“We’re going to review the review” – Kensington & Chelsea Council, 15th February 2022.
Those were the words uttered by a council officer two minutes into last night’s public meeting on the imminent closure of North Kensington’s main recovery centre for victims of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, The Curve Community Centre.
‘Reviewing the review’ was not what the assembled residents wanted to hear with the loss of a community asset only weeks away and no plan in place to rehouse The Curve’s services, delivered by around 20 local community groups.
A hundred meetings along the same lines have taken place since 14th June 2017: Council officers with no decision-making power try to play for both sides and fail; they nod in agreement at residents’ complaints; they say ‘we’ll take this back to the leadership team’ and they get out, another box ticked.
Some residents reassure them, ‘we know it’s not your fault…you’re just doing your job…we know you don’t have any real power…’
But if they don’t have real power, where does that place us in the hierarchy? Five years on from an atrocity that shocked the nation, North Kensington is stuck in trauma and the only thing that has enjoyed any “recovery” is the council’s power over us.
Loads of Buildings?
There are “loads of buildings available” in North Kensington to replace The Curve said the other council officer, without adding that there is little to no chance that a council renowned for its asset sweating will offer up a new community space. It was only political pragmatism on the council’s part that saved North Kensington Library from being turned into a private school and our college from being replaced by ‘luxury’ flats.
Under Kim Taylor-Smith, its property developer deputy leader responsible for Grenfell recovery, RBKC wanted to sell Canalside House, another community asset, months after the fire.
In terms of numbers of buildings, essential for local organisations to gain a foothold in both fundraising and recovery, the loss of The Curve next month will put North Kensington back to where it was in 2017. Bay20 was built on community (not council) land by the BBC, but Grenfell Tower was lost, with its playground, green space, boxing gym and nursery. In terms of increasing North Kensington’s community spaces, the council is in deficit.
But none of this was mentioned by the two council officers, typical of another feature of RBKC’s community meetings: the recent past goes down the memory hole, the focus is always ‘moving on’ with opportunities to ‘help decide,’ ‘influence,’ ‘co-design,’ ‘oversee’ and so on.
Last night’s meeting was intended to be the start of setting up a steering group to then establish a Community Trust to “oversee” the £1.3 million that remains in the budget allocated to The Curve.
The Curve, rented from its private owner by RBKC in the aftermath of the fire, will close in March, with the council then having four months to return it to its original state before the lease expires.
Most questions put to the council officers went unanswered, including:
What will happen to the residents who currently use The Curve every day?
Will the council provide budget for a building that can then be run by the community as an independent base for recovery and income generation?
Can the survivors who attend The Curve every year on the anniversary come this year, the fifth anniversary?
One question that was answered was ‘Why wasn’t this all done last year if you knew it was closing in March?’ The answer: ‘Covid’.
All of these anxieties would have been avoided if RBKC had acted on a proposal from The Curve’s board of governors in 2019 setting out a vision for the centre’s future, which combined a community hub (akin to The Tabernacle), a world-class trauma recovery centre and training in industries of the future for young local residents, all at The Curve, which would have been secured on a 50-year lease on favourable terms. To say this detailed proposal by the supposed governors was rejected would be misleading; it simply wasn’t regarded as a real thing by the council, the words didn’t register.
It would have been popular and empowering; hence it could never see the light of day.
Last Night’s Meeting
Eloquent exasperation and untreated trauma poured out of the attendees, every single intervention a valid, well thought out point. The council officers were forced to go rope-a-dope for the duration. As ever, they had not been sent to the northern outpost of the royal borough for a serious meeting between equals. The officers represented a council with a monopoly on power and has spent tens of millions in such a way as to guarantee no diluting of that mix. This level of chaos on RBKC’s part cannot be accidental.
The archaic council system does not work, with officers taking notes back to the Town Hall to legitimise decisions already made by politicians with no democratic mandate in North Kensington. It is a system that meets a common-sense suggestion like opening The Curve up for survivors on the Grenfell anniversary with a ‘computer says no’ response.
We continually look for creative ways to carve out some independence that would enable real recovery. The council has been assiduous and successful in blocking all our attempts so far.
