Review: Kensington & Chelsea News

The latest propaganda from the Kensington and Chelsea Conservatives comes in the form of a glossy A3 publication with the tagline, Community News. The Spring 2022 edition of Kensington & Chelsea News has the look of a free local newspaper but is a campaigning leaflet for the Tories ahead of next month’s council election. Its mix of policy pledges and class-conscious signaling makes clear the council’s priorities five years on from the Grenfell Tower fire. We read and analysed it so you don’t have to.

Page One

‘K & C News’ bucks the trend in these dark times by starting with a feel-good story titled “Café Society is here to stay.” The article features reassurances that locals can still object to pavement licenses being granted if noise is an issue. Even more reassuringly, K & C News informs us that Café Society will operate “from Sloane Square to Westbourne Grove,” skidding to a halt just before it gets to North Kensington. This geographical description could be a mere rhetorical flourish to name two upscale streets popular with the rich Tory voter base. Or it could be more sinister; the first signal to K & C News’s readership that the north of the borough is of little concern to the council.

The next headline is also good news but comes as a bit of a shock: “South Kensington saved by local campaign.” In my ignorance, I hadn’t known that South Kensington, the richest area in the country, faced an existential threat. The detail is that London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, wanted there to be a big glass building there, but heroic local (Conservative) councillors thwarted his plan. South Kensington was rescued from the jaws of Khan back in November, but this newspaper is campaign propaganda to remind core Tory voters and donors that the council remains devoted to them. For those who follow the politics of RBKC, particularly its public relations approach to the five years since the Grenfell Tower fire, it is interesting to be able to read a document that sets out their true priorities, however dressed up in deceit they might be…  

The big front-page headline reads “Over 2,000 residents back council’s plan to save Notting Hill police station.” Since the borough’s establishment in 1963, crime and safety have been two of the Conservatives’ priorities, reflecting the anxieties of their voters, most of whom probably own quite a lot that might be coveted by the criminally minded. A local police station is a good thing, so taken at face value, this seems like a genuinely reassuring, and vote-winning, bit of information.

Council leader Elizabeth Campbell explains that saving the station will keep more police on the streets. Confusingly, the Evening Standard reported in February that RBKC would not maintain the building as a police station, quoting Kensington MP Felicity Buchan that the building would be retained as “something that will still help residents such as a GP surgery.” Buchan doubled down on this socialist approach by explaining, “what we don’t want is for it to be bought by a property developer who would turn it into luxury flats, many of which would probably remain unoccupied”.

A bit of background: The local Conservatives have asset sweated the north of the borough, including attempted sales of the local library, college, and a community centre. Their goal was precisely what Buchan finds so unpalatable for the middle of the borough: the removal of community assets, to make way for private investments. The cut-price refurbishment of Grenfell Tower was caught in this raft of aggressive Tory moves in North Kensington as they sought to drive out poorer communities from some of the most expensive land in Britain. No mention is made of the economic imperatives that might impel the sale of community buildings by local governments.

K & C News points the finger for the jeopardy facing the beloved police station at the local Labour party: “residents are starting to ask whether Labour councillors will ever put local priorities ahead of party loyalty.” Page one’s footer sets out what the publishers believe should be our priorities, instructing readers to “vote for a greener, safer and fairer borough on 5th May.”

Page one finishes with a teaser of what’s to come over the page: a photo of a bin lorry and a photo of three men in ‘K & C Community Warden’ vests staring at an empty café, possibly confirming to each other that “Café Society is here to stay.”

Page Two

Page two keeps the momentum with another photo of people in high visibility vests. One is Elizabeth Campbell, leader of the council, holding a pair of spectacles and squinting at a man. In the background we see a skip mounted on the back of a truck and a recycling bin in the middle of the pavement. I suspect the recycling bin was positioned there for this photo opportunity as it is rare to see a misplaced bin on the back streets of Notting Hill, Holland Park, or South Ken, such is the devotion to pristine pavements. The connection between the headline – “Council protects twice-weekly bin collections” – and the accompanying photo is tenuous as no bin collections are shown. It is perhaps implied that Cllr Campbell herself, who is wearing thick gloves, is about to collect some bins, such is her commitment to this policy.

The article reflects the elevated political status of rubbish in Kensington: “Protecting twice-weekly bin collections is a top priority for local residents. And as the cost of living rises, it’s more important than ever to make sure local services deliver value for money.” This newsletter is mainly aimed at people who will not struggle with the rising cost of living. Many will probably benefit from it.

Cllr Cem Kemahli is quoted as saying “our job as councillors is to protect the high-quality services residents depend on, while keeping the low council tax residents need.” Pretty liberal use of the words “depend” and “need.” RBKC has always prided itself on keeping council tax low but now equates an extra bin collection per week and a small amount of money saved in council tax per year with meeting essential human needs. The link between twice-weekly bin collections and mitigating the rising cost of living is not explained.

The target audience is again clear: “4,000 more homes in Holland Park and Notting Hill will have access to food waste collections.” North Kensington is omitted, and the focus is pre-empting the possibility of a minor first-world inconvenience for people who don’t have actual problems.

The second story on page two describes RBKC’s “crack down on noisy vehicles,” with the council planning to roll out its use of acoustic cameras to identify drivers of very noisy vehicles to Holland Road, Chelsea Embankment and Earl’s Court Road. North Kensington, the most polluted area of the UK with an elevated dual carriageway going over it, is again excluded.

