On becoming leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council a month after the Grenfell Tower fire disaster, Elizabeth Campbell promised change. In a brief speech to fellow councillors and victims of the fire in July, Campbell used the word ‘change’ eleven times. Considering Campbell’s own role in the council’s sustained asset strip of North Kensington, the words were never convincing. But they were rendered meaningless in January when the council tried to sell a vital community building to property developers to build flats for the rich. In failing to push through the sale, the Conservative council now looks weaker than ever.
Early this year K & C council were moving full steam ahead with their plans to sell Canalside House, home to numerous local charities, community groups, small businesses, and a hub of support for victims of the June 14th fire. Plans to sell the historic building on Ladbroke Grove and move its residents to a wholly unsuitable replacement on Latimer Road were put on hold following the fire, after resident organisations pointed out to the council that they had been filling in the gaps vacated by the local authority in providing emergency relief work and supporting the North Kensington community.
How do we know about the plans to sell? A council scrutiny committee meeting was filmed and posted online (the Canalside section starts after two hours). The details are in this Urban Dandy article.
An Executive Decision was issued by the council: Canalside was to be sold to developers to build flats, none of which would be social housing or realistically affordable for most people.
In addition, the move, which was instigated in 2016 by the sleight of hand of disgraced former deputy leader of the council, Rock Feilding-Mellen, was an existential threat to most of the Canalside residents as they would be unable to operate in an absurd hot-desking arrangement, in a small building, away from decent transport links.
The 2018 decision to sell Canalside represented a resumption of long-standing policies of asset-stripping community resources and properties in North Kensington. After a short post-fire hiatus, the council’s true agenda was back: a shock doctrine for a community reeling and traumatised.
At the January committee meeting, the council, represented by Deputy Leader Kim Taylor-Smith, Councillor Matthew Palmer and Director of Corporate Property, Richard Egan, told a series of lies to try to push the sale through. They lied about having consulted residents, they lied about the residents’ feedback, they lied about the state of the building. They closed ranks and derided the whimper of dissent from the Labour councillors present as “a banal conversation”. Drawing on vast reserves of conceit, they huffed at the tepid opposition, they puffed at the questions, but they could not blow Canalside House down…or strip it from the community and gift it to property developers. Behind the bluster, something was wrong, something had changed.
The three men at the council meeting displayed the presumption of divine right that Conservative Party toffs love to lord over their supposed inferiors. The bullying tactics they employed were as chilling to observers as the decision itself.
Following a tyrannical templete: they attempted to achieve something clearly against the interests of the population; behaved as if it was in the interests of the population; ridiculed any opposition to the plan; hung on to the last possible moment; then when the diabolical plan was no longer politically viable, abandoned it and stated that there was never any intention of doing it really, claiming that they are in fact wholehearted, community-minded folk just like you ‘n’ me.
How did these people survive, politically, the national disaster of the Grenfell Tower fire and their botched response? They were propped up by the desperate minority national government, no doubt. But these individuals, remarkable only in their unremarkableness, have clung to power in Kensington, despite being apparently responsible for a political agenda that wrapped Grenfell Tower in highly flammable material in pursuit of profit, threatened legal action against residents who warned of the fire risk, and then left the community itself to marshal the emergency response.
What makes these well-to-do politicians want to stay in what is, ostensibly at least, pubic service? The answer may be that they are broken people, empathy driven out of them first by the private education system, then by a fanatical belief in capital and wealth. Kensington became a goldmine, rather than a community. To retain a sense of self, and to maintain their positions of power, which come with lucrative spin-off careers, these politicians are required to tell lies to their constituents on behalf of the people they truly serve: the obscenely wealthy, often referred to as the one percent. The council of Kensington and Chelsea are the class enemies of most residents the borough, certainly those in North Kensington.
Before we are accused of descending in to a speculative polemic, let’s get back to what is not up for debate…
How the Sale was Stopped
The residents of Canalside House and the Kensington and Chelsea Social Council wrote to the councillors expressing their unanimous rejection of the plans to sell the building and relocate residents. On the evening of Thursday February 8th, Urban Dandy published the story, detailing the objections of the residents and exposing the deceit of the council. The article was soon disseminated by local activists and there was a furious online response from the local population.
Overnight, the council did a 360. High level meetings were cancelled; concerned people of power expressed their alarm to RBKC, and soon anybody involved was receiving emails like this:
I don’t know where they got my email address from, but the message was understood: stop telling people the truth. The propaganda I received came as a relief. Canalside was no longer being sold and the council publicly committed to its refurbishment. The building’s virtues were extolled by the same local government that had, so recently and so avariciously, written it off.
Dandies 1 Tories 0 So, the lies told to try to force the sale of a vital community asset were followed by lies so transparent as to lead concerned local residents to ask what is really going on. Why don’t they just state that they would love to sell off North Kensington’s community spaces but politically it is no longer viable? A whole community, seen as heroic by many after the response to the Grenfell fire, is being fobbed off with press releases and propaganda. They are trying to ‘manage’ us and our expectations. But we are not to be managed…
If Urban Dandy and a few committed community organisations can scare the Tory council into abandoning a multi-million pound property plan, think what North Kensington can achieve if it speaks with one voice. The council’s conceit was exposed: not only do they lack the talent and vision to run the borough, but they are also seriously wounded, politically, and now is the time to make demands and set an agenda for creating a thriving North Kensington for us and our children. Now is the time for vigilance and reckoning.
