Change at RBKC? Case Study 3: The Curve

This article contains information about the Grenfell Tower fire that readers might find distressing.

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Change is essential in North Kensington, an area of London still reeling from the Grenfell Tower fire, where 72 people were killed on June 14th, 2017. The trauma inflicted is only now starting to manifest in residents. On becoming leader of Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC) a month after the fire, Elizabeth Campbell promised “change”, invoking the word eleven times during a brief speech to survivors. She had the right idea – people wanted change – but has her council delivered? Of all the opportunities RBKC has had to make good on its promises, surely its own Grenfell recovery site, the Curve, is one where it would not dare to fail. But have they failed? It is a complex case study, and one in which I am personally involved.

What is RBKC’s Change Policy?

For years prior to the Grenfell Tower fire, people in North Kensington were routinely ignored, even when attempting to raise serious concerns about fire safety. Previously, to assess whether any tangible change to this pattern of willful neglect had been made, Urban Dandy used RBKC’s official policy, 12 Principles of Good Governance, as the yardstick. In the cases of Canalside House and Lancaster Youth Centre, it was clear that the policy had not translated from theory to practice. You can read about the two examples and the twelve principles here and here.

Facing widespread criticism and calls for commissioners to replace them in 2017, RBKC hired the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS) to carry out an independent review of the council. RBKC welcomed CfPS’s subsequent report and adopted “12 principles of good governance we should embed in the council.” The 12 Principles were bespoke, designed specifically for RBKC to act on its claims to want to “change” following the fire. The council’s leadership were to be held to account on this by its Executive and Corporate Services Scrutiny Committee. Papers to date reveal talk about listening forums and citizens panels, but nothing in the way of challenge or scrutiny from the Labour-led committee. 

What is The Curve?

The Curve Community Centre is a building rented at commercial rates by Kensington and Chelsea council. It was obtained shortly after the fire at Grenfell Tower. The Curve replaced the Westway Sports Centre as the focal point of the council’s response. It still provides essential services for survivors and the bereaved including housing support, post delivery and counselling. Additionally, it hosts workshops and classes and offers space for community cooking and other gatherings. The Curve has three principal sets of users: survivors and the bereaved; residents of Lancaster West estate and the wider North Kensington community.

The Curve sits on Bard Road, just behind Freston Road, by what was once the self-declared Republic of Frestonia. Nowadays the area is characterised by poverty, a high density of social housing and large national business’ headquarters; the Westway flyover runs nearby, and from the Curve’s windows visitors can look across the A3220 to Westfield and the old BBC Television Studios.

 

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From the outset, and probably inevitably, the Curve has been a controversial issue. Being council-run, it has naturally been scrutinised by local residents who have lived through the Grenfell atrocity and its aftermath. RBKC’s actions at the Curve can be taken as approximate indicators of where the council is, politically.

2018

In early 2018, RBKC decided to appoint an independent Board of Governors “to ensure that the Curve is accountable to the local community” and to be “critical friends” of the Curve’s management team as well as “to contribute critically and substantially to the public’s perception of the Curve” (The Role of Governor of the Curve, 26th February 2018).

I was appointed governor in May 2018, and quit in February 2019, but will try to give the public some perspective on the Curve: its place in North Kensington, the council’s approach to it and why I had to leave.

Governors’ Vision

From a North Kensington perspective, the Board of Governors has been notable mainly for its silence, a point of frustration to many local people wondering what has been going on at the Curve. The building is, after all, for the public and the Board is supposed to represent them. The Board spent its collective time and energy over the winter devising an alternative vision for the community centre, one that would take control of the building away from RBKC.

The governors’ vision was of the Curve being transformed into a fitting legacy for North Kensington, a space that would be congruent with the rich and diverse culture of the local area. Specifically, the governors proposed the Curve to be split into three areas of work: high quality, expert trauma therapy; skills training for jobs of the future for young people (in the technology, gaming, sports and culture industries) and a welcoming, safe living room environment for those wanting to drop in. Something roughly akin to the Tabernacle but for the West end of the borough. The plan initially called for the Curve to operate separately from RBKC as a charity, although the council would be expected to do its bit by providing the rent, which it could secure long-term and at a discounted rate.

