The word propaganda is rarely used by politicians, who prefer to use ciphers like public relations, communications strategy and messaging. Propaganda is reserved for foreign enemies like Nazi Germany or Iran. Like the word imperial, the negative connotation means it is avoided. And like imperialism, it goes on every day, it has a home here in London and Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC) is fully committed to it.
The propaganda we discuss below is generated by RBKC. It is not an abstraction to be debated by intellectuals, but a real problem destroying people’s life chances across the borough. For RBKC, propaganda is not just a way to put the best possible spin on a policy, it is their policy.
Back in August we wrote about Lancaster West estate, site of Grenfell Tower, which has been undergoing refurbishment since 2018 when RBKC stated that the estate would be transformed into “a model for social housing in the 21st century” through an ambitious, resident-led approach.
We spoke with residents who had been officially involved with the estate’s management and they told us that far from the project being “resident-led,” they had been treated as “an afterthought” by RBKC. They described how there had been no genuine collaboration, but plenty of obstruction from the council, notably when residents had identified sources of additional funding that might make the transformation of Lancaster West a reality, but which could make the estate more independent of the local authority.
Reconvening with the residents for an update in late 2020, they reported that the pattern had continued, with estate representatives working hard but getting “pushback from the council”.
One example was the denial of a new home to the Grenfell nursery, which they said the council wanted to establish on Lancaster West, to evade the expense of building on private land.
They said the W11 Neighbourhood Team, which replaced the council’s disgraced Tenant Management Organisation as manager of the estate, is “vulnerable” with RBKC hoping it succeeds only to the extent that it gives a façade of resident empowerment, but not so much that it creates a demand from other estates to manage their affairs in-house too.
Frustrated with the national government’s ambivalence towards the estate and Grenfell recovery in general, Lancaster West Residents’ Association (LWRA) proposed a steering committee made up of residents, RBKC representatives and national government, to enable one conversation between the relevant parties. This was not taken up by the Conservatives, nationally or locally.
So, Lancaster West remains in purgatory; there was a good-looking plan, but it remained just words. Propaganda?
The residents who spoke to us in August made some serious allegations that called into question the integrity of the council in its dealings with North Kensington. We put these allegations to Councillor Kim Taylor-Smith who is RBKC’s deputy leader and lead councillor for Grenfell Recovery, Housing and Social Investment.
The main criticisms were that RBKC had singularly failed to transform Lancaster West; RBKC had not committed enough money to the estate’s recovery; RBKC was not collaborating in good faith with resident representatives, to the extent that they were experiencing deliberate exclusion by the council; and that these criticisms reflected RBKC’s general performance in North Kensington since June 2017.
But Councillor Taylor-Smith did not respond. That job was delegated to a council spokesman who emailed us to say: “We are sensitive to the special circumstances of Lancaster West residents and that is reflected in a scope and specification of work which is far beyond that of other estates.
“We have scoped the works collaboratively with residents and there is close control and scrutiny on the investment being made on Lancaster West, which is reviewed with the Lancaster West Residents’ Association and representatives at a quarterly programme board.
“We remain confident that this will be a model 21st century improvement programme.”
RBKC Response, Broken Down
The words sent by the spokesman did not just spin failure as success, they sent a series of messages to the people of Lancaster West and North Kensington.
The first message was from Taylor-Smith, in his avoidance of the questions. He distanced himself from the bad news, leaving it to a spokesman to outline policies designed and implemented by Taylor-Smith himself. This was a cowardly swerve away from important questions on a policy change.
The second message came from what was entirely missing in RBKC’s response: Why has there been no serious investment in Lancaster West? No response; RBKC reducing the Lanc West budget at every opportunity? No rebuttal; RBKC does not want W11 to succeed? Silence.
Worst of all, RBKC’s reply included a 180-degree policy shift in two areas: Lancaster West was no longer to be “a model for social housing in the 21st century.” Ambitions had been scaled down, without public consultation, to a less ambitious and vaguer “model 21st century improvement programme.” At the same time, “resident-led” was binned and replaced with a claim that the council works “collaboratively” with residents.
The transformation of Lancaster West was no longer a policy to be implemented. Instead, it had become something the council “remain confident” about, as if it were somehow not in their gift to make it happen.
The residents we spoke to took this chicanery in their stride. On the apparent downgrade of the estate’s future, one LWRA officer remarked: “It shows they are, once again, trying to do it on the cheap. They shouldn’t want to do it on the cheap”.
