RBKC set to become “the best Council”?

“A challenge given to us by the bereaved and survivors from Grenfell Tower. Simply…to be the best Council.” – Councillor Elizabeth Campbell, leader of Kensington & Chelsea Council, Keynote Speech, May 2022

Kensington & Chelsea Council (RBKC) is consulting with North Kensington residents again. We ask what will be different this time around.

RBKC’s amoral bearings…. ‘What a good thing it is to dwell in unity’

RBKC’s current Grenfell Recovery Programme runs until March 2024. Their planning work for the post-2024 period has commenced with a “wide-reaching conversation” about the future with bereaved, survivors and the local community. In theory, the consultation will provide an outline of what “best council” will mean in practice.

Click link below to read in full

KDR – Planning for the next phase of the Council’s work on Grenfell

Problems

A problem with the current consultation process is that in other initiatives with similar wording and ostensibly aiming at the same outcome – change – RBKC has comprehensively failed to create any identifiable change.

“This Council – its policies, its leadership, its senior people and its culture – has changed.” This was the audacious claim of Cllr Campbell and Barry Quirk, RBKC’s then Chief Executive in March 2020.

Yet, it was not clear what specific things they were referring to. No evidence was offered. RBKC internalised their story and believed it to be self-evidently true.

After June 2017, RBKC enthusiastically adopted noble-sounding policies but didn’t implement them in the community. After the fire, the council’s leadership changed. The chief executive quit and the disgraced councillors Paget-Brown and Feilding-Mellen were made to resign by the Communities Secretary Sajid Javid. But the new leaders carry out approximately the same policies for the same political party and Conservative campaign literature in the borough goes out of its way to avoid mentioning Grenfell and North Kensington.

For an area in which many residents disproportionately suffer the impacts of poverty and inequality, the upshot has been no meaningful culture change at the local authority during the years when implementing change and offering real political concessions to North Kensington seemed possible. During those years, backing up their declarations of “change” with real action should have been a moral imperative to RBKC, impossible to resist despite their ideological discomfort with socialist policies. This failure was acknowledged by Callum Wilson, RBKC’s Director of Grenfell Partnerships, in an email to residents about the Beyond 2024 consultation: “I do recognise that many people in the community will ask why this work has not already been done, and we need to acknowledge this openly – but nonetheless I think it is important that is done now, however delayed it may feel.”

It is difficult to draw much confidence from this admission given the record. Five and a half years since Grenfell and RBKC have not offered a major vision, nor have they significantly improved their attention to detail in delivering services.

Expectations

There is a natural expectation that does not fade over time that the scale of change should be commensurate with the scale of the crime and the losses suffered. There should at least be a sincere attempt at commensurate change.

If power continues to be distributed unevenly in Kensington, profound change does not look possible. Consultations have taken hundreds of volunteer hours from the local population but have not addressed worsening social and economic injustices. Increased democracy would do more to arrest the prevailing impotence and apathy than another 50 years of consultations, conversations, and co-designs.

RBKC and the media have talked about the local authority ‘regaining trust’ as a prerequisite to North Kensington’s recovery. They need to drop the ‘re’ and focus on establishing trust for the first time since the borough’s creation in the 60s.

“Devastatingly Frank”

In a conversation with Urban Dandy, Callum Wilson acknowledged that there is a long way to go regarding trust: “We know we are dealing with a degree of apathy heightened by Grenfell, with some people not taking part because they believe change is not going to happen. But we have to keep trying and we have to evidence change.”

On ways for the public to participate without having to sign up to the RBKC format, Wilson said: “Spin-off consultations, run by residents with or without council representatives, are possible. They are more organic. There’s an end-of-year deadline for all consultations. We’re happy to receive input, we’re happy for people to make demands.

“I just want as many people to share their views as possible so we can try and build a Council that works better for all our residents.”

RBKC says that over 600 people have spoken to them so far about what they want to see from their council in the next five years. Some have been “devastatingly frank” Wilson told us.

We will pick up our dialogue with RBKC’s Director of Grenfell Partnerships in the new year when the latest consultation has concluded, and the council can explain how they will “simply…be the best Council.”

 

By Tom Charles @tomhcharles

Exclusive Interview: Emma Dent Coad on Labour’s Grassroots Purge

Emma Dent Coad, the only Labour politician to win Kensington in its true blue history, spoke to Urban Dandy about the Labour party’s decision to bar her from standing at the next general election.

Context

Architectural historian, author, activist, and local resident Emma Dent Coad was elected to Kensington and Chelsea council in 2006. She campaigned on the full range of issues impacting residents in the most inequitable local authority in Britain including housing rights, poverty, and air quality. Dent Coad’s background in housing made her an ideal choice to be Labour’s 2017 parliamentary candidate in a constituency home to oligarchs and royals yet has seen a dramatic life expectancy decline in the borough’s poorest wards once austerity economics was imposed in 2010.

The councillor’s 2014 report, updated after the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, The Most Unequal Borough in Britain, used incontestable data to lay bare the shocking inequity of the borough where at one end 51% of children live in poverty vs at the other only 6% suffer this indignity. Dent Coad’s 2022 book, One Kensington, cemented her reputation as an expert on the impact of neoliberal economics in the borough.

PosterBaraka
Emma Dent Coad at a poster design competition for children affected by Grenfell, 2017.

2017

On Friday, June 11th the final seat in the 2017 general election was declared and Dent Coad was elected MP for Kensington: a first-time Labour gain. Winning by 20 votes, Dent Coad joined the activist Labour MPs’ Socialist Campaign Group in parliament. The role of socialists diminished under New Labour, but backbenchers like Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, and Diane Abbott kept community-based democratic, internationalist socialist politics alive in parliament. Labour’s left-right, democrat-technocrat schism had widened under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, yet New Labour was confident enough in its political project to co-exist with anti-war backbenchers and their frequent rebellions.

