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

 

 

When Emma Dented the Unwritten Coad

Before the fire, this was written…

It was something none of us thought we would see in 2017: The Conservative party lost their seat in Kensington, their safe seat, their stronghold, the wealthiest constituency in the UK, the Royalist Borough.

Previously held by (Sir) Malcolm Rifkind, he was forced to abandon ship in 2015 after being caught in a channel 4 sting complaining about his wages, bragging about how little constituency work he did and accepting obscene amounts of money to talk on foreign policy, a subject upon which his expertise lies in getting things spectacularly, repeatedly wrong. Read about it here if you want.

Do-nothing Tory grandee Rifkind was replaced by London’s deputy mayor, Lady Victoria Borwick. Unlike Malcolm, she did engage with the community and acknowledged the existence of the poor. Like Malcolm, her political life was devoted to class war. On housing, on the cuts, on refugees, for much of her tenure her complacency was matched by the resigned apathy of the non-Tory population of North Kensington.

But nobody really thought she was under serious threat of losing her seat. Two months ago, when the PM called the election, Labour had no chance in Kensington. Then came Labour’s manifesto, coupled with the Conservative party having nothing of use say about anything. A huge turnout, and two recounts later, Kensington was the final seat in the country to be called. And what a call the constituency made.

As if to milk the attention for all it was worth, it was late on Friday night when jubilant scenes erupted at the Town Hall. Emma Dent Coad had beaten Borwick by 20 votes, changing local politics forever, and making a mockery of Theresa May’s miserable campaign.

Urban Dandy tracked down Labour’s Kensington majority, and here they are, the 20 official history makers in their own words:

(note: their words were shared before the disaster)

Lisa (first past the post): “I have never voted conservative, and although I have always thought it is a given in k and c that the tories will win, I have always believed it is important to exercise ones right to vote. I am sick to the eye teeth of how our area is being over regenerated and valuable services, including outstanding children’s centres, have been or are planned to be closed down – all in the name of affordability with the borough refusing to consider the bigger picture. This year, like many others, I voted for labour. I am absolutely blown away that Emma Dent Coad has been elected to represent the people of Kensington. This is such exciting news. It feels progressive and exciting. I am a very happy resident right now.

Sophie (come unity): “I’m delighted with the result.  I have lived on Ladbroke Grove for 15 years and have seen many changes.  I was involved in the campaign to keep North Kensington Library in the community and more recently was involved in the running of the KPH (A valuable community hub – now sadly closed). Emma supported the library campaign and came to the birthday party we threw for the building in October.  Incidentally I took the opportunity to invite all councillors to the party following a debate in Kensington Town Hall and Labour were the only councillors who came:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VWWCd5mviY8

I extended a similar invitation to all councillors in our final week of running the KPH.  I was told that Tories were too busy with their election campaign, but Emma came down with all the Labour councillors and spent an afternoon in the pub.  

This is the first time in my life I have been able to vote for somebody that I truly believe in – someone who really speaks out for our local community”. 

Edward (Grenfell Action Group): “Nice to see a supporter of Save North Kensington Library and Save Wornington College campaigns elected as our MP. Certainly wiped the smug smile off the likes of Cllr Paget Brown and Cllr Feilding Mellen who treat the residents of North Kensington with contempt and disdain”

Dave (Buzzing): ‘K&C is taking back the streets for the many not the few…leading by the front for a better society that accounts for people from different walks of life and circumstances’

Jen (Dandy): “I never thought I would see a time when K&C wasn’t a Tory stronghold. Results go to show how much London and all of Britain need tax paid properly by all to fund the crucially important services universally available in the UK of healthcare, education and more. Go on Jezza!”

Kassim and Wife (joint statement): 1. Tories ignored us for so long not anymore now! They know now why they lost the seat! 2. Voted for Prosperity over austerity! Hope over fear! 3. Tories lost contact with Kensington voters!

Yvette (Labour party member, nearly ran me over once): “The successful and historic election of EDC as a Labour MP in the Kensington seat demonstrates true democracy at work. For the young and old who voted for the first time it means they will know going forward that their vote makes a difference; and that fighting for what is right is worth it.”

