“This Council – its policies, its leadership, its senior people and its culture – has changed.”
Cllr Elizabeth Campbell, Leader and
Barry Quirk, Chief Executive
Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, March 2020
Since June 2017, Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKC) has claimed to be undergoing a culture transformation. This website has shown that this assertion is untrue; that public money has been spent to thwart resident empowerment, while austerity spending cuts have been imposed on vital services. Two strategies used by RBKC to frustrate North Kensington’s development have been manipulation through public relations and divide-and-rule of the community. We tackle both here, exposing the PR con using contributions from local people who have stayed faithful to the ideals of community through three traumatic years and have come together to produce this piece.
In this article, we update our challenge to RBKC over its claims to have changed following the Grenfell Tower fire. Since June 14th, 2017, we have presented an evidence-based rebuttal to the council, revealing a fraud perpetrated against residents by RBKC before, during and since that crisis. Not once has RBKC disputed our criticisms with evidence. While we have provided real-life examples of serious failings, the council’s response has been to parrot their ‘change’ mantra.
This update was planned before the Coronavirus had impacted daily life so severely. Many people have been quick to predict that positive political, economic, social, philosophical and cultural transformations will spring from the crisis. We believe that only unified, grassroots action changes things and that adversarial journalism is indispensable in this.
RBKC’s Change Policy
By Tom Charles
The Conservative leadership of RBKC lives in an altered reality. On the ground: no change; in their press releases and public utterances: change. It seems that truth is not important, careful PR management is. RBKC remains intractable in this approach, typified in the quote above from the leader and chief executive of the richest local authority in the country. Over the past three years, we have published the following stories, exposing the lie of Campbell and Quirk, two functionaries for a rotten council that needed root and branch change…
Summary 2017 – 2019
Before the fire RBKC had planned to sell one of North Kensington’s last standing community buildings, Canalside House. They paused the plan after the fire but then took it up again within months. They hadn’t changed, and they only did another U-turn when they got spooked by the outcry from bigger people than them as well as from the street. They later did a U-turn on the U-turn. Click here to read about Canalside House.
Having experienced the Canalside House debacle first-hand, and having endured the launch of RBKC’s “Twelve Principles of Good Governance”* (the principles are listed in full at the end of the article) manifesto for change, we tested the council’s mettle with a second case study, Lancaster Youth club, which sat empty as the council prepared for a wider attack on youth services…Read about Lancaster Youth here.
In November 2018, I witnessed the full meaninglessness of the change policy. At a Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee meeting where the Canalside House sale had been slipped back on to the agenda, I asked the assembled councillors, including the deputy-leader, how their deceit around Canalside fitted with their twelve principles and changed ways. Blank faces all around. I proceeded with my point until one councillor interrupted and asked me to tell him and his colleagues what these principles were. I read them out, noting “I am reading your own policy to you”.
A third Urban Dandy case study showed how the corporate managers of RBKC spurned the chance to transform The Curve, the main Grenfell recovery centre, into a vibrant community centre, and instead incorporated it into the council’s wider austerity strategy, with no regard for the official policy of good governance. Click here for more.
Three real-life examples, but there are many more that reveal the council’s approach. Some are found under the category Grenfell here.
Austerity and bureaucracy are the political realities in North Kensington. No devolution, no change and concerned residents in North Ken are operating within severe constraints. The Twelve Principles policy is a political sham. It amounts to a series of abstractions with no enforcement mechanisms. From our point of view, it is an offensive waste of public money. In the context of 72 entirely avoidable deaths and untold trauma, the council’s apparatchiks continue to use it as a tool to ensure that nothing really changes.
Reviewing the Reviews and Other Observations
By Jacob Rety:
The quote at the top of this article is taken from the foreword of a self-glorifying RBKC Position Statement; signed by council leader Elizabeth Campbell and chief executive Barry Quirk in time for a council Local Government Association Peer Challenge that was scheduled for March.
“Peer challenge is a proven tool for improvement. It is a process commissioned by a council and involves a small team of local government officers and councillors spending time at the council as peers to provide challenge and share learning” states the document.
But what can we expect from this process? If used to signify change at the council, the process needs to be accountable to those it is meant to serve. Lacking in this regard was the national government’s own Grenfell Taskforce! Does the peer review have any overstanding of the current dialogue, expectations and local mood? Shall we expect to be offered a community council review sometime soon?
