Review: ‘Grenfell’ by Steve McQueen, from a Semiotic Gaze

By Chris Arning

“Film is too obviously a message for one not to assume that it is coded.”(Christian Metz – the Language of Cinema)

So I’ve just been to a showing of the Grenfell film by Steve McQueen and was blown away by it. The film is a 24 minute, two second colour video which contains no dialogue or commentary. It starts with bird song faded to black then we are on board a helicopter camera panoramic shot. We move steadily over green stretches of England, punctuated by clusters of terraced houses, the occasional football field, canals and sewage tanks. Throughout we hear the unsettling noises of what sounds like industrial machinery intermingled with copter blades and this seems to take at least five minutes. It is both meditative and disturbing because we think this is meant to be about Grenfell Tower, so why are we seemingly travelling across the hinterland of England? The suburbs is where we start. The denizens of most of the houses were most likely unaffected by the tragedy unfolding in June 2017. Does this also point to the cultural and political divide that has grown in the UK over the last decade?

It is when we see Wembley Stadium with its distinctive arch and the cluster of new builds around it that we gain our bearings, realise we are in North West London we realise we are only kilometres away from the Grenfell site. As we pass over Harlesden, the sound suddenly cuts out. Whatever we are travelling in becomes a glider; we become a disembodied seeing entity. When we arrive at the building it is shocking how raw it all is. It is a charred and gutted sarcophagus supported by scaffolding. In the years since the filming, clearly the building has been covered up the way the wounds of an incinerated body would be shrouded away. This has been done for many reasons, trauma reduction but also health and safety. As local residents we have become used to the green love heart emblazoned atop the tower; a symbol of unity and remembrance for campaigners, but seeing the tower in its raw state again was very salutary.

The Drone Gaze

The value of the film is to transform our gaze – but we start with something that is just unsettling: a disembodied perspective making its way steadily, ominously across the landscape. Although filmed using helicam, it has a deliberate drone effect and this is a drone view.

As Adam Rothstein author of Drone Theory writes: “Drones at their current level of technology allow us to observe large swathes of ground for an extended period of time. CCTV and satellite imagery each have their particular advantages for different surveillance and reconnaissance tasks. But drones allow a mobile platform that can remain over the ground at a distance that minimised the targe’s awareness of the platform, while also allowing live re-targeting of the area of focus.”

Rothstein continues: “This ever present visual relationship permanently alters human perception. Drone sensor operators talk about the range of way that starting through the drone’s camera for hours on end can change a person. This vernacular technology outlines the odd technological relationship the drone allows – that of generally passive observer, but with the extreme power that constant observation gives.”

Marshal McLuhan said the medium is the message. Drone or CCTV footage is about social control. When we are looking at aerial drone views, we are usually in the realm of invigilating savannah animals, of cadastral surveys, but also of crowd surveillance and of extra judicial assassinations. The drone view privileges the power of the voyeur to surveil others. Drone footage is never particularly relaxing: there is a sense of foreboding to it – especially when accompanied by the sonic concomitants of such footage, the humming buzz or industrial white noise devoid of emotion. Drone noise intimidates populations under occupation. Military drone executions take place at a distance. Drones are therefore the epitome of the banality of evil in the technological realm. They enable heinous acts to be done with the minimal fuss, personal involvement or moral embroilment. The famous philosophical thought experiment with the trolley car demonstrates that people tend to have fewer qualms pulling the lever than pushing the man onto the train tracks.

Kensington & Chelsea councillors can’t recall at enquiry hearings if the blandishments of more aesthetically pleasing cladding options blinded them to the more critical safety considerations that should have been prioritised in refurbishing Grenfell Tower. When being cloistered away from the consequences meets asymmetric power decisions made at a distance – whether operating a drone or managing housing stock – it can have terrifying repercussions.

The drone gaze is bereft of all empathy for what it takes in, akin to the beast ‘moving its slow thighs’ in the poem The Second Coming described by WB Yeats as having a “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.”

So, the drone gaze is how we start the film with the sense of alienation and foreboding that that brings. 

