RBKC Scrutiny #3 The Administration Committee Meeting

The future is unwritten…events this week at Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC) could have triggered a political realignment in the north of the borough. Or they could have consolidated Tory power… 

What happened?

On 15th July at RBKC’s regular administration committee meeting, Councillors voted to scrap a council committee that scrutinises RBKC’s response to the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire.

The decision to abandon the scrutiny committee is based on a “residents’ conference” to which 15 people turned up, in addition to 77 who contributed to the consultation in writing.

The two Labour members of the council administration committee joined residents in walking out of Monday’s meeting in protest at the move, leaving four Conservative Councillors to vote through the recommendations. The Tory Councillors had been whipped (compelled) to vote to abandon the scrutiny committee.

The plan for the changes to scrutiny was made by a council panel made up of four Conservatives and one Liberal Democrat, effectively bypassing North Kensington, where all elected Councillors are from the Labour party.

from rbkc.gov.uk

The scrapping of the committee, which will be ratified at full council meeting on 24th July, is part of a review of the council’s scrutiny committee structure which will see the current six specialist committees shrink to four “select committees” overseen by an overview and scrutiny body.

The leader of the council, Elizabeth Campbell, who is also chair of the administration committee, was not present, although no reason was given for her absence. The council’s deputy leader, with special responsibility for Grenfell, Kim Taylor-Smith, stated that he did not see any reason to defer the decision.

The council’s plan is that Grenfell meetings will be held in North Kensington rather than at the Town Hall. Cllr Anne Cyron, lead member for communications and overseeing Grenfell Recovery said this will ensure central government representatives will attend, although this point was rejected by Labour councillors and Kensington MP Emma Dent Coad, who said the idea that government ministers will attend residents’ meetings in North Kensington is “absolutely ridiculous.” Dent Coad also called on the government to put RBKC in special measures.

Cllr Cyron said that a forum held away from the Town Hall could look at issues beyond the council’s remit, such as soil contamination and the Grenfell memorial commission.

The review panel was chaired by Cllr Greg Hammond, who said there will also be working parties. He sought to reassure the assembled residents by saying that he would not have suggested the changes unless he was confident that scrutiny would be improved as a result.

The response

The administration committee meeting attracted a larger-than-usual turnout of local residents, alarmed at the sudden removal of the Grenfell scrutiny committee. Although the gathered residents had not had time to organise a coordinated response to the council’s plan, their retort was coherent and clear. “This is too shady” said one.

“You’re managing a PR disaster; we’re dealing with a humanitarian one” said another.

One resident called the decision “thoroughly disrespectful to our community” as the decision to scrap scrutiny has come while there is still no sign of justice for the bereaved, survivors and the community.

“Why are the recommendations so far-reaching, given there was so little consultation?” one Councillor asked Cllr Hammond.

And a member of the public accused RBKC of creating false premise for their decision by claiming they had carried out ‘broad and sustained’ outreach. This point was backed up by representatives of numerous residents’ associations who reported that they had not been invited to take part in the consultation. Cllr Hammond responded that the consultation had been advertised, including on the social network Nextdoor.

When RBKC decided to ignore the public’s objections and press on with the meeting in order to vote through the proposal, the North Kensington residents walked out. The meeting turned to farce when North Kensington musician Niles Hailstones joined the panel members, singing to them and telling them “your consultation is fake” while the Tory councillors pressed on with the procedural matters required to ensure Grenfell scrutiny is scrapped.

Questions Raised

Leadership

“There is no leadership in this council” said Emma Dent Coad – indeed, where was Elizabeth Campbell? Along with Cllr Gerard Hargreaves and Cllr Catherine Faulks, Campbell is a member of RBKC’s cabinet who has retained a prominent role after the fire, and as such has a clear conflict of interest. 

Perhaps it is a case of the less scrutiny the better for Campbell, who must eventually face questions over her role in creating a culture at RBKC that led to catastrophic decisions being taken. It is well understood that it is Cllr Taylor-Smith who really runs the show at RBKC. But Campbell remains a figurehead, and one it seems the Tories are eager to keep away from public exposure.

Devolution

At the meeting, Cllr Blakeman (Labour) stated that the review panel were sent papers on potential devolution for North Kensington, but did not discuss them. She said that the papers have been put on the RBKC website as if they were discussed.

Cllr Mason, leader of the Labour group, also pushed the devolution question, saying that it was on the table at the full council meeting of August 2017. Cllr Lindsay responded by saying: “It was decided at full council meeting in May 2019 not to proceed with devolution.”