Another said, “It shouldn’t be this much work.”
On RBKC’s duplicity in the context of Grenfell recovery, a LWRA officer remarked, “we’ve all agreed we won’t get justice, but we can at least make life a bit better in North Kensington.”
RBKC’s propaganda masks the truth that Kim Taylor-Smith and his council colleagues are implementing policies that impose poverty and hopelessness on the most traumatised estate in Britain and their offerings of ‘change’ are calculated to ensure no real change.
Maintaining this form of governance requires investment by the council, but in illusion, not community. A local councillor told Urban Dandy that RBKC has 300 staff in its Grenfell Directorate, but attempts to analyse the PR budget have been made impossible as money for ‘communications’ is now hidden within the category ‘community engagement’.
Since June 2017, RBKC’s propaganda/comms strategy has expanded; public money being used to achieve what? And for whom? Propaganda is crucial if you are avoiding these questions. And it helps that the national media’s disinterest means it is only a few local blogs that RBKC have to dismiss and ignore with regards their phoney ‘change’ strategy…
Propaganda creates a thick layer of waffle between RBKC’s councillors and officers and the impact of their decisions. It helps them avoid addressing criticisms and conceals their true motivations and ideology. RBKC has employed a post-truth narrative to deal with an atrocity at Grenfell Tower that was, prima facie, caused by the very same indifference towards people’s lives.
The council’s narrative is aimed at the government, who’s taskforce has been monitoring RBKC since the fire; the national media, who often copy and paste RBKC’s ‘change’ mantra into their reporting; themselves, as a way of convincing themselves they are on track; and us, as a projection of power over those they alternately see as victims or enemies.
While we try to deconstruct their response to the questions raised regarding Lancaster West or search for some integrity in RBKC’s social media or mass distribution PR puff pieces, such as North Ken News, a whole raft of crimes continue across the borough.
Pulling together data from a number of highly credible sources, including the Office of National Statistics, Public Health England, Shelter and the Child Poverty Action Group, The Most Unequal Borough in Britain Revisited, published in October 2020, sets out the shocking facts that the council aims to distract from with its propaganda policy. Written by former Kensington MP, Councillor Emma Dent Coad, it is in stark contrast to the weasel words of RBKC’s comms team.
The report shows that Kensington and Chelsea is the council district with the best average life expectancy in the UK[i]. But while a white male near Harrods (South Kensington) can expect to live to 91, in Golborne ward (North Kensington) a Moroccan man will live to 64 if he is lucky. The average life expectancy in Golborne ward has dropped by six years in the past decade, the worst decline in the country.
Child poverty in K and C is 38.3%[ii], and the borough also has the highest child mortality rate in London[iii]. Since the Conservatives gained power in 2010, deaths of babies have increased significantly. In 2009 six babies died before their first birthday. In 2019 this had risen to 17. Such statistics are remarkable given the wealth in the borough, with 60% sending their children to private secondary schools.
Since the Grenfell Tower fire, Notting Dale ward, where Lancaster West is situated, has become the sixth most deprived ward in London[iv], the first time it had ranked so high in terms of poverty. Its residents also have the third lowest average income in London.
On two ends of Kings Road in Chelsea, RBKC’s health inequality is laid bare: On the World’s End estate, 61% suffer from ill health, while near Sloane Square, levels of ill health are actually below zero, -3.2%[v].
Six thousand homes in K and C (total number of households 84,000) are registered in tax havens[vi], while 9,300 second homes exist in the borough and 11,300 local residents have second homes elsewhere, according to Transparency International. In Golborne ward, 63% of children live in overcrowded homes.
The report sets out remarkable levels of injustice in every area of our economic and social lives: income inequality, living conditions/overcrowding, educational attainment, employment status, elderly care and access to sports.
The injustices set out in the Inequality report are on view everywhere in North Kensington. But RBKC’s leaders are not just ignoring these glaring issues, they are proactively diminishing people’s life chances, including on Lancaster West, through their policy decisions. But this is a truth you will never read in their propaganda.
By Tom Charles @tomhcharles
[i] GLA/London Datastore statistic
[ii] Trust for London statistic
[iii] Public Health England statistic
[iv] GLA City Intelligence statistic
[v] Office of National Statistics/MHCLG/PHE statistic
[vi] Transparency International statistic
Photo by Mrs D x