Three days after the Kensington constituency victory, the fire at Grenfell Tower brought the local issues that Emma Dent Coad had campaigned on to national prominence, crystalizing her parliamentary priority: justice for Grenfell.

Party leader Corbyn and other Campaign Group members were supportive of North Kensington; but Labour’s bureaucracy was dominated by factional enemies, intent on sabotaging the leadership, and as came to be revealed, actively worked to deny Labour an election victory. The harassment of Diane Abbott, the diversion of funds from left-wing candidates in marginal seats to right-wingers in safe seats and smear campaigns were among the methods deployed by this group, which included Iain McNicol, Labour’s then General Secretary. In 2017, Labour finished just 2227 votes short of being able to form a government.

Internal Labour documents leaked in 2020 showed senior party bureaucrats favouring cronyism over Corbynism. They preferred Tory rule with all the misery that brings to their own party’s kinder, more equitable, leadership. As the leaks became public (albeit not reported in the mainstream news) Dent Coad revealed her campaign had received little support from Labour HQ even when it became clear that an historic win in Kensington was on the cards.

Dent Coad explained: “When the atrocity of the Grenfell Tower fire ripped through my neighbourhood, I was finally sent help from McNicol’s office. However, it quickly became clear that this was not the help requested; I needed assistance with my casework team, who were struggling to help those impacted by the fire, but instead the general secretary sent someone to police me.

“I had been going out every day, mostly on my own or with a couple of colleagues. There was no feeling at that time that I was in any kind of physical danger. However, on day three while I was addressing a crowd of local people, including a group of very distressed young men, my ‘helper’ attempted to drag me away, saying “Ian McNicol says you must get out of here”.

“Out of here? I lived there – and still do. These were my neighbours.”

Despite McNicol’s and other fifth columnists’ efforts, Dent Coad represented the shocked people of Kensington with grace and constant solidarity, pushing for justice against a series of hostile Home Secretaries and Communities Secretaries.  

2019

By 2019, Brexit dominated British politics, with battle lines drawn between those supportive of the democratic will of the people and those manoeuvring for another referendum. Chief among the latter category was Sir Keir Starmer QC who, with the patronage of Shadow Chancellor McDonnell, became Shadow Brexit Secretary.

Starmer. Image from Wikipedia Commons

Starmer, having committed political sabotage by reversing the leadership’s Brexit policy live on-stage at party conference, was reliant on McDonnell to survive on the front bench. McDonnell maintained that Starmer’s establishment profile was an asset, offsetting the activist image of other prominent Labour figures. McDonnell’s misjudgement, at a time when most Labour MPs were obsessed with stopping Brexit, stopping Corbyn, or both, forced Labour into an absurd position. For the 2019 election, Corbyn had to present a plan of negotiating a deal with the European Union, which would then be one of the options in another referendum, with prime minister Corbyn staying “neutral” on the EU exit agreement that he himself had made. In contrast, Boris Johnson could repeatedly declare that all 635 Tory candidates supported his “Get Brexit Done” strategy after he ejected 21 of his MPs from the party for backing Starmer’s opposition to the Conservatives’ exit deal.

Starmer’s Brexit sabotage created an unsustainable paradigm for Labour MPs in marginal seats. At a time when Labour could have been laser-focused on Corbyn’s campaign to transform the economy through popular policies, MPs were instead burdened with confused Brexit messaging.

The result was a landslide for the Conservatives, followed by Starmer’s emphatic win in the Labour leadership contest. Unlike the Tories, however, Starmer immediately abandoned his key election pledges.

In Kensington, reflecting the position of her constituents, MP Dent Coad campaigned as a Remainer. As well as the historically strong Tory vote, the incumbent had to contend with the Liberal Democrats’ repeatedly declaring that only they could stop the Conservatives and Brexit in Kensington and, despite polling clearly demonstrating they were a non-contender, the national media consistently parrotted these declarations. Thus, the Lib Dems cultivated a local following amongst anti-Brexit hardliners as The Guardian amplified their loose talk, advising Kensington residents to vote Liberal to stop Brexit. This combination, above all else, handed the Kensington seat to Tory Felicity Buchan.

Dent Coad has remained a local councillor and was elected leader of the Labour group at RBKC; Buchan voted against implementing the recommendations of the Grenfell Inquiry in the Fire Safety Bill.

Labour’s Purge

Labour’s right, having fatally undermined the party from within in 2017 and ‘19, continued to attack its own. The Labour party has purged many grassroots members, detailed by al Jazeera reporting of a 500 GB leak of internal party documents. This data and its story were not reported by mainstream British media.

Al Jazeera’s documentaries reconfirmed that the “antisemitism crisis” in the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn was a fictional construct. Used to undermine lifelong anti-racist campaigner Corbyn, false claims of antisemitism were used to target MPs, councillors, officials, members, campaigners, and journalists. Using calculated and insincere tactics mimicking those of the McCarthyite era, Labour bureaucrats under McNicol deliberately slowed the investigation process of those accused. Showing a disregard for Jewish suffering, they enabled the notion that British Jews were under threat from Corbyn to become received wisdom. The accusation of antisemitism is so historically important that it should never be leveraged carelessly. When Jennie Formby, a Corbyn ally, replaced McNicol, the investigations process gained efficiencies and a seriousness in its fact-finding mission that led to the data-supported conclusion that less than 0.3% of Labour’s members had faced investigation, let alone been found guilty.  

The media chose not to publish this underwhelming conclusion to the story. Having gorged themselves on exposés trashing the party’s grassroots, mainstream journalists remained silent on the results, facts, and findings. With media complicity, Keir Starmer was emboldened to attack the Labour left more directly and began a purge of socialists and activists from the party’s ranks.

