RBKC Scrutiny #3 The Administration Committee Meeting

The future is unwritten…events this week at Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC) could have triggered a political realignment in the north of the borough. Or they could have consolidated Tory power… 

What happened?

On 15th July at RBKC’s regular administration committee meeting, Councillors voted to scrap a council committee that scrutinises RBKC’s response to the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire.

The decision to abandon the scrutiny committee is based on a “residents’ conference” to which 15 people turned up, in addition to 77 who contributed to the consultation in writing.

The two Labour members of the council administration committee joined residents in walking out of Monday’s meeting in protest at the move, leaving four Conservative Councillors to vote through the recommendations. The Tory Councillors had been whipped (compelled) to vote to abandon the scrutiny committee.

The plan for the changes to scrutiny was made by a council panel made up of four Conservatives and one Liberal Democrat, effectively bypassing North Kensington, where all elected Councillors are from the Labour party.

from rbkc.gov.uk

The scrapping of the committee, which will be ratified at full council meeting on 24th July, is part of a review of the council’s scrutiny committee structure which will see the current six specialist committees shrink to four “select committees” overseen by an overview and scrutiny body.

The leader of the council, Elizabeth Campbell, who is also chair of the administration committee, was not present, although no reason was given for her absence. The council’s deputy leader, with special responsibility for Grenfell, Kim Taylor-Smith, stated that he did not see any reason to defer the decision.

The council’s plan is that Grenfell meetings will be held in North Kensington rather than at the Town Hall. Cllr Anne Cyron, lead member for communications and overseeing Grenfell Recovery said this will ensure central government representatives will attend, although this point was rejected by Labour councillors and Kensington MP Emma Dent Coad, who said the idea that government ministers will attend residents’ meetings in North Kensington is “absolutely ridiculous.” Dent Coad also called on the government to put RBKC in special measures.

Cllr Cyron said that a forum held away from the Town Hall could look at issues beyond the council’s remit, such as soil contamination and the Grenfell memorial commission.

The review panel was chaired by Cllr Greg Hammond, who said there will also be working parties. He sought to reassure the assembled residents by saying that he would not have suggested the changes unless he was confident that scrutiny would be improved as a result.

The response

The administration committee meeting attracted a larger-than-usual turnout of local residents, alarmed at the sudden removal of the Grenfell scrutiny committee. Although the gathered residents had not had time to organise a coordinated response to the council’s plan, their retort was coherent and clear. “This is too shady” said one.

“You’re managing a PR disaster; we’re dealing with a humanitarian one” said another.

One resident called the decision “thoroughly disrespectful to our community” as the decision to scrap scrutiny has come while there is still no sign of justice for the bereaved, survivors and the community.

“Why are the recommendations so far-reaching, given there was so little consultation?” one Councillor asked Cllr Hammond.

And a member of the public accused RBKC of creating false premise for their decision by claiming they had carried out ‘broad and sustained’ outreach. This point was backed up by representatives of numerous residents’ associations who reported that they had not been invited to take part in the consultation. Cllr Hammond responded that the consultation had been advertised, including on the social network Nextdoor.

When RBKC decided to ignore the public’s objections and press on with the meeting in order to vote through the proposal, the North Kensington residents walked out. The meeting turned to farce when North Kensington musician Niles Hailstones joined the panel members, singing to them and telling them “your consultation is fake” while the Tory councillors pressed on with the procedural matters required to ensure Grenfell scrutiny is scrapped.

Questions Raised

Leadership

“There is no leadership in this council” said Emma Dent Coad – indeed, where was Elizabeth Campbell? Along with Cllr Gerard Hargreaves and Cllr Catherine Faulks, Campbell is a member of RBKC’s cabinet who has retained a prominent role after the fire, and as such has a clear conflict of interest. 

Perhaps it is a case of the less scrutiny the better for Campbell, who must eventually face questions over her role in creating a culture at RBKC that led to catastrophic decisions being taken. It is well understood that it is Cllr Taylor-Smith who really runs the show at RBKC. But Campbell remains a figurehead, and one it seems the Tories are eager to keep away from public exposure.

Devolution

At the meeting, Cllr Blakeman (Labour) stated that the review panel were sent papers on potential devolution for North Kensington, but did not discuss them. She said that the papers have been put on the RBKC website as if they were discussed.

Cllr Mason, leader of the Labour group, also pushed the devolution question, saying that it was on the table at the full council meeting of August 2017. Cllr Lindsay responded by saying: “It was decided at full council meeting in May 2019 not to proceed with devolution.”

Herein lies the problem. There could be near-unanimous agreement in North Kensington over a course of action, but this can be blocked every time on the whim of the ruling party in the Town Hall.

Who is scrutinising the scrutinisers?

The one lay member of the Grenfell scrutiny committee pointed out: “at the last meeting when we scrutinised you, you hadn’t done any of the actions on the action tracker.”

But there is currently no blowback for failure and there is a very real fear among the community of RBKC sensing they are out of the woods and returning to business-as-usual with all that entails.