While the community has been forced to put in the hours to save Canalside, demand justice for Grenfell and hold the council to account, RBKC’s cabinet has continued to waste their lives in service to a rapacious agenda they probably cannot even identify, so profoundly internalised has it become. It is known to many as neo-liberalism, and it is deadly.
The local council and the Tory media want to “regain the trust” of the North Kensington population, but that is an unrealistic and ultimately meaningless goal. The issue is not trust, it is power. The Canalside capitulation tells us two things about the Conservatives in Kensington:
– They cannot be trusted – They are weak and scared of your power
Kensington and Chelsea council have repeatedly claimed to have changed tack following the Grenfell Tower disaster. The community has called their bluff, and we have our collective foot on their neck. They can be booted out of office at the local election on May 3rd if enough people register to vote.
Perhaps, in a desperate late attempt to cling to power, the council leader will invoke the concept of change another eleven times. For her it is an abstraction, a word to be used to manipulate and deceive. For the North Kensington community, change is something we need and it is now something we now hold in our hands.
Less than eight months on from the Grenfell Tower fire disaster and Kensington and Chelsea Council’s money grab in the North Kensington community is back in full flow. Canalside House, one of the last remaining spaces utilised by charities, the voluntary sector, small businesses and other local enterprises, is to be sold to property developers. The decision raises questions about whether the Conservative council has learned any of the lessons of the Grenfell Tower fire, which was the culmination of years of neglect, indifference and wilful ignorance by the local authority. In the run up to the crucial local elections in May, the decision to sell Canalside represents a calculation by the local authority that the local population will be apathetic as one of the community’s last assets is stripped.
Canalside House, less than a mile from Grenfell Tower, is home to almost 20 organisations, most of which have played a direct and ongoing role in supporting the community in the aftermath of the unprecedented fire on Lancaster West estate on June 14th. In the absence of a serious local authority response to the disaster, local organisations and their volunteers stepped into the void left by the Tory council. The council is widely believed to be responsible for the 71 deaths and incalculable trauma in North Kensington.
Kensington and Chelsea has a large number of charities, but it is a borough that needs them, owing to the grotesque levels of inequality and high levels of poverty, much of which is concentrated in North Kensington. Canalside House is one of the main hubs for community organisations, serving hundreds of local people.
The new year began with no justice for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire disaster. National media coverage has faded, with the initial outrage at the failings of the state becoming a whimper. But in North Kensington, it’s different. Grenfell dominates the local landscape and mindscape, and people are still hard at work supporting survivors and holding the community together.
We spoke to one such person, Rajaa Chellat, an integrative counsellor who is working in a collective of therapists under the name My Shepherd.
“This kind of trauma has never hit a community like this before”
The group provide support for survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire and affected local residents. The sessions are held at the offices of local charity Making Communities Work and Grow, and group therapy is also provided every Monday morning at the offices of the Westway Trust. The service is funded by West London philanthropists and this has recently been boosted by local authority money.
We asked Rajaa what the motivation of her and her colleagues is. “We saw a gap in provision early on, a lack of emotional support from the authorities, and this is an ongoing issue”.
Three weeks from the day of the fire, which killed 71 people, Rajaa and her colleagues we able to offer desperately-needed therapeutic support. The My Shepherd team includes an art therapist, a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) specialist and an American therapist whose son was killed in gun crime in the States.
“This needs to be long term,” Rajaa told us, “I’m passionate about it. This kind of trauma has never hit a community like this before”.
And the disaster has hit Rajaa hard. Members of her family occupied two flats in the tower. Those on the ninth floor escaped, but five relatives on the 21st floor did not and were all killed. These were Rajaa’s uncle, his wife and their three children.
Rajaa lives opposite the burnt-out tower, surely the most sickening sight in Britain today. It is visible through her window, and to protect her child the curtains stay closed at all times.
Rajaa’s passion for helping others has been her way of coping with the enormity of the situation: “I’m adamant that we keep this going because you would never expect this to happen in the UK in a building like that”.
“The whole community has PTSD”
On June 14th as the tower burned, the Moroccan ambassador was on the scene. The king of Morocco promised to pay funeral costs for the victims’ families, and has been good to his word. Rajaa contrasts this with the less straightforward conduct of Kensington and Chelsea council.
The therapist told Urban Dandy that those engaging with the My Shepherd service have no trust in the local authority in Kensington, that there has been no serious change in the attitude of the council as the months have passed.
Rajaa describes the council’s approach: “It’s ‘let’s shut them up and not deal with the emotional side.’ But I think it’s time to open Pandora’s box. This is what the council’s missing, they’re not thinking of emotional trauma: The whole community has PTSD”.
More money is needed for therapy, says Rajaa, along with better organisation of NHS services, which are all over the place, geographically.
Anyone looking at the Grenfell situation knows that housing policy is the key issue. Before and after the fire, attitudes to meeting the most basic need of a human being have been decisive. Rajaa agrees: “The survivors are spending too long in hotels. On top of that, people who lived in the tower and people who lived in the walkways (the low-rise blocks on the Lancaster West estate) are being treated the same, but the tower survivors should take priority”.
All the residents of Lancaster West have been affected, not just by the trauma of witnessing the fire close up, but also by the loss of a reliable gas supply ever since. All residents are now entitled to social housing and relocation, if they want to leave Lancaster West. How long this takes, where it will be and how secure it will be are all council policy decisions.