The agenda of the meeting was ignored, except one item, ‘End of meeting’.
Behind a partition, a group of primary school aged children sat doing their homework as the meeting played out. They looked anxious, absorbing the trauma of their families and neighbours, a perfect snapshot of five years of RBKC’s approach to Grenfell recovery.
If this was the children’s lesson in how the world works, it could not have been any clearer. Ordinary people are abused and disempowered. Another, smaller group tries to soothe the people and “manage expectations” on behalf of a third group. This third group remains unseen by the children. But the children will surely know the third group as their enemy…the ones who shut the doors to their community centre and who blocked every attempt at real recovery for North Kensington.
REST IN PEACE FRANCIS O’CONNOR – a true artist who exposed the con artists. Read a fitting tribute to Francis here.
I have moved home seven times since Monday the 12th of July 2021 when Ladbroke Grove was hit by what the media called a “Biblical flood.”
As I evacuated myself that day, I had no concept of the bureaucratic Kafkaesque indifference and incompetence that has replaced the duty of care and professional standards of my landlord, London & Quadrant.
As my North Kensington exile began, I had no idea it would be an ordeal that would push me to TOTAL exhaustion. I also had no idea that my landlord housing association would be so ambivalent about what happened to me.
July 12th: The Flood
I had been working overnight and got back to my home, a basement flat on Ladbroke Grove at 8am that day. To try to regulate myself back to normal hours, I carried on with my day rather than going straight to bed. By 4pm I was hungry but chose not to go out for food because of the heavy rain that had started outside. Instead, a nap on my sofa.
I slept for an hour and a half and when I woke, I was out of it, that jet lagged feeling of being in-between conscious and unconscious. There was silence, aside from the comforting sound of rain outside.
As my eyes began to focus, I thought “Wow, this is beautiful, the floor is reflecting the water falling on the window…”
I watched the watery floor for a while, not even realising yet that my curtains were closed, so no refection was possible.
I stepped down from the sofa – splash – and jumped back up at the immediate discomfort of my toes touching the cold water – “aaaargh” – the shock – “what the fuck? It wasn’t a dream!!!!! Aaaaaaargh… This is real water” I shouted. And that’s when, sitting on my sofa barefoot, the beautiful dream and floating sensation turned into a nightmare.
“Where is this water coming from?” I asked myself, confused.
Barefoot and scared of being electrocuted, my phone not nearby, for ten minutes I was paralysed. The only way out was to put my feet in the water. After what seemed an age of interminable considerations and careful scanning of my surroundings, I stepped into the water and headed for a cupboard where I knew I had some wellies.
The rain coming in under the front and back doors, I wandered around trying to save things, removing appliances from danger, my possessions floating around me. My panicked inventory took me to my bedroom. I stopped in the doorway and my wooden table floated past me, for a split second, watching this scene, I was back in my surreal dream.
The only dry place in the flat was the bathtub, which I started using as a storage unit.
My face was soon wet with tears, my moment of despair stopped short when I saw my neighbour coming down the stairs at the front. “You too?” he asked, ”don’t cry, we’re ok, it’s only material things, we can replace all this. We’re OK, it’s the main thing.”
We went to check our other neighbours and realised the flooding was widespread. 999 and the fire brigade couldn’t come – “too busy” – the first of many occasions when help wasn’t forthcoming.
London & Quadrant
This is the name of the housing association, L & Q, who bought their stock from Notting Hill Housing Trust back in the day. I had lived in the flat since 2009. I called the L & Q emergency number but got what I learned would be the usual response when somebody needs something: tried to get me off the phone…but she also heard the sirens in the background, and said “don’t worry you’ll be booked into a hotel. Somebody will call you back with the booking information.”
My powerlessness had begun.
“Somebody will be with you in the next four hours.”
“Within four to five hours but We don’t know. It might be longer…”
I filmed my flooded flat and sent it to a friend, a stall holder from Portobello market, where I had been working over the weekend. Why him? Because he was always bragging about Polish people being construction experts. He offered to come over. “Great, thank you so much” and I’m not sure why, still in a state of confusion all I asked him was “bring apple juice and bin bags.”