Human Story

Jeremy Corbyn’s and Emma Dent Coad’s commitment to those affected by Grenfell is an example of how to value everyone in society regardless of wealth, race, and creed. True leadership guides, supports and lifts success. An empathetic leader is dedicated to community and defends the contributions of those who may otherwise be swept aside or belittled by the wealth motivations of maintaining and increasing personal gain. Starmer’s defenders argue that his actions will get Labour into government. But leveraging an accusation as serious as antisemitism callously and insincerely to target and abuse grassroots members for personal gain is a shameful and abusive act, not an electoral strategy. The purposeful fear this has stoked is successfully silencing dissent and driving Labour further to the right, hence Corbyn losing the party whip in 2020 for mild pushback against his accusers. 

This treatment of grassroots Labour members is wholly relatable to many people. Similar to the very real anxiety of the growing cost of living, food poverty, the heating crisis, the dismantling of public services and growing job insecurity, party activists not following the party line are silenced and isolated for fear that they may suffer the same public shaming and professional losses of Corbyn and Dent Coad, punished for championing the many over the few. The messaging is clear: anti-war anti-racists will be falsely accused, blamed, and shamed in the virtual town square. A powerful tool to silence discussion and dissent.  

EDC Blocked

Urban Dandy strongly condemns antisemitism in all its forms. One manifestation of antisemitism scarcely mentioned is that of Labour politicians and officials manipulating and weaponizing it to stoke fear in Jewish communities and remove those that literally care for the poorer, marginalised elements of our society and want better healthcare, education, transit, and welfare for their fellow citizens.

This is the establishment utilising an evil that nobody could ever defend for personal gain, to protect the wealth of a few and ensure services are not given to the many. It is both calculated and gross. No one defends or associates themselves with an antisemite! To wield this accusation so broadly, even vaguely is absolutely unconscionable. Yet there is no recognition that it must only be used precisely, so important is it to defend those who could suffer under such oppression.

As you will read below, the antisemitism fiction was utilised by senior party bureaucrats to eliminate Emma Dent Coad from Labour’s candidate list here in Kensington, joining accusations as infantile as having ‘smiled or laughed’ at a comment made about Starmer to manufacture a context for their purge.

Interview

We sat down with Emma Dent Coad on the day that her successor as MP for Kensington, Felicity Buchan was announced as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Dent Coad describes this appointment as “the ultimate kick in the face for Grenfell bereaved and survivors. She’s voted with everything the Tories have done. She’s never even spoken on housing.”

Urban Dandy: How are things at Kensington CLP (Constituency Labour Party) after what happened to you?

Emma Dent Coad: “People are supporting different candidates, in good faith according to their personal priorities. But what we need is somebody to truly represent Kensington. Grenfell was a symptom of what’s been going on here for 50 years, but in Kensington and Chelsea deprivation and inequality is unforgivable because the Council has the funds to tackle it. In my book ‘One Kensington’ I show that during the austerity years when many councils lost a lot of funding, we lost very little government funding because Business Rates Retention, which was designed to soften the impact of cuts, brought in so much money.

“In terms of the local party, we should be a healthy, broad church. We should work together campaigning to get the elected candidate elected. We did even when Blair was leader and the Iraq War was affecting so many residents. It was tough campaigning, but we did it. Our then MP Karen Buck voted against the war; she wasn’t blocked from re-standing.

“I’d like to know more about the remaining candidates. What they’ve done to support communities. I’d like to see their full CVs. Some of the candidates don’t have much of a footprint from their previous work.”

UD: What happened when you were barred from being a candidate? What’s the process?

EDC: “I was asked to attend a “due diligence interview” and emailed a list of alleged ‘crimes’ a few days before the interview. At the interview, there are three members of the panel and one observer. The chair of the panel makes the decision.”

UD: So, it’s a real interview? Or have they already made the decision by the time you get there?

EDC: “It felt like they’d already made the decision.”

UD: Officially, why were barred from standing? We saw a list of the reasons online, and they were ridiculous. But were there any where you thought ‘fair enough, I can just about see their point there’?

EDC: “No, there weren’t any that felt fair, and some were simply inaccurate or wrong, like things I couldn’t have done because they were during lockdown, and I was at home for months recovering from cancer. One of the things on their list was that I went on a Counterfire march during lockdown. The thing is, Counterfire don’t organise marches. It was a Stop the War Coalition march in 2019 and there was a photo of me. In the background was somebody holding a Socialist Appeal placard. My crime was standing near someone who was holding a placard from an organisation that was proscribed – two years after the march.”

UD: Is it all just things from social media? Do they just go through people’s social media accounts till they find something they decide they can use against them?

EDC: “It feels like that.”

UD: What else was on their list?

EDC: “A lot of it was Thought Crime, a lot of it was straw-clutching, things you wouldn’t give a second thought to. They created a long list of these things then concluded I have “poor judgment” so shouldn’t be a Labour candidate.”

UD: So, the length of the list is used to justify the decision even though it’s all fluff?

EDC: “Yes. Prince Harry came up, and when they read it the chair actually laughed at the joke I made about whether or not he was able to fly a helicopter. This was at a Republic meeting. So I’m allowed to be a republican and I’m allowed to be a pacifist but can’t crack silly jokes. One of the ‘crimes’ was that when I was an MP I spoke at a CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) rally in Parliament Square. Bruce Kent was speaking, so I listened to him, then I gave my speech, and then went back to work. During the rally, somebody played guitar and sang a song that the chair said was ‘offensive.’ I didn’t even hear it, but that was on the list.

“It’s guilt by association – joint enterprise if you like – and nothing I said in the interview would have made a difference.”

UD: So, it’s called a ‘due diligence interview’ but it isn’t really due diligence?

EDC: “Hardly.”

UD: Did antisemitism come up?

