What Happened to Lancaster West?

“Following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, there was clear recognition of the need to make real improvements to the Lancaster West Estate and the need to have the residents lead the process. Both the Council and central Government have committed funding to support an ambitious and resident-led refurbishment of the Estate. The Council has promised to refurbish the Lancaster West Estate sensitively, collaboratively and to create a model for social housing in the 21st century. Residents are and will continue to be at the heart of shaping any future work throughout the delivery of the programme. There will be no demolition of people’s homes.”

Your housing future: helping you decide,’ published by RBKC, July 2018 (our emphasis)

The above quote from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) expresses a clear intention to transform Lancaster West Estate, site of the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017. Despite the fine words, the residents who are supposed to help lead the estate’s recovery say they are being treated as “an afterthought” by RBKC. There is little evidence of a transformation of the estate amid accusations that the local authority is backtracking on its commitments. We spoke to several residents who are involved in management and oversight of the estate to find out what has happened.

First, a little background…

Lancaster West

Lancaster West estate in west London, is home to 795 households, making it the largest estate in Kensington and Chelsea and one of the largest in the capital. It opened in the mid-1970s as part of Britain’s post-war slum clearance. The estate’s one high-rise block was Grenfell Tower, which still stands, covered, following the 2017 fire that took 72 lives prematurely and traumatised the whole North Kensington area.

In the shadow of the tower are the brutalist low-rise blocks, Hurstway Walk, Testerton Walk and Barandon Walk, designed as high-rise towers laid on their sides. These low rises are ‘streets in the sky’ based around communal green areas, designed by architects Clifford Wearden and Peter Deakins in 1963/64. A similar design, with connecting first floor walkways, was envisioned for nearby Camelford Walk, Clarendon Walk and Treadgold House, but the plans were abandoned and in-house architects at RBKC built these blocks in a less ambitious style, hence the diversity of styles which gives the estate its disjointed appearance.

Map of Grenfell Tower and the neighbouring walkways, part of the Lancaster West estate*.

Grenfell Tower is a 67.30-metre (220 ft 10 in) tall building and contained 120 one- and two-bedroom flats housing up to 600 people. In 2016 the tower was given an £9.2 million refurbishment, including new windows and cladding to improve the building’s appearance. The facelift made the tower more congruent with its immediate neighbours, the newly built Kensington Academy secondary school and the rebuilt and modernised Kensington Leisure Centre.

From 1996 to 2018, Lancaster West estate was overseen by Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO,) an arms-length management organisation (ALMO) that managed RBKC’s 9,000 social housing properties. The motivation for RBKC’s handing over of responsibility to KCTMO in 1996 was its fear of losing control of its social housing stock which had become subject to a compulsory tendering strategy introduced by the national government. To maintain its control of the housing stock, the council created the KCTMO, with a management team of 20 that initially included 13 residents. In the plan, KCTMO took control of the borough’s social housing properties, but for major works (costing over £400,000, such as the Grenfell Tower refurbishment) liability was shared equally with the council.

In 2002, to access the government’s Decent Homes funding, KCTMO dropped most of the residents from its management setup and became an ALMO, maintaining the misleading tenant management title. In 2009, an independent report by Local Governance Limited, identified “substandard” repairs and a need for major works across the borough’s social housing properties, recommending the Tory-run council take a greater role in monitoring KCTMO. In response, KCTMO chief executive Robert Black pledged to build trust between the TMO and tenants. To say he failed to meet that pledge would be an understatement.

In 2013, the Estate Management Board at Lancaster West was wound up. There were “terrifying” power surges at Grenfell Tower and plans for the new school and leisure centre were not received enthusiastically by many residents, the sense being that both KCTMO and the council were out of touch with, and even dismissive of, residents’ voices. It was widely understood that Lancaster West, like much of North Kensington’s community space, was in the sights of RBKC’s senior Councillors, whose personal wealth is often increased by their involvement in the property market. Even the council’s own chief executive, Barry Quirk, has described pre-fire RBKC as “a property developer masquerading as a local authority”.

Picture from lancwest.com/

In 2015, the Grenfell Tower refurbishment began, and the ongoing Grenfell Inquiry is revealing the corners that were cut to save money at the expense of safety. Those of us who have lived on the estate have lived with a landlord determined to oversee the managed decline of our homes. Those without that lived experience also have ample evidence, thanks to Grenfell Action Group, of the contemptuous attitude of both RBKC and KCTMO towards Lancaster West residents, their resistance to resident empowerment, collaboration and improvements to living conditions. While Grenfell Tower was receiving its refurbishments, the rest of Lancaster West saw no meaningful improvements whatsoever, and the deterioration of the estate continued.

Street art, Penzance Place, Notting Hill

Change

Following the June 2017 fire, RBKC unambiguously promised change. The council’s North Kensington recovery strategy, in both word and spirit, gave this as a vow to the residents of Lancaster West.

In a July 2018 document, ‘Your Housing Future’ RBKC stated: “The Council has promised to refurbish the Lancaster West Estate sensitively, collaboratively and to create a model for social housing in the 21st century” and “Residents are and will continue to be at the heart of shaping any future work throughout the delivery of the programme”.

In a document titled Our commitments to those affected by the Grenfell Tragedy, RBKC also made a commitment to achieve, by June 2020, complete refurbishment of Lancaster West so “the estate is somewhere residents are proud to live”.

RBKC’s new, more caring tone and rhetoric has been evident across all its public pronouncements since June 2017. There is no question that they have been consistent in that regard. But does the language reflect tangible improvements on the ground on Lancaster West?

We spoke with several residents heavily involved in the management of the estate to get their insights into what changes have been made, whether there has been genuine collaboration and whether Lancaster West’s trajectory is really heading towards a state-of-the-art model for 21st century social housing.

Residents Speak

The Lancaster West residents/officials we spoke to told us the following:

  • A 2018 ‘Ideas Day’ was a hopeful beginning for Lancaster West’s recovery. RBKC worked collaboratively with residents and architects to develop ideas. The architects were enthusiastic about the scope of the project, with their plans published in June 2018, but then “got pissed off because nothing happened for months.”
  • The £40,000 allocated per property is not enough to transform the estate into the promised “model for social housing in the 21st century.” Those we spoke to all agreed that the figure reflects a lack of sincerity on RBKC’s part regarding Lancaster West and that the council has now reverted to its “property developer” type.
  • The per-household figure, just under £40,000, allocated to Lancaster West, is actually the same or lower than the amount allocated per property by RBKC for its social housing stock across the borough.
  • Some of the residents we spoke to had been on a fact-finding trip to Portsmouth to see an estate that had undergone a significant and successful refurbishment. The Residents’ Association member who attended told us that the Portsmouth estate received investment of £100,000 per unit. RBKC, the richest local authority in Britain, which held reserves of a third of a billion pounds before the fire, was looking to achieve its stated aims with under half the per-unit budget of the Portsmouth estate.
  • The £9.2 million Grenfell Tower refurbishment meant that approximately £77,000 was spent per unit and the members of Lancaster West Residents Association (LWRA) we spoke to think this figure should be starting point for the wider Lancaster West refurbishment.
  • Central government gave £25m to Lancaster West but this has been treated by RBKC as an excuse to reduce their own commitment to the estate. More on this below.
  • RBKC has spurned opportunities to borrow at very low interest rates to enable it to boost the Lancaster West recovery.
  • RBKC is “prioritising the allocation of recovery funds to those who have the greatest ability to sue the council, namely Grenfell survivors and bereaved”.