Of the people living in limbo that she has spoken to, Rajaa told Urban Dandy: “They don’t want to live in hotels, but they don’t trust the council when they offer posh flats in Kensington. They wonder whether council tax will go up. These things aren’t explained properly. My auntie, who was on the ninth floor, took one of the posh flats; she’s a teacher, she’s well-educated and has a stable income, but for those that have less economic independence, and without strong English, they’re scared to take new places”.
“Some people have been offered properties that are too far away, out of the borough, away from home. People feel genuinely trapped in the system, they’re in fight or flight mode. They’re just dealing with the practicalities now, they tell us: ‘I can’t deal with my emotions at the moment’”.
And what is prolonging the resettlement of the victims? “The authorities aren’t willing to give empty homes to the community.”
The borough has 1,200 long-term empty homes, 9,300 second homes as well 6,000 homes listed as owned by companies registered in tax havens. So, the real estate is available, but hasn’t been utilised for Grenfell survivors, and there has been no suggestion by either local or national government that the unused homes will be requisitioned.
“Drugs, alcohol and suicide will be the issues in 2018”
The My Shepherd therapists are in a unique position to predict what 2018 will bring. And Rajaa’s assessment is grim: “Drugs, alcohol and suicide will be the issues in 2018”.
“People lack an understanding of trauma and the vocabulary to think about it and care for themselves. They say: ‘I’ll deal with it once the practicalities are sorted out’ – but the practicalities are a nightmare. And trauma can hit you whenever. It’s only going to get worse in 2018 unless we deal with the emotional side”.
Things get even more dismal when the conversation narrows to men and their experience of the disaster. “Men aren’t gonna talk about it. They want to fix things, so they’re repressing their emotions.” So, men aren’t attending the counselling sessions on offer, and are emasculated by waiting for homes and justice, now a perpetual strain over which they have little or no control.
The North Kensington community will gather for another silent walk on 14th January to mark seven months since 71 lives were lost and many more scarred forever. And what of North Kensington, where Rajaa was raised, and where she contributes so much for so little material reward? She and her colleagues take the approach: “It’s not about religion, it’s about humanity. It’s about what you give. You ask: ‘what can I give?’ We will never not be on offer and the group is ongoing”
Interview with the Leader of K & C Council
Urban Dandy was keen to ascertain the views of the leader of the council, Elizabeth Campbell, who had vowed to do things differently when she took over the post in July, after the previous leadership was forced to resign. We were curious about whether she could see this trauma outside the political prism of caution, maintenance of power and press release wordplay. Who is running the council in the borough’s hour of need? An emotionally shattered community deserves the respect of some obvious questions being answered…
But despite initially saying she was “happy to try and answer” our questions, the council leader failed to confirm that she would speak to us.
On Sunday, the local community will gather near Grenfell Tower for its slow, silent march to honour those who died. Among those paying their respects will be many people like Rajaa, who have found the strength to nurture life in the shadow of death. There will be many schoolchildren who have witnessed more than they ever should. Activists, campaigners, neighbours, philosophical people…thinkers questioning who benefited from Grenfell not being safe, from the lousy treatment of the survivors. Asking what ideology can be so far gone that it cannot change course in the face of such horrors as Grenfell?
As writers, our only duty is to tell the truth. As politicians, their plan is to not give the game away. Hence, swerving the interview with Urban Dandy.
Our questions were about a series of political calculations that have been made: The calculation that the people in the tower were worth the fire risk in order to save some money; the calculation that there is less political damage done by not rehousing people properly; and there is much more to be gained by selling off North Kensington’s public services than by investing in them.
Another calculation made was: that it is better to ignore us than answer our questions.
All in the name of ‘regeneration,’ labelled by others as degeneration, gentrification, degradation, humiliation…
2018 begins where 2017 left off: Those marching silently in North Kensington represent life and dignity. Those hiding from scrutiny and justice represent a power system that stands for something very different.
Happy new year, from RBKC
Rajaa Chellat can be contacted at Rajaa@myshepherd.co.uk 07960776445
Rajaa’s colleague, Dr Sara Alsaraf can be reached at email@example.com
Warning: This article contains written content that you may find distressing
As 2017 comes to a close, we mark six months since the Grenfell Tower fire claimed the lives of 71 people in North Kensington. Many will experience this Christmas as bittersweet: a time to rest and recuperate and be with loved ones; and a time of painful awareness that displaced neighbours are not in secure homes or able to spend time with their families as they would wish.
The Grenfell disaster did not happen in a vacuum, and this and a subsequent article will look at the socioeconomic context in which it took place, and consider the impact on individual lives and the North Kensington community. For many in Kensington and Chelsea, 2017 has been a year from hell. While for others in the borough, it has been another year of abundance-as-usual, despite the horrors of Grenfell.
Grenfell – The Context
A handy summary of the context for the Grenfell disaster is provided in the report ‘After Grenfell. Housing and inequality in Kensington and Chelsea’ written by Emma Dent Coad, Labour MP for Kensington, and launched in parliament last month. Click below to see the full report.
The report dubs K & C “the most unequal borough in Britain”, a description backed up with eye-watering (literally and figuratively) examples and statistics that will echo through the borough for years to come. Perhaps most shockingly, as 2017 winds itself down, there is little sign that the gross inequalities outlined are being addressed, even in the aftermath of the entirely preventable, unprecedented fire.
The Grenfell Tower still stands on the Lancaster West estate: a Stalingrad-like monument to inequality in North Kensington, London, Britain, possibly the Western world. The sickening edifice, once a home to hundreds of people, now represents 303 children from the estate in temporary accommodation, including 226 in Bed and Breakfasts, according to the report. Many of these children have presumably been in this surreal state of insecure limbo since the disaster, despite it being unlawful for a local authority to leave children in B&Bs for over six weeks.