EDC: “Yes. I had ‘liked’ a comment years ago on Facebook that one elderly Jewish CLP member had made to another elderly Jewish CLP member, criticising Israel. It was a short factual comment, but this was deemed antisemitic; this was well before the IHRA definition was adopted by the way. When I was elected to parliament, I voluntarily arranged to meet the Board of Deputies; as far as I know, I’m the only MP to have done this. It was a positive and helpful meeting. I also did antisemitism training twice with the Jewish Labour Movement. Words matter and we need to be careful with how we describe others. So I generally kept quiet about the Middle East, which is hard when you have so many constituents with family there, and you can’t speak out for them without being accused of something so repellent.”

UD: Do they at least show appreciation for the work you’ve done over the years before they tell you you’re not allowed to stand? Is there a sense that they value your contribution?

EDC: “No, there was nothing.”

UD: Did they mention Grenfell?

EDC: “Grenfell wasn’t mentioned once. I think they want to make it go away.”

UD: So, they don’t have to justify their accusations?

EDC: “No. One of the things was that I criticised Labour’s lack of policies last year. But they weren’t coming out with any policies, I was just stating a fact.”

UD: The thing that stayed with me most from the al Jazeera documentaries was that the people who were being targeted by the party were really innocent people who had probably never thought about any kind of factional rivalries. They were just trying to do their best for their communities and they were subjected to harassment and abuse for no good reason.

EDC: “It’s really difficult. They say all these things about you and then you’re vulnerable. As I was coming here, I heard somebody behind me call my name and for a second I thought ‘oh no’ because it could be somebody abusive. But it was my neighbour saying ‘Don’t worry, Emma, we don’t believe this stuff,’ and he gave me a hug.”

UD: Who was on the panel?

EDC: “Three NEC members and one observer. One of the panel had already publicly declared their support for one of the other potential candidates in Kensington. We reported this conflict of interest but there was no response at all. The panel were clearly all on the right wing of the party; I didn’t stand a chance.”

UD: What is your take on the national Labour party now?

EDC: “It’s a shame they’re narrowing the sphere. The world is changing all the time and we need people with a variety of experience. There is little or no expertise in the built environment in parliament, and that is something I can offer. After 40 years in the party, I’ve always been in the Labour family, and it has been inclusive. Not now.

“More than anything it’s difficult to have been blocked rather than having the chance to present myself to local membership as a candidate.

“But we are where we are. I’m a team player, and I will continue to represent residents as I have done for the past 16 years.”

By Jennifer Cavanagh @Jannanni & Tom Charles @tomhcharles

Retrograde Borough of Kensington & Chelsea

RBKC’s coat of arms. The motto means ‘What a good thing it is to dwell in unity’ – picture from rbkc.gov.uk

An outsider assessing Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKC) from a distance can be forgiven for believing that the council has become a more progressive, liberal, and democratic institution since the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017. This illusion is sustained by the local authority’s exhaustive public relations policy and an absence of political or media scrutiny. In this induced amnesia, RBKC keeps a firm grip on North Kensington. But the council’s approach to the north is arguably more regressive and undemocratic than at any time in its history. A study conducted in the early years of the borough sheds light on the dynamics at play.

Sixties London

In 1963, the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea was formed by a merger of the separate K and C boroughs through the London Government Act. In 1967, Professor John Dearlove of the University of Sussex began researching the relationship between RBKC’s decision-makers and those seeking to influence policy, referred to as interest groups. For years, Professor Dearlove attended council meetings and learned about community issues, publishing his findings first in an academic journal[i] and later in a book[ii].

In the 1968 local elections, London turned blue, the Conservatives winning control of 28 councils to Labour’s three. The 2022 results reflect a changed city with just six councils controlled by the Tories and 21 by Labour. But RBKC stands apart from the wider city, remaining a Conservative safe seat throughout, and the only remaining Tory council in inner London. But it has been a divided borough, with North Kensington council wards tending to vote Labour, and two now-abolished parliamentary constituencies, Kensington North, and Regent’s Park & Kensington North, returning only Labour MPs to the Commons between 1945 and 2010.

The stark contrasts of the borough were present from its inception. The London Housing Survey in 1968 stated: “one of the most distinctive features about the Royal Borough […] the sharp contrast between North Kensington and the rest of the Borough”[iii]

Professor Dearlove noted the north’s higher number of manual labourers, its overcrowded homes, lack of open spaces, and higher proportion of children. Relating these disparities to his research, Dearlove saw the social, economic, cultural, and political divide between the north and the rest of the borough reflected in the contrasting interest groups interacting with council decision-makers, with northern residents inclined to seek innovation, change, and sometimes the reversal of the council’s policies. Continue reading

Why Write

Now & again, we are invited to deliver writing workshops for young people. Here’s what I like to tell them…

I tell them that the aim of the workshop is for them to write skilfully, to express their ideas creatively and with confidence. We encourage them to take ownership of their English language; it belongs to them, not their teachers, schools, or exam board.

Why does writing matter?

Because people think with words, vocabulary is very important; it allows us to understand ourselves, each other, and our world. And all jobs require communication, from applications to emails, to writing reports, and blogging – a way with words boosts your chances of success in any career.

We always emphasise that we are not there to judge them. We aren’t following the national curriculum. We are genuinely curious about what they have to offer. Usually, blank faces look back but some grasp this concept of creativity for self-expression and liberation. Writing is largely a self-taught discipline; anybody can develop a style that works for them, with enough practice.

Impact

Words can be used for various reasons – to hurt, inspire, inform, lighten, uplift, and connect. People without words are frustrated and angry, they feel impotent. Continue reading

RBKC’s North Ken News: Real Eyes Realise Real Lies

North Ken News is a Kensington & Chelsea Council magazine, delivered to thousands of residents in the borough’s less affluent wards. Ill-conceived and half-heartedly produced, it typifies a local authority lacking the ambition to truly change following the Grenfell Tower fire.