Herein lies the problem. There could be near-unanimous agreement in North Kensington over a course of action, but this can be blocked every time on the whim of the ruling party in the Town Hall.

Who is scrutinising the scrutinisers?

The one lay member of the Grenfell scrutiny committee pointed out: “at the last meeting when we scrutinised you, you hadn’t done any of the actions on the action tracker.”

But there is currently no blowback for failure and there is a very real fear among the community of RBKC sensing they are out of the woods and returning to business-as-usual with all that entails.

Conservatives

The Conservative Councillors proved to be extremely brittle when they faced the criticisms of the North Kensington contingent. They reverted to type, a bullying, conceited attitude and a determination to force through their decision. Administration committee vice-chair Cllr Lindsay, deputising for Campbell, did not conceal his contempt for the objections raised or the people raising them.

Change?

North Kensington residents have had to learn to cope with a situation none of them are happy with. Are those residents who engage with RBKC just re-traumatising themselves for no gain? Or are their efforts laying the foundations of a new North Kensington?

The ongoing failures of RBKC and the spontaneous residents’ walkout this week generated the hope that the administration committee meeting really was the beginning of the end for RBKC in North Kensington. But politics can be illusory – it felt like the most significant event on Monday night was RBKC losing control of its own meeting. But was it?

The vote passed with ease and Grenfell scrutiny has been reduced thanks to the eternal political imbalance in Kensington.

Power systems never give ground voluntarily, especially when they represent private capital, and so the most tainted council in Britain is hanging on. How long will it be before its grip on North Kensington is relinquished?

 

by Tom Charles @tomhcharles

with thanks to @ThisIsNorthKen

RBKC Scrutiny #2

The second in a series of posts about scrutiny of Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC)…

Watercolour of Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall by the architect Sir Basil Spence.
Copyright: the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Libraries (RBKC Libraries)

Since the June 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, North Kensington residents,  campaigners and writers have attended RBKC meetings to challenge the local authority, bear witness and watch for any signs of a return to business as usual. The latest meeting revealed a local authority losing its credibility, and possibly its grip on North Kensington.

Democracy   

The meetings, held at the Town Hall, retraumatise rather than help people move on. The denial of democratic power and control to North Kensington residents with post-traumatic stress disorder is characteristic of a local authority whose indifference towards the population of the north of the borough led them to ignore repeated warnings of fire risk at Grenfell Tower.

In building a case for a new North Kensington, there is no need for those in attendance to look for nuance or to read between the lines of the Councillors’ words. There is little nuance and the words are just words, devoid of meaning.

This was why the gathered residents walked out of Monday night’s Administration Committee meeting at which the ruling party agreed to do away with the Grenfell Scrutiny Committee, against the wishes of 100% of the residents and opposition Councillors in attendance.

The tactic of divide and rule and the corrupting effect of money in North Kensington are losing their efficacy for RBKC. The loose collective of residents do not formally coordinate their approach to the council, but they function as if they do. Each gives the other space to speak without interruption; the content of their statements rarely overlaps and there is an unspoken awareness of a shared trauma and a shared enemy. The atomisation of the community hasn’t happened and this leaves RBKC in a predicament.

Taskforce

Even the government’s Independent Grenfell Recovery Taskforce, which had previously gone out of its way to be generous about RBKC’s recovery efforts, issued the following criticism in its latest report to government:  

“The quality of the council’s relationship with the local community in the north of the borough is inconsistent and too frequently weak. The council have rightly focussed their efforts on bereaved and survivors. However, the relationship with the wider community in North Kensington has not made sufficient progress. In some respects, it is going backwards.”

When this most supine of establishment bodies is dishing out opprobrium, RBKC really are failing at their own game.

Among the North Kensington residents there is broad agreement on what is needed, and it is not what is being offered up by Kim Taylor-Smith’s council. What future is there for a local authority that cannot hold the space at its own meeting as it descends into farce? A local authority where senior Councillors, faced with traumatised, wronged residents, do not try to conceal their disdain. And residents, so willing to work with the council to build a better North Kensington, have no respect left for the Councillors.

The word devolution was mentioned numerous times on Monday. Keep listening RBKC, the call is getting louder and might become a crescendo.