Funding of Lancaster West

A pattern of money awarded, then money withheld from Lancaster West has emerged since the North Kensington Recovery Strategy was published. It is a pattern that undermines the council’s key promises: genuine collaboration, sensitivity and a model for social housing, according to all four people we spoke to.

There have been two phases of funding of the estate’s recovery. £30 million was initially received, with £15 million coming from central government and £15 million from the council. This rose later to £57.9 million. The additional money was added when it became clear that £30 million was not enough and consisted of £18 million from central government and just under that amount from RBKC. The council did not want to match central government’s offer.

That amount can be further bolstered by accessing the Mayor of London’s Energy Efficiency Fund and taking a low-interest loan. But we were told that when this was mooted by residents, they were told by RBKC: ‘You have nearly £60 million. If you receive more, we have to cut back the budget.’

A similar response came from RBKC to the prospect of a grant from the government’s Heat Networks Investment Project for Lancaster West to have environmentally friendly communal heating. The grant required the estate to have safe external insulation (in the form of cladding) applied to its exterior to make it more energy efficient. But concerns about cladding are not the motivation for RBKC’s reticence to follow through on supporting such moves. According to one person we spoke to, RBKC “keep clawing back funding when Lancaster West accesses funding elsewhere”.

We were told that RBKC’s Housing Revenue Account (HRA), the income the council gains from its housing stock, is not treated by the council as income to be re-invested in communities. The same resident told us: “They (RBKC) see social housing as a privilege. The estate makes a profit for the council from rent, service charges and council tax. The HRA income alone should be enough to pay for capital works on Lancaster West”.

Pattern

The pattern outlined by a number of the Lancaster West resident officials we interviewed is that the council capitalises on any funding secured by residents to cut its own outlay in contradiction of its stated commitment to the estate’s revival.

But Lancaster West is not an isolated example, carried out by one department, or one officer looking to tighten the purse strings. It reflects a pattern of governance by RBKC since the fire: The council’s documents and public pronouncements claim a newfound commitment to North Kensington; this satisfies those who have overseen the local authority, such as the government’s Grenfell Taskforce and the national media; the council then betrays residents by not following through on its commitments, or it pursues policies and strategies that not only do not meet their lofty exclamations of “change” but that actively and collectively neglect and punish residents in the north of the borough.

There are numerous examples of this pattern playing out, some covered previously by Urban Dandy including the council’s light touch approaches to applying its own Twelve Principles of Good Governance and its Charter for Public Participation. Seen in this context, the failure of RBKC to meet its stated goals on Lancaster West is no aberration but part of a deliberate shift back to pre-Grenfell austerity and the denigration of long-suffering residents.

Relations with RBKC

According to the residents we spoke to, the council refuses to collaborate with them in upgrading the estate. Regarding a recent council scrutiny meeting, the residents told us: “we had to write to ask to attend.” One of those we interviewed, a member of LWRA stated: “We have to go and see them, they don’t come to us, we’re an afterthought”.

They further criticised RBKC’s engagement strategy, saying “they use community organisations to tick boxes, they don’t check on delivery” and complained that LWRA, supposedly at the heart of the collaborative strategy is “never included in budget discussions” in which money for the council’s management is always approved. RBKC’s strategy of buying up houses in the aftermath of the fire was also described as “money wasted”.

The residents described a lack of transparency around money that is making Lancaster West’s and North Kensington’s recovery unnecessarily complicated. They cited the pot of money for community recovery including a 1.2 million annual budget for The Curve (the council’s main Grenfell recovery centre) but questioned who from the local community utilises The Curve, a venue that has proved toxic among many people locally and lacks empowered resident oversight.

We asked about the estate’s relations with national government. It seems that meetings held with successive Tory leaders have been perfunctory, forcing residents to rely on RBKC to make any progress. They said they lobbied RBKC, proposing that they collaborate on lobbying the government to secure more recovery money. We were told that “they (RBKC) would never consider doing that.”

Positives

By its original design, life on Lancaster West is a communal experience, so even private residents (as I was) need an effective system of communal repairs, decision making and management. The residents we spoke to said that the estate “needs a holistic approach” and cited investment in communal areas as key. In my time on the estate, communal areas were neglected and miserable. I knew of a Councillor living on the walkways who lobbied for some minimal improvements, pot plants, to be made in the communal area. RBKC refused.

Things have improved since then. We were told that:

  • The walkways have finally been refurbished, with empty / abandoned flats revived.
  • The positive changes have been implemented by a new organisation called W11 – Lancaster West Neighbourhood Team, which replaced KCTMO as the estate’s management body following the fire, when the TMO was relieved of its management duties. W11 is an on-site management team serving just Lancaster West albeit still funded by the council.
  • W11 is a “positive change” but the residents were also clear that they think RBKC sees W11 as “a danger” as it could become “a precedent for all estate management to become resident-led” so RBKC has vested interest in it not becoming too successful or independent.

From July 2019 until June 2020, staff at W11 carried out a comprehensive consultation throughout Lancaster West with very high engagement rates with residents. Priorities for the estate’s recovery were established, but will residents get what they have asked for?

Image from instagram.com/lancasterwestneighbourhoodteam

RBKC Response

We asked RBKC deputy leader Councillor Kim Taylor-Smith for a response on behalf of the local authority to the main criticisms of the resident officers, namely that RBKC has failed to transform Lancaster West; RBKC has not committed enough money to the estate’s recovery; RBKC is not genuinely collaborating with resident representatives to the extent that they describe experiencing deliberate exclusion by the council; that these criticisms reflect RBKC’s general performance in North Kensington since June 2017.

Neither Councillor Taylor-Smith nor any of his colleagues in the leadership team responded.

A council spokesman emailed: “We are sensitive to the special circumstances of Lancaster West residents and that is reflected in a scope and specification of work which is far beyond that of other estates.

“We have scoped the works collaboratively with residents and there is close control and scrutiny on the investment being made on Lancaster West, which is reviewed with the Lancaster West Residents’ Association and representatives at a quarterly programme board.

“We remain confident that this will be a model 21st century improvement programme.”**

RBKC Deputy Leader Cllr Kim Taylor-Smith having fun on Lancaster West. Image from instagram.com/lancasterwestneighbourhoodteam

Conclusions

Lancaster West is a profit-making estate, vibrant, creative and a key hub in a culturally rich corner of the world; its residents were steadfast in the face of the managed decline imposed by RBKC, only to be traumatised by a horror on the scale of a war crime. The same forces that failed to prevent the fire then failed to respond now seem to be equivocating about whether the estate’s recovery is really worth funding properly.

The residents we spoke to were clear and unified in their vision: “to achieve a ‘model for social housing’ we need money for communal areas.”

and

“We need somewhere we’re proud to live and that the council is proud to own.”

RBKC claims the same aspirations but Lancaster West residents might now be questioning just how sincere their council is.

By Tom Charles. @tomhcharles

 

*Picture credit: Phoenix7777 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60587246

**The response from RBKC was added after this article’s initial publication following an email from a council spokesman.

Writings from the Roots – North Kensington Zine

Cover
Art by Toby Laurent Belson

Urban Dandy features in a new Ezine, curated by Toby Laurent Belson. This first edition brings together the words of local writers, campaigners, film makers and artists to reveal the context in which the Grenfell Tower fire took place.