857 individuals were made homeless by the Grenfell disaster, with 20 having been permanently rehoused at the time of the Inequality report’s launch in mid-November.
The report states that K & C (population approx. 160,000) has 1,200 long-term empty homes, 9,300 second homes and over 6,000 homes registered as owned by companies registered in tax havens.
The Grenfell sums don’t appear to add up. But Dent Coad’s report adds to the equation by detailing where the council’s spending priorities have been in recent years:
The Holland Park Opera cost £30 million up to 2014; £26 million was spent on paving Exhibition Road for the 2012 Olympics; Leighton House Museum (near Holland Park) will receive £7 million during 2017 and 2018; a flower kiosk at South Kensington tube station was given a budget of £100,000.
In contrast, the architects of the 2016 Grenfell Tower refurbishment wanted to use more expensive cladding on the building, but the council and Tenant Management Organisation opted for a less fire-resistant option, which saved them £280,000.
At the launch of her report in parliament, Dent Coad labelled the council’s spending priorities “bizarre” and “extraordinary”. The MP, who has a background in design, architecture and planning journalism, said the council is willing to spend half a million on topiary and other cosmetics, but refuses to invest in Lancaster West or pay contract staff the London Living Wage.
The Conservative council’s reaction to the publication of the report was also bizarre and extraordinary. Council leader Elizabeth Campbell labelled Dent Coad “opportunistic” and said the report was “littered with typos” – I counted two, inconsequential next to facts and anecdotes that would appal any decent person.
Some Facts from the Report
Death North Kensington is at the sharp end of a class war codenamed ‘Austerity’ that is proving cruel, demoralising and deadly. Life expectancy for men living in the Han Town ward (south of the Borough, near Harrods) is 94. In Golborne ward (North Kensington) men can expect to live to 72, down from 78 in 2010, when the Conservatives came to power.
Slow motion replay:
Here in North Kensington we men live for 22 years less than the rich in the south of the borough.
Income The median income in K & C is £140,000 per annum, but one third of workers earn less than £20,000, and ten percent less than the London Living Wage.
Child Poverty 4,500 children live in poverty in K & C. Two thirds are from working families, with half earning less than £7:50 per hour.
In Queens Gate ward, south of the borough, 2.8% of children are in poverty. In Henry Dickens Court in Norland Ward, North Kensington, 58% of children are in poverty.
Education Low educational attainment runs parallel with poverty. K & C’s average GCSE A*-C attainment is 72%. But on the Dalgarno ward in North Kensington, this percentage drops to 30%.
Health and Fitness Since 2010 funding for primary school sports activities has been reduced. And in 2010, free swimming for children was cut. Obesity in year six (ages 10 and 11) children in the borough has more than doubled in this time from 8.6% in 2010 to 20% in 2016.
During the same period, the borough has seen exponential rises in diabetes, chronic heart and pulmonary disease and Tuberculosis. The report even mentions a case of a K & C child with “full blown rickets”.
Those with dual or triple diagnosis of mental, physical and learning disabilities experience the most extreme income inequality.
Housing The key to the whole game. Many K & C residents are housed in temporary accommodation, two thirds of which is located outside the borough. The average time spent in such accommodation is 27 months, which wreaks havoc on children’s academic prospects. So does the fact that 68% of children in the Golborne ward live in overcrowded homes.
Mortgage? The average home in the borough costs £1.5 million, while the average price for a flat in North Kensington is now over £700,000.
Rent? The average cost of a three bedroom flat in North Kensington is £738 per week. That’s 75 hours of work at the London Living Wage rate.
But the above are facts of life/death that are meant to pass unchallenged, as natural as the air we breathe. A bit like the existence of food banks in the Royal Borough, which were described by Nicholas Paget Brown, the erstwhile council leader, as “a fine and noble thing”.
The widening rich-poor gap outlined in the report is the consequence of deliberate and calculated national government policy, which emboldened councils such as K & C to pursue an extreme austerity and accelerate social cleansing after 2010.
The Tory policies collectively amount to a violent attack on the majority of people in North Kensington and similar areas around Britain. What could be more violent than a policy that kills men 22 years ahead of their time, keeps thousands of people rooted in poverty and housing insecurity and sabotages the life chances of the jewels of society, our children?
In this context, the Grenfell disaster should be a wake-up call to the ruling elite that their intentions have been exposed. Not so. A K & C Conservative councillor told Emma Dent Coad that the preventable deaths of 71 people, including a stillborn baby, are just “one of those things”. The show must go on, and it has gone on…
Kensington, Chelsea and Fulham Conservatives thought it appropriate to ask residents to rank how much they care about the Grenfell disaster, 0-10.
They made sure they included the number zero. No typos from the Tories.
Grenfell – The Aftermath
And what of the direct victims of the fire and the wider community? The human cost behind the statistics.
While the council and May government dithered and fudged their response to the Grenfell Tower fire, treating it as a public relations crisis, others got to work.
