Tower Block, Housing Stock & Two Double-Barreleds

Nicholas Paget-Brown (L) & Rock Feilding Mellen (R) flanking former KCTMO chief executive Robert Black in Grenfell Tower, 2016

The Tower Block is Grenfell Tower.

The Housing Stock is the 9,000 residential properties owned by Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC).

And the two Double-Barrelleds are Nicholas Paget-Brown and Rock Feilding-Mellen, former leaders of RBKC and key players in North Kensington’s recent history.

Background

Until March 2018, RBKC managed its 9,000-strong housing stock through an arms-length subsidiary company misleadingly named Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) – read more about KCTMO here.

RBKC’s leaders had ultimate responsibility for KCTMO including scrutinising the company to ensure it met its duty of care to residents. Following the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017, RBKC folded KCTMO (and its 3,500 outstanding repair jobs) back into the council and increased the role of another council subsidiary company, Repairs Direct. RBKC gave Lancaster West, the site of Grenfell Tower, a separate estate management organisation, W11, although it remains in the gift of the council.

KCTMO claimed its number one aim was “Keeping our customers and residents centre stage.” Despite RBKC’s positive spin about its performance, KCTMO failed spectacularly.  

Those with lived experience of KCTMO, including me, know it behaved like a “mini mafia who pretend to be a proper functioning organisation,” going after “any residents who have the temerity to stand up to them.” RBKC’s leadership chose not to take action to improve the TMO’s approach to residents. 

In 2010 the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition took power with a zest for austerity that was taken up by RBKC. Since that election, life expectancy in Golborne ward, North Kensington, has dropped six years, one of many statistics to lay bare the inequality of Kensington.

RBKC and KCTMO used banal bureaucracy to victimise residents who opposed their policies in the years before the fire. At the head of this was Tory council leader, Nicholas Paget-Brown. 

  1. Nicholas Paget-Brown

Paget-Brown was a career politician, holding various roles in the Conservative party including local councillor from 1986 until 2018 and RBKC leader from 2013 until 2017.

His stated ambitions for North Kensington were modest: “I would like all residents to be proud of living in Kensington & Chelsea and I want to contribute towards the regeneration of parts of the Borough where there is still a need to ensure that people have opportunities that will give them the best start in life.” This, alongside platitudes about improving parks, gardens, and museums, indicated Paget-Brown’s comfortable position as leader of RBKC. His blog, his local newspaper columns, and his utterances in conversation could be reduced to one sentence: ‘Everything’s alright, you can trust the Tories.’

The most unequal borough in Britain? Paget-Brown was not a man intent on change.

On Paget-Brown’s watch, impoverishment accelerated, and North Kensington’s public assets were directly targeted. The figurehead of the injustice, Paget-Brown’s brand of politics was aggressive, but his personality less so. Entitled, arrogant but mild-mannered. He didn’t need to display malevolence; he had power. Everybody we spoke to who met Paget-Brown reported that he was very keen on agreeing with what they said, less keen on doing anything about it.

As council leader, Paget-Brown maintained relationships with property developers and defended the normalisation of the open door between public office and private wealth.

Paget-Brown was also Managing Director of Pelham Consulting. The company’s website features a looming photo of RBKC’s erstwhile leader and explains: “Pelham Consulting was established in 2001 to provide policy research and support to senior managers in business and public services. Managing Director, Nick Paget-Brown is a graduate in politics, has stood as a Parliamentary candidate, and until 2017, was Leader of a major London Borough having served as a Councillor since 1986.”

“Until 2017, was Leader of a major London Borough…”

What happened in 2017, Nick?

In 2017, RBKC suffered what PR Week charmingly termed a “reputational crisis” after 72 of its tenants on an estate in managed decline were killed in a fire that was not just entirely preventable, but that tenants had repeatedly warned was possible.

RBKC’s first post-fire full council meeting turned to farce when Paget-Brown initially tried and failed to ban journalists from attending before abandoning proceedings, claiming he didn’t want to “prejudice” the public inquiry.