If the vision was adopted, obvious issues would remain, including the Curve’s location, which is considered unattractive and unsafe by some residents. The building, its lighting and signage would need to be beautified if the Curve were to be transitioned from a community centre run by a distrusted local authority to a beacon of recovery, culture and opportunity. Challenges, certainly, but not insurmountable ones, if RBKC could grasp the potential of both the building and the local population and make resources available to help something happen.

My perspective was that North Kensington is in desperate need of public spaces and we should keep the Curve and make it work for the community. The poverty of the area is compounded by a scarcity of space. Many children live in appallingly overcrowded accommodation, with no space to do homework or relax, let alone learn new skills or prepare for success in their adult lives. One 11-year-old I have worked with lives in a two bedroom flat occupied by 11 (eleven) people of ages ranging from toddler to pensioner. Why? Because the council does not build the housing that would enable people to live in dignity. Community centres offer these children what they need: space. To RBKC, such public spaces are wasted opportunities better handed over to property speculators or private schools. I hoped I could help to secure another public space for the area…

RBKC’s Vision

The council has its own visions for the Curve and none of them are expansive. One RBKC vision sees budget cuts that would be applied to staffing, services or both; another sees the Curve closed, possibly as early as July 2019. RBKC has indicated there is some scope for changing what is on offer to the public at the Curve, but budget cuts are not conducive to transforming people’s life chances.

Such is the political landscape in early 2019. RBKC are no longer feeling the pressure from Downing Street and there is no appetite to push forward and invest in North Kensington’s potential. Austerity, the euphemism for impoverishment, is the real legacy, and North Kensington is the last place in Britain it should be imposed. It was RBKC’s devotion to austerity that led to them ignoring North Kensington’s residents for so long.

Last year, Philip Alston, the UN rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, after a fact-finding mission to the UK, said that child poverty levels were “not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster” in the world’s fifth largest economy. He said the government had caused “great misery” with its “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” austerity policies. Projected figures suggest that the number of additional deaths caused by austerity policies in the UK between 2009 and 2020 will be 152,141.

Nowhere was the 2010 shift to austerity taken up more enthusiastically than Kensington Town Hall and nowhere is the injustice more obvious than here in North Kensington. But this is what the Curve’s Board of Governors are being maneuvered to acquiesce to. The final straw for me was a meeting in February with Robyn Fairman, Executive Director of RBKC’s Grenfell Team, to present the governors’ alternative vision. Fairman seamlessly absorbed the vision into the council’s austerity plan. Not for one moment did RBKC’s representative entertain the idea of a breakaway from the local authority. There was no hint of imagination, no sense that the community might take the lead, that it might know better than senior councillors what the area needs…

Why I Quit

This kind of absorption into the council’s existing plans barely registers as a problem any more; from the massive cuts of the RBKC youth review, to Canalside, to the Curve, RBKC is comfortable and complacent. We have come a long way since summer 2017 when the people of North Kensington responded heroically to the fire at Grenfell and the idea that we would be left powerless was unthinkable. Even a Board of Governors genuinely representative of the diversity of the area has been side-lined, reduced to the role of ‘advisers’ to a service-cutting Tory council, and certainly not ‘governing’ anything.

This was the limit for me and I handed in my resignation the day after the Fairman meeting.

Problems

The problematic dynamic between the governors/wider community and RBKC didn’t appear suddenly at the meeting with Robyn Fairman. Disquiet has simmered since summer 2017, and chaos is to be expected in the aftermath of a disaster so shocking that it made headlines worldwide. In such chaos, serious commitment to principles (of good governance) are needed. But this is lacking with RBKC.

The Curve cannot contain the entropy, as trauma manifests and fights its way out of people in a setting ill-equipped to address it. One drama after another has beset the Curve’s management. At board level, resident steering groups that were promised for us to work alongside on day one still have not been created, undermining the governors’ credibility and effectiveness. Meanwhile, RBKC has sat back, their every move orchestrated by communications officers with their corporate jargon.

Oversight of RBKC is undertaken by Home Secretary Sajid Javid’s independent Grenfell Taskforce who have reported back to Javid in fairly glowing terms regarding the council’s progress towards “change” since the fire. In none of their three reports to date have they used the words austerity or poverty – suggesting less an independent group and more an establishment cover-up. What is omitted is far more revealing than what is included in such reports: no mention of Canalside House, which the disgraced council tried to sell; no mention of Lancaster Youth Centre, left to rot by the council. No library, no college, no context…

Perhaps the idea is to narrow the scope of any scrutiny so that RBKC leaders can convince themselves they are changing. Certainly the long pause in the Grenfell Inquiry does not help. While in legal limbo, pursuing serious change might look like an admission of guilt by RBKC. It is not just business-as-usual with the council, there is a kind of forced joviality to the tone of their communications, inappropriate for a local authority apparently implicated in the Grenfell fire.