The spiritual gaze

But soon we settled into a sequence which feels closer to much of Steve McQueen’s video art oeuvre. McQueen’s films contain long uninterrupted takes that build tension, emphasise a need, or track real time.

Paul Gilroy writes of this section in the programme notes: “a soundless camera wheels around the damaged structure. The vertiginous movement of orbiting that fixed point induces nausea as viewers are pulled into the gyre. We move in close still and the animated geometry of the broken building disorders perception. The rotary motion becomes hypnotic and, as this monument to loss begins to transmit its own traumatising rhythm, we start to see the interior of the scaffolded structure”.

Like a massive aerial lathe, the ‘coptercam’ hones our reverence for the stricken object with its every rotation.

A reviewer put it like this: “McQueen likes to linger. And he is much less likely to use flashy camerawork or editing techniques to manipulate the viewer. Instead, he wants one to marinate in the moment…To frame it in a way to draw attention to what’s actually happening. Look at this. Look at this. Look at this.” I know I’m looking.”

This was forensic scrutiny but the camera also sacralised the space for the moments we were invited to stay in it – so it was also a guided visit and chance for a harsh, confronting contemplation.

The gaze undoubtedly deepened many viewers’ appreciation of a devastating trauma. We see the tattered exoskeleton with beams and girders still hanging off it and blackened interiors. The helicopter comes disturbingly close to the building and lingers upon facets of the upper parts of the structure. We are mesmerised by the visual spectacle. For my part, before long I passed into a form of meditative reverie, devoting my attention to every cell. I tried to sympathetically imagine in each cell the suffering though I knew I never could know the enormity of it. All I could do was murmur a mantra, may all beings be happy, and free from suffering. It was harrowing viewing, it became hard to watch eventually and admit I welled up at one point.

The invitation to contemplate was excruciating but also moving. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, monks and adepts of meditation visit burial grounds to remember the dead and muse on impermanence and get in touch with their own mortality. Grenfell Tower and the deceased are honoured here as such.

Cinematographic Tribute

As the cam repeatedly spins is where the power of the film really begins for me because the circumambulation of the building has huge significance. Beyond the forensic vista it provides into the guts of the structure to reveal a full picture of the devastation, there is a reverence. Circumambulation has a strong spiritual significance. In Islam, pilgrims to Mecca circumambulate the black stone Ka’aba, to demonstrate a unity of faith. I do not know whether the symbolism was deliberate but the resemblance was not lost on me. As someone who is affiliated with Buddhism I know that you pay tribute to the passing of a spiritual person by walking around a stupa or burial mound. This is how the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, said he wanted to be honoured. I have myself done this at a memorial for a deceased friend. Of course, being Steve McQueen, all this is implicit. There is no overt sentiment in the shooting of the film. It was very stark. Indeed, the beauty of the film to my mind is the way it combines intense focus on the rapid destruction of a whole living ecosystem while at the same time displaying a tender monument to the dignity of those who keep pushing for justice, to keep the memory of the dearly departed alive. This is a McQueen hallmark:

“He inserts moments that are Deleuzian time-images, disrupting expectations, pausing the conventional narrative progression and in the process implicating the viewer in the content. The features, for this reason, function as unique hybrids between the time-image and the moving image.”

For me, the greatness of this simple film was precisely the way it subtly oscillates between the technologized, minatory gaze of the drone – the tool of surveillance and death – and a more sympathetic and reverential, human gaze; still harsh but with the transmutation of spiritual wrath confined to spiritual beings and suffused with knowledge and empathy for the monumental importance of what happened here. The omniscient gaze of a God consciousness. McQueen achieves this collision of gazes toggling between these two views aesthetically through skilful use of camera work and manipulation of sound. The dignified circumambulation is the cinematic equivalent of the Grenfell silent walks that were initially organised monthly and are now held 11 days before Christmas and on the anniversary of the disaster.