The Zine represents some of the best of the North Kensington community: creativity, diversity, openness, unity and defiance…above all a commitment to life in the face of forces that work against it.

The Zine is an ideal primer for those who want to learn more about this unique area, as well as a timely reminder that the Grenfell Tower atrocity did not occur in a vacuum, but in the context of policy decisions and systemic attitudes towards the population of North Kensington.

As the struggle in North Ken continues, Writings from the Roots will stand as a testament to the enduring spirit of the people of this area who continue to face down injustice and insults from the same forces that were at work long before 14th June 2017.

 

Some words of introduction from Toby Laurent Belson are below. You can open a digital version of the Ezine hereNorth_Kensington_Writings_1 and print copies are available at local libraries (Ladbroke Grove & Kensal), the Venture Centre, Acklam Village, Henry Dickens Community Centre and the Taberncale, where there will be an official launch on Saturday 15th June at 6pm.

Over to Toby:

“It has been produced to respond to a couple of specific things:

1 An acknowledgement that the strong online presence and platforms of our grassroots activities are not always matched by offline efforts (albeit for good reason given the next level of resource and commitment some of these outcomes require).

2 To make clear that there are strong and established networks in this community. Just as in the 60s and 70s, where the People’s Association and their centres acted as a gathering space for a multitude of autonomous groups or All Saints Road was a space of Black communiity resistance. Things are connected.

3 To publish a piece that (amongst others) will act as a marker. Having done various research over the years, the value of published works and outstanding ephemera has become clear. And the need for communities and individuals to produce their own stories and present their own narratives has also become clear. We need more books, more zines, more leaflets, more posters, more songs, more films, more artworks, more exhibitions, more talks, more libraries and more archives. We have the skills in and around the community to do it all.

This is a further development of the ‘North Kensington Healing’ artwork produced for the ‘Shifaa (Healing)’ edition of the Khidr Collective zine released in January 2018.

https://www.khidrcollective.co.uk/product-page/khidr-collective-zine-issue-two-shifaa

In continuing to explore the nature of this part of my home, West London, roots are discovered that go further out and further down with an endless diversity of trunks, branches, blossoms and leaves that make more and more sense. It’s amazing and I encourage everyone to keep on contributing and cultivating to this healing, this culture, this freedom.”

 

The Unholy Trinity & Writing in Kensington

The Un-holy Trinity

Writing about life in Kensington sometimes creates friction with Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKC), the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Association (KCTMO) and the Westway Trust. The three constitute what has been referred to locally as the Unholy Trinity.

Roles & Responsibilities

RBKC is the local government, responsible for provision of many public services and dominated by councillors from the Conservative party, which retained control of the Town Hall by winning the local election in May 2018. For years the political leadership of RBKC has been dominated by moneyed property speculators who have sought to sell off North Kensington’s public assets, such as its library, youth club and college.

KCTMO is an Arms-Length Management Organisation and was given control of the borough’s 9,000 social housing properties from 1996. It was taken in-house, back to RBKC, after the Grenfell Tower fire; KCTMO staff now work in the same roles but use council, rather than TMO, email addresses. KCTMO is being maintained as a legal entity at a high cost to residents so that it can participate in the Grenfell inquiry.

The Westway Trust is responsible for ensuring the mile of land under the A40 flyover in North Kensington is used for the benefit of the local population who suffer from the noise, darkness and pollution imposed by the Westway.

 

 

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Power & Mortality

The three institutions form a power establishment in the north of the borough. Between them they have the keys to properties and can move families out of London; they hold the purse strings for many charities, small businesses and community projects. Senior positions at all three tend to be held by people with a capitalistic approach and a natural class bias for maintaining the status quo.

History has shown that their agendas overlap and, on their watch, Kensington is “the most unequal borough in Britain,” not an abstract fact: here in North Kensington we men live for 22 years fewer than the wealthier men in the south of the borough.

Writing in Kensington and possessing a modicum of socio-economic or political consciousness requires awareness of how the trinity impact the population.

Paradoxical

It is important to explain the phrase Unholy Trinity as it is a pronoun for three paradoxical institutions. All three are significant local employers: the council has well over 2,000 staff; KCTMO over 200 and Westway Trust approximately 100 (these figures do not include casual or contracted-in workers). They also provide vital services, sometimes effectively. Within each of the three organisations are fine and noble people, but the Trinity have not only failed to alleviate chronic poverty but have added to the misery in North Kensington.

Despite the misery, they carry on. The council has weathered the political storm after the Grenfell fire, mainly by playing silly and propagating corporate waffle about ‘change’ and ‘stronger communities’. Nobody in North Ken believes it, but they have no way to reject it. The government’s taskforce that oversees RBKC on behalf of the Home Secretary offered only token criticisms in its latest report which was a whitewash serving only to veil RBKC’s ineptitude. The property parasites of RBKC have proved ignorant and unteachable when it comes to the rich culture and dynamic potential of North Kensington making them less useful to the area than his fleas are to a dog.

KCTMO has been absorbed into the council, along with thousands of outstanding repair jobs it couldn’t carry out, despite £11 million a year of public money. And the Westway Trust’s 2018 keystone cops AGM was a mess, with allegations already carried over from previous years going unanswered. Every establishment, profiteering instinct of the decision-makers within the Unholy Trinity leads them to mess up big time in North Kensington and it is not possible to shame them into improving.

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Look closely: KCTMO cover up

Many staff members at these institutions are comfortable with constructive criticism of their big bosses, and often agree, but others get jittery when local writers consistently, accurately identify the seriousness of the failings and when the finger of blame points steadily at those whose doctrines have done so much damage to the people they are paid to serve.

Lancaster West – Urban Dandy

Urban Dandy started off in 2011 covering art, music, local businesses and whatever else we felt like talking about. Jen, Angel and I were always philosophical, ear-to-the-street, socially and politically conscious types though.

The blog was conceived on Lancaster West estate, which probably set in train the trajectory Urban Dandy has taken. In the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, in a climate of rage and truth, no issues were raised about our comments on the local power system. Now, in the post-Grenfell world, it’s different; people have adjusted their minds to circumstances that would have been unthinkable before 2017. Being sensitive to the times, it was inevitable that if we kept writing we’d come up against the Unholy Trinity.

 

 

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The Masque of Empathy

It is painful to write but what we see now in North Kensington is a gravy train about to smash into the buffers. Profiteers motivated by personal gain, not limited to the business or political classes, have cashed in on tragedy. Integrity has been trumped by fear of missing out, not helped by the panic-stricken local authority almost literally throwing money (£400 million and counting) at the community, to maintain the established order, rather than investing in people to transform standards of living and create opportunities.

Financial corruption in the third sector, corruption of the minds of those who are first to proclaim their piety, adds to the corruption so obvious in the upper echelons of the council and KCTMO. The perversions possibly peaked with the presence of the leader of the council on the monthly silent walk for Grenfell. Her deputy feels relaxed enough to poke fun at those who attend council meetings to demand justice. Eighteen months is an infinitude in politics.

‘Change’ at RBKC amounts to a masquerade of empathy for which they are sent on training courses, funded by residents.