Conservatives

The Conservative Councillors proved to be extremely brittle when they faced the criticisms of the North Kensington contingent. They reverted to type, a bullying, conceited attitude and a determination to force through their decision. Administration committee vice-chair Cllr Lindsay, deputising for Campbell, did not conceal his contempt for the objections raised or the people raising them.

Change?

North Kensington residents have had to learn to cope with a situation none of them are happy with. Are those residents who engage with RBKC just re-traumatising themselves for no gain? Or are their efforts laying the foundations of a new North Kensington?

The ongoing failures of RBKC and the spontaneous residents’ walkout this week generated the hope that the administration committee meeting really was the beginning of the end for RBKC in North Kensington. But politics can be illusory – it felt like the most significant event on Monday night was RBKC losing control of its own meeting. But was it?

The vote passed with ease and Grenfell scrutiny has been reduced thanks to the eternal political imbalance in Kensington.

Power systems never give ground voluntarily, especially when they represent private capital, and so the most tainted council in Britain is hanging on. How long will it be before its grip on North Kensington is relinquished?

 

by Tom Charles @tomhcharles

with thanks to @ThisIsNorthKen

RBKC Scrutiny #2

The second in a series of posts about scrutiny of Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC)…

Watercolour of Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall by the architect Sir Basil Spence.
Copyright: the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Libraries (RBKC Libraries)

Since the June 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, North Kensington residents,  campaigners and writers have attended RBKC meetings to challenge the local authority, bear witness and watch for any signs of a return to business as usual. The latest meeting revealed a local authority losing its credibility, and possibly its grip on North Kensington.

Democracy   

The meetings, held at the Town Hall, retraumatise rather than help people move on. The denial of democratic power and control to North Kensington residents with post-traumatic stress disorder is characteristic of a local authority whose indifference towards the population of the north of the borough led them to ignore repeated warnings of fire risk at Grenfell Tower.

In building a case for a new North Kensington, there is no need for those in attendance to look for nuance or to read between the lines of the Councillors’ words. There is little nuance and the words are just words, devoid of meaning.

This was why the gathered residents walked out of Monday night’s Administration Committee meeting at which the ruling party agreed to do away with the Grenfell Scrutiny Committee, against the wishes of 100% of the residents and opposition Councillors in attendance.

The tactic of divide and rule and the corrupting effect of money in North Kensington are losing their efficacy for RBKC. The loose collective of residents do not formally coordinate their approach to the council, but they function as if they do. Each gives the other space to speak without interruption; the content of their statements rarely overlaps and there is an unspoken awareness of a shared trauma and a shared enemy. The atomisation of the community hasn’t happened and this leaves RBKC in a predicament.

Taskforce

Even the government’s Independent Grenfell Recovery Taskforce, which had previously gone out of its way to be generous about RBKC’s recovery efforts, issued the following criticism in its latest report to government:  

“The quality of the council’s relationship with the local community in the north of the borough is inconsistent and too frequently weak. The council have rightly focussed their efforts on bereaved and survivors. However, the relationship with the wider community in North Kensington has not made sufficient progress. In some respects, it is going backwards.”

When this most supine of establishment bodies is dishing out opprobrium, RBKC really are failing at their own game.

Among the North Kensington residents there is broad agreement on what is needed, and it is not what is being offered up by Kim Taylor-Smith’s council. What future is there for a local authority that cannot hold the space at its own meeting as it descends into farce? A local authority where senior Councillors, faced with traumatised, wronged residents, do not try to conceal their disdain. And residents, so willing to work with the council to build a better North Kensington, have no respect left for the Councillors.

The word devolution was mentioned numerous times on Monday. Keep listening RBKC, the call is getting louder and might become a crescendo.

 

By Tom Charles @tomhcharles

RBKC Scrutiny #1 GU in Parliament

grenfell_projection_capture_0094

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…

Grenfell United

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.

grenfell_projection__wide

RBKC

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.”

UK Government

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

Change at RBKC? Case study 2

As reported previously, the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS) were commissioned to undertake an independent review of Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC) in July 2018 following the Grenfell Tower fire of June 2017, in which 72 people died. The CfPS made a number of recommendations which the council voluntarily agreed to adopt, including twelve recommended “principles of good governance.” We put RBKC’s adherence to their principles to the test with the first case study: the North Kensington community building, Canalside House. RBKC was found wanting, but will they fare any better as we look at Lancaster Youth Club?

 

CfPS

The main criticism of the CfPS independent review is that it provides very little in terms of effective tools to hold the Council to account…It seems the Council heard these critics and responded to say, “the council recognises that it (sic) essential to put these principles into practice.”.  However, the story of Canalside House (where community groups were told their building would be demolished and turned into luxury flats) demonstrated that RBKC are really struggling to stay true to their word on this.

The council has a plan of action.  Unfortunately, it seems to involve demolishing a lot of buildings purposed for community use.  Canalside House was not the only community space at threat of closure. Lancaster Youth Club, located by the crossroads of Ladbroke Grove and Lancaster Road, neighbouring two private schools (Chepstow House and Notting Hill Preparatory,) the historic North Ken library and the bohemian 19th century pub the KPH (now sold to property speculators,) was also threatened with demolition two years ago. Lancaster Youth Club is not far from Grenfell Tower in the north of the borough and a real asset for young people in an area where community space is at a premium. 