The silent dénouement

The end of the film is poignant and beautiful. Unexpectedly, the director breaks the silence and brings the ambient noise back. We hear the ingress of a Hammersmith and City line train into Latimer Road. The everyday hustle and bustle around the Lancaster West Estate rushes back. This is a place where I have a close friend; which houses the Aldridge Academy where I have volunteered many times at a homeless shelter, and the Kensington Leisure Centre where I swim every week in the shadow of the tower. In other words, life goes on – this is a reminder that those closest to the deceased have to deal with a crushing attrition; calls for justice in the face of implacable systems of law, government and media that long ago stopped responding to demands for justice for the crime. This is a visual protest against the enormous condescension of the British establishment in the face of a horrendous atrocity.

Even the process of planning a fitting memorial, undertaken by bereaved and local residents has been subjected to myopic control by the government a further indignity. As Tom, editor of Urban Dandy writes: “There must be no fait accompli regarding the way we, as a community and as a nation, honour the victims of Grenfell. The site must never become a reflection of establishment control; devoid of imagination and empathy, a symbol of class war and indifference.”

It is precisely this indifference the film is designed to shake us out of. Estrangement – a term identified by the Russian formalists to name the way we are shaken out of our sleep walking. All the best art works recalibrate our senses through estrangement. It is an antidote to complacency and indifference. A quote from Paul Gilroy in the film programme seems apposite: “The implicit obscenity of the Grenfell fire has been made to look normal, to appear routine. We have been habituated to that blankness and are encouraged to imagine that there can be no alternatives to this particular way of organising human life and calculating its minimal transient value”

Everyone involved with the Grenfell Inquiry should be forced to watch this amazing film. TS Eliot winning poet Roger Robinson writes in a tribute in his 2019 collection Portable Paradise:


The building burned,

so the council blamed the contractors

who shredded all the papers;

so the contractors blamed

health and safety for passing

all the required tests;

so the prime ministers

came, saw and left,

and talked to no one

and shook no-one’s hand

meanwhile its tenants are left

to grieve in sterile hotels,

with nothing to bury but ash,

and survivors walk up like zombies

trying not to look up

at the charred gravestone.

people still cry

nobody took the blame.

We cannot really talk about this film without mentioning trauma. We CoProduce organised an event in June 2019 with Dr Gabor Maté in order to invite local residents to explore their trauma in the aftermath of the fire. From an article in Urban Dandy:  “Trauma from a huge-scale disaster starts to manifest two years after an event; it is what we carry inside ourselves. So many local people had filled the vacuum left by the council and national government; mindful of those who had lost everything, or everyone, the trauma was suppressed but easily triggered.”

This reflects the breadth and depth of the PTSD across North Kensington. Of course, the healing needs to happen but the impacted communities do not want this event to be brushed under the carpet. Grenfell United continue to campaign to prevent another atrocity elsewhere, while in the absence of any sustained media interest, local campaigners struggle against the council as it returns to its pre-fire policies, shielded by a formidable PR budget. This sedulously stunning film coming before the Government Inquiry will publish its findings, reminds us that our anger as local residents at the continuing impunity was, and is, righteous, and the 72 lives needlessly lost are being grieved as keenly every day.

Chris Arning, 2023

BIBLIOGRAPHY (unfinished)

The Drone Theory – Adam Rothstein

The Language of Cinema – Christian Metz

The Auteur Theory: Steve McQueen – Paolo’s film blog

Portable Paradise – Roger Robinson

Grenfell: Programme – Paul Gilroy

Urban Dandy (blogs, multiple) – Thomas Charles

Celebrating The Charnel Ground: Notes on Death and Meditation – Stephen Butterfield

Images from Serpentine Galleries



RBKC & Ballymore: Contradiction & Confusion at Canalside

Numerous property developers are set to profit from the huge development of the Kensal Gas Works site. Sadly for North Kensington, one of these property developers has a side hustle as Deputy Leader of Kensington & Chelsea Council. Kim Taylor-Smith is attempting to fulfil the plan of his predecessor, Rock Feilding-Mellen, in selling Canalside House for demolition. Taylor-Smith denies that he has struck a secret deal to sell the historic building, but as you will read below, the council and the developer have yet to get their story straight.