The Masque of Anarchy

Back to the blog, and when Mark joined us, we had London’s greatest poet, the perfect foil for news stories and the op-eds. Philosophical, social and poetic. Perhaps something is stirring in England, but in Kensington, the Royal borough, the Unholy Trinity still decides the life chances of many families and the council has a democratic mandate for power.

What to do? Blogging, or citizen journalism, is the fourth estate in this borough. Temporarily, Urban Dandy is the only show in town outside of the social media echo chamber. We hope we won’t be alone for long though: others cannot be matched for their assiduousness; and one local blog takes the fight to the Unholy Trinity almost daily.

Rage, though it manifests in our words, was never the purpose of Urban Dandy and it won’t chew us up. The power system endures because it was designed to, that is a fact of life but we remain philosophical, knowing that big doors swing on small hinges.

Massacre

The second centenary of the Peterloo massacre is marked by Joyce Marlow’s brilliant, authoritative book. Making use of all that was published in Lancashire and across Britain at the time, she tracks the fear among the ruling elite of revolution in England and the spirited, non-violent call for dignified living conditions in Manchester that was turned into a massacre of its own people by the British army. The book also tells the story after the massacre as the population is subjugated by the state’s control of the courts, parliament, media and arms. In 2119, we hope historians researching the atrocity in North Kensington find our blog and recognise an honest account.

Stepping back and renewing is the early year theme of the poetry, articles and art on the blog, as we mop up the chaos of 2018 and look forward.

The anarchy we glimpsed in Summer 2017 has given way to the old order, and it is a great sadness that an alternative system for North Kensington has not been established. A mechanism to enable the community to make its own decisions in its own interests, which briefly seemed possible, is not even discussed any more. Squabbles and petty ambitions dominate North Kensington while the privileged, dividend-collectors at RBKC relax, bloated by their success. 

Like any logical article, even a stream of consciousness comes full circle. In this case back to the Unholy Trinity. We’ve ignored the murmurs of discontent about our work and started 2019 with an insider account of alleged Westway Trust corruption and a serious look at the abuse of the word ‘change’ by RBKC. We’ll write whatever we feel like writing about and might step back from covering North Kensington’s Unholy Trinity quagmire. But stepping back means having a better view of the whole picture, and their injustice will remain on our radar…

 

By 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

Grenfell & Not Just the Air that we Breathe

People in North Kensington have been raising health concerns since the Grenfell Tower fire. Following Friday’s news that ‘huge concentrations’ of toxins have been found in the soil around the tower, fellow local bloggers, THis Is North Kensington – THINK, have some more concerning news for local residents, which they have shared with Urban Dandy…

 

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On Friday, The Guardian reported that Public Health England have not acted upon a report of early findings by toxicology expert Dr Anna Stec showing huge concentrations of potential carcinogens in the air and the soil around Grenfell Tower. Prof Stec has urged PHE, the Department of Heath the Police and RBKC to organise tests on local residents so health risks in our local  North Kensington community can be assessed properly. Read about it here

Many of us here have long held these concerns, and they appear to be validated in Prof Stec’s early findings. Sadly, we can’t exactly say we are surprised – local residents have been voicing very real anxieties about health here for well over a year – concerns that have mainly fallen on the deaf ears of our government, Public Health England and our council.

We could remind them of  the cyanide gases released by the burning insulation from the Tower in the fire, of numerous local residents calling for soil and water and cladding to be tested on countless occasions since the fire, of people from Grenfell Tower suffering cyanide poisoning after the fire, of the “Grenfell cough” which is no figment of peoples’ imagination in North Kensington (several locals had respiratory problems after the fire), of the burnt cladding and insulation that landed in people’s homes and gardens up to a mile away, or of this post of ours from August last year:

https://thisisnorthkensington.wordpress.com/2017/08/22/grenfell-the-rotten-borough-and-the-terrible-mismanagement-organisation-now-is-the-summer-of-our-discontent/

Public Health England were delayed in their responses at the very least, relied on air quality tests alone (again ignoring residents’ concerns) and flat-out refused to investigate the rest of the environment surrounding Grenfell Tower.  Many concerned local residents at public meetings were dismissed by PHE – utterly shameful.

We sat at one meeting where one of them was saying that the air and soil here were perfectly safe and made out that we had nothing to worry about. It is bad enough that they refuse to take our concerns seriously, but they really should at least now listen to the concerns of a world-leading expert….

It also appears to many of us in our community that there have been concerted efforts on the parts of both this government and the leadership of our council from day one to minimise what has been a not just a local but a national disaster – shame on them.

We warn RBKC, Public Health England and the government that failing to act upon this is in itself a neglect of duty of care at the very least.

Local Labour Notting Dale Ward councillor Judith Blakeman has also constantly raised concerns over this and she informed us that she has also again raised these matters with RBKC.

Some might remember Sir Derek Myers, former joint Chief Executive of both RBKC and Hammersmith and Fulham. He stepped down, coincidentally –  or not   – enough at the same time Sir Merrick Cockell quit as leader of our council.  Back in 2013, The Guardian published an interview with Myers in which he downplayed this council’s then-policy of negotiating the purchase of properties in Peterborough and then relocating local families there (Peterborough’s then Conservative MP Stewart Jackson condemned this at the time and said: “This is about social cleansing in Kensington and Chelsea. It’s about getting rid of people they don’t want in their borough, who are on benefits, who they have a responsibility for – to house – who are statutorily homeless.”)

Well, talking of homeless people, after his departure from the Rotten Borough, Myers then ended up chair of the board of trustees at Shelter until resigning last year alongside then trustee of Shelter, Tony Rice, who was also chairman and sole shareholder of Omnis Exteriors – who allegedly sold the Grenfell cladding – disgraceful.

But if last year’s news was shocking enough, some readers might be wondering why we are bringing all these old revelations up. We remind them that Sir Derek Myers’ “home” now is on the board of PHE.

We will also remind people of the Notting Barns South Masterplan, obtained by the Grenfell Action Group under the Freedom of Information Act and that Derek Myers was chief executive of this borough at the exact same time these plans, which proposed the demolition of Grenfell Tower, were drawn up.

https://grenfellactiongroup.files.wordpress.com/2015/08/notting-barns-south-masterplan.pdf

No, we are not going into “conspiracy theory territory”, but Myers’ involvement with PHE certainly raises more than a few red flags here.  His Guardian interview finishes with the line “like all natural leaders, where others see a problem, Myers sees an opportunity” – make of that what you will…

THINK believe it to be a real conflict of interest for Sir Derek Myers to be in such a position given his former role at RBKC and we say that it is time that he takes the “opportunity” to resign from Public Health England now.

We also say it is time for the government and the council to take the very real concerns about our health raised by residents, local councillors, health professionals and toxicology experts seriously and to act upon this immediately.

As things stand it appears to us that some in authority have not learnt anything after Grenfell; about listening to this community and its concerns and acting upon them responsibly. And we are less than reassured with the very important matters of our health, our environment and our futures being their call.

 

Tower block fire in London

By THINK for Urban Dandy

@THisIsNorthKensington

 

June 14th

Our community has been painted as work-shy immigrants, sub-letting; it could not be further from the truth; we were eloquent, hard working…we deserve to be respected

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Urban Dandy is a North Kensington-based blog. It was born on the Lancaster West estate where the Grenfell Tower still stands. That estate, North Kensington and all of us who live here were forever changed on June 14th 2017. Our articles and poems from the aftermath of the fire can be found by clicking urbandandylondon.com/tag/grenfell-tower/ . We hope that all of our pieces on Grenfell convey some of the heartbreak experienced here in North Kensington, provide some context for the reader as well as serving as a tribute to the community we are proud to be a part of. 

