The Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) was responsible for running the Lancaster West estate, including Grenfell Tower, in North Kensington. This year, its responsibility for Lancaster West was terminated following the Grenfell Tower fire of June 14th 2017, which killed 72 people. But what is KCTMO? Has it really ceased to exist? And why do these initials provoke such antipathy in North Kensington?
A Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) is traditionally a small, tenant-led group that takes over some of the landlord management responsibilities and oversight for an estate from a local authority. Of the 200 TMOs in Britain, the KCTMO was distinct in being an Arms-Length Management Organisation (ALMO) and therefore, by its very design, not representative of residents. KCTMO was created to directly take over the council’s management of its social housing, rather than to provide representative oversight.
The KCTMO story takes place against the backdrop of Conservative party predominance over the Kensington and Chelsea council. This was no different in 1996, when the council feared it might lose control of its social housing stock, which was subject to a compulsory tendering strategy from national government. To maintain its control, the council created the KCTMO, with its management team of 20, including, initially, 13 residents. In the plan, KCTMO would take control of the borough’s 9,000 social housing properties, but for major works (costing over £400,000, such as the Grenfell Tower refurbishment) liability was shared equally with the council.
In 2002, to access the Labour government’s Decent Homes funding, KCTMO became an ALMO, reducing the number of tenants on its board whilst maintaining the TMO designation in its name. By the late 00s, serious issues were emerging. An independent report in 2009 identified “substandard” repairs and a need for major works, recommending the Tory council take a greater role in monitoring KCTMO.
In response to the alarming report, newly appointed KCTMO chief executive Robert Black pledged to build trust between the TMO and tenants. But this did not come to pass.
In 2013, when I lived on the estate, the Estate Management Board at Lancaster West was wound up. There were “terrifying” power surges at Grenfell Tower and plans for the Kensington Academy secondary school and new Kensington Leisure Centre, next to Grenfell Tower were not received enthusiastically by residents, the sense being that KCTMO and the council were out of touch with, and even dismissive of, residents’ voices.
In 2015 the Grenfell Tower refurbishment began, above the demolished leisure centre and the walkways (Barandon, Hurstway and Testerton) which have seen no improvements whatsoever.
In 2016, serious complaints about KCTMO were made, but the council – ignoring the recommendations of the 2009 report to reform scrutiny – allowed the TMO to investigate the complaints itself. Residents called for an independent adjudicator to investigate the fire risk at Grenfell, but this demand was rejected.
It was in November 2016 that Grenfell Action Group published this opening paragraph in their blog post ‘KCTMO – Playing with Fire!’:
“It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders. We believe that the KCTMO are an evil, unprincipled, mini-mafia who have no business to be charged with the responsibility of looking after the every day management of large-scale social housing estates and that their sordid collusion with the RBKC Council is a recipe for a future major disaster”.
On June 14th 2017, the “major disaster” that the Action Group had tried to pre-empt killed 72 people in Grenfell Tower.
Robert Black resigned at the end of 2017, but retained his six-figure salary, £140,000 per annum, according to another local blog, From the Hornet’s Nest. In early 2018, with KCTMO’s future uncertain, council documents showed that 3,500 repair jobs remained outstanding at the 9,000 TMO properties.
I lived on Barandon Walk, one of the walkways or “finger blocks” underneath Grenfell Tower, from 2010 to 2014. The walkways are architecturally brutalist and bizarre; brickwork on the outside, designed to look like the interior of a ship on the inside. Nevertheless, the flats themselves are spacious and I had a large balcony, with the Grenfell Tower as my view to the left and Notting Hill straight across.
It quickly became clear to me that the KCTMO was distrusted and even hated, and it was easy to see why. The building was left to deteriorate. There was no investment or improvement made or planned. Even tenant proposals to improve communal areas with plants or fresh paint were rejected. The rumour was that the council wanted to run the estate into the ground and then demolish it to make way for more lucrative properties to be built.
On weekends the heating and hot water would stop. They were on a communal system. I would call to alert the TMO but they never sent anybody out to fix the problem, and would sometimes tell me that nobody else had complained that day so I should stop bothering them. Eventually, like everyone else, I gave up.
The building of the new school and leisure centre were controversial. The school cost a fraction of the amount spent on Holland Park school just up the road, and the old leisure centre was flattened, leaving a pile of rubble for years.
I was relieved to get away from the estate, despite having made it my home and my daughter’s home, and despite the friendliness of my neighbours. I was even more relieved in the days after the Grenfell fire that I didn’t have to face the dilemma of whether to stay or take my daughter away, and I didn’t need to rely on a council that proved itself to be incompetent as well as uncaring. Upon leaving Lancaster West, I reflected on the fact that it is a ghetto maintained from afar, from the Town Hall, where the people living in the flats are not deemed useful enough for those responsible to do their jobs properly. I knew this was all political. I had only occasionally read the Grenfell Action Group blog, but what they campaigned for and the inequality they shone a light on was something we all knew intuitively.
On 14th June 2017 I climbed on to my balcony and saw that tower, so familiar to me, on fire. The news told me six people had died. For a few minutes I believed them. I went down to Lancaster West see my old neighbours, most of whom were on the grass verge on Grenfell Road staring, shell-shocked, at the tower. All of them greeted me as a neighbour. Some I didn’t remember remembered me. “How is your daughter? How are you getting on?” A moment of normality until they turned again to see the tower. Some of my older neighbours might never recover from the shock, many will be haunted forever by the sights and sounds they heard. The ones able to express themselves did so, and what they expressed was total contempt for KCTMO; the fire was shocking, but nobody, especially not the council, can say it was unforeseen or unavoidable.
Tom Charles @tomhcharles
Thanks to Jennifer Cavanagh @jannanni