 

By Tom Charles @tomhcharles

RBKC Scrutiny #1 GU in Parliament

grenfell_projection_capture_0094

There have been plenty of significant developments in North Kensington as Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC) and the local population deal with the fallout from the entirely preventable June 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, where 72 people died. The mainstream media might be busy elsewhere, but there is still a lot going on. With justice and change still not forthcoming, it is important to maintain a factual record and keep up the scrutiny…

Grenfell United

Our updates start in parliament with the survivors and bereaved group Grenfell United (GU) bearing witness to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee on the situation regarding housing conditions nationwide and developments with RBKC. Although GU’s latest testimony to lawmakers had little or no media pickup, it was of the utmost significance to those wanting to understand what has been happening in Kensington and possible future developments.

GU’s evidence to the Select Committee on July 8th started with an update on the re-housing of Grenfell survivors, some of whom have still not been catered for, over two years on. GU explained that the issue is not a lack of housing, but inadequate homes being offered, unfit for habitation. They cited issues with disabled access and properties in need of repair meaning survivors had not made their long-awaited moves.

GU express concern that inadequate properties was still being offered to Grenfell survivors and asked: “If it’s happening to us, what’s happening across the country?”

Grenfell-style cladding remains on blocks across the country and campaigns have been launched to press for action on this. GU believe a deadline for the removal of all cladding would be effective. Grenfell survivors’ willingness to lobby for improvements to dangerous buildings on behalf of people across the country has been a distinguishing feature of GU’s development. And this need to take the initiative was a theme they returned to repeatedly in parliament.

grenfell_projection__wide

RBKC

GU also provided the MPs of the Select Committee with an overview of RBKC’s performance, including a useful take on the veracity of the council’s claim that it would fundamentally change its approach to public service in North Kensington after the 2017 fire.

“RBKC is starting from a particularly low base” GU quoted the government’s Grenfell Taskforce’s first report as saying. GU reflected that when they testified in parliament last year, they identified a “vast chasm of distrust” of RBKC among the local population. Updating this assessment, GU reported that RBKC are apologetic and some officers and senior councillors understand what the community needs. But while RBKC are publishing strategies and roadmaps, these are not translating into visible improvements.

Because of the lack of change, GU stated that trust with the local authority would take a generation to rebuild. More than that, GU said they detected that some RBKC staff “believe they’ve suffered enough and it’s time to go back to business as usual,” a phrase that is being heard more and more in North Kensington.

GU said that the council were “definitely responding to what we’re asking for” but that any changes still require badgering from the local community. Progress is too slow according to GU, who say they want “a progressive local plan.”

What should this progressive local plan look like? The GU representatives told the Select Committee that they want GU to be remembered for the positive changes that came after the fire, rather than for the way they were treated by the authorities in the aftermath. They want RBKC to become “the best borough” in the UK, “progressive, listening.”

Chronic tardiness is a problem; delaying change, undermining trust. GU’s take on RBKC’s lack of urgency in delivering change: “It’s like Grenfell didn’t happen.”

UK Government

As for the national government, GU lamented the fact that survivors have had to work so hard to push for substantive changes that would prevent another atrocity on the scale of Grenfell. One example provided was the government ignoring the demand in North Kensington for checks to be made for soil contamination.

GU described their dealings with the national government as “a mixture of incompetence and indifference” but identified the government’s green paper on social housing, due for publication in September, as a document that has the potential to provide a fitting legacy for Grenfell.

GU stated that the legacy will not emerge from either the public inquiry or the police inquiry. They said that “institutional indifference” towards people in social housing can only be challenged via the green paper. Working with their third housing minister since June 2017, GU have been pushing for a green paper that will fundamentally change the way people in social housing live, specifically with regards to tenant voice and representation.

GU invoked Sherlock Holmes’ dog that didn’t bark in describing the role played (or not played) by the social housing regulators to date, calling for far more robust regulation and a split regulator based on a financial model (more on that here).

Despite the scope for fundamental change in the social housing green paper – “parliament needs to create something, a document that really makes a big difference” – GU expressed their fear that they will be badly let down when it is finally published in the Autumn.

And they expressed an even more pervasive fear: that the litany of official delays, missed opportunities, incompetence and a return to business-as-usual amid less and less scrutiny, means a delay to the provision of answers and the spectre of a decades-long struggle for justice, like the one the Hillsborough families still endure.

“Justice delayed is justice denied” – Grenfell United, the House of Commons, July 2019.  

 

 

You can watch Grenfell United’s session at the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee here.