Background

In January 2019 Kensington & Chelsea Council (RBKC), after holding ‘Creating Stronger Communities Conversations,’ produced its Grenfell Recovery Strategy, saying the document “demonstrated a strong desire” on the part of local residents “to shape recovery directly, building on the existing strengths and talents of communities.”

The aspirations RBKC identified in its consultations with locals included:

  • RBKC enabling “stronger community leadership”
  • RBKC tapping into “existing skills and networks” and
  • “The need to improve Council communications to all North Kensington residents”

North Ken News, along with other mass distribution puff pieces, are RBKC’s responses to the frustrations raised about the council’s communications. These publications amount to little more than public relations for a disgraced local authority. A true provider of grassroots news and analysis, the blog THis Is North Kensington summarised North Ken News as “PR self-analysis of the supposed Grenfell Strategy.”  

Context Continue reading

RBKC has bins

Norland Ward in Kensington & Chelsea is 0.2 miles from Grenfell Tower. In a rational political culture, local politicians seeking election in that ward on Thursday would express support for the victims of the Grenfell fire and solemnly vow to address the worsening economic and social inequality that characterises North Kensington. But in the Royal Borough, pushing policies of injustice and inequality can guarantee you a safe seat, as the Tory candidates make clear in their campaign literature.

We previously looked at Kensington & Chelsea News, the local Conservative Party’s main election propaganda, which sets out their key policies: bin collections, borough-wide parking permits, clean air, low council tax, saving the local police station and money for parks. While some of these pledges are contradictory and some are probably fibs, they are accompanied by the biggest profanity of all; council leader Elizabeth Campbell claiming that “continued support and meaningful recovery for the communities most affected by the Grenfell tragedy will be at the heart of everything we do.”

North Ken Censored

The election propaganda for Norland Ward is more of the same, talking up the threat of a Labour-run council, promoting absurd policies, and ignoring residents in the north of the borough. Even though Norland’s boundary reaches into North Kensington, there is no mention of Grenfell or the poverty that plagues the area.

The Conservative candidates, Stuart Graham and David Lindsay, have ultra-safe seats and plenty of political space to express any conscience or vision they possess. They instead follow the council strategy of studiously ignoring North Kensington. They state they are “committed to standing up for the residents of Holland Park and Notting Hill,” omitting North Kensington completely.

The Norland campaign literature is aimed squarely at those who already live in comfort. In the irrational borough, this group is attended to slavishly: “We need a council that has a record of standing up for residents and delivering more while costing less.” Continue reading

Review: Kensington & Chelsea News

The latest propaganda from the Kensington and Chelsea Conservatives comes in the form of a glossy A3 publication with the tagline, Community News. The Spring 2022 edition of Kensington & Chelsea News has the look of a free local newspaper but is a campaigning leaflet for the Tories ahead of next month’s council election. Its mix of policy pledges and class-conscious signaling makes clear the council’s priorities five years on from the Grenfell Tower fire. We read and analysed it so you don’t have to.

Page One

‘K & C News’ bucks the trend in these dark times by starting with a feel-good story titled “Café Society is here to stay.” The article features reassurances that locals can still object to pavement licenses being granted if noise is an issue. Even more reassuringly, K & C News informs us that Café Society will operate “from Sloane Square to Westbourne Grove,” skidding to a halt just before it gets to North Kensington. This geographical description could be a mere rhetorical flourish to name two upscale streets popular with the rich Tory voter base. Or it could be more sinister; the first signal to K & C News’s readership that the north of the borough is of little concern to the council.

The next headline is also good news but comes as a bit of a shock: “South Kensington saved by local campaign.” In my ignorance, I hadn’t known that South Kensington, the richest area in the country, faced an existential threat. The detail is that London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, wanted there to be a big glass building there, but heroic local (Conservative) councillors thwarted his plan. South Kensington was rescued from the jaws of Khan back in November, but this newspaper is campaign propaganda to remind core Tory voters and donors that the council remains devoted to them. For those who follow the politics of RBKC, particularly its public relations approach to the five years since the Grenfell Tower fire, it is interesting to be able to read a document that sets out their true priorities, however dressed up in deceit they might be…   Continue reading

RBKC: Flattening The Curve

“We’re going to review the review” – Kensington & Chelsea Council, 15th February 2022.

Those were the words uttered by a council officer two minutes into last night’s public meeting on the imminent closure of North Kensington’s main recovery centre for victims of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, The Curve Community Centre.

‘Reviewing the review’ was not what the assembled residents wanted to hear with the loss of a community asset only weeks away and no plan in place to rehouse The Curve’s services, delivered by around 20 local community groups.

A hundred meetings along the same lines have taken place since 14th June 2017: Council officers with no decision-making power try to play for both sides and fail; they nod in agreement at residents’ complaints; they say ‘we’ll take this back to the leadership team’ and they get out, another box ticked.

Some residents reassure them, ‘we know it’s not your fault…you’re just doing your job…we know you don’t have any real power…’

But if they don’t have real power, where does that place us in the hierarchy? Five years on from an atrocity that shocked the nation, North Kensington is stuck in trauma and the only thing that has enjoyed any “recovery” is the council’s power over us.

Loads of Buildings?

There are “loads of buildings available” in North Kensington to replace The Curve said the other council officer, without adding that there is little to no chance that a council renowned for its asset sweating will offer up a new community space. It was only political pragmatism on the council’s part that saved North Kensington Library from being turned into a private school and our college from being replaced by ‘luxury’ flats.

Under Kim Taylor-Smith, its property developer deputy leader responsible for Grenfell recovery, RBKC wanted to sell Canalside House, another community asset, months after the fire.

