We just received the above image from a former Lancaster West resident. The image shows an official RBKC notice announcing that the council has designated 14th June, the anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, as the date for the first of a series of fire alarm tests in one of its properties.
Four years on from the horrors of Grenfell, with no justice, widespread trauma and a PR-heavy change programme at the local council which has been ignored by the national media but exposed as a sham on this blog and elsewhere, RBKC is still finding new ways to be incompetent and insensitive.
The Housing Stock is the 9,000 residential properties owned by Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC).
And the two Double-Barrelleds are Nicholas Paget-Brown and Rock Feilding-Mellen, former leaders of RBKC and key players in North Kensington’s recent history.
Until March 2018, RBKC managed its 9,000-strong housing stock through an arms-length subsidiary company misleadingly named Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) – read more about KCTMO here.
RBKC’s leaders had ultimate responsibility for KCTMO including scrutinising the company to ensure it met its duty of care to residents. Following the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017, RBKC folded KCTMO (and its 3,500 outstanding repair jobs) back into the council and increased the role of another council subsidiary company, Repairs Direct. RBKC gave Lancaster West, the site of Grenfell Tower, a separate estate management organisation, W11, although it remains in the gift of the council.
KCTMO claimed its number one aim was “Keeping our customers and residents centre stage.” Despite RBKC’s positivespin about its performance, KCTMO failed spectacularly.
Those with lived experience of KCTMO, including me, know it behaved like a “mini mafia who pretend to be a proper functioning organisation,” going after “any residents who have the temerity to stand up to them.” RBKC’s leadership chose not to take action to improve the TMO’s approach to residents.
In 2010 the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition took power with a zest for austerity that was taken up by RBKC. Since that election, life expectancy in Golborne ward, North Kensington, has dropped six years, one of manystatistics to lay bare the inequality of Kensington.
RBKC and KCTMO used banal bureaucracy to victimise residents who opposed their policies in the years before the fire. At the head of this was Tory council leader, Nicholas Paget-Brown.
Paget-Brown was a career politician, holding various roles in the Conservative party including local councillor from 1986 until 2018 and RBKC leader from 2013 until 2017.
His stated ambitions for North Kensington were modest: “I would like all residents to be proud of living in Kensington & Chelsea and I want to contribute towards the regeneration of parts of the Borough where there is still a need to ensure that people have opportunities that will give them the best start in life.” This, alongside platitudes about improving parks, gardens, and museums, indicated Paget-Brown’s comfortable position as leader of RBKC. His blog, his local newspaper columns, and his utterances in conversation could be reduced to one sentence: ‘Everything’s alright, you can trust the Tories.’
The most unequal borough in Britain? Paget-Brown was not a man intent on change.Continue reading →
The word propaganda is rarely used by politicians, who prefer to use ciphers like public relations, communications strategy and messaging. Propaganda is reserved for foreign enemies like Nazi Germany or Iran. Like the word imperial, the negative connotation means it is avoided. And like imperialism, it goes on every day, it has a home here in London and Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC) is fully committed to it.
The propaganda we discuss below is generated by RBKC. It is not an abstraction to be debated by intellectuals, but a real problem destroying people’s life chances across the borough. For RBKC, propaganda is not just a way to put the best possible spin on a policy, it is their policy.
Back in August we wrote about Lancaster West estate, site of Grenfell Tower, which has been undergoing refurbishment since 2018 when RBKC stated that the estate would be transformed into “a model for social housing in the 21st century” through an ambitious, resident-led approach.Continue reading →
“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.”
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 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.
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”.
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.
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.
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”.
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.”
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?
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.”**
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.”
“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.
Tuesday marked 34 months since the Grenfell Tower fire. There was, of course, no organised silent walk, but many will have walked in silence, their thoughts drawn again, as so often, to that fateful day in 2017.
The third anniversary moves nearer, and we naturally start to anticipate the feelings it will stir. But on 14th June 2020, there will be no mass gathering in North Kensington.
This is a sacred day for the community, when we remember those lost, remember each other, reconnect and briefly recapture the spirit that served us so well during those long, hot days and nights in 2017.