 

by Tom Charles @tomhcharles

photos from @GrenfellUnited

North Kensington – Trauma Matters

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“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”

 

As people in west London prepare for the second anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, many continue to suffer the after-effects of the June 14th 2017 atrocity. Much has happened since that date to compound the community’s suffering and symptoms of trauma are evident across North Kensington. A new approach is needed in response to the limited, flawed and sometimes counter-productive trauma relief efforts so far. North Kensington is an appropriate place for some fresh thinking on trauma: how it manifests; how people and communities deal with it and the possibilities available if we are open to braver, better solutions.

The Brain and Trauma

Trauma can manifest in people who aren’t perceived to be unwell enough to be formally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or hospitalised. The traumatised person might not recognise that they are suffering, but the part of the brain that is devoted to our survival – the sympathetic nervous system – may have kicked in. This is described in simple terms as fight, flight, freeze – although responses differ in everybody. The result is a stream of experiences that are defined as trauma. Dr Gabor Maté, the renowned speaker, author and trauma expert, identifies disconnection from ourselves as the essence of trauma: “trauma is not what happens to you, but what happens inside you as a result of what happens to you.”

Some typical symptoms include:

  • Stress hormones are produced
  • Unpleasant emotions can arise
  • There can be uncomfortable physical sensations
  • The person might become impulsive and aggressive
  • It might become difficult for the person to filter the relevant from the irrelevant
  • The traumatised person may feel less alive and less present

The impact of a single disaster trauma event can be large scale, shaping histories and whole cultures. The impact can also be felt on a smaller scale, affecting individuals’ minds, emotions, capacity for joy and physical health. The large-scale societal impact is dictated by the preponderance of trauma in a population. It follows that the ability of a society or culture to move on from trauma is dictated by the ability of the individuals within the population to recover.

Yet trauma doesn’t only manifest following big one-off, life changing events; it can be caused by a series of smaller continuous events, such as adverse childhood experiences, racism, poverty, bereavement or illness. The link between all of these is that they trigger the same physiological responses. However, those who have already been impacted by lifelong experiences of continuous trauma can have less resilience when big events occur.  

Traumatic events are, by their very nature, unbearable for humans, overwhelming their ability to cope. As people cannot tolerate the sensation, they instinctively push it away and try to move on in life. For some their experiences cause them to automatically dissociate – or disconnect – from what they are feeling or thinking as part of a survival mechanism. This coping mechanism leaves people unable to move on because they are not able to process the original experience and the energy charge generated from the experience becomes trapped in the physical body, potentially leading to other long-term health care conditions.

This effectively means that the traumatising experience is not over and triggers that cause the person to dissociate can come in many forms – sight, smell, sound, overwhelming situations, shock, anger etc. – and happen without warning. Existing mental health conditions and addictions often deteriorate in these circumstances and new addictions can emerge as ways to proactively disengage from reality or to numb from pain.

Vicarious Trauma

PTSD is widespread in North Kensington, estimated to be in the thousands. The trauma has been exacerbated by the prevailing sense of injustice, as if a whole community is paused, waiting for an appropriate response from those with the power to provide one. Vicarious trauma is also rife, with many people stretching themselves to support those affected by the fire. Vicarious trauma, not to be confused with exhaustion or compassion fatigue, is a rational response to the process of prolonged empathic engagement with traumatised people. It is impossible for people suffering from vicarious trauma to be effective in helping others while their own needs and feelings are bypassed.

Additionally for many, the thought of being judged as weak, vulnerable or unable to cope can trigger feelings of shame that add to the anguish of trauma. For many of us in North Kensington, there are people worse off than ourselves: bereaved; survivors; friends; witnesses. In this situation, there is a sense of guilt among some of those who have been less directly affected.

Response

In response to the 2017 fire, the NHS offers trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. It also offers a link to a Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC) flyer for other services including art therapy, youth clubs, a local charity and the Chickenshed theatre company. The offer is very limited, with figures revealing that hundreds of affected people stopped attending their therapy sessions in the year after the atrocity. The promotion of RBKC services by the NHS is problematic for obvious reasons.

One resident of Lancaster West (the estate where Grenfell Tower stands) engaged in talk therapy at St Charles’ Hospital, but told us that many people won’t go there as it is “too clinical” and “alien to people’s cultures,” especially elders and the young. She managed two sessions there but experienced it as overwhelming and switched to a service at an alternative, culturally-appropriate venue. There, she engaged in talk therapy, which was followed by qigong sessions. But when the funding was cut for that service, no replacement was offered.

On RBKC, North Kensington Law Centre issued a report stating that: “The Council’s interaction with residents in the period after the fire had the capacity to alleviate some of the trauma of survivors, but instead too often only exacerbated it…residents’ trauma has been unnecessarily exacerbated as they wait for what are often relatively simple or trivial matters to be resolved”.