In terms of numbers of buildings, essential for local organisations to gain a foothold in both fundraising and recovery, the loss of The Curve next month will put North Kensington back to where it was in 2017. Bay20 was built on community (not council) land by the BBC, but Grenfell Tower was lost, with its playground, green space, boxing gym and nursery. In terms of increasing North Kensington’s community spaces, the council is in deficit.

But none of this was mentioned by the two council officers, typical of another feature of RBKC’s community meetings: the recent past goes down the memory hole, the focus is always ‘moving on’ with opportunities to ‘help decide,’ ‘influence,’ ‘co-design,’ ‘oversee’ and so on.

Steering Committee

Last night’s meeting was intended to be the start of setting up a steering group to then establish a Community Trust to “oversee” the £1.3 million that remains in the budget allocated to The Curve.

The Curve, rented from its private owner by RBKC in the aftermath of the fire, will close in March, with the council then having four months to return it to its original state before the lease expires.

Most questions put to the council officers went unanswered, including:

  • What will happen to the residents who currently use The Curve every day?
  • Will the council provide budget for a building that can then be run by the community as an independent base for recovery and income generation?
  • Can the survivors who attend The Curve every year on the anniversary come this year, the fifth anniversary?

One question that was answered was ‘Why wasn’t this all done last year if you knew it was closing in March?’ The answer: ‘Covid’.

All of these anxieties would have been avoided if RBKC had acted on a proposal from The Curve’s board of governors in 2019 setting out a vision for the centre’s future, which combined a community hub (akin to The Tabernacle), a world-class trauma recovery centre and training in industries of the future for young local residents, all at The Curve, which would have been secured on a 50-year lease on favourable terms. To say this detailed proposal by the supposed governors was rejected would be misleading; it simply wasn’t regarded as a real thing by the council, the words didn’t register.

It would have been popular and empowering; hence it could never see the light of day.

Image from Frost Meadowcroft’s brochure

Last Night’s Meeting

Eloquent exasperation and untreated trauma poured out of the attendees, every single intervention a valid, well thought out point. The council officers were forced to go rope-a-dope for the duration. As ever, they had not been sent to the northern outpost of the royal borough for a serious meeting between equals. The officers represented a council with a monopoly on power and has spent tens of millions in such a way as to guarantee no diluting of that mix. This level of chaos on RBKC’s part cannot be accidental.

The archaic council system does not work, with officers taking notes back to the Town Hall to legitimise decisions already made by politicians with no democratic mandate in North Kensington. It is a system that meets a common-sense suggestion like opening The Curve up for survivors on the Grenfell anniversary with a ‘computer says no’ response.

We continually look for creative ways to carve out some independence that would enable real recovery. The council has been assiduous and successful in blocking all our attempts so far.

The agenda of the meeting was ignored, except one item, ‘End of meeting’.

Behind a partition, a group of primary school aged children sat doing their homework as the meeting played out. They looked anxious, absorbing the trauma of their families and neighbours, a perfect snapshot of five years of RBKC’s approach to Grenfell recovery.

If this was the children’s lesson in how the world works, it could not have been any clearer. Ordinary people are abused and disempowered. Another, smaller group tries to soothe the people and “manage expectations” on behalf of a third group. This third group remains unseen by the children. But the children will surely know the third group as their enemy…the ones who shut the doors to their community centre and who blocked every attempt at real recovery for North Kensington.      

REST IN PEACE FRANCIS O’CONNOR – a true artist who exposed the con artists. Read a fitting tribute to Francis here.

By Tom Charles @tomhcharles

After the Flood, the Nightmare…

I have moved home seven times since Monday the 12th of July 2021 when Ladbroke Grove was hit by what the media called a “Biblical flood.”

As I evacuated myself that day, I had no concept of the bureaucratic Kafkaesque indifference and incompetence that has replaced the duty of care and professional standards of my landlord, London & Quadrant.

As my North Kensington exile began, I had no idea it would be an ordeal that would push me to TOTAL exhaustion. I also had no idea that my landlord housing association would be so ambivalent about what happened to me.

July 12th: The Flood

I had been working overnight and got back to my home, a basement flat on Ladbroke Grove at 8am that day. To try to regulate myself back to normal hours, I carried on with my day rather than going straight to bed. By 4pm I was hungry but chose not to go out for food because of the heavy rain that had started outside. Instead, a nap on my sofa.

I slept for an hour and a half and when I woke, I was out of it, that jet lagged feeling of being in-between conscious and unconscious. There was silence, aside from the comforting sound of rain outside.

As my eyes began to focus, I thought “Wow, this is beautiful, the floor is reflecting the water falling on the window…”

I watched the watery floor for a while, not even realising yet that my curtains were closed, so no refection was possible.

I stepped down from the sofa – splash – and jumped back up at the immediate discomfort of my toes touching the cold water – “aaaargh” – the shock – “what the fuck? It wasn’t a dream!!!!! Aaaaaaargh… This is real water” I shouted. And that’s when, sitting on my sofa barefoot, the beautiful dream and floating sensation turned into a nightmare.

“Where is this water coming from?” I asked myself, confused.

Barefoot and scared of being electrocuted, my phone not nearby, for ten minutes I was paralysed. The only way out was to put my feet in the water. After what seemed an age of interminable considerations and careful scanning of my surroundings, I stepped into the water and headed for a cupboard where I knew I had some wellies.

The rain coming in under the front and back doors, I wandered around trying to save things, removing appliances from danger, my possessions floating around me. My panicked inventory took me to my bedroom. I stopped in the doorway and my wooden table floated past me, for a split second, watching this scene, I was back in my surreal dream.

The only dry place in the flat was the bathtub, which I started using as a storage unit.

My face was soon wet with tears, my moment of despair stopped short when I saw my neighbour coming down the stairs at the front. “You too?” he asked, ”don’t cry, we’re ok, it’s only material things, we can replace all this. We’re OK, it’s the main thing.”