 

Children
From St Thomas’ School newsletter

 

 

Questions

 

For example: why

and

1944

But

Silence

The Limits of Politics in the Shadow of Disaster

At al Manaar last week, Jeremy Corbyn focused on his ‘Another World Is Possible’ message. The visit to North Kensington was part of the strategy of taking Labour to the heart of communities to build grassroots support and pick up campaign volunteers. On both these macro and micro levels, Corbyn is underestimated by the media.

But in North Kensington, these are not our primary concerns. World peace and another world being possible don’t seem that important when there is no sign of justice for the crime at Grenfell Tower, when the Conservative council easily won the local election and when the survivors’ treatment has been appalling, surreal and bureaucratic.

Corbyn’s speech at the mosque was pleasant enough, but whoever wrote it failed to linger on the any specifics about the community response to the Grenfell Tower fire, the only positive in the nightmare. Where were his personal recollections? What are the implications for how another world could be moulded based on the collective efforts we saw here last year?

The situation in North Kensington is not one that powerful politicians can pay lip service to before heading back to the Commons or City Hall. It asks fundamental questions of how we deal with an appalling man-made disaster and how we see the future of this society.

Perhaps the words of Sadiq Khan, like Corbyn’s, are a tacit acknowledgment that London is over for many people who cannot thrive in a punitive property market. Nowhere is this more stark than in North Kensington. Where are the fresh ideas, beyond a call for survivors to be treated a bit better within the failed system? 

The Labour leaders should feel free to use their power to speak and act against the Conservatives and their deadly policies. Unlike the community, these politicians have a platform and a voice, but if Labour cannot seize the moment in North Kensington, then rather than creating false hope, they should leave it to the locals and focus elsewhere instead.   

 

 

We were abandoned…

It was the community that offered sanctuary to us

Ed, Grenfell Action Group

 

Big green hearts are in contrast to the derisory RBKC Council, the TMO, Theresa May and Sajid Javid. A desperate, grasping, corrupt political elite and their bureaucratic quislings.

What can be said about those whose symbols are on every lamppost, estate entrance, whose dead eyes stare out from the free newspapers? The Tory council just a human shield for Theresa May, the TMO likewise for the council. 

How do we tell our children that their rulers are hateful? It might be better to tell them: ‘Look at what you did last year, at how you supported each other’ or ‘Look at the community you are part of’.

Naughty schoolboys, written off by the system but handing out water to distressed people long into the night, kindness everywhere. The purity of children – their big hearts in contrast to their presumed superiors. Unity not an empty slogan to be manipulated and used as a tool for power, but as real as it gets…

Green

 

“Men aren’t gonna talk about it. They want to fix things, so they’re repressing their emotions.”

Rajaa Chellat, counselor for the My Shepherd therapy service.

Women led us on June 14th 2017, at Acklam Village and some of the other centres for relief, women led and men followed

We men want to fix or protect, but we can’t bring back 72 people, we couldn’t protect them…

On June 14th 2018 in North Kensington, just like last year, all we’ll have is each other.

 

 

Tom Charles for Urban Dandy

Poetry written and preformed by Mark Bolton

The Curious Case of the Council & Canalside

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On becoming leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council a month after the Grenfell Tower fire disaster, Elizabeth Campbell promised change. In a brief speech to fellow councillors and victims of the fire in July, Campbell used the word ‘change’ eleven times. Considering Campbell’s own role in the council’s sustained asset strip of North Kensington, the words were never convincing. But they were rendered meaningless in January when the council tried to sell a vital community building to property developers to build flats for the rich. In failing to push through the sale, the Conservative council now looks weaker than ever.

 
Early this year K & C council were moving full steam ahead with their plans to sell Canalside House, home to numerous local charities, community groups, small businesses, and a hub of support for victims of the June 14th fire. Plans to sell the historic building on Ladbroke Grove and move its residents to a wholly unsuitable replacement on Latimer Road were put on hold following the fire, after resident organisations pointed out to the council that they had been filling in the gaps vacated by the local authority in providing emergency relief work and supporting the North Kensington community.

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How do we know about the plans to sell? A council scrutiny committee meeting was filmed and posted online (the Canalside section starts after two hours). The details are in this Urban Dandy article. Continue reading

RBKC Council Selling Vital Community As$et

By Urban Dandy

 

IMG_20171101_161934127
Canalside House on Ladbroke Grove

 

 

Less than eight months on from the Grenfell Tower fire disaster and Kensington and Chelsea Council’s money grab in the North Kensington community is back in full flow. Canalside House, one of the last remaining spaces utilised by charities, the voluntary sector, small businesses and other local enterprises, is to be sold to property developers. The decision raises questions about whether the Conservative council has learned any of the lessons of the Grenfell Tower fire, which was the culmination of years of neglect, indifference and wilful ignorance by the local authority. In the run up to the crucial local elections in May, the decision to sell Canalside represents a calculation by the local authority that the local population will be apathetic as one of the community’s last assets is stripped.

Context

Canalside House, less than a mile from Grenfell Tower, is home to almost 20 organisations, most of which have played a direct and ongoing role in supporting the community in the aftermath of the unprecedented fire on Lancaster West estate on June 14th. In the absence of a serious local authority response to the disaster, local organisations and their volunteers stepped into the void left by the Tory council. The council is widely believed to be responsible for the 71 deaths and incalculable trauma in North Kensington.

Kensington and Chelsea has a large number of charities, but it is a borough that needs them, owing to the grotesque levels of inequality and high levels of poverty, much of which is concentrated in North Kensington. Canalside House is one of the main hubs for community organisations, serving hundreds of local people.

Backstory Continue reading

Grenfell – The Disaster to Date

Warning: This article contains images, videos and written content that you may find upsetting.

 

Books will be written about the Grenfell Tower disaster, in which 71 people lost their lives in Britain’s worst peacetime fire. This article is not an attempt to comprehensively review events, that can be left to the authors. Nor is it a tribute to the North Kensington community’s response, something which is probably beyond Urban Dandy’s skills and possibly the limits of the English language.

This article is aimed at the many people across London and Britain who have lost touch with the Grenfell story, and presume that order and normality have now replaced horror and confusion in North Kensington. It will show that, five months on, this is not the case and provide information on why the area continues to suffer, as well as highlighting the impact of a system of power on the lives of local people. 

The timeline travels a bit, and the article is long compared to most blog posts, so your full attention is required.

We do not seek to speak for everyone, just to present facts and eyewitness accounts, compiled by a local blog and written by a former resident of Lancaster West, the estate where the Grenfell Tower still stands, burned out and hideous; a reminder that this happened to us, so it could happen to you or your family.

Despite the inevitable limitations of the article, we hope that everything written below is both true and pertinent.

1
Grenfell Tower, November 2017

Southampton, 2010

Two firefighters die in a blaze at the Shirley Towers high rise.

Camberwell, London, 2013

Six people die in a fire at the Lakanal House tower block. In this case, as in Southampton, coroners recommend the retrofitting of sprinklers.