One particular criticism was of the council’s “tick-box” approach: “Too often…Grenfell-affected residents have been treated with a business-as-usual attitude. A tick box approach to assessing needs in these exceptional circumstances will not result in a proper understanding of those needs”.

In a culture that is already trauma-ignorant, RBKC’s at times clumsy, at times callous approach, has not been good enough. 

What could be done?

It is important to honour the strength and courage of survivors, to nurture optimism. It is also important to know that people can overcome the symptoms of trauma; humans are very resilient and wired to survive. Studying communities that have been impacted by a single disaster suggests that 9 out of 10 people will learn and grow. People can recover to live hopeful and meaningful lives despite terrible experiences.

Dr Gabor Maté notes: “The essence of trauma is disconnection from ourselves. Trauma is not terrible things that happen from the other side—those are traumatic. But the trauma is that very separation from the body and emotions. So, the real question is, ‘How did we get separated and how do we reconnect?’

Trauma-informed

For this reason, a Trauma-informed approach to local residents is crucial, and this should not be limited to the medication and short-term therapy on offer currently. Trauma symptoms can be managed through medication but recalling what has happened or expressing emotions is not enough. Contemporary thinking says that the key is to change the physiology of the body and switch the overactive part of the brain off. By learning self-regulation, the person can begin to master the part of the brain that has switched on overactive reflexes and learn to switch them off. In other words, while trauma can manifest as the disconnection of the person from the body and the present moment; healing comes from reconnecting to both.

It is necessary to see trauma recovery as an ongoing act of self-care and self-love. An event hosted by We Coproduce CIC to coincide with the Grenfell anniversary explores the latest thinking about trauma. It seeks to help people understand how the experience of trauma manifests in the physical body, how the brain responds to being overwhelmed and what can be done about it. Day One sees Dr Gabor Maté discuss his views on all types of trauma in a day-long workshop. Day Two has salon-style discussions and embodied practice workshops to explore various tools for self-care and managing the nervous system.

Self-care was described by the iconic American writer and activist Audre Lorde as “an act of political warfare” – as we mark the second anniversary of the Grenfell Tower atrocity and honour those who were so needlessly lost, perhaps one of the most proactive and powerful things that residents of North Kensington can do is to understand their own trauma and learn ways to care for themselves in order to survive and even thrive in the face of an ongoing injustice.

 

By Tom Charles and Jane McGrath

@tomhcharles

@wecoproduce

Trauma Matters, hosted by We Coproduce CIC, takes place at the Tabernacle on the weekend of 15th-16th June.

We have a limited number of free tickets to give away to North Kensington residents for day two. To request a ticket please email jane@wecoproduce.com

The authors of this article are not trauma experts and those suffering with trauma should consider seeking professional help. We wholeheartedly recommend the talks of Dr Maté, easily found on YouTube, as well as the books ‘Waking the Tiger’ by Peter Levine ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ by Bessel van der Kolk.

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We Coproduce CIC

Wecoproduce.com is a social consultancy owned and run by local people in West London to give local people an equal voice. We start from the position that in the 21st century our health and social care systems are flawed and need to be radically reimagined. To achieve this, we created a disruptive consultancy – ‘We Coproduce.’  We are commissioned to work with our communities to coproduce better and braver solutions to health and social care challenges – and we invest all of our profits into building resilient communities. Our national network of collaborators use authentic coproduction and radical disruptive innovation techniques to challenge systems that are not working. To do this effectively we use the arts, interactive technology and social media to facilitate democratic spaces for local people to collectively reimagine local health and social care outcomes.

We remain a small Community Interest Company.

Dr Gabor Mate

Dr. Maté has received the Hubert Evans Prize for Literary Non-Fiction; an Honorary Degree (Law) from the University of Northern British Columbia; an Outstanding Alumnus Award from Simon Fraser University; and the 2012 Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award from Mothers Against Teen Violence. For his ground-breaking medical work and writing he has been awarded the Order of Canada, his country’s highest civilian distinction, and the Civic Merit Award from his hometown, Vancouver.

Dr. Maté is the author of several best-selling books:

Scattered Minds: A New Look at the Origins and Healing of Attention Disorder;

When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress;

Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers and

In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction.