Psychiatrist and Creative Arts Therapist, Dr. Sara Alsaraf, has been volunteering as part of a group set up two weeks after the fire by four female therapists with experience in trauma work and two local women who are funding it independently of the council. Sara told Urban Dandy about her experience volunteering with victims of the disaster:
“One of the therapists is a local who lost five members of her family in the fire. She is of Moroccan origin and embedded in the local community. She has been canvassing people to attend counselling in every community centre, at hotels, at mosques etc. We started running the group every Wednesday evening at Trellick Tower and were kindly donated the space by MCWG (Making Communities Work and Grow). Unfortunately, attendance started to dwindle over the last couple of months despite our efforts to engage people. There are various reasons for this, which I will go into later”
What sort of stories have you heard in your capacity as a counsellor?
“Initially, we heard stories from people who lived in the building or nearby and from relatives who had lost family. We heard stories from the night of the fire, the panic and confusion, the life or death question that all the residents asked, which was: ‘Should we leave? or should we do as the emergency services are telling us and stay put?’
We heard from people who had lost family members, including a family where all perished apart from a five-year-old now in the care of her Aunts. We heard from those who witnessed the fire and how they are unable to get the images out of their mind and how the local children have been affected, some talking about the fire constantly others avoiding even looking in the direction of the building, having to have curtains closed at all times so they cannot see it.
We heard from locals who have lived in the area for years and who run businesses, about the sense of shock reverberating throughout the community and the inability to make sense of the loss of life as well as the aftermath.
Interlaced among this has been consistent disappointment, anger and shock at the incompetence of K and C council”.
What are the issues that have come up – anything that has particularly struck you?
“In terms of symptoms of traumatic stress, I think that people affected directly by the fire are unable to realise how deeply they may be affected yet. Experiencing the Grenfell fire firsthand is incredibly difficult to process and there is no doubt that most of the survivors’ and witnesses’ lives will be profoundly affected. At present though, for most people, they are focusing all their energy into getting through each day. Living in a ‘limbo’ state in hotels or bed and breakfasts is draining and any motivation they have is being demanded constantly to sort out practical issues: housing, money, children, funerals and so on. The council is causing individuals and families additional stress and suffering by taking so long to sort out these issues and also demanding constant form filling. I am also being told that survivors are all being treated differently and there is no consistency in the council’s approach to rehousing.
Are people suffering PTSD?
Many people are suffering insomnia, anxiety, panic, depression, flashbacks, it will probably become full blown once the practical issue are dealt with. I am certainly hearing about people drinking more alcohol or using drugs to control their emotions. People are irritable and have a short fuse. Some are fearful and paranoid about everything, checking on their loved ones throughout the day.
In terms of safety – how will the people impacted ever feel safe again? This happened to them in their own homes, plus there is a possibility of corporate manslaughter. There are so many strong emotions being contained by people including mistrust, paranoia, senselessness, anger, shock…
Another issue now is that people are not attending therapy and support services that are on offer. According to our local therapist who lives in the community, those affected are stating that they need help but that they cannot access services. Maybe there are issues about the services on offer. We are hoping to change the time of our group and location so that it is more accessible to the community. Of course people are dispersed in hotels and B&Bs which makes attending local services more difficult. There also needs to be consideration of cultural sensitivity to contact with mental health services. For some people they may never have experienced anxiety, depression or PTSD and worry that they are going ‘crazy’ and that this is confirmed if they see a psychologist. This is not the case at all and there are a variety of ways psychological support can alleviate the anguish associated with profound trauma.
It is important that people continue to engage with their community services such as Almanaar Mosque, Acklam Village and Al-Hasaniya Morrocan Women’s Centre. Healing can also take place in community groups around food and sharing with one another and does not always have to be done in a formal setting”.
Sara can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
2017 fades with no traditional, warm Christmas card scene…2018 will begin without justice for Grenfell. Happy Christmas from RBKC? In part two – more from those working with the victims of the disaster, and K & C council respond…
Warning: This article contains images, videos and written content that you may find upsetting.
Books will be written about the Grenfell Tower disaster, in which 71 people lost their lives in Britain’s worst peacetime fire. This article is not an attempt to comprehensively review events, that can be left to the authors. Nor is it a tribute to the North Kensington community’s response, something which is probably beyond Urban Dandy’s skills and possibly the limits of the English language.
This article is aimed at the many people across London and Britain who have lost touch with the Grenfell story, and presume that order and normality have now replaced horror and confusion in North Kensington. It will show that, five months on, this is not the case and provide information on why the area continues to suffer, as well as highlighting the impact of a system of power on the lives of local people.
The timeline travels a bit, and the article is long compared to most blog posts, so your full attention is required.
We do not seek to speak for everyone, just to present facts and eyewitness accounts, compiled by a local blog and written by a former resident of Lancaster West, the estate where the Grenfell Tower still stands, burned out and hideous; a reminder that this happened to us, so it could happen to you or your family.
Despite the inevitable limitations of the article, we hope that everything written below is both true and pertinent.
Two firefighters die in a blaze at the Shirley Towers high rise.
Camberwell, London, 2013
Six people die in a fire at the Lakanal House tower block. In this case, as in Southampton, coroners recommend the retrofitting of sprinklers.
14th June 2017
14th September 2017, Grenfell Fire Inquiry Begins
Two months later, the public inquiry ordered by prime minister Theresa May in to the Grenfell Tower fire starts. It is chaired by Sir Martin Moore-Bick. The retired judge has a record in housing cases that causes disquiet when his appointment is announced. He is appointed without consultation with survivors and residents, despite the prime minister’s promise to the contrary.
Moore-Bick’s inquiry examines the immediate causes of the fire, why it spread, the response of the emergency services, the design of Grenfell Tower, the effectiveness of fire regulations and the relationship between local people and the authorities.