Many statements within the peer review document perfectly illustrate that this council remains an overruling entity determined to retain power. Indeed, can we celebrate any handing over of significant decision making?
What would the council do differently, if faced with the same set of circumstances that led to the decision to lease our Library to private interests?
The saving of our Library; stopping the demolition of Wornington College and recent radical changes taking place at Westway Trust all involved long and hard-fought campaigns by campaigners taking on the all-powerful corporate vision.
The RBKC position paper claims “the Council did not have adequate capacity to meet the challenges it faced in trying to respond to a tragedy.” Wrong. It did not have the mindset. As the community response showed, those with zero capacity managed where a multimillion-pound organisation failed. It would be possible to go through the RBKC peer review response forensically and identify all the holes in their story, but for brevity, here are some examples of its deficiencies and other remarks on where we stand in 2020…
Consultation, Co-design and Co-production
Today’s decisions will shape the future of North Kensington in all areas of life for years to come, residents are key to getting it right – yet the council’s doesn’t see that swamping an on-its-knees community with waves of ‘Consultations’ cannot produce practicable levels of engagement.
In North Kensington’s deeply unsettled history, it was the Carnivalists and the Play Space movement with their rich cultures and common ground who did the work of creating community cohesion. North Kensington Amenity Trust (now the Westway Trust) and the local adventure playgrounds (including Powis Square and Meanwhile Gardens) are examples of what people, with some space and freedom to get on with it, can achieve. They left us a rich and much-loved legacy.
But the phoenix rising out of the ashes needs freedom to spread its wings, and this is what RBKC denies the community.
Constructive relationships and partnerships with external stakeholders
In the peer review response, it is sadly unsurprising that active campaign groups who have been critically outspoken about the council are not recognised as key ‘external stakeholders’ unlike Resident Associations and other local organisations with strong connections and dependencies to the council. North Kensington’s long history of struggle for change has produced many groups and individuals who have earned community respect and support, yet many have not been approached to participate in reviews of the local authority, perhaps they are considered too outspoken.
And there are doubts about the credibility of RBKC’s to the peer reviewers over its community engagement.
Reviewing the RBKC document, Dr Pablo Sendra, Lecturer in Planning & Urban Design at University College London told us: “In principle, all sounds good, but the main question here is whether bereaved and survivors (and others affected) have decision-making power and/or the council is following their demands.
“Consulting and having a steering group cannot be called co-design if the council does what they want afterwards. For calling it co-design:
– The participants (bereaved, survivors and others affected) must have the opportunity to voice their needs, their concerns, and propose ideas,
– The council (or whoever is working on behalf of the council) should take these needs, concerns and ideas and put together a proposal that responds to those,
– These proposals should be reviewed in various meetings, which are still a very important part of the co-design process
– During implementation, the strategy needs to be continuously reviewed”.
Will RBKC meet the bar set, or will phrases such as co-design continue to be used as window dressing?
Dismissing claims of “Business as usual”
Efforts made to communicate how the politically-aligned council process continues to fail residents in North Ken get nowhere with RBKC. Cllr Elizabeth Campbell only replied to a carefully written review of a 2019 full council meeting after complaints were logged with the council’s ombudsman.
Meanwhile, a 2017 petition containing over 2,500 signatures calling on the full cabinet to stand down was ignored against council policy (“18. A petition may be referred to a meeting of the full Council for debate where:…(iii) the petition achieves at least 1,500 valid supporting signatures”).
While these formal channels are blocked, public image and self-promotion remain the driving factors in the council’s communications strategy, the underlying narrative in all its publications being how well the Tory-controlled council is doing. The council’s publications might have the appearance of harmless puff pieces or standard local authority updates, but to many residents, they are more sinister. And they aren’t cheap.
In September 2017, the ‘communications agency’ Westco was hired by RBKC. By the 2018-19 financial year, the salary, fees and allowances of the council’s interestingly titled ‘Director of Communications and Community’ totalled £142,970 . An extraordinary £1.1 million in cuts to youth services were imposed in the next financial year. But you won’t find voices criticising these spending choices in RBKC’s publications because the policy of resident involvement has not extended to the elevation of alternative local voices – time for a residents’ column perhaps?
