The future is unwritten…events this week at Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC) could have triggered a political realignment in the north of the borough. Or they could have consolidated Tory power…
On 15th July at RBKC’s regular administration committee meeting, Councillors voted to scrap a council committee that scrutinises RBKC’s response to the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire.
The decision to abandon the scrutiny committee is based on a “residents’ conference” to which 15 people turned up, in addition to 77 who contributed to the consultation in writing.
The two Labour members of the council administration committee joined residents in walking out of Monday’s meeting in protest at the move, leaving four Conservative Councillors to vote through the recommendations. The Tory Councillors had been whipped (compelled) to vote to abandon the scrutiny committee.
The plan for the changes to scrutiny was made by a council panel made up of four Conservatives and one Liberal Democrat, effectively bypassing North Kensington, where all elected Councillors are from the Labour party.
The scrapping of the committee, which will be ratified at full council meeting on 24th July, is part of a review of the council’s scrutiny committee structure which will see the current six specialist committees shrink to four “select committees” overseen by an overview and scrutiny body.
The leader of the council, Elizabeth Campbell, who is also chair of the administration committee, was not present, although no reason was given for her absence. The council’s deputy leader, with special responsibility for Grenfell, Kim Taylor-Smith, stated that he did not see any reason to defer the decision.
The council’s plan is that Grenfell meetings will be held in North Kensington rather than at the Town Hall. Cllr Anne Cyron, lead member for communications and overseeing Grenfell Recovery said this will ensure central government representatives will attend, although this point was rejected by Labour councillors and Kensington MP Emma Dent Coad, who said the idea that government ministers will attend residents’ meetings in North Kensington is “absolutely ridiculous.” Dent Coad also called on the government to put RBKC in special measures.
Cllr Cyron said that a forum held away from the Town Hall could look at issues beyond the council’s remit, such as soil contamination and the Grenfell memorial commission.
The review panel was chaired by Cllr Greg Hammond, who said there will also be working parties. He sought to reassure the assembled residents by saying that he would not have suggested the changes unless he was confident that scrutiny would be improved as a result.
The administration committee meeting attracted a larger-than-usual turnout of local residents, alarmed at the sudden removal of the Grenfell scrutiny committee. Although the gathered residents had no time to organise a coordinated response to the council’s plan, their retort was coherent and clear. “This is too shady” said one.
“You’re managing a PR disaster; we’re dealing with a humanitarian one” said another.
One resident called the decision “thoroughly disrespectful to our community” as the decision to scrap scrutiny has come while there is still no sign of justice for the bereaved, survivors and the community.
“Why are the recommendations so far-reaching, given there was so little consultation?” an opposition councillor asked Cllr Hammond.
And a member of the public accused RBKC of creating false premise for their decision by claiming they had carried out ‘broad and sustained’ outreach. This point was backed up by representatives of numerous residents’ associations who reported that they had not been invited to take part in the consultation. Cllr Hammond responded that the consultation had been advertised, including on the social network Nextdoor.
When RBKC decided to ignore the public’s objections and press on with the meeting in order to vote through the proposal, the North Kensington residents walked out. The meeting turned to farce when North Kensington musician Niles Hailstones joined the panel members, singing to them and telling them “your consultation is fake” while the Tory councillors pressed on with the procedural matters required to ensure Grenfell scrutiny is scrapped.
“There is no leadership in this council” said Emma Dent Coad – indeed, where was Elizabeth Campbell? Along with Cllr Gerard Hargreaves and Cllr Catherine Faulks, Campbell is a member of RBKC’s cabinet who has retained a prominent role after the fire, and as such has a clear conflict of interest when it comes to scrutiny.
Perhaps it is a case of the less scrutiny the better for Campbell, who must eventually face questions over her role in creating a culture at RBKC that led to catastrophic decisions being taken. It is well understood that it is Cllr Taylor-Smith who really runs the show at RBKC. But Campbell remains a figurehead, and one it seems the Tories are eager to keep away from public scrutiny.
At the meeting, Cllr Blakeman (Labour) stated that the review panel were sent papers on potential devolution for North Kensington, but did not discuss them. She said that the papers have been put on the RBKC website as if they were discussed.
Cllr Mason, leader of the Labour group, also pushed the devolution question, saying that it was on the table at the full council meeting of August 2017. Cllr Lindsay responded by saying: “It was decided at full council meeting in May 2019 not to proceed with devolution.”
Herein lies the problem. There could be near-unanimous agreement in North Kensington over a course of action, but this can be blocked every time on the whim of the ruling party in the Town Hall.
Who is scrutinising the scrutinisers?
The one lay member of the Grenfell scrutiny committee pointed out: “at the last meeting when we scrutinised you, you hadn’t done any of the actions on the action tracker.”
But there is currently no blowback for failure and there is a very real fear among the community that RBKC now sense they are out of the woods and returning to business-as-usual with all that entails.
The Conservative Councillors proved to be extremely brittle when they faced the criticisms of the North Kensington contingent. They reverted to type: a bullying, conceited attitude and a determination to force through their decision. Administration committee vice-chair Cllr Lindsay, deputising for Campbell, did not conceal his contempt for the objections raised or the people raising them.
North Kensington residents have had to learn to cope with a situation none of them are happy with. Are those residents who engage with RBKC just re-traumatising themselves for no gain? Or are their efforts laying the foundations of a new North Kensington?
The ongoing failures of RBKC and the spontaneous residents’ walkout this week generated the hope that the administration committee meeting really was the beginning of the end for RBKC in North Kensington. But politics can be illusory – it felt like the most significant event on Monday night was RBKC losing control of its own meeting. But was it?
The vote passed with ease and Grenfell scrutiny has been reduced thanks to the eternal political imbalance in Kensington.
Power systems never give ground voluntarily, especially when they represent private capital, and so the most tainted council in Britain is hanging on. How long will it be before its grip on North Kensington is relinquished?
by Tom Charles @tomhcharles
with thanks to @ThisIsNorthKen