The official response to the horror at the Tower can be characterised as a dereliction of duty. Where it existed at all, it often faltered and sometimes exacerbated the crisis. But this community did not hesitate or fail. The outpouring of love during those days is something that will live on forever in the memories of all who were there, to be passed on to our children and grandchildren with pride, sure that this was the way humans should respond to a human tragedy.
And in this current crisis, it is clearer than ever that the North Kensington community is far ahead of those that still presume superiority and a right to rule over the nation.
Under the oppression of lockdown, many in North Kensington suffer with health and housing issues, with poverty. Re-traumatised, minds are flooded with memories of the fire, unease haunts our dreams and waking lives.
Death always lurks in the shadows, but we have a heightened awareness of it now, just as we did then.
For 34 months, many, or more likely, most of us have toiled with the shame and guilt that accompany trauma.
In these new COVID circumstances, the wisdom of the Chairman of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry to arrange proceedings so that attributions of guilt would be delayed for years must be questioned. Opinions on that are for another article, but it is important to acknowledge here that the pandemic has paused the Inquiry’s hearings, thereby extending an already unnecessarily long period of limbo.
This new delay comes as the full impact of the disaster trauma kicks in for thousands of affected individuals. It takes between two and three years for the full experience of trauma to begin to manifest following an event on the scale of the fire. Easily, imperceptibly triggered, widespread trauma makes mutual support so vital.
The thought of not being together on 14th June is almost unbearable. Nothing can adequately replace the hugs, the connections and the power and comfort of the shared, silent experience. Every individual experiences so much each 14th June, the intensity eased perhaps by a shared feeling of decency and humanity rising within ourselves and in our community…an indescribable, ethereal mix of raw vulnerability and strength
If the thought of not being able to be physically together to mark the occasion in June hurts, you can perhaps take solace in knowing that we were the ones who were there for each other in 2017, we responded with love, and we are ready to do so again. Many already are in the current crisis. Be certain that this humanity can be your comfort and that you can give and receive when the time comes.
There will be light in the darkness, and it will emanate from the North Kensington community.
North Kensington is in a state of political, legal and emotional limbo. How and why? Here are summaries of some of the stories already published and the arguments already won….
This article contains references to the 14th June 2017 Grenfell Tower fire.
Two Significant Events
After the initial post-fire outpouring of grief, energy and hope, things have slowed to a crawl in North Kensington. The most significant developments have been with the Conservative leadership of the council (RBKC); its survival and consolidation of power.
Neither of these things was inevitable, with RBKC having to make promises of “change” to stay in power, then having to break the promises to prevent the dilution of its power in the north of the borough.
Two things will happen soon which could impact the current unsatisfactory and traumatising deadlock in North Kensington: The first is on October 9th when Kensington Labour party Councillors launch a People’s Convention in a bid to undercut RBKC’s business-as-usual approach.
This push for a greater say in decision making for Northern residents will be ignored by the Council, who will kick any devolution proposal into the long grass when Labour and groups of residents persist. Expect RBKC to employ its tried and tested bureaucratic mechanisms, outlined in detail in our previous article.
The Labour-led campaign for modest devolution is augmented by other moves aimed at balancing RBKC’s power with a more prominent role for residents.
Lynton Crosby-style tactics of calculating the absolute minimum they need to appear to be doing to pacify the population have carried RBKC this far. But their latest recovery gimmick, a gameshow-style decision-making process to distribute Grenfell-related funds, has only added to the sense that the local authority is unable to act in the interests of residents they hold in contempt.
Along with the devolution push, the upcoming findings of the Tutu Foundation’s investigation into alleged institutional racism, and the selection of a new Chair, at the Westway Trust could revive the sense that North Kensington is an area still alive with the ability to force justice and political change in the face of entrenched power structures.
The second upcoming event is the opening of phase two of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry in January 2020. Phase two will consider the design, refurbishment, fire safety and management of Grenfell Tower. It will also look at how the authorities communicated with residents, the immediate causes of the fire and the response to the fire by the relevant bodies.
The ability or otherwise of this phase of the Inquiry to move towards genuine justice will go a long way to determining whether North Kensington will ever be given the space it needs to recover from its collective and individual trauma.
While we wait for events to unfold, here are some truths that have been laid bare by our scrutiny of RBKC’s post-Grenfell performance so far:
1. The Tories Do Not Want to Change
The Kensington Conservatives will not change their approach any more than they have to. That much is evident from their performance since June 2017.