Paget-Brown stayed in his lucrative position as leader until he was told to resign by then Home Secretary Sajid Javid, with the “reputational crisis” undermining Prime Minister Theresa May. 

Javid told Paget-Brown he must accept his “share of responsibility for perceived failings.” The word perceived left some leeway: perhaps RBKC’s leadership wasn’t really to blame. They certainly weren’t admitting guilt. The public relations response had begun.

Response

Paget-Brown initially deflected blame by claiming that Grenfell Tower residents had not wanted the “disruption” of fire safety equipment installation.

Within two months of the fire, Paget-Brown had launched a new company, NPB Consulting, which, according to PR Week, is “a consultancy service for organisations who wish to work with local authorities.”

As with his other company, Pelham, Paget-Brown’s name does not appear on NPB Consulting’s Companies House record.

On the first anniversary of the fire, Paget-Brown, by then unconcerned about ‘prejudicing’ the inquiry, told the London Review of Books (LRB) that Grenfell Tower’s cladding had “actually been installed all over the country…the TMO was told it met building regulation standards.”

Since 2017 the former council leader has been active on Twitter and Facebook, sharing photos of his travels and some hateful views on Jeremy Corbyn, but making no reference to North Kensington. His social media updates are a show of how carefree his life continued to be.

Paget-Brown is an individual lacking in self-awareness. Setting up a company so soon after the atrocity, positioning himself as a middleman between private interests and councils, and giving one interview, for the contemptible LRB essay, indicates somebody not in the habit of taking responsibility.

Perhaps Sir Martin Moore-Bick, Chairman of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, did the former RBKC leader a huge favour by creating a gap of years before any blame can be decisively apportioned for the atrocity. The precedent of Graham Mackrell and the Hillsborough disaster shows that the passage of time and expensive lawyers can provide a way out for those determined not to honestly admit their role.

In the meantime, Paget-Brown appears to bob along as he did as council leader: untransparent business dealings and indifference about the impact of inequality and injustice of North Kensington.

  1. Rock Feilding-Mellen

Rock Feilding-Mellen was RBKC’s deputy leader and cabinet member for Housing, Property and Regeneration. The latter role means he is possibly even more indebted to Moore-Bick for the structuring of an Inquiry designed to establish what happened, but not to apportion blame.

Feilding-Mellen is the son of Amanda Feilding, a drug reform campaigner, also known as the Countess of Wenyss and March, also known as Lady Neidpath. Among the properties owned by the family is Stanway House in Gloucestershire, which they promote as “an enclave of very English and almost magical harmony”.

The family are distant royals, their lineage tracing back to Charles II. There is much more on Feilding-Mellen’s heritage in the LRB Grenfell essay. 

Feilding-Mellen initially became a councillor in 2006, but lost his St Charles (North Kensington) seat in the 2010 elections. His disappointment was short-lived as five months later he was gifted the safe Tory seat of Holland in a by-election.

It took only six months for the RBKC Conservatives (including current leader, Elizabeth Campbell) to fast-track Feilding-Mellen to the role of Cabinet Member for Civil Society, and only another two years to promote him again. He became, at the age of 34 and with no obvious expertise or qualification for either position, Deputy Leader of the council and Cabinet Member for Housing, Property and Regeneration.  

London

Feilding-Mellen was also a director of various small, possibly shell, seemingly unsuccessful companies including the sardonically named Socially Conscious Capital Ltd which deals in “strategic land promotion projects,” Vilnius Investment Management Ltd and UAB May Fair Investments (registered in Lithuania).

Feilding-Mellen was the driving force behind RBKC’s drive to change the character of North Kensington against the wishes of the local population. He stated that he wanted to “wean people off” the idea of being able to live in social housing in the borough. This was the era of Cameron and Osborne’s austerity and Boris Johnson’s mayoralty, another administration undermining Londoners’ housing security.    