For now, the change mechanism remains nebulous. There are those in the council who know full well who their communication is aimed at and it is fully within their capacity to show initiative and ask the community what more can be done; I promise that answers would be forthcoming. Owners of the estate come before the village.
I will finish by saying, to those who have been given funding by RBKC in the past three years, money taken to help RBKC’s recovery should not mean silence. Speak out where you see injustice and deception.
Jacob Rety is the son of a former Portobello Market trader; he is also a local campaigner, Capoeirista, web developer and father of two.
Social Council Attempts to Boost Democracy
By Tom Charles
Kensington and Chelsea Social Council (KCSC) supports voluntary and community organisations in the borough and devoted considerable time and energy last year trying to steer the council into making another official document, the Charter for Public Participation, one that would expand local democracy. The Charter became part of the council’s constitution (which also includes the Twelve Principles) last month.
A citizens’ charter is a commonplace local authority document, paying lip service to certain standard procedures and customs. In Kensington, however, given the council’s record of ignoring residents, the framing of such a charter has extra meaning as a potential legacy for the community.
RBKC’s Charter consultation was more of a negotiation, with the council trying to avoid conceding any ground to long-suffering residents. I was one of those invited by KCSC to contribute. At one of the scheduled consultations at KCSC’s office, one officer did not bother turning up while the other was very late and was flippant about both of those facts. The same technique was used by Adolf Hitler when meeting industrialists during his takeover of the German state apparatus in the 1930s, to give the message ‘my time is more valuable than yours’.
But, in terms of gravitas, this council officer was more of a Neville Chamberlain. He held in his hand a piece of paper. Unfortunately for all present, it had been written by Robyn Fairman, RBKC’s carpetbagging chief propagandist. The document claimed that the council lives and dies by its principles of good governance. A dramatic opening to the draft charter, albeit a bare-faced lie, which was deflatingly followed by a generic citizens’ charter copied and pasted from some semi-rural local authority.
The assembled residents suggested several changes, which the officer noted and said he would ‘feed back’ to councillors. A few weeks later, the council officer returned for more free consultation and presented an unchanged draft, telling the group to move on from their focus on the council’s past abuses. But KCSC was not inclined to blink, having researched bespoke charters in other parts of the world, crafted by more discerning local authorities with genuine enthusiasm for public participation. KCSC and the residents progressed to the point of being able to present RBKC with a comprehensive alternative document that included modest and sensible devolution proposals.
The ambivalent officer returned to the Town Hall with a raft of constructive ideas taken from people who just want to get on with their lives in a viable North Kensington. There were 32 submissions from the community. Some changes were made to the council’s draft charter, but were they substantial?
Joe Batty, Senior Community Development and Engagement Officer at KCSC, told Urban Dandy: “I welcome the changes, but I have reservations about the lack of underpinning through monitoring. Ultimately, I am unpersuaded by the fact that it is still the council who sets the level of participation by determining when they engage with the community.
“They accepted quite a lot of the verbiage of the KCSC proposal, but crucially they did not adopt the monitoring framework, or elucidate as to who decides when the change from consultation to participation kicks in.
“It is being reviewed after six months, though it is not clear how…so we suggested a panel of residents, voluntary sector agencies and councillors during the first six months of the Charter as it beds in, so lessons can be included.
“I think the main issue is the council substantially took most of the residents’ ideas…from consultation through to engagement, but not empowerment.
“Crucially, they neglected to say how each level of involvement would be triggered and by who – the public driving, or the council ceding some power. Additionally, there is no monitoring of performance and no accountability if the community does not agree with the path chosen by the councillors, apart from using the standard complaints policy, which is silly.”
In response to KCSC’s concerns about the absence of a standards and evidence framework, the council said it will review the Charter over its first year with a six months mini-review and will seek to work with KCSC to assess its effectiveness. This amounts to more unpaid work for residents and community organisations in return for virtually no gain.
Meanwhile, in the vicinity of Grenfell Tower…
Protests Over Soil Contamination
By Melanie Juno Wolfe
Grenfell Community Contamination (GCC) has formed as a group of North Kensington residents and organisations in order to address the dearth of responsibility taken by RBKC and the lack of effectiveness in their approach to our concerns regarding the contamination and toxicity caused by the Grenfell Tower fire.