The result is an uneasy marriage between RBKC and local people who engage with them. With a functioning inquiry, if the possibility of guilty verdicts being handed to RBKC or TMO staff were less distant, or if the public could hear the evidence and start to understand the political background to the fire, it would curtail the council’s phony change agenda. The imposition of austerity would be harder to get away with and feel-good reality TV shows showing the resilient Grenfell community would be considered in bad taste. With some legal clarity it would not be possible for residents engaging with the RBKC change agenda to remain apolitical.

The council, who claimed to have “no intention of defending anything” at the inquiry, but then did just that in their opening statement, have to maintain the illusion that they are changing. They have to maintain it in their own minds at least, even while every political instinct they possess takes them back to the same policies and same approach as before 2017. Their inability to change has been exposed in all three case studies we have looked at and there is nothing substantial they can use to refute the damning evidence.

Change at RBKC?

There is no change in approach. Over £400 million has been spent on Grenfell ‘recovery’ – but who has recovered? The Conservative leadership. Meanwhile millions in cuts are imposed on North Kensington. As a governor at the main recovery site, using up more public resources, I saw the jig was up – there is no partnership, there is no change. I fear the Curve’s Board of Governors has sleep walked into being a tick box exercise for a highly ideological local authority who hide their true intentions behind well-paid bureaucrats and well-meaning residents.

Change at RBKC? No, they are still committed to austerity, and all that it brings, in North Kensington.

 

Tom Charles @tomhcharles

 

 

KCTMO: Who, What, Where, When & Why – Part One

The Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) was responsible for running the Lancaster West estate, including Grenfell Tower, in North Kensington. This year, its responsibility for Lancaster West was terminated following the Grenfell Tower fire of June 14th 2017, which killed 72 people. But what is KCTMO? Has it really ceased to exist? And why do these initials provoke such antipathy in North Kensington?

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A Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) is traditionally a small, tenant-led group that takes over some of the landlord management responsibilities and oversight for an estate from a local authority. Of the 200 TMOs in Britain, the KCTMO was distinct in being an Arms-Length Management Organisation (ALMO) and therefore, by its very design, not representative of residents. KCTMO was created to directly take over the council’s management of its social housing, rather than to provide representative oversight.

Creation

The KCTMO story takes place against the backdrop of Conservative party predominance over the Kensington and Chelsea council. This was no different in 1996, when the council feared it might lose control of its social housing stock, which was subject to a compulsory tendering strategy from national government. To maintain its control, the council created the KCTMO, with its management team of 20, including, initially, 13 residents. In the plan, KCTMO would take control of the borough’s 9,000 social housing properties, but for major works (costing over £400,000, such as the Grenfell Tower refurbishment) liability was shared equally with the council.

Change

In 2002, to access the Labour government’s Decent Homes funding, KCTMO became an ALMO, reducing the number of tenants on its board whilst maintaining the TMO designation in its name. By the late 00s, serious issues were emerging. An independent report in 2009 identified “substandard” repairs and a need for major works, recommending the Tory council take a greater role in monitoring KCTMO.

In response to the alarming report, newly appointed KCTMO chief executive Robert Black pledged to build trust between the TMO and tenants. But this did not come to pass.

In 2013, when I lived on the estate, the Estate Management Board at Lancaster West was wound up. There were “terrifying” power surges at Grenfell Tower and plans for the Kensington Academy secondary school and new Kensington Leisure Centre, next to Grenfell Tower were not received enthusiastically by residents, the sense being that KCTMO and the council were out of touch with, and even dismissive of, residents’ voices.

Refurbishment Continue reading

RBKC Bites Back @ Canalside House & the Community

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The council of Kensington and Chelsea has revived its plan to get rid of North Kensington community asset Canalside House and replace it with flats. The resurrection of the plan will be viewed by many as signalling the explicit return of the council’s long-standing policy of asset-stripping North Kensington. Will it be third time lucky for the council? 