In February we exposed Kensington & Chelsea Council (RBKC)’s secret deal to sell one of North Kensington’s last surviving community assets, Canalside House. Councillor Taylor-Smith was unimpressed by our reporting, labelling it “misinformed” while admitting that secret talks had been held with Ballymore.

RBKC’s deputy leader, who is also Lead Member for Grenfell Housing and Social Investment, told Byline Times last month, “We would only sell the building if Ballymore were able to meet the proposed terms, including on reprovision of community space, and if they are also able to get planning permission from the council.”

Taken at face value, Councillor Taylor-Smith was suggesting that RBKC might reject Ballymore. However, we now know that it was the council who approached Ballymore about Canalside House, not the other way around. See the section below on Ballymore for evidence. Canalside House does not sit on the site of the Kensal Canalside Gas Works development, and therefore could be maintained and upgraded as a community asset, as Taylor-Smith has repeatedly promised since the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017.

Under the watch of Councillor Taylor-Smith, Canalside House has been in managed decline. See our previous articles for details of his duplicitous dealings over the building.

Via a council press officer, the deputy council leader told Urban Dandy: “We recently wrote to all Canalside House tenants to provide them with the most up to date information about the future of the building and will continue to communicate directly with them and keep them informed of any developments.”

We have checked with several Canalside organisations, who all confirmed that they have received no such communication from the council.

One organisation showed us an email from Taylor-Smith himself, sent in response to our article, in which he claims “We’ve been open with you, the tenants in Canalside House about these discussion and I wanted to reassure you that no agreement has been reached with Ballymore.”

But RBKC’s dealings with Ballymore were kept entirely secret and were not subject to any democratic oversight at the Town Hall. Without us having reported on the deal, it is improbable that anybody in North Kensington, including the building’s residents, would know that Canalside House had been allocated to property developers to be added to the area for development.

RBKC’s response

Councillor Taylor-Smith’s response to our questions included a denial that a deal has been made with Ballymore, as well as a claim that the council had written to all Canalside organisations and a vow that RBKC will continue to communicate with all residents directly.

On Ballymore, Taylor-Smith conceded that the developer is putting its proposals together and these will include the land occupied by Canalside House since 1929.

In what could be interpreted as a contradiction of his denial of a secret deal, Taylor-Smith also told Urban Dandy “Should a time come when Canalside tenants may have to move out of the building, we would work closely with them to find them suitable alternative accommodation in the local area, with a view to them moving back on to the site once it is finished should they wish to do so.”

Public meeting

A chaotic public meeting hosted by Ballymore at Moberly Sports Centre a fortnight ago was surely a sign of things to come. With thousands of people across North Kensington and Kensal Green to be impacted by the Gas Works development, Ballymore’s Project Manager was ill-prepared for the wide range of questions from attendees.

Ballymore might be hoping that public confusion will enable their plans to proceed without too much input from the communities set to be impacted. Comm Comm UK, Ballymore’s communications consultancy for the project suggested to us that a meeting specifically about Canalside House could be held, at Canalside House. We haven’t heard from them since.

Questioned about Canalside House, Ballymore’s representative at Moberly confirmed that it was RBKC that had instigated the deal. He also said that the council had told Ballymore that they were looking into the possibility of moving the Canalside organisations into the Gramophone Works on Kensal Road. The building was purchased for £18 million by Resolution Property in 2015 and is marketed as a “contemporary workplace in the heart of creative West London” and “industrial style workspace.”

Screenshot 2023-04-13 at 21.02.57

For the care agencies, youth groups and housing co-ops of Canalside House, echoing around an open plan building that provides zero privacy for clients would be impossible. It seems highly unlikely that RBKC would dip into its famous reserves to pay the rent at the Gramophone Works for the displaced Canalside organisations. It does however seem likely that RBKC told Ballymore that the Gramophone Works is being considered as a way of allaying any concerns the developer might have about bulldozing a cherished community building.