Moore-Bick acknowledges the sense of “anger and betrayal” that permeates North Kensington in the aftermath of the disaster due to the lack of support and the council’s disregard of residents that forewarned of the danger. Moore-Bick says he will appoint ethnically, economically and socially “diverse” assessors to the inquiry.
What the Inquiry Won’t Do
It will not decide on liability, but it will establish the chain of events that took place before, during and immediately after the fire.
The inquiry is decontextualized and will not look at social housing policy or the response of the local and national governments. In short, the enquiry will establish “What” but not ask “Why?”.
2016 – West London
Grenfell Tower on the Lancaster West estate in West London is given an £8.6 million refurbishment, including new windows and cladding to improve the building’s appearance. The facelift makes the tower more congruent with the neighbouring Kensington Academy secondary school, although the cladding of Grenfell Tower is provided by a different company to the cladding of the school.
Warnings about fire safety in the tower were repeatedly provided by residents via the Grenfell Action Group blog, who noted a “terrifying” 2013 electrical surge, and who were scathing in their criticism of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO): “…the TMO has no real commitment to addressing the fire safety needs of TMO residents throughout the borough”.
The 2016 changes made to Grenfell Tower leave it without sprinklers, which are not a legal requirement in refurbished buildings. The company responsible, Rydon, apparently met all the government’s safety standards. To fit sprinklers in to the Grenfell Tower flats would have cost approximately £200,000. At that time, the council’s useable reserves stood at around £274 million, plus around £30 million in cash reserves.
Omnis Exteriors was asked by the Council and KCTMO to supply cladding that was £2 per square metre cheaper than the more expensive, “more fire resistant” alternative.
What is the TMO?
The TMO ran the Lancaster West estate. A Tenant Management Organisation is traditionally a small, tenant-led group that takes over some of the landlord’s management of an estate from a local authority. Of 200 TMOs in Britain, the KCTMO was distinct in being an Arms-Length Management Organisation (ALMO) and therefore not representative of residents or even designed to be so. KCTMO was appointed to directly take over the council’s management of its estates, rather than to provide representative oversight.
14th June 2017
The Grenfell Tower fire is apparently caused by an exploding fridge. Residents are told to stay inside their flats. The fire spreads rapidly, apparently caused by the cladding installed on the outside of the tower. Neighbours watch on and listen to the screams of those trapped inside. Many people escape, many do not.
As the building smoulders, the North Kensington and wider community responds by setting up centres to organise food and clothing donations. Volunteers come from far and wide to help in the crisis in the absence of an effective local or national government presence.
21st June 2017
A week after the fire, Prime Minister Theresa May apologises for the government’s response, saying that it has not been good enough.
Kensington and Chelsea council say they are doing everything they can to help the survivors and the local community. The week has seen an incredible public effort in providing relief and donations.
4th July 2017
Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid, welcomes the appointment of new leadership of K and C council, following the resignations of chief executive Nicholas Holgate and leader, Nicholas Paget-Brown. Their resignations have taken two weeks to be given and come after pressure from central government.
Javid says the government will “do everything we can” to help the survivors.
What is the Labour party’s perspective?
The official opposition has called for a Lawrence Inquiry style investigation, which could look at the deeper, institutional factors that caused the fire.
Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott called for commissioners to take over the “failing” K and C council. She also called for the council to utilise the 2,000 plus empty properties in the borough, for an immigration amnesty with indefinite leave to remain for survivors and for 3,000 more fire fighters to be employed. Abbott said that the fire was a direct consequence of deregulation of fire standards and inspectors, privatisation and outsourcing.
Shadow Housing Minister John Healey said that Labour would re-house everyone in the borough and said that there was no reason this could not be done very quickly.
5th July 2017
Three weeks after the fire and the date by which Sajid Javid had promised all survivors would have a new home.
A taskforce, Gold Command, replaces K and C council in running the Grenfell response, including the management of rehousing. The taskforce lacks the power to take a significantly different approach and there continues to be a conspicuous lack of action regarding rehousing and therapeutic services.
It is revealed that a ‘Kingspan’ cladding product was used alongside another insulation product on Grenfell Tower. Using a mixture of products should mean that the building does not satisfy safety regulations. The insulation chosen for the Grenfell refurbishment is permissible for use on tall buildings only if it is used with fibre cement panels, which do not burn.
On Grenfell Tower, combustible polyethylene filled panels were installed on top of synthetic insulation. The insulation, Celotex RS5000, was made from polyisocyanurate, which burns when exposed to heat and emits toxic cyanide fumes.
14th July 2017
One month on and an unearthed 2012 K and C/KCTMO document reveals that the Grenfell architects wanted to use the more expensive cladding, which is less combustible. It is shown that in 2014 the council decided to cut its cladding budget to save £280,000.
19th July 2017
The first proper, public council meeting since the fire is held. Survivors address the council. One woman pleads: “I beg you, do not play a game with us. I beg you, do not tell us lies. I beg you, do not waste our time”.
25th July 2017
It is revealed that KCTMO spends millions annually on management fees, and that only one pound in every three goes on maintenance and repairs.
KCTMO chief executive Robert Black resigns, but retains his six-figure salary, as he is helping organise the TMO’s response to the fire.
It emerges that in 2009 there were so many complaints made against the KCTMO that over 30 areas of concern about the organisation were established. Additionally, minutes from TMO meetings that year show an emphasis on saving money; in 2014 they show that rents were raised to earn KCTMO £7 million.
27th July 2017
The Metropolitan police state that they have enough evidence to press corporate manslaughter charges.