He was proactive, getting the water out, but I was half working, half paralysed with indecision/confusion. The rain stopped. He got all the water out, from six inches to almost none.
When the electrician arrived, he took photos and told me “we’ll pass it on, somebody will come tomorrow.”
At 9:30pm details arrived about my new home: Marylebone Travel Lodge, for three nights.
At midnight I was still in my flat salvaging. I stayed, frozen with the trauma, watching the sky for more rain, till 4am when I packed my plastic bags and headed to Marylebone.
L & Q call me: the Tenancy Management Officer wants to talk about my request to move to a new flat. This is not a request I made because the flood, but three years earlier. I was granted a transfer then and after ignoring me all that time, they were suddenly in touch asking me to fill out the same forms I had already filled and sent back 18 months ago. They decided now was the time to get into the administrative process of moving…at the exact moment when I needed them to help me in the emergency. But as annoyed as I was, and not knowing whether to laugh or to cry, I thought “great! yes, let’s do this now, please do the transfer now, since I’m technically homeless. Let’s get things moving.”
From that phone call, my life has been at the mercy of L & Q, its maintenance team, its rehousing team, its other team whose names I can’t remember. L & Q…
Marylebone Travel Lodge was extended for a few days, and Eddie from the Maintenance Team, wanting to do good in this world, was helping me. He was determined to help me, a decent human being watching another in a difficult situation. Eddie had the technical skills and knowledge to quickly and efficiently resolve the issue in a practical manner, but he was still unaware at this point of the administrative chaos and infinite meetings he’d have to go through to actually start the work.
On Ladbroke Grove, Eddie took photos. In Marylebone, I made friends with the hotel receptionist, useful because it was she, not L & Q, who told me whether I’d have a roof over my head, day by day, and if my booking was being extended.
I was back at work too, partially on location and partially “from home”, the latter being made almost impossible with the internet at the Travel Lodge (£3 a day for an insecure and unstable public/not confidential network); L & Q’s 45-60 minutes on hold phone line wasn’t helping my career.
Ten days on, no internet, no fridge, no food vouchers, nada, no L & Q direct phone or email.
Only one thing for it…I went crazy at them. The result: they gave me my birthday present: an email address for my rehousing officer so I could make my first complaint against L & Q.
Reply from L & Q: Complaint received, and they’ll be in touch. Another email from L & Q: ‘Customer’ satisfaction survey.
Conversations with L & Q follow a pattern. Them: “I’ve asked my accommodation booker to find you more suitable accommodation, a one-bedroom flat.”
Me: “Why don’t you just transfer me to a new flat and save money on hotels?”
Them: “I can only offer you a new flat if the maintenance team say the repair work will take more than six months.”
At this point, it will apparently take two weeks for me to be home again. It’s always two weeks. I will soon get to understand the how long two weeks is.
Back and forth I go to Grove, letting people in to the flat to take photos.
On the 28th July, 3:30pm, I am offered a one-bed flat in Earl’s Court. One hour later, this has inexplicably changed to a studio flat.
On the 29th, with no idea if I had a bed that night, I email L & Q at 9:45am, telling them I have to vacate my hotel room by 12. They tell me the studio flat is booked for a week, and I’ll have a one bedder straight after. I presumed this would be for the duration of the repair work. How wrong I was.
Finally, a decent place to stay – stylish, has a kitchen, and INTERNET! I can work from home…
L & Q sent a decontamination team to the Grove. Working night shifts, on location, but I am there to let them in. I’m hopeful, optimistic, excited even…a decontamination team getting involved, maybe in two weeks, I’ll have a home again.
But of course, the decontamination team had the appointment time of ‘the afternoon’ and when they finally arrive (from Wales!) I opened the door expecting to see something like the Ghostbusters, a decontamination team coming to sanitise and disinfect sewage and water damage, known to be toxic, but am met by a man with a bucket and mop.
Surveying the wreck of a flat, he declares “I don’t know what to do.”