The post-fire Kensington Tories were smart enough to promise change. Without that promise, they might well have been removed or put into special measures by the national government. But the council’s record before the fire was so abysmal here in North Kensington that their piecemeal approach to change since has fallen woefully short of satisfying anybody.
Some people split hairs about RBKC’s performance over the past two years and identify some individual Tory Councillors or Council officers who at times appear sincere. This is probably more a reflection of how unbearable it is for some to acknowledge the reality of an uncaring culture operating within an indifferent system. Can it really be that after 72 deaths and widespread trauma, that there is no real change to either the rules or the power balance? Rather than face the harsh reality of the answer, some choose the palliative of picking out hopeful signs of potential change.
The Tory promise of change was followed by political maneuvers to deny this change actually happening, highlighted on this website over the past two years, see the links below. The logic for this is that there is more incentive for the Tories to not change than to change. To alter the power balance, even a little bit, would dilute Tory power in Kensington and might set an ideological precedent for other downtrodden areas to demand their own devolution and liberation.
On an individual level, these Councillors’ future careers as property developers, consultants (to property developers) and politicians (representing big capital – including property developers) hinge on their loyalty to one class at the expense of another. No horror changes this equation.
So while the people of North Kensington are retraumatised by unmet promises, RBKC has been able to get back to business-as-usual, with enough superficial ‘change’ peppering their work to satisfy the national government (represented by the implausibly meek Grenfell taskforce) and to convince themselves that they are doing good deeds on behalf of the ungrateful hordes.
2. Post-Grenfell Systems are Structurally Weak
RBKC cannot be persuaded or pleaded with to change. They could only be coerced by a rigorous system of checks and balances, so they avoid such a system. As we detailed in our investigation, How RBKC Subverts Democracy to Prevent Change, the policies put in place following the worst fire in Britain since World War Two lacked an implementation mechanism – it was left to the goodwill of Councillors with vested interests in keeping the status quo.
The Conservatives in Kensington Town Hall have manipulated the political system to avoid scrutiny. This is outlined, blow by blow, in our article. To do this was a political choice made by Cllr Elizabeth Campbell, her deputy Cllr Taylor-Smith and a host of highly-paid RBKC officers, starting with chief executive Barry Quirk and including many under him who have been complicit.
Nationally, the Conservatives need the Council in place. And at this point, Labour doesn’t see Grenfell as a big vote winner. Where is their outreach? Where is their mayor?
3. Trauma is Being Perpetuated
People in North Kensington have engaged with the process but have been re-traumatised and exhausted by their efforts being met with a lack of tangible change. They might not know what change looks like (revolution, devolution, evolution…), but they know what it isn’t.
A lack of seriousness when it comes to delivering change in North Kensington has left us in this purgatory, unable to move on. There is no argument about where the blame lies for this failure.
Attention now falls on political and legal efforts to deliver change and justice to a community that deserves both.
This article is a defence of the principles of democracy and transparency – people’s right to know what is being done in their name and with their money. It examines Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC)’s claim that fundamental changes are being made in response to the Grenfell Tower fire of June 14th 2017, which killed 72 people. The analysis focuses on RBKC’s Twelve Principles of Good Governance policy. Council documents have revealed that the Twelve Principles policy has not been implemented and Councillors have not been held accountable for this despite the rising financial cost to the public. The Twelve Principles seem to have been lost in a haze of bureaucracy; we examine how the Conservative council’s grip on power in Kensington has been tightened and what this means for North Kensington.
This article is divided into three sections. Section one introduces RBKC’s change policy. Section two exhaustively uses council meeting minutes to show how people’s hopes for change being realised were deliberately dashed. Section three draws a number of conclusions and includes a response from the council’s leader.
1. The Review – RBKC’s Policy for Change
In 2017 the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS), – the national centre of expertise on governance and scrutiny – were commissioned, with funding by the Local Government Association (LGA), to carry out an independent review of RBKC. The local authority welcomed the CfPS’s subsequent report and adopted “12 principles of good governance we should embed in the council.” The Twelve Principles were bespoke; designed specifically for RBKC to act on its professed claims that they sought to “change” following the Grenfell Tower fire.
