approach disregards the needs of the population they are supposed to serve.”
People who use Canalside are a mix of people. A lot of children who use the services are from seriously overcrowded homes, sometimes double figures in a two bed flat. This is the council’s responsibility, but we are the ones helping these people. Small businesses come here that benefit the local economy. Innocent Smoothies started at Canalside House, so they can’t claim it’s not a successful place. If it’s valuable, why treat it with contempt?”
Principle 12, “Having the Support we Need” is an internal council principle and not relevant to the Canalside House example.
Have the principles been put in to practice? Has change arrived? No.
By Tom Charles