We went to check our other neighbours and realised the flooding was widespread. 999 and the fire brigade couldn’t come – “too busy” – the first of many occasions when help wasn’t forthcoming.

London & Quadrant

This is the name of the housing association, L & Q, who bought their stock from Notting Hill Housing Trust back in the day. I had lived in the flat since 2009. I called the L & Q emergency number but got what I learned would be the usual response when somebody needs something: tried to get me off the phone…but she also heard the sirens in the background, and said “don’t worry you’ll be booked into a hotel. Somebody will call you back with the booking information.”

My powerlessness had begun.

“Somebody will be with you in the next four hours.”

“When?”

“Within four to five hours but We don’t know. It might be longer…”

Portobello

I filmed my flooded flat and sent it to a friend, a stall holder from Portobello market, where I had been working over the weekend. Why him? Because he was always bragging about Polish people being construction experts. He offered to come over. “Great, thank you so much” and I’m not sure why, still in a state of confusion all I asked him was “bring apple juice and bin bags.”

He was proactive, getting the water out, but I was half working, half paralysed with indecision/confusion. The rain stopped. He got all the water out, from six inches to almost none.

When the electrician arrived, he took photos and told me “we’ll pass it on, somebody will come tomorrow.”

At 9:30pm details arrived about my new home: Marylebone Travel Lodge, for three nights.

At midnight I was still in my flat salvaging. I stayed, frozen with the trauma, watching the sky for more rain, till 4am when I packed my plastic bags and headed to Marylebone.

July 16th

L & Q call me: the Tenancy Management Officer wants to talk about my request to move to a new flat. This is not a request I made because the flood, but three years earlier. I was granted a transfer then and after ignoring me all that time, they were suddenly in touch asking me to fill out the same forms I had already filled and sent back 18 months ago. They decided now was the time to get into the administrative process of moving…at the exact moment when I needed them to help me in the emergency. But as annoyed as I was, and not knowing whether to laugh or to cry, I thought “great! yes, let’s do this now, please do the transfer now, since I’m technically homeless. Let’s get things moving.”

From that phone call, my life has been at the mercy of L & Q, its maintenance team, its rehousing team, its other team whose names I can’t remember. L & Q…

Uncertain Days

Marylebone Travel Lodge was extended for a few days, and Eddie from the Maintenance Team, wanting to do good in this world, was helping me. He was determined to help me, a decent human being watching another in a difficult situation. Eddie had the technical skills and knowledge to quickly and efficiently resolve the issue in a practical manner, but he was still unaware at this point of the administrative chaos and infinite meetings he’d have to go through to actually start the work.

On Ladbroke Grove, Eddie took photos. In Marylebone, I made friends with the hotel receptionist, useful because it was she, not L & Q, who told me whether I’d have a roof over my head, day by day, and if my booking was being extended.

I was back at work too, partially on location and partially “from home”, the latter being made almost impossible with the internet at the Travel Lodge (£3 a day for an insecure and unstable public/not confidential network); L & Q’s 45-60 minutes on hold phone line wasn’t helping my career.

Late July

Ten days on, no internet, no fridge, no food vouchers, nada, no L & Q direct phone or email.

Only one thing for it…I went crazy at them. The result: they gave me my birthday present: an email address for my rehousing officer so I could make my first complaint against L & Q.

Reply from L & Q: Complaint received, and they’ll be in touch. Another email from L & Q: ‘Customer’ satisfaction survey.

Conversations with L & Q follow a pattern. Them: “I’ve asked my accommodation booker to find you more suitable accommodation, a one-bedroom flat.”

Me: “Why don’t you just transfer me to a new flat and save money on hotels?”

Them: “I can only offer you a new flat if the maintenance team say the repair work will take more than six months.”

At this point, it will apparently take two weeks for me to be home again. It’s always two weeks. I will soon get to understand the how long two weeks is.

Back and forth I go to Grove, letting people in to the flat to take photos.

On the 28th July, 3:30pm, I am offered a one-bed flat in Earl’s Court. One hour later, this has inexplicably changed to a studio flat.

On the 29th, with no idea if I had a bed that night, I email L & Q at 9:45am, telling them I have to vacate my hotel room by 12. They tell me the studio flat is booked for a week, and I’ll have a one bedder straight after. I presumed this would be for the duration of the repair work. How wrong I was.

5th August

Finally, a decent place to stay – stylish, has a kitchen, and INTERNET! I can work from home…

L & Q sent a decontamination team to the Grove. Working night shifts, on location, but I am there to let them in. I’m hopeful, optimistic, excited even…a decontamination team getting involved, maybe in two weeks, I’ll have a home again.

But of course, the decontamination team had the appointment time of ‘the afternoon’ and when they finally arrive (from Wales!) I opened the door expecting to see something like the Ghostbusters, a decontamination team coming to sanitise and disinfect sewage and water damage, known to be toxic, but am met by a man with a bucket and mop.

Surveying the wreck of a flat, he declares “I don’t know what to do.”

“I bet you don’t” I think, “I too have a mop and a bucket and already extensively used it in the property.”

L & Q haven’t told him about the damage. He leaves, back to Wales, without doing anything, except taking photos.

A week passes and I am moved from the studio flat to the one-bedroom flat originally promised but my booking remains insecure, only extended for a week at a time.

My key contact is still not anybody at L ‘We care about the happiness and wellbeing of our customers’ & Q, but is the receptionist at my new accommodation, who informs me that they are fully booked from 26th August, but that they (the hotel staff, not L & Q who are possibly busy analysing their many photos of my flat, seeing who captured the damage most artistically) are trying to rearrange things so I can stay.

On the 26th, I call L & Q. I give the rehousing officer there his colleague Eddie’s email address so they can coordinate their work. I’ve become a project manager. The flooring in the flat on Ladbroke Grove is removed to reveal polystyrene, which cannot be decontaminated, so the floor is to be replaced.