 

p1010075

14th June 2017

14th September 2017, Grenfell Fire Inquiry Begins

Two months later, the public inquiry ordered by prime minister Theresa May in to the Grenfell Tower fire starts. It is chaired by Sir Martin Moore-Bick. The retired judge has a record in housing cases that causes disquiet when his appointment is announced. He is appointed without consultation with survivors and residents, despite the prime minister’s promise to the contrary.

Moore-Bick’s inquiry examines the immediate causes of the fire, why it spread, the response of the emergency services, the design of Grenfell Tower, the effectiveness of fire regulations and the relationship between local people and the authorities.

Moore-Bick acknowledges the sense of “anger and betrayal” that permeates North Kensington in the aftermath of the disaster due to the lack of support and the council’s disregard of residents that forewarned of the danger. Moore-Bick says he will appoint ethnically, economically and socially “diverse” assessors to the inquiry.

What the Inquiry Won’t Do

It will not decide on liability, but it will establish the chain of events that took place before, during and immediately after the fire.

The inquiry is decontextualized and will not look at social housing policy or the response of the local and national governments. In short, the enquiry will establish “What” but not ask “Why?”.

 

2016 – West London

Grenfell Tower on the Lancaster West estate in West London is given an £8.6 million refurbishment, including new windows and cladding to improve the building’s appearance. The facelift makes the tower more congruent with the neighbouring Kensington Academy secondary school, although the cladding of Grenfell Tower is provided by a different company to the cladding of the school.

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Grenfell Tower in 2015 before the cladding was applied

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Kensington Academy on the right, and the pre-cladding Grenfell Tower in the left.

Warnings about fire safety in the tower were repeatedly provided by residents via the Grenfell Action Group blog, who noted a “terrifying” 2013 electrical surge, and who were scathing in their criticism of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO): “…the TMO has no real commitment to addressing the fire safety needs of TMO residents throughout the borough”.

The 2016 changes made to Grenfell Tower leave it without sprinklers, which are not a legal requirement in refurbished buildings. The company responsible, Rydon, apparently met all the government’s safety standards. To fit sprinklers in to the Grenfell Tower flats would have cost approximately £200,000. At that time, the council’s useable reserves stood at around £274 million, plus around £30 million in cash reserves.

Omnis Exteriors was asked by the Council and KCTMO to supply cladding that was £2 per square metre cheaper than the more expensive, “more fire resistant” alternative.

 

What is the TMO?

The TMO ran the Lancaster West estate. A Tenant Management Organisation is traditionally a small, tenant-led group that takes over some of the landlord’s management of an estate from a local authority. Of 200 TMOs in Britain, the KCTMO was distinct in being an Arms-Length Management Organisation (ALMO) and therefore not representative of residents or even designed to be so. KCTMO was appointed to directly take over the council’s management of its estates, rather than to provide representative oversight.

 

14th June 2017

The Grenfell Tower fire is apparently caused by an exploding fridge. Residents are told to stay inside their flats. The fire spreads rapidly, apparently caused by the cladding installed on the outside of the tower. Neighbours watch on and listen to the screams of those trapped inside. Many people escape, many do not.

As the building smoulders, the North Kensington and wider community responds by setting up centres to organise food and clothing donations. Volunteers come from far and wide to help in the crisis in the absence of an effective local or national government presence.

 

21st June 2017

A week after the fire, Prime Minister Theresa May apologises for the government’s response, saying that it has not been good enough.

Kensington and Chelsea council say they are doing everything they can to help the survivors and the local community. The week has seen an incredible public effort in providing relief and donations.

 

4th July 2017

Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid, welcomes the appointment of new leadership of K and C council, following the resignations of chief executive Nicholas Holgate and leader, Nicholas Paget-Brown. Their resignations have taken two weeks to be given and come after pressure from central government.

Javid says the government will “do everything we can” to help the survivors.

 

What is the Labour party’s perspective?  

The official opposition has called for a Lawrence Inquiry style investigation, which could look at the deeper, institutional factors that caused the fire.

Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott called for commissioners to take over the “failing” K and C council. She also called for the council to utilise the 2,000 plus empty properties in the borough, for an immigration amnesty with indefinite leave to remain for survivors and for 3,000 more fire fighters to be employed. Abbott said that the fire was a direct consequence of deregulation of fire standards and inspectors, privatisation and outsourcing.

Shadow Housing Minister John Healey said that Labour would re-house everyone in the borough and said that there was no reason this could not be done very quickly.

 

5th July 2017

Three weeks after the fire and the date by which Sajid Javid had promised all survivors would have a new home.

A taskforce, Gold Command, replaces K and C council in running the Grenfell response, including the management of rehousing. The taskforce lacks the power to take a significantly different approach and there continues to be a conspicuous lack of action regarding rehousing and therapeutic services.

It is revealed that a ‘Kingspan’ cladding product was used alongside another insulation product on Grenfell Tower. Using a mixture of products should mean that the building does not satisfy safety regulations. The insulation chosen for the Grenfell refurbishment is permissible for use on tall buildings only if it is used with fibre cement panels, which do not burn.

On Grenfell Tower, combustible polyethylene filled panels were installed on top of synthetic insulation. The insulation, Celotex RS5000, was made from polyisocyanurate, which burns when exposed to heat and emits toxic cyanide fumes.

 

14th July 2017

One month on and an unearthed 2012 K and C/KCTMO document reveals that the Grenfell architects wanted to use the more expensive cladding, which is less combustible. It is shown that in 2014 the council decided to cut its cladding budget to save £280,000.

 

19th July 2017

The first proper, public council meeting since the fire is held. Survivors address the council. One woman pleads: “I beg you, do not play a game with us. I beg you, do not tell us lies. I beg you, do not waste our time”.

 

25th July 2017

It is revealed that KCTMO spends millions annually on management fees, and that only one pound in every three goes on maintenance and repairs.

KCTMO chief executive Robert Black resigns, but retains his six-figure salary, as he is helping organise the TMO’s response to the fire.

It emerges that in 2009 there were so many complaints made against the KCTMO that over 30 areas of concern about the organisation were established. Additionally, minutes from TMO meetings that year show an emphasis on saving money; in 2014 they show that rents were raised to earn KCTMO £7 million.

 

27th July 2017

The Metropolitan police state that they have enough evidence to press corporate manslaughter charges.

 

31st July 2017

There remains no internal K and C council investigation into the fire and its aftermath.

 

4th September 2017

As Kensington and Chelsea schools start to return for the new academic year, two Grenfell families are permanently rehoused.

 

13th September 2017

Kensington MP Emma Dent Coad says: “I spoke to somebody who had 26 different carers since the fire – a disabled person who had 26 different people coming to look after them. They have been moved six times. Every day they have to explain their needs to someone new, get used to being with a new person,” she said. 

“I still don’t know who is in charge. Who is even in charge of the whole process? We have had interim directors from other councils doing bits of work and trying to control this and that but I don’t know who is charge and whoever is in charge of coordinating the response is not doing it.”

 

22nd September 2017

100 days after the fire and 80 percent of survivors have not been rehoused: only three families are in permanent new homes, 29 in temporary accommodation. 165 have not been given new homes. Kensington MP Emma Dent Coad reveals that the government asked her to persuade survivors to accept the temporary accommodation they were being offered but she refused.

 

What was the government’s role?

Since 2010, when the Conservatives took power, government funding for fire and rescue authorities in England has gone down between 26 and 39 percent as part of a “cost saving” commitment to decreasing regulation, what former prime minister David Cameron, a resident of North Kensington, referred to as the “health and safety monster”.