“I bet you don’t” I think, “I too have a mop and a bucket and already extensively used it in the property.”
L & Q haven’t told him about the damage. He leaves, back to Wales, without doing anything, except taking photos.
A week passes and I am moved from the studio flat to the one-bedroom flat originally promised but my booking remains insecure, only extended for a week at a time.
My key contact is still not anybody at L ‘We care about the happiness and wellbeing of our customers’ & Q, but is the receptionist at my new accommodation, who informs me that they are fully booked from 26th August, but that they (the hotel staff, not L & Q who are possibly busy analysing their many photos of my flat, seeing who captured the damage most artistically) are trying to rearrange things so I can stay.
On the 26th, I call L & Q. I give the rehousing officer there his colleague Eddie’s email address so they can coordinate their work. I’ve become a project manager. The flooring in the flat on Ladbroke Grove is removed to reveal polystyrene, which cannot be decontaminated, so the floor is to be replaced.
I call L & Q. 45 minutes on hold, and then I am told that only one person on the team can possibly help me, but they are on annual leave. I email and am told that my current accommodation cannot be extended beyond the 7th, but that I will then be given accommodation until the end of the repair works.
I reply: “Why do I have to move again? I am working…”
They reply: “The reason is: you can no longer stay there, they’re fully booked”
They offer me a studio. I remind them that I had predicted this would happen. But of course, the person I warned (a true representative of L & Q) probably has no interest in my situation, certainly not enough to raise the issue with a colleague who might later be called on to do something for the ‘happiness and wellbeing’ of a customer, or a tenant, as I like to think of myself…
But the tenant is the last thing that matters to L & Q, we are chess pieces (specifically, pawns) being moved at their convenience, not human beings who they have a responsibility towards.
I’m pissed off. I want to stay in Earl’s Court and am working with the real people on the reception to try to make it happen. As my departure approaches, I’m in denial. I can’t really face another move at somebody else’s lazy, indifferent discretion.
I’m offered a place in London Bridge “for the remainder of your decant” but we all know what that means by this point. I refuse and they reply: “It’s only seven miles away” from Ladbroke Grove.
I’m then offered a place in St Christopher’s Place, West End. I take it, preferring it to the 14-mile round trip to let people take photos of my ruined flat.
A lot of phone calls later and I move again. I must be out by 12, but the new place won’t be ready till 4pm. L & Q start booking overlapping accommodation, so I officially have two flats for a day, paid for by…L & Q’s insurance? Their tenants? Customers…
My belongings on Ladbroke Grove are to be put into storage.
ACE Removals call me to say they will bring boxes to pack my stuff. They ask for a video of my flat so they can evaluate how many boxes to bring. I send one, but there’s no reply from “high quality” ACE. They don’t do any of the things they said they’d do.
ACE call me, angry and aggressive. As I hadn’t heard from them, and was working, I had presumed the removal job was off. I had emailed L & Q that ACE hadn’t confirmed.
“Award winning” TSG Gas also give me grief, twice standing me up when I travel to Grove, waiting in the contaminated flat to let them in to do a gas check.
I hear that I will have to move again in five days, to James Street, West End. There’s no news on the decontamination of my Ladbroke Grove flat.
Once my things are in storage, they’ll be stuck there till I move back home. How long will it be until I get my belongings back? I know their “two weeks” deadline could take me beyond winter. Shall I keep my winter jackets with me?
I email L & Q asking for a longer-term solution and complaining about the removal man’s abuse, criticising the gas company. Exhausted and close to burnout, but still confident in my ability to argue.
I am offered a ‘L & Q private apartment’ and my belongings being stored in another vacant L & Q flat. Again, I’m told I’ll be there for the duration.
James Street won’t be renewed, I’ll have to leave on 4th October.
I’m offered studio flats in Vauxhall and Covent Garden, but I have collected more of my things so need a bigger space and to be closer to Grove. The weekend arrives, it all goes quiet.
All, packed, dressed up and nowhere to go. Emails to L & Q: ‘I have to check out in two hours, where do I go?’
