“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 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.
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.
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