RBKC’s vague reassurances about the fate of the community groups might be sufficient for Ballymore but Taylor-Smith’s characteristic chicanery is not convincing anybody locally and the deputy leader seems to have exhausted any lingering goodwill he had cultivated since 2017.

Ballymore’s response

Via Comm Comm, Ballymore told Urban Dandy that the purchase and demolition of Canalside House represents “an opportunity to work with RBKC to increase the already significant community, work, leisure and activity space we are planning within Kensal Canalside.”

They did not mention the specific groups or activities currently at Canalside House, but they stated “our proposals incorporate all the community-focused activities of Canalside house as part of what the wider development will offer, and including this additional land will allow it to be opened up as another area of public space for the community to use.”

This vague claim was repeated by Ballymore’s representative at the Moberly meeting.

The developer’s response to us also confirmed that the council is offering reassurances to Ballymore that the community might find difficult to stomach: “We understand RBKC is working closely with the remaining charities based at Canalside House to find them a new home in a more modern building with better facilities nearby.”

According to multiple sources who are based at Canalside House, this is categorically untrue.

by Tom Charles @tomhcharles

Canalside House, centre left, seen from the Gramophone Works. Image from

RBKC set to become “the best Council”?

“A challenge given to us by the bereaved and survivors from Grenfell Tower. Simply…to be the best Council.” – Councillor Elizabeth Campbell, leader of Kensington & Chelsea Council, Keynote Speech, May 2022

Kensington & Chelsea Council (RBKC) is consulting with North Kensington residents again. We ask what will be different this time around.

RBKC’s amoral bearings…. ‘What a good thing it is to dwell in unity’

RBKC’s current Grenfell Recovery Programme runs until March 2024. Their planning work for the post-2024 period has commenced with a “wide-reaching conversation” about the future with bereaved, survivors and the local community. In theory, the consultation will provide an outline of what “best council” will mean in practice.

Click link below to read in full

KDR – Planning for the next phase of the Council’s work on Grenfell


A problem with the current consultation process is that in other initiatives with similar wording and ostensibly aiming at the same outcome – change – RBKC has comprehensively failed to create any identifiable change.

“This Council – its policies, its leadership, its senior people and its culture – has changed.” This was the audacious claim of Cllr Campbell and Barry Quirk, RBKC’s then Chief Executive in March 2020.

Yet, it was not clear what specific things they were referring to. No evidence was offered. RBKC internalised their story and believed it to be self-evidently true.

After June 2017, RBKC enthusiastically adopted noble-sounding policies but didn’t implement them in the community. After the fire, the council’s leadership changed. The chief executive quit and the disgraced councillors Paget-Brown and Feilding-Mellen were made to resign by the Communities Secretary Sajid Javid. But the new leaders carry out approximately the same policies for the same political party and Conservative campaign literature in the borough goes out of its way to avoid mentioning Grenfell and North Kensington.

For an area in which many residents disproportionately suffer the impacts of poverty and inequality, the upshot has been no meaningful culture change at the local authority during the years when implementing change and offering real political concessions to North Kensington seemed possible. During those years, backing up their declarations of “change” with real action should have been a moral imperative to RBKC, impossible to resist despite their ideological discomfort with socialist policies. This failure was acknowledged by Callum Wilson, RBKC’s Director of Grenfell Partnerships, in an email to residents about the Beyond 2024 consultation: “I do recognise that many people in the community will ask why this work has not already been done, and we need to acknowledge this openly – but nonetheless I think it is important that is done now, however delayed it may feel.”

It is difficult to draw much confidence from this admission given the record. Five and a half years since Grenfell and RBKC have not offered a major vision, nor have they significantly improved their attention to detail in delivering services.


There is a natural expectation that does not fade over time that the scale of change should be commensurate with the scale of the crime and the losses suffered. There should at least be a sincere attempt at commensurate change.

If power continues to be distributed unevenly in Kensington, profound change does not look possible. Consultations have taken hundreds of volunteer hours from the local population but have not addressed worsening social and economic injustices. Increased democracy would do more to arrest the prevailing impotence and apathy than another 50 years of consultations, conversations, and co-designs.