My anxiety rises, I call, 45 minutes on hold…
’For anything else, press zero’ – I press zero, I ask to speak to somebody about my situation. They transfer me. There are two rings and the line goes dead.
I call back and speak to six different people, they all tell me I’ve come through to the wrong department (reception.) The L & Q receptionists are irritated and start shouting at me. The call ends.
Call seven and I speak to a functioning human, Corinne, who is keen to get things sorted. 30 mins before checking out, I get a call from L & Q telling me: “You can stay in Covent Garden for a week while we sort things out.”
The L & Q culture of rudeness is getting too much. I want to cry. I get a cab to Covent Garden, knowing it’s only for a week max.
I’m offered a place in Hammersmith. Phew. And maintenance work at Ladbroke Grove is due to last four weeks as the radiators have detached from the wall.
My Hammersmith phase begins.
I request an update including how long it will be till I can go home. No reply.
I again request an update. No reply.
I email again asking for an update, adding that I had popped to Ladbroke Grove and found that my front door had been left open by L & Q.
I add: “I have moved seven times, and I do not wish to move again, this is causing physical and mental strain.”
I email: “My temporary accommodation will end soon – what is happening?”
I send an email compiling my various unanswered questions.
And I ask for an update, again.
This time, a reply from L & Q: ‘I’ll let you know on the 16th where you’ll be living on the 17th’
With L & Q it’s always the eleventh hour, or it isn’t done, or you’re ignored.
Email from Eddie at L & Q: ‘I will meet with my colleagues and update you in due course.’ Due course!
My booking in Hammersmith is extended to “the beginning of December.” I am still there.
“Hi Miss H, Hi Eddie,
Tomorrow is the beginning of December and I was not specified a precise date for the end of my booking but could you kindly give me an update of the work in progress and extend the booking accordingly if necessary.
“Hi Miss W****,
The current hotel booking expires on 17th December 21, @Eddie are you able to provide an update on the works?
Email to L & Q:
“Hi all (Cc: Miss H – Rehousing Team + Eddie maintenance),
Just a reminder that the booking expires in 3 days (please see email below) Please advise accordingly.
– L&Q reply:
“Hi Miss W*****,
I do not have any updates on the repair works however, I have extended your hotel stay for 28 nights to cover the Christmas period and New year. Your extended booking ends on 17th January 2022.
At 20:39, an email from Eddie. He’s happy to tell me the work has started and he’s expecting it to last for…guess…two weeks!!! Rejoice.
He has a feeling we may be close to completion…. I can’t help laughing, I’ve been told two weeks since July! Eddie is professional, efficient and compassionate, but even with these qualities, he can’t overcome a chaotic L & Q system.
I find out from the receptionist at the hotel my booking was extended for another four weeks.
I miss a call from M****, newly in charge of the open complaint I made years ago regarding harassment I suffered from my neighbour (antisocial behaviour, stalking, invasion of privacy in the form of opened mails, peeping through my bedroom window, rubbish thrown outside my bedroom window). The complaint had previously been closed without the complainant being informed.
M**** calls to ask me how I am doing; she means well and is really trying to help but has also been caught in the web of an overcomplicated system.
I’m confused because it seems so pointless, she knows it, I know it. She can’t offer me a transfer as that falls to a different department; she is aware I’m being decanted, temporarily solving the harassment issues but still must call me to keep the complaint open! Are you still following?
I’m drinking a glass of Prosecco at my temporary home in Hammersmith, after a long day of work, although I’m not sure what I’m celebrating because I’ll have to follow up with L&Q soon regarding the end of my temporary accommodation booking coming up soon, admin / complaints / transfer request from years ago, advancement of renovation / philosophical questions like “Do we really know how long two weeks is?” but let me unwind and pretend everything is normal, just for a minute…
Tenants are customers in London in 2022. Duty of care and professionalism are indifference and incompetence. Two weeks is now indefinite. Justice is nowhere to be seen. I raise my Prosecco to the other flood victims of 2021 – those who didn’t have the strength to speak up, those left rotting in contaminated properties and those waiting for their two weeks in a hotel to end – I hope they haven’t suffered the double disaster of the flood and London & Quadrant…