What is Canalside House and Why Does it Matter?

Opened in 1929, Canalside House is an integral and much-loved part of the North Kensington community, serving many hundreds of local people each year, including hundreds of children, the disabled and other vulnerable groups. It is ideally located at the north end of Ladbroke Grove, with excellent transport links. It continues to play a vital role for people in West London, including with its role as a hub for Grenfell recovery and support.

Background Continue reading

Happy Christmas? From RBKC

Warning: This article contains written content that you may find distressing

 

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Grenfell Tower, January 2013

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.

After Grenfell Inequality 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.

Class

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.

 

Policy Outcomes 

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.

Zero

 

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: saraalsaraf@gmail.com

 

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…

 

 

By Tom Charles

@tomhcharles

Grenfell – The Disaster to Date

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.

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Grenfell Tower, November 2017

Southampton, 2010

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.

 

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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.

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Grenfell Tower in 2015 before the cladding was applied
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Kensington Academy on the right, and the pre-cladding Grenfell Tower in the left.

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

 

 

Tom Charles

@tomhcharles

Thanks to JC, AF and JA

Grenfell: Some Relief for Some of Us

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Ten-year olds in North Kensington have seen more than they should ever have seen. Heat, fire, pain and death from the Grenfell Tower; Slowly inhaling the dust of the lost. 

A mutilated building stands as a constant testimony to the mass incineration of June 14th. As they look down the street, between houses, the Tower appears, as they travel through the concrete jungle, Grenfell is there, on their skyline and their minds.

The children of North Kensington lost faith in the safety of the world, and any sense they May have had that the role of government is to support the population. Profound trauma, with parents’ availability to provide emotional support severely reduced by having to fill the space vacated by government in the disaster response.

Waves

But for some of us there has been some release. In Devon my 10 year old was finally freed from weeks of the oppressive atmosphere of disaster. As the waves crashed in, she ran away, then chased them back into the sea, shouting at them. Her shouts turned to screams, pure joy and liberation…

Nature was safe again, the world was suddenly the right place to be after weeks of questions about cladding, fire, safety and the inhumane treatment of people. Re-connected to her original source, this child was at one with the water, sand, the vast sky and the cold wind.

To see her lose her ‘self’ and be her pure, true self in those moments was to regain my own faith in life. But most North Kensington children have not yet had such a moment.

1

Housing

As of that day, 2nd August, 12 households from the Tower had been rehoused – a statistic that tells much of the story about the re-traumatisation of victims by way of bureaucracy, political decision and incompetence in the richest borough on the planet, with its 1,400 empty dwellings.

If there is to be a restoration of faith, it will not be courtesy of Kensington and Chelsea council or Theresa May’s government.

Genuine relief is provided by local charities and community organisations, quietly organising weekends away, holidays and residentials for families. Here in North Kensington, there are creative, sporting and communal activities to lighten the burden on parents.

Power

The community has stepped in to provide what the council cannot – humanity. What none of these organisations can provide is what the council can, but aren’t, providing: housing, the only way to dignity. And as such the dignity of the victims, survivors and the wider community is not being honoured. On the contrary, it is being threatened and trampled daily.

Individual stories in North Kensington tell a bigger story of dehumanisation and some of these will follow on Urban Dandy. In the meantime, I’m relieved that I had moved away from the Lancaster West estate to safety, and that my traumatised daughter could connect with Blessed nature, arriving home again.

 

Tom Charles

Grenfell – Night Thoughts

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As the sweet summer breeze

blows through this petrified charcoal edifice

stirring the parched remains of the perished

inside this crematorium created by man’s greed,

 

We who are in temporary sleep

slowly inhaling the dust of the lost

unlike God, offering not the breath of life

Yet not forgotten, becoming part of us

 

Fused into our very being

scorched into our souls

as the seared conscience

of those that govern

offers no honour, shame, guilt

or Judas-like, intestine-spilling torment!

Instead scurrying like rats

under the tarpaulin of fear

 

Light exposing their hidden deeds of darkness

that atomized men, women and children before their time

those who’s bodies can no longer cast shadows

 

Your eternal flame

forever burns brightly

shining like stars

guiding both seeker and wise

along the narrow path

in their quest for the truth…

 

 

M.C. Bolton, 28th July 2017

Photo by Hugh