For more information on these titles, plus articles, speaking dates and links to videos go to his website: drgabormate.com. Many of his talks and interviews are also available for free on his YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCsRF06lSFA8zV9L8_x9jzIA

 

Change at RBKC? Case Study 3: The Curve

This article contains information about the Grenfell Tower fire that readers might find distressing.

0_curve

Change is essential in North Kensington, an area of London still reeling from the Grenfell Tower fire, where 72 people were killed on June 14th, 2017. The trauma inflicted is only now starting to manifest in residents. On becoming leader of Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC) a month after the fire, Elizabeth Campbell promised “change”, invoking the word eleven times during a brief speech to survivors. She had the right idea – people wanted change – but has her council delivered? Of all the opportunities RBKC has had to make good on its promises, surely its own Grenfell recovery site, the Curve, is one where it would not dare to fail. But have they failed? It is a complex case study, and one in which I am personally involved.

What is RBKC’s Change Policy?

For years prior to the Grenfell Tower fire, people in North Kensington were routinely ignored, even when attempting to raise serious concerns about fire safety. Previously, to assess whether any tangible change to this pattern of willful neglect had been made, Urban Dandy used RBKC’s official policy, 12 Principles of Good Governance, as the yardstick. In the cases of Canalside House and Lancaster Youth Centre, it was clear that the policy had not translated from theory to practice. You can read about the two examples and the twelve principles here and here.

Facing widespread criticism and calls for commissioners to replace them in 2017, RBKC hired the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS) to carry out an independent review of the council. RBKC welcomed CfPS’s subsequent report and adopted “12 principles of good governance we should embed in the council.” The 12 Principles were bespoke, designed specifically for RBKC to act on its claims to want to “change” following the fire. The council’s leadership were to be held to account on this by its Executive and Corporate Services Scrutiny Committee. Papers to date reveal talk about listening forums and citizens panels, but nothing in the way of challenge or scrutiny from the Labour-led committee. 

What is The Curve?

The Curve Community Centre is a building rented at commercial rates by Kensington and Chelsea council. It was obtained shortly after the fire at Grenfell Tower. The Curve replaced the Westway Sports Centre as the focal point of the council’s response. It still provides essential services for survivors and the bereaved including housing support, post delivery and counselling. Additionally, it hosts workshops and classes and offers space for community cooking and other gatherings. The Curve has three principal sets of users: survivors and the bereaved; residents of Lancaster West estate and the wider North Kensington community.

The Curve sits on Bard Road, just behind Freston Road, by what was once the self-declared Republic of Frestonia. Nowadays the area is characterised by poverty, a high density of social housing and large national business’ headquarters; the Westway flyover runs nearby, and from the Curve’s windows visitors can look across the A3220 to Westfield and the old BBC Television Studios.

 

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From the outset, and probably inevitably, the Curve has been a controversial issue. Being council-run, it has naturally been scrutinised by local residents who have lived through the Grenfell atrocity and its aftermath. RBKC’s actions at the Curve can be taken as approximate indicators of where the council is, politically.

2018

In early 2018, RBKC decided to appoint an independent Board of Governors “to ensure that the Curve is accountable to the local community” and to be “critical friends” of the Curve’s management team as well as “to contribute critically and substantially to the public’s perception of the Curve” (The Role of Governor of the Curve, 26th February 2018).

I was appointed governor in May 2018, and quit in February 2019, but will try to give the public some perspective on the Curve: its place in North Kensington, the council’s approach to it and why I had to leave.

Governors’ Vision

From a North Kensington perspective, the Board of Governors has been notable mainly for its silence, a point of frustration to many local people wondering what has been going on at the Curve. The building is, after all, for the public and the Board is supposed to represent them. The Board spent its collective time and energy over the winter devising an alternative vision for the community centre, one that would take control of the building away from RBKC.

The governors’ vision was of the Curve being transformed into a fitting legacy for North Kensington, a space that would be congruent with the rich and diverse culture of the local area. Specifically, the governors proposed the Curve to be split into three areas of work: high quality, expert trauma therapy; skills training for jobs of the future for young people (in the technology, gaming, sports and culture industries) and a welcoming, safe living room environment for those wanting to drop in. Something roughly akin to the Tabernacle but for the West end of the borough. The plan initially called for the Curve to operate separately from RBKC as a charity, although the council would be expected to do its bit by providing the rent, which it could secure long-term and at a discounted rate.

If the vision was adopted, obvious issues would remain, including the Curve’s location, which is considered unattractive and unsafe by some residents. The building, its lighting and signage would need to be beautified if the Curve were to be transitioned from a community centre run by a distrusted local authority to a beacon of recovery, culture and opportunity. Challenges, certainly, but not insurmountable ones, if RBKC could grasp the potential of both the building and the local population and make resources available to help something happen.