Lindale (Natasha’s dad): I did vote to get the conservatives out, I’ve been waiting for this for years.  My first email to Victoria Borwick was to tell her how useless Malcolm Rifkind was.  I ran a facebook campaign to get rid of the Conservatives.  Getting the Tories out of Kensington was so sweet, I am curious to see what changes it makes to some of the ongoing issues in the Boroug

Niles (23): “When the rhythm changes so does the dance”

Anab (Upstairs): “I voted Labour!”

Sheraine (The Guv’nor): “It’s amazing man, Well deserved, she’s worked really really hard and she’s very capable”.

Faisa (first time voter): “I voted for Labour because I don’t like Theresa May and I think there should be a new prime minister”

Abdullahi (Baraka Obama): “I always vote Labour, I could never give my vote to the Conservatives. Even with a tiny majority, it shows you can’t be laid back. The Conservatives thought ‘nobody can touch us, this is Kensington and Chelsea’ – Now the community needs to say, if we’ve done well in this one, we can do even better in the future’.

Farhia (second time voter): “I previously voted Lib Dem but this time around I voted Labour. There was so much benefit from a Labour government – help with costs as a student, I could pay off my tuition fees. If I benefited, it’s only fair for future generations to have that chance. Their values match the working class, compared to the Conservatives, who just make life harder for us”

Karen (Brighton fan): “Emma Dent Coad saved the house I live in when the Conservatives wanted to knock it down. She’s a lovely lady to boot, very humble”.

Mustafa (Abu Jamal): “I like Jeremy Corbyn, he’s the one who is in touch with the reality of life, he’s very genuine. The Conservatives have no idea what working class people get up to. What was important was the manifesto, scrapping tuition fees. I don’t want my kids being in £50,000 debt”.

Valentyna (first time voter): This year I went voting and it was the first time in my life and I’m very proud to make this step especially as my vote mattered and Labour won! Guys wake up and take a stand. 

Chris and Reem (Joint statement made live at the Tabernacle)”We voted for Labour and for Emma Dent Coad in protest at the Tories’ pursuit of “Brexit-at-all-costs”. We are stronger within the EU. We also voted to counter the Israel Lobby’s pernicious campaign to undermine Jeremy Corbyn”.

 

And for good measure:

Ayman (age nine, Year 4, local primary school): “I asked my parents to vote for Labour because of the NHS and humanity as the Conservatives don’t care about us”

Maya (age 10, Year 5, another local primary school): “I was there on Friday night with my mum. It meant a lot to my mum and it was a once in a lifetime experience for someone like me. It was good, Emma came out crying and everyone was like ‘wooooo’ and singing ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ and ‘Go away Tories, Labour in’.

Respect.

 

Postscript:

Four days later, hell broke loose in Kensington. Soon after, in parliament, Emma Dent Coad made her maiden speech. Sensitivity, compassion, calm, poise, and an unflinching demand for justice. North Kensington is finally represented.

 

 

Tom Charles

@tomhcharles

 

come_unity
By Sophie Lodge

What Happens to Suspended Labour Politicians?

Hopefully not this…

The campaign against Jeremy Corbyn was in full swing long before a Labour MP shouted “Nazi apologist” in Ken Livingstone’s face on a day of apparently choreographed media attacks, aimed at distorting debate on Israel and undermining Corbyn. No sane person would believe that Corbyn harbours any antisemitic tendencies, so softer targets have been sought in order to defame the Labour leader by association.

One such target lives right here in Notting Hill. Councillor Beinazir Lasharie was libelled labelled an antisemite by media outlets such as The Sun.

Suspended

What has happened to Councillor Lasharie raises questions about Labour’s approach.

In October 2015 the councillor was suspended by Labour and instructed not to talk to the press after The Sun newspaper ran a story that Lasharie had posted a video on Facebook which claimed that ISIS was created by Israel. The story was taken up by the right wing blogger Paul Staines, who goes by the moniker Guido Fawkes. Continue reading