Attacking communities’ basic needs for safety, shelter, and warmth was the most direct way for the council to achieve its goals. Under the banner of ‘regeneration,’ Feilding-Mellen first tried to move large numbers of social housing residents out of London altogether; when that produced limited results, the council simply cut its housing waiting list in half and employed a decant policy which removed the guaranteed right of return to their neighbourhoods for residents forced out during ‘regeneration’ projects.

Despite Feilding-Mellen’s RBKC housing strategy causing misery for those under threat of having to leave North Kensington and accelerating the managed decline or ‘regeneration’ of the area’s estates, the LRB article gives the policies a more positive spin, with Councillor Catherine Faulks quoted as saying the deputy leader was trying to create new housing for ‘young doctors, young professionals, [with] nowhere for them to live…that was one of his aspirations, to be able to provide housing for this group of young professional people.’

Feilding-Mellen sought to change the demography and culture of North Kensington. This would boost property prices (including his own) and break up the working-class social housing dominance over the borough’s northern, Labour-supporting wards.

Prep

The deputy leader was also the head of a committee that handed North Kensington’s public library over to a private school called Notting Hill Preparatory, in a deal that offered favourable terms over 25 years including the school being able to skip paying £365,000 rent for the first year. Feilding-Mellen was the only RBKC councillor to be consulted on the deal, and the decision to turn the library into a private school was approved by RBKC solely on his recommendation.

His own children were on the waiting list for places at Notting Hill Prep.

Feilding-Mellen had previously been involved in the decision to lease another North Kensington public asset, the Isaac Newton Centre, to another private prep school, Chepstow House. The councillor’s children were also on that waiting list.

Chepstow House Prep is on Lancaster Road, opposite the library, around the corner from Ladbroke Grove tube station. Further east along Lancaster Road, just before Portobello Road, was the Parkside Clinic for children’s counselling. The NHS sold Parkside in 2019 for £4.38 million to Rocket Productions Lab Ltd which is building a private pre-prep school called Grand West.

The leasing of the library to Notting Hill Prep was reversed following the Grenfell Tower fire, but the private school was still able to obtain public land just around the corner, by renting the upstairs of Ladbroke Grove Pret a Manger. The building was leased to Pret by RBKC, having previously been the Citizens’ Advice Bureau and Westway Information Centre.

This tiny, impoverished, polluted area of North Ken will soon host three preparatory schools, which at around £6,000 a term, most local people cannot afford.

Grenfell

Rock Feilding-Mellen oversaw and signed off on the 2016 refurbishment of Grenfell Tower.

Documents seen by The Times showed Feilding-Mellen, in June and July 2014, allegedly pressuring consultants Artelia UK to reduce costs. An “urgent nudge email” from KCTMO to Artelia stated: “We need good costs for Cllr Feilding-Mellen and the planner”.

Feilding-Mellen sat silently alongside Paget-Brown as the RBKC leader abandoned the post-fire council meeting. Like Paget-Brown, he resigned from his leadership roles and disappeared from active political life in Kensington but retained the passive income of his councillor’s salary until the May 2018 local elections.

Within months of the fire, Feilding-Mellen was active on business networking websites, posting his new address in Chelsea Embankment and selling his North Kensington house, opposite the Lancaster West and Silchester estates, two of his targets for ‘regeneration’, for £1,000,000.

Amanda Feilding appeared undeterred by her son’s shocking exit from political life. Vice magazine showcased her pro-drugs health campaigning in July 2017, without mention of Grenfell Tower, and she gave further interviews and talks on the health benefits of psychedelics throughout 2017.

 

Representing?

In an interlude from the two double-barrelleds we journey back to 1997 and something that didn’t actually happen…

“I edge along Ladbroke Grove…and I keep seeing them; hunched on doorsteps with their tabloids and their tea, smoking their Raffles or Coliseums as they heft rolls of seagrass matting and lengths of hardwood flooring in and out of the dusty old houses. The builders. You see? Everyone’s doing it. It’s like you can look along the road, through the leafy trees toward Holland Park, and see the fireball of cash come flaming down the hill, burning out all the tolers: the Kaffirs, the old people, the welfare families. They’ve had it around here. Finished.”[i]

The quote is from Steven Stelfox, homicidal, sociopathic hero of the novel Kill Your Friends by John Niven. Murderously ambitious Stelfox represents the influx of money into North Kensington; no love, no empathy, the local community at best a colourful backdrop to his life, perhaps a boost to property prices.