RBKC and the media have talked about the local authority ‘regaining trust’ as a prerequisite to North Kensington’s recovery. They need to drop the ‘re’ and focus on establishing trust for the first time since the borough’s creation in the 60s.

“Devastatingly Frank”

In a conversation with Urban Dandy, Callum Wilson acknowledged that there is a long way to go regarding trust: “We know we are dealing with a degree of apathy heightened by Grenfell, with some people not taking part because they believe change is not going to happen. But we have to keep trying and we have to evidence change.”

On ways for the public to participate without having to sign up to the RBKC format, Wilson said: “Spin-off consultations, run by residents with or without council representatives, are possible. They are more organic. There’s an end-of-year deadline for all consultations. We’re happy to receive input, we’re happy for people to make demands.

“I just want as many people to share their views as possible so we can try and build a Council that works better for all our residents.”

RBKC says that over 600 people have spoken to them so far about what they want to see from their council in the next five years. Some have been “devastatingly frank” Wilson told us.

We will pick up our dialogue with RBKC’s Director of Grenfell Partnerships in the new year when the latest consultation has concluded, and the council can explain how they will “simply…be the best Council.”


By Tom Charles @tomhcharles

SPID Theatre takes on RBKC for Housing Justice

How to deal with an inflexible, disconnected, disgraced local authority that gets to mark its own homework on its supposed Change policy?  SPID Theatre on Ladbroke Grove spun its web and caught some official flies with an up-close performance of The Story of Fires and Floods. It then headed to the V & A to perform the same show and screen its film The History of Neglect. The event was also used to announce that SPID and residents of Kensal House are taking legal action against the council for its neglect.

Three of the protagonists break down how this all came about….

Act One – Sophia

‘Social, Progressive, Interconnected, Diverse!’ we shout.

The audience at the Victoria and Albert Museum rises, celebrating with us Kensal House Estate’s heritage and breathing life into the museum. The place buzzes with community spirit – artistic activism in action. It’s empowering to meet the eye of so many press and SPID funders as I announce class action against our landlord, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) for their negligence. Continue reading

Retrograde Borough of Kensington & Chelsea

RBKC’s coat of arms. The motto means ‘What a good thing it is to dwell in unity’ – picture from

An outsider assessing Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKC) from a distance can be forgiven for believing that the council has become a more progressive, liberal, and democratic institution since the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017. This illusion is sustained by the local authority’s exhaustive public relations policy and an absence of political or media scrutiny. In this induced amnesia, RBKC keeps a firm grip on North Kensington. But the council’s approach to the north is arguably more regressive and undemocratic than at any time in its history. A study conducted in the early years of the borough sheds light on the dynamics at play.

Sixties London

In 1963, the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea was formed by a merger of the separate K and C boroughs through the London Government Act. In 1967, Professor John Dearlove of the University of Sussex began researching the relationship between RBKC’s decision-makers and those seeking to influence policy, referred to as interest groups. For years, Professor Dearlove attended council meetings and learned about community issues, publishing his findings first in an academic journal[i] and later in a book[ii].

In the 1968 local elections, London turned blue, the Conservatives winning control of 28 councils to Labour’s three. The 2022 results reflect a changed city with just six councils controlled by the Tories and 21 by Labour. But RBKC stands apart from the wider city, remaining a Conservative safe seat throughout, and the only remaining Tory council in inner London. But it has been a divided borough, with North Kensington council wards tending to vote Labour, and two now-abolished parliamentary constituencies, Kensington North, and Regent’s Park & Kensington North, returning only Labour MPs to the Commons between 1945 and 2010.