Page Three

Yet more good news: “Kensington and Chelsea improves air quality the fastest in London.” The council has pledged £100 million to “cut air pollution” and £6 million to improve parks and green spaces, including Cremorne Gardens, Cremorne Wharf and Holland Park. A new open space is included in the council’s Earls Court Masterplan. No North Kensington parks are mentioned. There is a horribly pixelated photo of the Japanese garden in Holland Park.

The next article is titled “Whole borough parking permits here to stay.” For a small borough in central London spending £100 million to cut air pollution, you’d think that discouraging driving would be the consistent and green thing to do. But as that might be slightly inconvenient for the party’s base, unnecessary driving is encouraged. The Tories provide the feel-good factor of green policies without their voters having to slum it on the bus with the hoi polloi.

K & C News spells it out: “getting around easily is a priority for residents.” Cllr Josh Rendall then adds some spin: “From nurses getting to our world class hospitals in Chelsea, to teachers travelling to our outstanding schools in Kensington, the borough permits help so many of us”.

Cllr Rendall doesn’t add that a nurse might need to drive because they don’t live anywhere near their workplace. The average nurse’s salary is £33,384 (Royal College of Nursing figure). If they paid zero tax, spent no money, and worked for 140 years they would be able to buy an average-priced house (Foxtons figure) near one of the hospitals in Chelsea.

People who do dedicated and skilled work that benefits other people are the ones impacted by the unfolding cost-of-living crisis. Tory voters in Holland Park are not impacted. Yet the council’s political project is to slavishly attend to the latter group at the expense of the former. This is well understood, and K & C News can be seen as a signal to inform the public that this power imbalance is in safe hands.

The token mention of Grenfell Tower appears on page three. It is titled ‘Grenfell Update’ and consists of one sentence from Cllr Campbell:

“Continued support and meaningful recovery for the communities most affected by the Grenfell tragedy will be at the heart of everything we do.”

That sentence barely reaches the level of a sick joke, but to the target audience, it perhaps satisfies their curiosity regarding Grenfell recovery.

Far from being “at the heart of everything” the council does, Grenfell recovery is not touched by a single policy or priority mentioned across the four pages of K & C News.

Page three finishes with the first bit of pan-borough news: every RBKC neighbourhood will get its own “dedicated community warden” who will focus on “anti-social behaviour.” The article conflates this policy with the Tories saving the police station (but not really) story; Cllr Emma Will explains that “a visible police presence is really important” but doesn’t explain what hiring a few community wardens has to do with it.  

Page Four

The final page has two news items. First, “Council works to protect residents from cost of living rise” in which North Kensington finally gets a mention. Unfortunately, the article links poor people and their capacity to stay above the poverty line to RBKC’s commitment to low council tax. The real beneficiaries of the low council tax policy are the wealthy people the publication is aimed at, who save a few pounds a year, many probably pay little to no income tax and enjoy huge passive incomes from the most unproductive sectors of our economy. Cllr Campbell’s naming of the actual victims of the government’s cost of living crisis – “teachers to street cleaners, young families to pensioners” – is inserted to ameliorate any uncomfortable thoughts entering the minds of the Tory voters. ‘We’re all in it together, this policy that benefits me is also benefiting the poor.’

“Holding Thames Water to account” is the final chapter of this RBKC fiction. It refers to the July 2021 floods when “residents’ homes across Holland Park and Notting Hill were seriously affected by flooding.” Again, the north is omitted despite being hit hard by the floods. “The council plans to implement sustainable drainage schemes in Holland Park and Notting Hill” but not in North Ken.

Kensington & Chelsea News finishes its Spring 2022 edition with 10 election pledges from the Conservatives. One would have sufficed: ‘We’ll protect the status quo.’

None of the ten policies have anything to do with “continued support and meaningful recovery for the communities most affected by the Grenfell tragedy.” The cosmetic approach taken to this most serious issue signals to the Tory base that the Conservatives will continue to prioritise their quality of life over everything else. And to the rest of us, the message is clear: ‘Your recovery is over – our class war has just begun…’

What’s Missing?   

In politics, what isn’t said is as telling as what is. This is certainly true with the council’s latest PR publication. Its newspaper-style format suggests that the content is meant to be accepted as the natural order of things rather than a series of political choices.

North Kensington and the other impoverished neighbourhoods of Earl’s Court and the World’s End are virtually ignored while the interests of people who have no actual problems expand to fill the space, like the fishes in the Kyoto Garden. Hypothetical inconveniences to wealthy residents are attended to assiduously while actual problems, like the absence of any justice following the Grenfell fire, are not considered worthy of coverage.

Also missing are serious political leadership and vision. A confident leadership with a serious political project would seek to take their base along with them in pursuit of higher goals, innovation, and genuine change.

RBKC’s leaders have internalised their own propaganda and believe that North Kensington’s recovery is omnipresent in everything they do. Not a single Grenfell-related policy is mentioned in the publication, yet we’re told it is “the heart” of the Tories’ policies. This is Orwell’s doublethink – holding contradictory positions and believing them both to be true.  

A party that was serious about serving all communities in the borough would take steps to address the scandalous levels of impoverishment in K and C. The legwork has been done for them, in Kensington & Chelsea Foundation’s report on poverty and Emma Dent Coad’s report on the borough’s economic, social, educational and health inequality. Both were published after the 2018 local elections but neither has impacted the ruling party’s priorities.

Five years on from the Grenfell fire, the Conservatives’ masquerade of humility and ‘change’ is largely gone, and their propaganda now reflects this.

Kensington & Chelsea News, promoted by Kensington and Chelsea Conservatives, is out now.

By Tom Charles @tomhcharles