Stelfox is a grotesque fictional character, but he is recognisable. In the years leading up to 2017, the avarice of thousands of Stelfoxes was attended to by RBKC’s leadership and paid for by the denial of dignified living conditions to poorer communities in North Kensington. RBKC became the political representative of the Steven Stelfox worldview: the destruction of the communal and the elevation of the individual. 

W11

King’s Road in Chelsea is like Monaco. Golborne Road is like King’s Road. At weekends, the streets around Holland Park are populated by Filipino cleaners and elderly white people strolling along with their copy of The Times.

Many of the properties around Holland Park are owned by oligarchs. A local estate agent told me that he sold a flat there for £10,000,000 this year. In the same postcode, W11, Lancaster West residents still don’t have a reliable supply of hot water. Last month the Grenfell Inquiry heard that water insecurity was used as a tool for bullying and marginalising Grenfell Tower tenants who raised concerns.

Nicholas Paget-Brown and Rock Feilding-Mellen were the senior administrators of this social bisection, carrying out their roles with extreme class and ideological bias. The KCTMO staff worked in the parameters of the worldview of old money with its brutal educational and family systems. North Kensington was flooded with Steven Stelfoxes and the rest of us were expected to settle for scraps. In the aftermath of the fire, these mentalities have remained largely intact on all sides.

Yet RBKC has a motto, Quam bonum in Unum habitare, ‘How good it is to dwell in unity.’ Their PR approach began long before 2017.

Image from RBKC Libraries

Demography and Power

The borough’s population is the smallest in London, around 160,000. 71% were recorded as White in the last census. Black populations of 2% and 5.4% were recorded in Brompton & Hans Town and Holland Wards, represented by Nicholas Paget-Brown and Rock Feilding-Mellen. In contrast, Golborne Ward in the north recorded 23.8% Black residents.

Life expectancy for a Moroccan male in Golborne is almost 30 years lower than for a white male living near Harrods, South Kensington, the wealthiest part of the UK.

The borough has the country’s biggest proportion of both high earners (£60,000 and above) and people working in finance. A 2017 study by Trust for London and the New Policy Institute showed RBKC to have the greatest income inequality in London with private rent for low earners the least affordable in the capital.

There are five northern RBKC council wards, with 13 councillors, none representing the Conservative party. But the borough has 36 Conservative councillors, and they impose their will, without a mandate, on North Kensington. In this elective dictatorship, it is impossible for other parties to alter the power imbalance, they can only work to minimise the damage.

Culturally, ideologically, politically and financially, there was nothing in play that would have pushed Paget-Brown and Feilding-Mellen to do anything other than oppress and impoverish North Kensington’s communities. It was a question of how, not if

Their belief in the normality, even virtue, of inequality was the point of departure of the two politicians responsible for council policy, scrutinising their TMO and the decisions that led to the Grenfell Tower atrocity. From that starting point, they still had many opportunities to change course. They chose not to, and we are haunted by the consequences every day. Are they?

There has been no fundamental change in the power balance in Kensington since 2017. The north of the borough will remain stuck in trauma unless it addresses this problem head-on.

Until then, the social fabric of North Kensington is as vulnerable as ever. Another Paget-Brown or Feilding-Mellen in a different guise could impose similar plans. Perhaps another double-barreled politician already has, with better social skills, a more conciliatory tone, a man who can appear genuine…smiling like a friend, repeating the word ‘change’ like a mantra, while working to ensure no real change whatsoever…

 

by Tom Charles @tomhcharles

 

[i] John Niven, Kill Your Friends, pp.101-102, Vintage Books, 2008

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