In 2014, parliamentary under-secretary of state for Communities and Local Government, Brandon Lewis, stated that it was not the government’s, but the fire industry’s, responsibility to encourage the fitting of sprinklers.

The government has established an independent panel to advise it on its response to the Grenfell fire. The chair of the panel is Sir Ken Knight, who previousy recommended £200 million of fire service cuts and advocated against the retrofitting of sprinklers.

 

Who were the leaders of K and C council?

Nicholas Paget-Brown, council leader, Conservative

Councillor Paget-Brown attempted to hold the first post-fire council meeting behind closed doors, but was forced by a high court judge to allow the media in. In response, after the media and his fellow councillors had gathered, Paget-Brown announced that the meeting would not go ahead because an “open discussion” would not be possible with the media in attendance.

Previously, Paget-Brown had deflected blame for the fire by stating that Grenfell Tower residents had not wanted the “disruption” of fire safety equipment being fitted.

Under pressure from central government, who told Paget-Brown he had to accept his “share of responsibility for perceived failings”, the council leader resigned more than two weeks after the fire.

After resigning, Paget-Brown set up his own company, NPB Consulting.

 

Rock Feilding-Mellen, council deputy leader, cabinet member for Housing, Property and Regeneration, Conservative

Councillor Rock Feilding-Mellen received £50,000 per year for the part-time role of deputy leader of the council.

Documents seen by The Times show Councillor Feilding-Mellen, in June and July 2014, allegedly pressuring refurbishment consultants Artelia UK to reduce costs on the Grenfell Tower refurbishment project. An “urgent nudge email” from KCTMO to Artelia states: “We need good costs for Cllr Feilding-Mellen and the planner”.

Councillor Feilding-Mellen is also the Director of Socially Conscious Capital Ltd which deals in “strategic land promotion projects”.

Feilding-Mellen was the head of the committee that took the controversial decision to hand North Kensington library over to a private school called Notting Hill Preparatory School, in a generous deal that offered favourable terms over 25 years including the school being able to skip paying rent of £365,000 for the first year.

It emerged that Feilding-Mellen’s own children were on the waiting list for places at the school.

Rock Feilding-Mellen’s mother is Amanda Feilding, the Countess of Wenyss and March, also known as Lady Neidpath. Among the properties owned by the family is Stanway House in Gloucestershire. which the family promotes as “an enclave of very English and almost magical harmony”.

 

Feilding-Mellen resigned shortly after Nicholas Paget-Brown. Both men have updated their LinkedIn pages to show that they have left their council leadership roles, although they do not state the reasons.

 

Other key council figures

Councillor Elizabeth Campbell replaced Paget-Brown as council leader. As Cabinet Member for Family and Children’s Services, she oversaw cuts to the borough’s play services.

Chief Executive Nicholas Holgate was forced to resign by communities secretary Sajid Javid over the council’s response to the fire.

 

October 2017 – burials and ongoing displacement

At al-Manaar mosque, prayers for the dead continue, followed by burials. A man who was visiting a sick relative in Sudan on June 14th buries the remains of his wife and two daughters who died in the fire.

His wife alerted people to the fire using WhatsApp and Facebook Live and called friends to make amends for any wrongdoing on her part before she died. Their remains are finally released, having been traced by DNA in their teeth and skulls.

A Somali family from the Lancaster West estate stays in a hotel in South Kensington because their home has no gas or electricity (Grenfell Tower was the source of power for the rest of the estate). It is a few miles away, but another world from North Kensington. The mother, who has five children, including one with a statement of special educational needs (SEN), asked local community groups for help. They provided money for holidays away from West London during the long summer break.

The child with SEN is no longer being collected and taken to school by the local authority as he had been before the fire. Gold Command say it is not in their remit to take the child to school.

In South Kensington (the museum and embassy district of London housing the Royal Albert Hall) the Somali family have no access to the food they normally eat. They are used to traditional Somali food, abundantly available in North Kensington. Their hotel offers only breakfast. The family receive £300 a week, which they say is enough but it does not provide the home life, food or community they are used to.

 

The role played by local community organisations

Community organisations have continued helping people directly, including providing intermediary services between survivors and the authorities. Families needed help, particularly in the immediate aftermath, navigating the services offered by local government.

For local charity Baraka Community Association, this provision included translation and helping people obtain money for basic maintenance and travel. Additionally, Baraka ensured people accessed legal support as well as moral and social support, offering some familiarity in their lives.

Another volunteer told Urban Dandy that he encountered families being denied maintenance money because they did not live in the tower, but in the neighbouring flats, which had been locked by the council. The Gold Command frontline staff were reluctant to believe people who were asking for money for travel expenses, and asked them “How did you manage before the fire?”.

The volunteer told us the staff were “rude” and “prejudiced”.  

 

31st October 2017. Independent Grenfell Recovery Taskforce Initial Report

The report sets targets for K and C council to improve its performance and states: “RBKC failed its community on the night of 14 June and in the weeks following” You can read the full report here and background on the taskforce here.

 

November 14th 2017

At the time of writing, two thirds of families displaced by the fire are still in emergency temporary accommodation. 303 children are in temporary accommodation, 226 of them in bed and breakfasts. It is a contravention of a child’s human rights for a local authority to keep them in B & Bs for over six weeks. 

857 individuals were made homeless by the fire. Twenty families have been permanently rehoused.

In the borough, there are currently 1,200 long-term empty homes, 9,300 second homes and over 6,000 homes owned by companies registered in tax havens. 

Urban Dandy requested an interview with council leader Elizabeth Campbell in order to provide K and C’s perspective on their response to the disaster, but she did not respond.

 

10th November 2017 – Emma Dent Coad, local councillor and Labour MP for Kensington, interview with Urban Dandy

Emma Dent Coad was elected MP for Kensington just four days before the Grenfell fire, possibly the biggest shock of the 2017 general election. She is also a local Councillor in North Kensington, so was perhaps uniquely positioned to answer our questions…

UD: Five months on from the fire, quite a few people outside the area have said to me that they presume that the basic needs of the survivors and local residents are now being met. Are they right?

EDC: Sadly not at all. Just yesterday I met five households who are really struggling, stuck in hotels and losing hope. Will they still be there at Christmas? It seems likely, and that will be very difficult for many families.

 

Why haven’t things been sorted out for the survivors? 

EDC: The Council is incompetent and uncaring. After five months they still do not ‘get it’. They are responsible for what happened but they see it as ‘one of those things’. A Conservative Councillor actually used those words to me last night.

 

Should Labour win control of Kensington in the April 2018 council elections, what will change, with regards Grenfell, the survivors and the Lancaster West residents?

EDC: Affected residents will be treated with love, care and compassion, not processed at The Curve*. And local people will get far more say – and genuine control – over aspects of how things are managed. I would personally like to see a Forum with spending powers. All that is up for discussion.

 

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, why was there such a limited local government response? And why did it persist for so long?

EDC: The Council was in shock and denial. They refused help from other Councils for five days. It was truly appalling.

 

Have you seen signs that the local population will maintain its unity in the form of cohesive and effective action at the local and national levels?

EDC: Local people are still very angry, but also trying to work together to achieve change. This is difficult – especially when it seems some outside forces are playing ‘divide and rule’.