31st July 2017
There remains no internal K and C council investigation into the fire and its aftermath.
4th September 2017
As Kensington and Chelsea schools start to return for the new academic year, two Grenfell families are permanently rehoused.
13th September 2017
Kensington MP Emma Dent Coad says: “I spoke to somebody who had 26 different carers since the fire – a disabled person who had 26 different people coming to look after them. They have been moved six times. Every day they have to explain their needs to someone new, get used to being with a new person,” she said.
“I still don’t know who is in charge. Who is even in charge of the whole process? We have had interim directors from other councils doing bits of work and trying to control this and that but I don’t know who is charge and whoever is in charge of coordinating the response is not doing it.”
22nd September 2017
100 days after the fire and 80 percent of survivors have not been rehoused: only three families are in permanent new homes, 29 in temporary accommodation. 165 have not been given new homes. Kensington MP Emma Dent Coad reveals that the government asked her to persuade survivors to accept the temporary accommodation they were being offered but she refused.
What was the government’s role?
Since 2010, when the Conservatives took power, government funding for fire and rescue authorities in England has gone down between 26 and 39 percent as part of a “cost saving” commitment to decreasing regulation, what former prime minister David Cameron, a resident of North Kensington, referred to as the “health and safety monster”.
In 2014, parliamentary under-secretary of state for Communities and Local Government, Brandon Lewis, stated that it was not the government’s, but the fire industry’s, responsibility to encourage the fitting of sprinklers.
The government has established an independent panel to advise it on its response to the Grenfell fire. The chair of the panel is Sir Ken Knight, who previousy recommended £200 million of fire service cuts and advocated against the retrofitting of sprinklers.
Who were the leaders of K and C council?
Nicholas Paget-Brown, council leader, Conservative
Councillor Paget-Brown attempted to hold the first post-fire council meeting behind closed doors, but was forced by a high court judge to allow the media in. In response, after the media and his fellow councillors had gathered, Paget-Brown announced that the meeting would not go ahead because an “open discussion” would not be possible with the media in attendance.
Previously, Paget-Brown had deflected blame for the fire by stating that Grenfell Tower residents had not wanted the “disruption” of fire safety equipment being fitted.
Under pressure from central government, who told Paget-Brown he had to accept his “share of responsibility for perceived failings”, the council leader resigned more than two weeks after the fire.
After resigning, Paget-Brown set up his own company, NPB Consulting.
Rock Feilding-Mellen, council deputy leader, cabinet member for Housing, Property and Regeneration, Conservative
Councillor Rock Feilding-Mellen received £50,000 per year for the part-time role of deputy leader of the council.
Documents seen by The Times show Councillor Feilding-Mellen, in June and July 2014, allegedly pressuring refurbishment consultants Artelia UK to reduce costs on the Grenfell Tower refurbishment project. An “urgent nudge email” from KCTMO to Artelia states: “We need good costs for Cllr Feilding-Mellen and the planner”.
Councillor Feilding-Mellen is also the Director of Socially Conscious Capital Ltd which deals in “strategic land promotion projects”.
Feilding-Mellen was the head of the committee that took the controversial decision to hand North Kensington library over to a private school called Notting Hill Preparatory School, in a generous deal that offered favourable terms over 25 years including the school being able to skip paying rent of £365,000 for the first year.
It emerged that Feilding-Mellen’s own children were on the waiting list for places at the school.
Rock Feilding-Mellen’s mother is Amanda Feilding, the Countess of Wenyss and March, also known as Lady Neidpath. Among the properties owned by the family is Stanway House in Gloucestershire. which the family promotes as “an enclave of very English and almost magical harmony”.
Feilding-Mellen resigned shortly after Nicholas Paget-Brown. Both men have updated their LinkedIn pages to show that they have left their council leadership roles, although they do not state the reasons.
Other key council figures
Councillor Elizabeth Campbell replaced Paget-Brown as council leader. As Cabinet Member for Family and Children’s Services, she oversaw cuts to the borough’s play services.
Chief Executive Nicholas Holgate was forced to resign by communities secretary Sajid Javid over the council’s response to the fire.
October 2017 – burials and ongoing displacement
At al-Manaar mosque, prayers for the dead continue, followed by burials. A man who was visiting a sick relative in Sudan on June 14th buries the remains of his wife and two daughters who died in the fire.
His wife alerted people to the fire using WhatsApp and Facebook Live and called friends to make amends for any wrongdoing on her part before she died. Their remains are finally released, having been traced by DNA in their teeth and skulls.
A Somali family from the Lancaster West estate stays in a hotel in South Kensington because their home has no gas or electricity (Grenfell Tower was the source of power for the rest of the estate). It is a few miles away, but another world from North Kensington. The mother, who has five children, including one with a statement of special educational needs (SEN), asked local community groups for help. They provided money for holidays away from West London during the long summer break.
The child with SEN is no longer being collected and taken to school by the local authority as he had been before the fire. Gold Command say it is not in their remit to take the child to school.
In South Kensington (the museum and embassy district of London housing the Royal Albert Hall) the Somali family have no access to the food they normally eat. They are used to traditional Somali food, abundantly available in North Kensington. Their hotel offers only breakfast. The family receive £300 a week, which they say is enough but it does not provide the home life, food or community they are used to.
The role played by local community organisations
Community organisations have continued helping people directly, including providing intermediary services between survivors and the authorities. Families needed help, particularly in the immediate aftermath, navigating the services offered by local government.
