There have been plenty of significant developments in North Kensington as Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC) and the local population deal with the fallout from the entirely preventable June 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, where 72 people died. The mainstream media might be busy elsewhere, but there is still a lot going on. With justice and change still not forthcoming, it is important to maintain a factual record and keep up the scrutiny…
Our updates start in parliament with the survivors and bereaved group Grenfell United (GU) bearing witness to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee on the situation regarding housing conditions nationwide and developments with RBKC. Although GU’s latest testimony to lawmakers had little or no media pickup, it was of the utmost significance to those wanting to understand what has been happening in Kensington and possible future developments.
GU’s evidence to the Select Committee on July 8th started with an update on the re-housing of Grenfell survivors, some of whom have still not been catered for, over two years on. GU explained that the issue is not a lack of housing, but inadequate homes being offered, unfit for habitation. They cited issues with disabled access and properties in need of repair meaning survivors had not made their long-awaited moves.
GU express concern that inadequate properties was still being offered to Grenfell survivors and asked: “If it’s happening to us, what’s happening across the country?”
Grenfell-style cladding remains on blocks across the country and campaigns have been launched to press for action on this. GU believe a deadline for the removal of all cladding would be effective. Grenfell survivors’ willingness to lobby for improvements to dangerous buildings on behalf of people across the country has been a distinguishing feature of GU’s development. And this need to take the initiative was a theme they returned to repeatedly in parliament.
GU also provided the MPs of the Select Committee with an overview of RBKC’s performance, including a useful take on the veracity of the council’s claim that it would fundamentally change its approach to public service in North Kensington after the 2017 fire.
“RBKC is starting from a particularly low base” GU quoted the government’s Grenfell Taskforce’s first report as saying. GU reflected that when they testified in parliament last year, they identified a “vast chasm of distrust” of RBKC among the local population. Updating this assessment, GU reported that RBKC are apologetic and some officers and senior councillors understand what the community needs. But while RBKC are publishing strategies and roadmaps, these are not translating into visible improvements.
Because of the lack of change, GU stated that trust with the local authority would take a generation to rebuild. More than that, GU said they detected that some RBKC staff “believe they’ve suffered enough and it’s time to go back to business as usual,” a phrase that is being heard more and more in North Kensington.
GU said that the council were “definitely responding to what we’re asking for” but that any changes still require badgering from the local community. Progress is too slow according to GU, who say they want “a progressive local plan.”
What should this progressive local plan look like? The GU representatives told the Select Committee that they want GU to be remembered for the positive changes that came after the fire, rather than for the way they were treated by the authorities in the aftermath. They want RBKC to become “the best borough” in the UK, “progressive, listening.”
Chronic tardiness is a problem; delaying change, undermining trust. GU’s take on RBKC’s lack of urgency in delivering change: “It’s like Grenfell didn’t happen.”
As for the national government, GU lamented the fact that survivors have had to work so hard to push for substantive changes that would prevent another atrocity on the scale of Grenfell. One example provided was the government ignoring the demand in North Kensington for checks to be made for soil contamination.
GU described their dealings with the national government as “a mixture of incompetence and indifference” but identified the government’s green paper on social housing, due for publication in September, as a document that has the potential to provide a fitting legacy for Grenfell.
GU stated that the legacy will not emerge from either the public inquiry or the police inquiry. They said that “institutional indifference” towards people in social housing can only be challenged via the green paper. Working with their third housing minister since June 2017, GU have been pushing for a green paper that will fundamentally change the way people in social housing live, specifically with regards to tenant voice and representation.
GU invoked Sherlock Holmes’ dog that didn’t bark in describing the role played (or not played) by the social housing regulators to date, calling for far more robust regulation and a split regulator based on a financial model (more on that here).
Despite the scope for fundamental change in the social housing green paper – “parliament needs to create something, a document that really makes a big difference” – GU expressed their fear that they will be badly let down when it is finally published in the Autumn.
And they expressed an even more pervasive fear: that the litany of official delays, missed opportunities, incompetence and a return to business-as-usual amid less and less scrutiny, means a delay to the provision of answers and the spectre of a decades-long struggle for justice, like the one the Hillsborough families still endure.
“Justice delayed is justice denied” – Grenfell United, the House of Commons, July 2019.
You can watch Grenfell United’s session at the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee here.
by Tom Charles @tomhcharles
photos from @GrenfellUnited