My perspective was that North Kensington is in desperate need of public spaces and we should keep the Curve and make it work for the community. The poverty of the area is compounded by a scarcity of space. Many children live in appallingly overcrowded accommodation, with no space to do homework or relax, let alone learn new skills or prepare for success in their adult lives. One 11-year-old I have worked with lives in a two bedroom flat occupied by 11 (eleven) people of ages ranging from toddler to pensioner. Why? Because the council does not build the housing that would enable people to live in dignity. Community centres offer these children what they need: space. To RBKC, such public spaces are wasted opportunities better handed over to property speculators or private schools. I hoped I could help to secure another public space for the area…

RBKC’s Vision

The council has its own visions for the Curve and none of them are expansive. One RBKC vision sees budget cuts that would be applied to staffing, services or both; another sees the Curve closed, possibly as early as July 2019. RBKC has indicated there is some scope for changing what is on offer to the public at the Curve, but budget cuts are not conducive to transforming people’s life chances.

Such is the political landscape in early 2019. RBKC are no longer feeling the pressure from Downing Street and there is no appetite to push forward and invest in North Kensington’s potential. Austerity, the euphemism for impoverishment, is the real legacy, and North Kensington is the last place in Britain it should be imposed. It was RBKC’s devotion to austerity that led to them ignoring North Kensington’s residents for so long.

Last year, Philip Alston, the UN rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, after a fact-finding mission to the UK, said that child poverty levels were “not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster” in the world’s fifth largest economy. He said the government had caused “great misery” with its “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” austerity policies. Projected figures suggest that the number of additional deaths caused by austerity policies in the UK between 2009 and 2020 will be 152,141.

Nowhere was the 2010 shift to austerity taken up more enthusiastically than Kensington Town Hall and nowhere is the injustice more obvious than here in North Kensington. But this is what the Curve’s Board of Governors are being maneuvered to acquiesce to. The final straw for me was a meeting in February with Robyn Fairman, Executive Director of RBKC’s Grenfell Team, to present the governors’ alternative vision. Fairman seamlessly absorbed the vision into the council’s austerity plan. Not for one moment did RBKC’s representative entertain the idea of a breakaway from the local authority. There was no hint of imagination, no sense that the community might take the lead, that it might know better than senior councillors what the area needs…

Why I Quit

This kind of absorption into the council’s existing plans barely registers as a problem any more; from the massive cuts of the RBKC youth review, to Canalside, to the Curve, RBKC is comfortable and complacent. We have come a long way since summer 2017 when the people of North Kensington responded heroically to the fire at Grenfell and the idea that we would be left powerless was unthinkable. Even a Board of Governors genuinely representative of the diversity of the area has been side-lined, reduced to the role of ‘advisers’ to a service-cutting Tory council, and certainly not ‘governing’ anything.

This was the limit for me and I handed in my resignation the day after the Fairman meeting.

Problems

The problematic dynamic between the governors/wider community and RBKC didn’t appear suddenly at the meeting with Robyn Fairman. Disquiet has simmered since summer 2017, and chaos is to be expected in the aftermath of a disaster so shocking that it made headlines worldwide. In such chaos, serious commitment to principles (of good governance) are needed. But this is lacking with RBKC.

The Curve cannot contain the entropy, as trauma manifests and fights its way out of people in a setting ill-equipped to address it. One drama after another has beset the Curve’s management. At board level, resident steering groups that were promised for us to work alongside on day one still have not been created, undermining the governors’ credibility and effectiveness. Meanwhile, RBKC has sat back, their every move orchestrated by communications officers with their corporate jargon.

Oversight of RBKC is undertaken by Home Secretary Sajid Javid’s independent Grenfell Taskforce who have reported back to Javid in fairly glowing terms regarding the council’s progress towards “change” since the fire. In none of their three reports to date have they used the words austerity or poverty – suggesting less an independent group and more an establishment cover-up. What is omitted is far more revealing than what is included in such reports: no mention of Canalside House, which the disgraced council tried to sell; no mention of Lancaster Youth Centre, left to rot by the council. No library, no college, no context…

Perhaps the idea is to narrow the scope of any scrutiny so that RBKC leaders can convince themselves they are changing. Certainly the long pause in the Grenfell Inquiry does not help. While in legal limbo, pursuing serious change might look like an admission of guilt by RBKC. It is not just business-as-usual with the council, there is a kind of forced joviality to the tone of their communications, inappropriate for a local authority apparently implicated in the Grenfell fire.