The stark contrasts of the borough were present from its inception. The London Housing Survey in 1968 stated: “one of the most distinctive features about the Royal Borough […] the sharp contrast between North Kensington and the rest of the Borough”[iii]

Professor Dearlove noted the north’s higher number of manual labourers, its overcrowded homes, lack of open spaces, and higher proportion of children. Relating these disparities to his research, Dearlove saw the social, economic, cultural, and political divide between the north and the rest of the borough reflected in the contrasting interest groups interacting with council decision-makers, with northern residents inclined to seek innovation, change, and sometimes the reversal of the council’s policies. Continue reading

RBKC’s North Ken News: Real Eyes Realise Real Lies

North Ken News is a Kensington & Chelsea Council magazine, delivered to thousands of residents in the borough’s less affluent wards. Ill-conceived and half-heartedly produced, it typifies a local authority lacking the ambition to truly change following the Grenfell Tower fire.


In January 2019 Kensington & Chelsea Council (RBKC), after holding ‘Creating Stronger Communities Conversations,’ produced its Grenfell Recovery Strategy, saying the document “demonstrated a strong desire” on the part of local residents “to shape recovery directly, building on the existing strengths and talents of communities.”

The aspirations RBKC identified in its consultations with locals included:

  • RBKC enabling “stronger community leadership”
  • RBKC tapping into “existing skills and networks” and
  • “The need to improve Council communications to all North Kensington residents”

North Ken News, along with other mass distribution puff pieces, are RBKC’s responses to the frustrations raised about the council’s communications. These publications amount to little more than public relations for a disgraced local authority. A true provider of grassroots news and analysis, the blog THis Is North Kensington summarised North Ken News as “PR self-analysis of the supposed Grenfell Strategy.”  

Context Continue reading

RBKC has bins

Norland Ward in Kensington & Chelsea is 0.2 miles from Grenfell Tower. In a rational political culture, local politicians seeking election in that ward on Thursday would express support for the victims of the Grenfell fire and solemnly vow to address the worsening economic and social inequality that characterises North Kensington. But in the Royal Borough, pushing policies of injustice and inequality can guarantee you a safe seat, as the Tory candidates make clear in their campaign literature.

We previously looked at Kensington & Chelsea News, the local Conservative Party’s main election propaganda, which sets out their key policies: bin collections, borough-wide parking permits, clean air, low council tax, saving the local police station and money for parks. While some of these pledges are contradictory and some are probably fibs, they are accompanied by the biggest profanity of all; council leader Elizabeth Campbell claiming that “continued support and meaningful recovery for the communities most affected by the Grenfell tragedy will be at the heart of everything we do.”

North Ken Censored

The election propaganda for Norland Ward is more of the same, talking up the threat of a Labour-run council, promoting absurd policies, and ignoring residents in the north of the borough. Even though Norland’s boundary reaches into North Kensington, there is no mention of Grenfell or the poverty that plagues the area.

The Conservative candidates, Stuart Graham and David Lindsay, have ultra-safe seats and plenty of political space to express any conscience or vision they possess. They instead follow the council strategy of studiously ignoring North Kensington. They state they are “committed to standing up for the residents of Holland Park and Notting Hill,” omitting North Kensington completely.

The Norland campaign literature is aimed squarely at those who already live in comfort. In the irrational borough, this group is attended to slavishly: “We need a council that has a record of standing up for residents and delivering more while costing less.” Continue reading

Review: Kensington & Chelsea News

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

Page One

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

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

RBKC: Flattening The Curve

“We’re going to review the review” – Kensington & Chelsea Council, 15th February 2022.

Those were the words uttered by a council officer two minutes into last night’s public meeting on the imminent closure of North Kensington’s main recovery centre for victims of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, The Curve Community Centre.

‘Reviewing the review’ was not what the assembled residents wanted to hear with the loss of a community asset only weeks away and no plan in place to rehouse The Curve’s services, delivered by around 20 local community groups.

A hundred meetings along the same lines have taken place since 14th June 2017: Council officers with no decision-making power try to play for both sides and fail; they nod in agreement at residents’ complaints; they say ‘we’ll take this back to the leadership team’ and they get out, another box ticked.

Some residents reassure them, ‘we know it’s not your fault…you’re just doing your job…we know you don’t have any real power…’

But if they don’t have real power, where does that place us in the hierarchy? Five years on from an atrocity that shocked the nation, North Kensington is stuck in trauma and the only thing that has enjoyed any “recovery” is the council’s power over us.