In 2017, the council proposed that the Youth Club be demolished (sound familiar?). According to RBKC: ‘the building whilst generally fit for purpose, is not energy efficient and is relatively costly to run for its size.’ The demolition of Lancaster Youth Club did not occur in 2017 as plans for regeneration were put on hold after the Grenfell Tower fire.  The space has lay empty ever since and Deputy Leader of RBKC, Kim Taylor-Smith rejected refurbishment work that would have made the building operational again. 

At the same time, the community has increased its provision to meet demand and community space is needed more than ever. EPIC, the Community Interest Company currently commissioned to run the centre, have had their contract extended until September 2019 when the Council will announce all newly commissioned youth services in the borough. Meanwhile, dust is left to accumulate at Lancaster Youth Club and workers do not know what will happen to the space or if their jobs are safe, but we are told to not be so cynical as the council has a plan. 

The Plan

The youth review, painstakingly carried out during 2018, claims that “young people were also involved in co-designing youth services” but it is expected that ultimately RBKC’s offer will be derisory due to the local authority’s commitment to austerity. Already it is clear that there will be very little space afforded to North Kensington’s young people, many of whom live in acute poverty in overcrowded accommodation[i].

thumbnail_20190131_111736
Gated Community – Lancaster Youth Club, currently unused, with an uncertain future

The Strategy for Redesign and Implementation of Youth Services states that the new youth offer ‘will consist of two main youth hub sites; one in the North of the Borough (Lancaster Road area), and one in the South (in Chelsea Riverside ward) and five youth club sites.’  Reading between the lines, it seems Lancaster Youth Club might be re-purposed as a youth ‘hub’ and is perhaps safe from demolition for now, but the real question is why young people, residents and community groups have not been kept in the loop? Why is the council not abiding by the principles it promised to adopt not just in theory but in practice?

A reminder of the principles: 

  1. “Connecting with Residents”
  1. “Focusing on What Matters”
  1. “Listening to Many Voices”
  1. “Acting with Integrity”
  1. “Involving Before Deciding”
  1. “Communicating What We Are Doing”
  1. “Inviting Residents to Take Part”
  1. “Being Clearly Accountable”
  1. “Responding Fairly to Everyone’s Needs”
  1. “Working as Team”
  1. “Managing Responsibly”
  1. “Having the support we need” (not relevant here as it only applies to internal RBKC issues)

 

Change?

In the case of Lancaster Youth, as with Canalside House, RBKC has willfully ignored its principles of good governance. CfPS offers no useful mechanism for ensuring change in the council’s approach.

The national government’s Independent Grenfell Recovery Taskforce, made up of four members, who report directly to Home Secretary Sajid Javid, similarly have no power to insist upon real change. They appear unaware of the 12 Principles, which do not feature in its latest report, which is little more than a whitewash, focusing on procedure rather than people. It fails to mention the Lancaster Youth Club or Canalside House, let alone discuss the needs of those who benefit from the services provided at each.

When the issue of the youth review was raised with a Taskforce member by the governors of The Curve, he responded by suggesting that North Kensington should be grateful that there is a youth service at all. The Curve is another community space that seems likely to be either abandoned by the council or expected to limp on with severe budget cuts in 2019.

This from a council that has spent in excess of £400 million on its own political survival since the fire. Now they are secure, will they deliver on any of the promised change? Or is North Kensington in a new phase of austerity and impoverishment?

Conclusion

Have the principles been put in to practice? Has change arrived? No.

 

By Anonymous*

 

*The author who submitted this article to Urban Dandy asked to remain anonymous to avoid any prejudicial attitudes being shown towards her community-based organisation by RBKC councillors or staff.

 

Some edits and additional information by Tom Charles @tomhcharles

 

[i] Overcrowding in the Golborne ward, which Lancaster Youth Club borders, is at 68% https://urbandandylondon.files.wordpress.com/2017/12/after-grenfell-inequality-report.pdf

Canalside: Curiouser and Curiouser

Rumours of Canalside House’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. By the building’s owner, Kensington and Chelsea council…

CSH
Canalside House on Ladbroke Grove in North Kensington

 

Latest News

At the December 3rd Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee meeting at Kensington Town Hall, RBKC planning officers stated that the “demolition” of Canalside House that Conservative councillors had been pushing for is not necessary. Continue reading

Change at RBKC? Case Study 1

In July an independent review of Kensington and Chelsea Council’s governance was concluded and the council adopted twelve recommended “principles of good governance” . To assess how the council has fared in applying their new democratic principles it is worth considering an ongoing example: Canalside House, the North Kensington community hub currently under threat of “demolition” by the local authority. Is there any evidence of a change of approach to the local community?

The Review

The Centre for Public Scrutiny, experts on effective decision-making, were commissioned to carry out the independent review, which was funded by the Local Government Association. RBKC welcomed the subsequent report and adopted “12 principles of good governance we should embed in the council.” The 12 Principles are bespoke, designed specifically for RBKC to act on its claims to want to “change” following the Grenfell Tower fire. 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