The authorities have continuously acted as though they are ‘engaging’ only to then disregard the very essence of what we have asked for and even the rationale behind our demands.
It is imperative that we know what we breathed in on the night of the fire and the days and weeks following. As there was absolutely no emergency response by RBKC or national government – certainly for the first few days – and a dismal, wholly incompetent one thereafter, we rushed to help our families, friends and neighbours.
We inhaled, touched and had ashes rain down on us. It was clearly toxic. Some had asthmatic attacks and collapsed from the effects. Our children are being diagnosed with ‘asthma’ at an alarming rate – their lungs are already a quarter smaller than children in neighbouring boroughs due to the contamination from the Westway flyover, running through us like a river of tainted blood.
What we breathed in was toxic and poisonous. To not relate any testing back to the fire – which is what we have asked for – is in effect a way to lie to us. They are saying ‘Look at us, we are speaking to you, we are even testing your soil two years after the fact – and we are asking you residents where you would like us to test. What more could we possibly do?’
A huge amount more. This is not good enough and RBKC knows it. But they are impotent. Stuck like rabbits in headlights – still unable to comprehend the profound impact of their inhumanity on our community and the scandal caused by their abandonment of their duty of care.
One party is sanitising and whitewashing our shared history. It is not us.
Melanie Juno Wolfe is a North Kensington resident and mother. She is Chair of North Kensington Law Centre and Founder of North Kensington Community Kitchen as an emergency response to the COVID19 crises.
This Is North Kensington
For an Urban Dandy article on air and soil contamination, contributed by the remarkable THINKers: click here.
With so much left unresolved from the Grenfell Tower fire, and with the Grenfell Inquiry now suspended, North Kensington is in limbo. In this context, the council’s 2019 decision to cut democratic scrutiny around these issues seems even more inappropriate…
For important updates on the atomisation of Grenfell scrutiny, our BFF blog THINK has the best analysis, click here to read.
In July 2017, Elizabeth Campbell took leadership of RBKC and marked the occasion by proclaiming “change” eleven times in a short speech. In March 2020, Campbell declared “this Council – its policies, its leadership, its senior people and its culture – has changed.” Both statements are pure propaganda.
Each day of the 32 months between Cllr Campbell’s two statements has been a missed opportunity to fulfil the promise. The improvements and empowerment North Kensington expected were not difficult to implement, and are even enshrined in the council’s constitution. But RBKC has been careful to ensure that no real change has come, always staying a step ahead, with its layers of bureaucracy and PR preventing any realignment of power. Instead of change, RBKC has doggedly imposed austerity. A policy, but also a mindset that permits councils to ignore fire safety warnings and governments to bury reports warning of a critical shortage of ventilators, beds and PPE. The endgame of austerity is pain and death on an appalling scale. But in these shocking times, RBKC now has another opportunity to make some amends and do right by residents. Will they? Recent history offers little hope and we must continue to speak out.
By Tom Charles
For all those people providing the emergency response in North Ken, again.
Thanks to Lizzie for her assistance. Thanks to Jacob, Joe, Melanie and the THINKers for their contributions.
- RBKC’s Twelve Principles of Good Governance
*In 2017 the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS), – the national centre of expertise on governance and scrutiny – were commissioned, with funding by the Local Government Association (LGA), to carry out an independent review of RBKC. The local authority welcomed the CfPS’s subsequent report and adopted “12 principles of good governance we should embed in the council.” The Twelve Principles were bespoke; designed specifically for RBKC to act on its professed claims that they sought to “change” following the Grenfell Tower fire.
- “Connecting with Residents”
- “Focusing on What Matters”
- “Listening to Many Voices”
- “Acting with Integrity”
- “Involving Before Deciding”
- “Communicating What We Are Doing”
- “Inviting Residents to Take Part”
- “Being Clearly Accountable”
- “Responding Fairly to Everyone’s Needs”
- “Working as Team”
- “Managing Responsibly”
- “Having the support we need”
- Corporate Waffle
An example of a typical corporate platitude from the RBKC website: “The Council’s focus is to make a strong, positive difference for the people and communities we serve; working in partnership, listening to and valuing the personal experiences of people in our communities, we will act with openness, honesty, compassion and humility. We want to recruit people who share our values. Through this care we will ensure that children and young people are given a voice in the ongoing co-production of plans for local youth services now and in the future”.