Loads of Buildings?

There are “loads of buildings available” in North Kensington to replace The Curve said the other council officer, without adding that there is little to no chance that a council renowned for its asset sweating will offer up a new community space. It was only political pragmatism on the council’s part that saved North Kensington Library from being turned into a private school and our college from being replaced by ‘luxury’ flats.

Under Kim Taylor-Smith, its property developer deputy leader responsible for Grenfell recovery, RBKC wanted to sell Canalside House, another community asset, months after the fire.

In terms of numbers of buildings, essential for local organisations to gain a foothold in both fundraising and recovery, the loss of The Curve next month will put North Kensington back to where it was in 2017. Bay20 was built on community (not council) land by the BBC, but Grenfell Tower was lost, with its playground, green space, boxing gym and nursery. In terms of increasing North Kensington’s community spaces, the council is in deficit.

But none of this was mentioned by the two council officers, typical of another feature of RBKC’s community meetings: the recent past goes down the memory hole, the focus is always ‘moving on’ with opportunities to ‘help decide,’ ‘influence,’ ‘co-design,’ ‘oversee’ and so on.

Steering Committee

Last night’s meeting was intended to be the start of setting up a steering group to then establish a Community Trust to “oversee” the £1.3 million that remains in the budget allocated to The Curve.

The Curve, rented from its private owner by RBKC in the aftermath of the fire, will close in March, with the council then having four months to return it to its original state before the lease expires.

Most questions put to the council officers went unanswered, including:

  • What will happen to the residents who currently use The Curve every day?
  • Will the council provide budget for a building that can then be run by the community as an independent base for recovery and income generation?
  • Can the survivors who attend The Curve every year on the anniversary come this year, the fifth anniversary?

One question that was answered was ‘Why wasn’t this all done last year if you knew it was closing in March?’ The answer: ‘Covid’.

All of these anxieties would have been avoided if RBKC had acted on a proposal from The Curve’s board of governors in 2019 setting out a vision for the centre’s future, which combined a community hub (akin to The Tabernacle), a world-class trauma recovery centre and training in industries of the future for young local residents, all at The Curve, which would have been secured on a 50-year lease on favourable terms. To say this detailed proposal by the supposed governors was rejected would be misleading; it simply wasn’t regarded as a real thing by the council, the words didn’t register.

It would have been popular and empowering; hence it could never see the light of day.

Image from Frost Meadowcroft’s brochure

Last Night’s Meeting

Eloquent exasperation and untreated trauma poured out of the attendees, every single intervention a valid, well thought out point. The council officers were forced to go rope-a-dope for the duration. As ever, they had not been sent to the northern outpost of the royal borough for a serious meeting between equals. The officers represented a council with a monopoly on power and has spent tens of millions in such a way as to guarantee no diluting of that mix. This level of chaos on RBKC’s part cannot be accidental.

The archaic council system does not work, with officers taking notes back to the Town Hall to legitimise decisions already made by politicians with no democratic mandate in North Kensington. It is a system that meets a common-sense suggestion like opening The Curve up for survivors on the Grenfell anniversary with a ‘computer says no’ response.

We continually look for creative ways to carve out some independence that would enable real recovery. The council has been assiduous and successful in blocking all our attempts so far.

The agenda of the meeting was ignored, except one item, ‘End of meeting’.

Behind a partition, a group of primary school aged children sat doing their homework as the meeting played out. They looked anxious, absorbing the trauma of their families and neighbours, a perfect snapshot of five years of RBKC’s approach to Grenfell recovery.

If this was the children’s lesson in how the world works, it could not have been any clearer. Ordinary people are abused and disempowered. Another, smaller group tries to soothe the people and “manage expectations” on behalf of a third group. This third group remains unseen by the children. But the children will surely know the third group as their enemy…the ones who shut the doors to their community centre and who blocked every attempt at real recovery for North Kensington.      

REST IN PEACE FRANCIS O’CONNOR – a true artist who exposed the con artists. Read a fitting tribute to Francis here.

By Tom Charles @tomhcharles