North Kensington in West London changed forever following the Grenfell Tower fire disaster of June 14th this year. Already known for its street art, the area’s walls have become a canvas for tributes to those lost in the fire, a space for free expression and to vent rage, without a media filter. A semiotics expert and local resident, Chris Arning, looked at the possible meanings and genesis of a striking example of post-Grenfell North Ken street art… What is Semiotics?
Semiotics derives from the ancient Greek word semion, meaning ‘sign’ and is a subject devoted to evidence-based analysis of signs and meaning. It is a field that encompasses culture, communication and meaning and includes logos, branding and street art.
North Kensington is replete with street art. Of course there is always a flurry of artists before carnival every year, but since Grenfell in June, a lot of other types of pieces have appeared: the modified London Underground Love sign and a great Grenfell RIP on the corner of the Acklam Road on the left as you turn off from Ladbroke Grove towards Portobello – done, I think, by Code FC. Street art is the medium and message of anonymous resistance. It is done to show that whatever the official story, the streets is watching and people know what is going on – sgraffiti means ‘scribbilings’ (from the Italian sgraffio, to scratch) something that goes back at least to ancient Rome.
On the way home a few weeks ago, I happened upon a strange sign on a wall off Powis Square. It sort of stopped me in its tracks because there was an uncanniness about it, both familiar and eerie. I’m writing a book on semiotics at the moment, as you do, and I was intrigued so thought I’d take a pic and have since pondered what it might mean. I deciphered the letters tangled up together as RBKC. This is the old logo of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. You can still see it on some of the street signs of the borough.
I have reproduced the street art above, alongside an embossed version on a local street light.
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