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, explored 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.
By Tom Charles @tomhcharles
Related previous articles:
‘Change’ @ Canalside House pt.1: https://urbandandylondon.com/2018/02/08/rbkc-council-selling-vital-community-aset/
‘Change’ @ Canalside House pt. 2: https://urbandandylondon.com/2018/03/16/councilcanalside/
‘Change’ @ Canalside House pt.3: https://urbandandylondon.com/2018/10/02/rbkc-bites-back-canalside/
‘Change’ @ Canalside House pt.4: https://urbandandylondon.com/2018/12/07/canalside-curiouser/
‘Change’ @ Canalside House pt.5: https://urbandandylondon.com/2018/11/07/change-1/
‘Change’ @ Lancaster Youth: https://urbandandylondon.com/2019/01/31/change2/
‘Change’ @ The Curve: https://urbandandylondon.com/2019/03/18/curve/
‘Change’ @ KCTMO: https://urbandandylondon.com/2018/11/16/kctmo1/
RBKC Scrutiny 1, GU: https://urbandandylondon.com/2019/07/19/scrutiny-1/
RBKC Scrutiny 2: https://urbandandylondon.com/2019/07/19/scrutiny-2/
RBKC Scrutiny 3, Administration Committee / Scrapping Grenfell Scrutiny: https://urbandandylondon.com/2019/07/20/scrutiny-3/
RBKC & Toxins, THINK post for UD: https://urbandandylondon.com/2018/10/17/grenfell-air-myers/
Unholy Trinity – RBKC, TMO, WT: https://urbandandylondon.com/2019/02/05/unholytrinity-2/
All Grenfell-related articles: https://urbandandylondon.com/category/grenfell/