 

*The Curve – a local office being used as a hub for assistance

 

 

Tom Charles

@tomhcharles

Thanks to JC, AF and JA

Grenfell In Parliament

Survivors of the Grenfell Tower disaster in West London and members of the North Kensington community travelled to Parliament on 29th June, giving evidence to relevant Labour shadow cabinet members to enable them to better hold the Conservative government to account over its handling of events.

Earlier in the day, the UK government announced that its public inquiry in to the disaster would be led by retired judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick. The controversial choice of Moore-Bick, made without consultation with survivors, adds to the sense in North Kensington that the government, in cahoots with its local government counterparts, are fudging the official response to the disaster, which has officially killed 80, although the real death toll is known to be far higher. The public inquiry will establish the cause of the fire, but will not have the power to bring criminal charges against those responsible.

Meeting in Parliament

The Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott invited survivors, families and local residents to meet with her and her colleagues in parliament to bear witness to the truth of what is happening on the ground following the unprecedented disaster. What they learned was that the reassurances given to them by prime minister Theresa May and home secretary Amber Rudd are at odds with reality.

Survivors, who arrived in busloads from around West London, spoke directly, through family members and one through a translator. The main concern raised was housing, but indignation was also expressed regarding the incompetence of the local authority, treatment of surviving families as charitable cases, class differences, the choice of judge and the impact of the disaster and government response on local children.

The theme, recurring with every speaker, was dignity. Dignity for the dead, for the survivors and for the North Kensington community. They were asking for dignity and they conducted themselves with the utmost dignity, in a strange setting, making demands they should never have to make. The Labour MPs present were armed with facts and anecdotes and will be keen to hammer home, to the government and the electorate, the need for dignity.

Box Rooms  

Numerous survivors told of how they had been moved to wholly inadequate and inappropriate “box rooms” in hotels or Bed and Breakfasts outside of Kensington and Chelsea. Some of these small rooms are not even equipped with fridges.

Some of the hotels are only providing breakfast to survivors, who must otherwise fend for themselves. One woman said that a relative of hers with asthma had been placed in a room with no window.

Others reported having been offered unsuitable accommodation in the south of the borough, while others had turned down numerous properties outside the borough, which had been offered only as temporary shelter. The local authority has not come forward with a plan for permanent housing, and concern was expressed that when temporary accommodation tenancies expired, Grenfell victims would be forced out of the borough by the unaffordable private sector market.

Those gathered heard that when hotels decided that they no longer had room to house the survivors, in some cases at 2am, there was no council contingency plan in place to support them.

Authorities Losing Authority

All of the residents who spoke decried the lack of support from Kensington and Chelsea council. While public support has flooded in, the survivors “have to go and search for it.” The absence of deliveries by the council has meant that survivors have had the unedifying experience of rooting through bags of charity donations to find essential items. One story was of a survivor who was provided with no shoes and no food by the council and had to head out to look for them.

The council was condemned for its inhuman response, “they haven’t even sent people to ask how we are” said one survivor, “Everyone else is asking how we are, why can’t they?” When Abbott asked if the information given to her by May and Rudd, that every survivor had been allocated a social worker, was correct, she was met with a resounding “No!” from all sides.

Survivors and community organisers demanded a local authority presence 24 hours a day at all hotels housing survivors to ensure their basic needs could be met.

The MPs heard that the Westway Sports Centre, acting as the hub for coordination of the relief effort is not using translators, despite English not being the mother tongue of many of the residents of the Lancaster West estate, of which Grenfell Tower is a part. Residents of neighbouring blocks have also been moved, lost gas and not kept informed of developments.

Emma Dent Coad, Labour MP for Kensington, agreed that residents had been “fobbed off” by the local authority, and claimed that the council was now effectively in “special measures” due to its incompetence.

Others questioned how the Tenant Management Organisation (TMO), which manages the estate for Kensington and Chelsea, could still be in situ following their own mishandling of the disaster.

Thirty Pounds

Among the many shocking revelations brought to parliament by survivors was that the council was giving people an allowance of £30 per day to live on. Additionally, they were required to keep a record of what they had spent their £30 on.

Others told of traumatised survivors being offered £500 in cash with a further £5,000 to be put in their bank accounts, but with the caveat that accepting the money would affect future housing benefit payments. It was not clear if relief had now become a loan in the richest borough in Europe. Community organisers pleaded with the MPs present to take action to stop the authorities presenting victims with complex agreements to sign to enable them to receive minimal relief. The MPs explained that they had been given an entirely different report from the government: that everything was going “okay.”

Another fact, presumably not reported to the official opposition party by May and Rudd, is that survivors who need to use the Westway centre are made to wear wristbands to identify them as Grenfell residents. This made them “look like cattle” stated one family member of a survivor, who explained that as a sports centre, Westway already has the technology to produce photo identity cards, which would afford the survivors more dignity.

A Syrian survivor, who lost his brother in the blaze, talked about his family traveling to the UK to be with him in order to grieve together. He said that the grieving process was very difficult as the hotel room he has been housed in is a box room, so he and his family cannot spend the private, quality time they so desperately need to honour their loved one.

One man told of how his sister had been investigating safety in the Grenfell Tower and had been threatened with legal action by the council as a result. His sister died in the fire.

Impact

One major problem among the many identified was that Grenfell survivors were now dispersed across a wide area. They are unable to console each other, share their experiences together or coordinate their response. A weak constituency has now been further weakened.

More harrowing anecdotes followed: orphaned children with no social worker; one survivor, so traumatised and receiving little support, attempting suicide.

The link between the suffering of these residents and the class-based politics of the area was eloquently identified. One survivor compared the class system in North Kensington to that of the Titanic, where the rich can survive but the poor are at the mercy of events. People described the “managed decline” of the area and the council’s social cleansing.

Others objected to being referred to as “the poor” by Abbott, protesting: “we’re educated working class people, we’re not poor.” But there was no debate about culpability over the inadequate response of both the local and national governments: “the local and national governments don’t care,” “If you want to help us, just help us,” “the government just do not care.”

Improperly reduced to the position of almsmen, confusion surrounds the whereabouts of the millions of pounds of charity that society rallied to pledge.

The Future

In the absence of an effective local authority, word of mouth has become king in North Kensington. In parliament, those gathered heard unfiltered testimony from many mouths. On the future of the area, questions were raised about the demolition of Grenfell Tower, about rumours that the neighbouring school, Kensington Academy will not open in September and about the long-term psychological impact on children.

Incredulity over the absurdity of the official death toll was expressed, a scene replayed daily on every street in North Kensington. Disappointment, but no surprise, over the appointment of an unsuitable judge with an inadequate remit, was voiced. What is essentially an inquest in to the cladding used on the building was labelled “an insult.”

Some asked Abbott and her colleagues, the Shadow Justice Secretary, Richard Burgon and MP David Lammy, to work to ensure the skeletal tower is covered up to protect the dignity of those that died and to stop the community having to face that constant, harrowing reminder.

The politicians responded with the guarantee that they would “not rest” until justice was done. They called for transparency and action from the government.

The diligent work promised by Labour is very necessary, but above all, the cry of the North Kensington community must be heard and kept at the centre of any decisions taken: Dignity and respect now. The most traumatised community in the country have conducted themselves with grace and fortitude, but at the moment this not being met in kind.

 

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By Tom Charles @tomhcharles

This article was written for, and also appears on, The New Arab

Art by Junior Tomlin