The result is an uneasy marriage between RBKC and local people who engage with them. With a functioning inquiry, if the possibility of guilty verdicts being handed to RBKC or TMO staff were less distant, or if the public could hear the evidence and start to understand the political background to the fire, it would curtail the council’s phony change agenda. The imposition of austerity would be harder to get away with and feel-good reality TV shows showing the resilient Grenfell community would be considered in bad taste. With some legal clarity it would not be possible for residents engaging with the RBKC change agenda to remain apolitical.

The council, who claimed to have “no intention of defending anything” at the inquiry, but then did just that in their opening statement, have to maintain the illusion that they are changing. They have to maintain it in their own minds at least, even while every political instinct they possess takes them back to the same policies and same approach as before 2017. Their inability to change has been exposed in all three case studies we have looked at and there is nothing substantial they can use to refute the damning evidence.

Change at RBKC?

There is no change in approach. Over £400 million has been spent on Grenfell ‘recovery’ – but who has recovered? The Conservative leadership. Meanwhile millions in cuts are imposed on North Kensington. As a governor at the main recovery site, using up more public resources, I saw the jig was up – there is no partnership, there is no change. I fear the Curve’s Board of Governors has sleep walked into being a tick box exercise for a highly ideological local authority who hide their true intentions behind well-paid bureaucrats and well-meaning residents.

Change at RBKC? No, they are still committed to austerity, and all that it brings, in North Kensington.

 

Tom Charles @tomhcharles

 

 

KCTMO: Who, What, Where, When & Why – Part One

The Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) was responsible for running the Lancaster West estate, including Grenfell Tower, in North Kensington. This year, its responsibility for Lancaster West was terminated following the Grenfell Tower fire of June 14th 2017, which killed 72 people. But what is KCTMO? Has it really ceased to exist? And why do these initials provoke such antipathy in North Kensington?

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A Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) is traditionally a small, tenant-led group that takes over some of the landlord management responsibilities and oversight for an estate from a local authority. Of the 200 TMOs in Britain, the KCTMO was distinct in being an Arms-Length Management Organisation (ALMO) and therefore, by its very design, not representative of residents. KCTMO was created to directly take over the council’s management of its social housing, rather than to provide representative oversight.

Creation

The KCTMO story takes place against the backdrop of Conservative party predominance over the Kensington and Chelsea council. This was no different in 1996, when the council feared it might lose control of its social housing stock, which was subject to a compulsory tendering strategy from national government. To maintain its control, the council created the KCTMO, with its management team of 20, including, initially, 13 residents. In the plan, KCTMO would take control of the borough’s 9,000 social housing properties, but for major works (costing over £400,000, such as the Grenfell Tower refurbishment) liability was shared equally with the council.

Change

In 2002, to access the Labour government’s Decent Homes funding, KCTMO became an ALMO, reducing the number of tenants on its board whilst maintaining the TMO designation in its name. By the late 00s, serious issues were emerging. An independent report in 2009 identified “substandard” repairs and a need for major works, recommending the Tory council take a greater role in monitoring KCTMO.

In response to the alarming report, newly appointed KCTMO chief executive Robert Black pledged to build trust between the TMO and tenants. But this did not come to pass.

In 2013, when I lived on the estate, the Estate Management Board at Lancaster West was wound up. There were “terrifying” power surges at Grenfell Tower and plans for the Kensington Academy secondary school and new Kensington Leisure Centre, next to Grenfell Tower were not received enthusiastically by residents, the sense being that KCTMO and the council were out of touch with, and even dismissive of, residents’ voices.

Refurbishment Continue reading

Change at RBKC? Case Study 1

In July an independent review of Kensington and Chelsea Council’s governance was concluded and the council adopted twelve recommended “principles of good governance” . To assess how the council has fared in applying their new democratic principles it is worth considering an ongoing example: Canalside House, the North Kensington community hub currently under threat of “demolition” by the local authority. Is there any evidence of a change of approach to the local community?

The Review

The Centre for Public Scrutiny, experts on effective decision-making, were commissioned to carry out the independent review, which was funded by the Local Government Association. RBKC welcomed the subsequent report and adopted “12 principles of good governance we should embed in the council.” The 12 Principles are bespoke, designed specifically for RBKC to act on its claims to want to “change” following the Grenfell Tower fire. Continue reading