For local charity Baraka Community Association, this provision included translation and helping people obtain money for basic maintenance and travel. Additionally, Baraka ensured people accessed legal support as well as moral and social support, offering some familiarity in their lives.
Another volunteer told Urban Dandy that he encountered families being denied maintenance money because they did not live in the tower, but in the neighbouring flats, which had been locked by the council. The Gold Command frontline staff were reluctant to believe people who were asking for money for travel expenses, and asked them “How did you manage before the fire?”.
The volunteer told us the staff were “rude” and “prejudiced”.
31st October 2017. Independent Grenfell Recovery Taskforce Initial Report
The report sets targets for K and C council to improve its performance and states: “RBKC failed its community on the night of 14 June and in the weeks following” You can read the full report here and background on the taskforce here.
November 14th 2017
At the time of writing, two thirds of families displaced by the fire are still in emergency temporary accommodation. 303 children are in temporary accommodation, 226 of them in bed and breakfasts. It is a contravention of a child’s human rights for a local authority to keep them in B & Bs for over six weeks.
857 individuals were made homeless by the fire. Twenty families have been permanently rehoused.
In the borough, there are currently 1,200 long-term empty homes, 9,300 second homes and over 6,000 homes owned by companies registered in tax havens.
Urban Dandy requested an interview with council leader Elizabeth Campbell in order to provide K and C’s perspective on their response to the disaster, but she did not respond.
10th November 2017 – Emma Dent Coad, local councillor and Labour MP for Kensington, interview with Urban Dandy
Emma Dent Coad was elected MP for Kensington just four days before the Grenfell fire, possibly the biggest shock of the 2017 general election. She is also a local Councillor in North Kensington, so was perhaps uniquely positioned to answer our questions…
UD: Five months on from the fire, quite a few people outside the area have said to me that they presume that the basic needs of the survivors and local residents are now being met. Are they right?
EDC: Sadly not at all. Just yesterday I met five households who are really struggling, stuck in hotels and losing hope. Will they still be there at Christmas? It seems likely, and that will be very difficult for many families.
Why haven’t things been sorted out for the survivors?
EDC: The Council is incompetent and uncaring. After five months they still do not ‘get it’. They are responsible for what happened but they see it as ‘one of those things’. A Conservative Councillor actually used those words to me last night.
Should Labour win control of Kensington in the April 2018 council elections, what will change, with regards Grenfell, the survivors and the Lancaster West residents?
EDC: Affected residents will be treated with love, care and compassion, not processed at The Curve*. And local people will get far more say – and genuine control – over aspects of how things are managed. I would personally like to see a Forum with spending powers. All that is up for discussion.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, why was there such a limited local government response? And why did it persist for so long?
EDC: The Council was in shock and denial. They refused help from other Councils for five days. It was truly appalling.
Have you seen signs that the local population will maintain its unity in the form of cohesive and effective action at the local and national levels?
EDC: Local people are still very angry, but also trying to work together to achieve change. This is difficult – especially when it seems some outside forces are playing ‘divide and rule’.
*The Curve – a local office being used as a hub for assistance
Two London-based community organisations honoured the young people of North Kensington at the weekend. At an event on Ladbroke Grove, local children affected by the 14th June Grenfell Tower fire and its aftermath showcased their creative skills and public speaking abilities.
The children were given a platform to reflect on their experiences of the summer after the Grenfell disaster. Many of them had benefited from trips away from West London, funded and organised by Baraka Community Association (BCA) and Worldwide Somali Students & Professionals (WSSP). The trips included a residential at Hindleap Warren, visits to Legoland, Chessington, Butlins and Thorpe Park.
Over a hundred days have now passed since the unprecedented fire on the Lancaster West estate, which claimed scores of lives, including friends of the children present.
The young people were set the task of designing posters to express their feelings experiences during summer 2017, presenting them to a panel of judges that included Kensington MP Emma Dent Coad. Contestants were judged on their artistic ability, literacy and presentation skills.
After much deliberation and disagreement, the cash prizes went to:
Third prize: Aisha, aged nine, for her poster ‘Asia, Africa’.
Aisha reflected on getting far away from North Kensington to Dubai, Kenya (which she described as ‘boring’ – sorry Kenya) and Somalia. Aisha gained the judges’ praise for her lively, confident presentation.
Second prize: Abdullahi M, aged nine, for his poster ‘My Sad but Amazing Summer’.
Abdullahi described the events of 14th June as they had unfolded for him, talking about his mother’s tears, and the united local community. He ended his presentation with the words “peace and love for the community of North Kensington”.
First prize: Hussein, aged 13.
Hussein received first prize for his combination of a brilliant design and a very eloquent presentation, outlining how each section of his picture linked together, and explaining the abstractions to the audience and judges.
The prizes were awarded by Emma Dent Coad MP, who hailed the organisations involved and the families in attendance, noting that they were doing “what we all want to do: making the most of ourselves and our children”.
The event showcased the effectiveness of well-established and well-connected community groups. Already up and running and filling in gaps in provision long before the Grenfell fire, these organisations were in place to provide much-needed support and relief when North Kensington was shattered by the events of June 14th. When government services were most needed, they were found wanting, but the community was able to provide some essential presence.
WSSP’s Director Kasim Ali said: “The aim was to help children cope with the Grenfell disaster by talking about it and expressing themselves artistically. At the same time they learned lifelong skills such as design, presentation and public speaking”.
The other talented children taking part and so close to winning were:
As Abdullahi M said: “peace and love for the community of North Kensington”.