“Connecting with Residents”
“Focusing on What Matters”
“Listening to Many Voices”
“Acting with Integrity”
“Involving Before Deciding”
“Communicating What We Are Doing”
“Inviting Residents to Take Part”
“Being Clearly Accountable”
“Responding Fairly to Everyone’s Needs”
“Working as Team”
“Having the support we need”
The Democratic Society (Demsoc) supported CfPS in researching and writing the report over a period of six weeks. Their role: “Demsoc have helped to reach out to residents, asking about their experiences of being involved in decision making processes by the Council, and how involvement can be increased and improved in the future. This has been done by gathering evidence through surveys, desktop research and observing meetings, as well as talking face to face with focus groups and workshops”.
Urban Dandy understands that, given the scale of the work, the time frame was considered too tight by Demsoc.
The council’s own report endorsing the CfPS recommendations was titled ‘CHANGE AT THE COUNCIL: THE COUNCIL’S RESPONSE TO THE INDEPENDENT REVIEW OF GOVERNANCE’ (their capitals) and came four months after the independent review, with RBKC stating: “the council recognises that it (sic) essential to put these principles into practice.” The council’s leadership were to be held to account on this by RBKC’s Executive and Corporate Services Scrutiny Committee.
The council leaders who held the relevant portfolios and who endorsed the report were Elizabeth Campbell (leader) and Cllr Gerard Hargreaves (responsible for Communities and Culture), both of whom were cabinet members prior to the Grenfell Tower fire. It was the fire that prompted RBKC to commission the review and so it is right that the council’s success in applying its Twelve Principles be measured against the gravity of what happened at Grenfell Tower.
It is worth dwelling briefly on the role played by Campbell, who, on becoming leader of RBKC a month after the Grenfell fire, promised change. In a brief speech to fellow councillors and victims of the fire in July 2017, Campbell used the word ‘change’ eleven times. Her words are particularly significant given her key role in the decision to adopt the Twelve Principles as policy and in the subsequent roll-out of the policy.
In correspondence with Urban Dandy the CfPS confirmed the amount of the grant paid to them and Demsoc to cover the cost of the review:Continue reading →
How does a local authority go from being a national embarrassment on the verge of special measures to being secure in its position and back to business-as-usual in under two years?
The 2017 Grenfell Tower fire was the worst domestic fire in Britain since world war two and it happened in the richest borough in the country. Seventy-two lives were taken, more have been lost in the fall-out. There have been no arrests of politicians, council officers or others who made fateful decisions and ignored warnings in the run-up to the fire.
In 2018 Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKC) commissioned the Centre for Public Scrutiny and the Democratic Society to carry out a review of the Council and to produce recommendations to enable the local authority to move forward. The ‘Change’ programme that resulted has suffered from a severe lack of public scrutiny and has been anything but democratic…
Urban Dandy uses RBKC’s own documents to reveal how the Council adopted a policy known as the Twelve Principles of Good Governance, then proceeded to bury it in a complex bureaucratic system. The article shows how opportunities to apply the principles were spurned, and worse, how Councillors often seemed determined to ensure there would be no real change.
Overseeing the process has been the leader of RBKC, Elizabeth Campbell, who promised ‘change’ to survivors and the bereaved but who has appeared at key moments and in key meetings to help ensure no fundamental change has been implemented. We are awaiting comment from her on her role and the performance of her Council in delivering on her promises.
We also reveal the rising costs of the ‘Change’ programme, the methods by which RBKC has managed to stifle meaningful challenge to its approach and how they have been aided by the media and the national government. Questions are also raised about the role of the local Labour party and we look at the calls for devolution for North Kensington.
The article is a defence of democracy and transparency in Kensington and will be published at the start of September.
Our previous articles following this story can be found here.
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…
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.
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.Continue reading →
“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 arise
Uncomfortable physical sensations
The person might become impulsive and aggressive
It becomes 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 among 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 long-term 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 do not process the original experience and the energy charge generated becomes trapped in the physical body, potentially leading to other long-term health conditions.
This effectively means that the traumatising experience is not over. 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.
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 those less directly affected.
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?’”
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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 and ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ by Bessel van der Kolk.
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.