1st September

I call L & Q. 45 minutes on hold, and then I am told that only one person on the team can possibly help me, but they are on annual leave. I email and am told that my current accommodation cannot be extended beyond the 7th, but that I will then be given accommodation until the end of the repair works.

I reply: “Why do I have to move again? I am working…”

They reply: “The reason is: you can no longer stay there, they’re fully booked”

They offer me a studio. I remind them that I had predicted this would happen. But of course, the person I warned (a true representative of L & Q) probably has no interest in my situation, certainly not enough to raise the issue with a colleague who might later be called on to do something for the ‘happiness and wellbeing’ of a customer, or a tenant, as I like to think of myself…

But the tenant is the last thing that matters to L & Q, we are chess pieces (specifically, pawns) being moved at their convenience, not human beings who they have a responsibility towards.

I’m pissed off. I want to stay in Earl’s Court and am working with the real people on the reception to try to make it happen. As my departure approaches, I’m in denial. I can’t really face another move at somebody else’s lazy, indifferent discretion.

3rd September

I’m offered a place in London Bridge “for the remainder of your decant” but we all know what that means by this point. I refuse and they reply: “It’s only seven miles away” from Ladbroke Grove.

I’m then offered a place in St Christopher’s Place, West End. I take it, preferring it to the 14-mile round trip to let people take photos of my ruined flat.

6th September

A lot of phone calls later and I move again. I must be out by 12, but the new place won’t be ready till 4pm. L & Q start booking overlapping accommodation, so I officially have two flats for a day, paid for by…L & Q’s insurance? Their tenants? Customers…

9th September

My belongings on Ladbroke Grove are to be put into storage.

13th September

ACE Removals call me to say they will bring boxes to pack my stuff. They ask for a video of my flat so they can evaluate how many boxes to bring. I send one, but there’s no reply from “high quality” ACE. They don’t do any of the things they said they’d do.

20th September

ACE call me, angry and aggressive. As I hadn’t heard from them, and was working, I had presumed the removal job was off. I had emailed L & Q that ACE hadn’t confirmed.

“Award winning” TSG Gas also give me grief, twice standing me up when I travel to Grove, waiting in the contaminated flat to let them in to do a gas check.

21st September

I hear that I will have to move again in five days, to James Street, West End. There’s no news on the decontamination of my Ladbroke Grove flat.

Once my things are in storage, they’ll be stuck there till I move back home. How long will it be until I get my belongings back? I know their “two weeks” deadline could take me beyond winter. Shall I keep my winter jackets with me?

I email L & Q asking for a longer-term solution and complaining about the removal man’s abuse, criticising the gas company. Exhausted and close to burnout, but still confident in my ability to argue.

24th September

I am offered a ‘L & Q private apartment’ and my belongings being stored in another vacant L & Q flat. Again, I’m told I’ll be there for the duration.

30th September

James Street won’t be renewed, I’ll have to leave on 4th October.

1st October

I’m offered studio flats in Vauxhall and Covent Garden, but I have collected more of my things so need a bigger space and to be closer to Grove. The weekend arrives, it all goes quiet.

4th October

All, packed, dressed up and nowhere to go. Emails to L & Q: ‘I have to check out in two hours, where do I go?’

My anxiety rises, I call, 45 minutes on hold…

’For anything else, press zero’ – I press zero, I ask to speak to somebody about my situation. They transfer me. There are two rings and the line goes dead.

I call back and speak to six different people, they all tell me I’ve come through to the wrong department (reception.) The L & Q receptionists are irritated and start shouting at me. The call ends.

Call seven and I speak to a functioning human, Corinne, who is keen to get things sorted. 30 mins before checking out, I get a call from L & Q telling me: “You can stay in Covent Garden for a week while we sort things out.”

The L & Q culture of rudeness is getting too much. I want to cry. I get a cab to Covent Garden, knowing it’s only for a week max.

5th October

I’m offered a place in Hammersmith. Phew. And maintenance work at Ladbroke Grove is due to last four weeks as the radiators have detached from the wall.

8th October

My Hammersmith phase begins.

14th October

I request an update including how long it will be till I can go home. No reply.

26th October

I again request an update. No reply.

2nd November

I email again asking for an update, adding that I had popped to Ladbroke Grove and found that my front door had been left open by L & Q.

I add: “I have moved seven times, and I do not wish to move again, this is causing physical and mental strain.”

3rd November

I email: “My temporary accommodation will end soon – what is happening?”

12th November

I send an email compiling my various unanswered questions.

15th November

And I ask for an update, again.

This time, a reply from L & Q: ‘I’ll let you know on the 16th where you’ll be living on the 17th

With L & Q it’s always the eleventh hour, or it isn’t done, or you’re ignored.

16th November

Email from Eddie at L & Q: ‘I will meet with my colleagues and update you in due course.’ Due course!

My booking in Hammersmith is extended to “the beginning of December.” I am still there.

30th November

Email:

“Hi Miss H, Hi Eddie,

Tomorrow is the beginning of December and I was not specified a precise date for the end of my booking but could you kindly give me an update of the work in progress and extend the booking accordingly if necessary.

Many thanks.”

L&Q reply:

“Hi Miss W****,

The current hotel booking expires on 17th December 21, @Eddie are you able to provide an update on the works?

Thanks.”

14th December

Email to L & Q:

“Hi all (Cc: Miss H – Rehousing Team + Eddie maintenance),

Just a reminder that the booking expires in 3 days (please see email below) Please advise accordingly.

Many thanks.”

– L&Q reply:

“Hi Miss W*****,

I do not have any updates on the repair works however, I have extended your hotel stay for 28 nights to cover the Christmas period and New year. Your extended booking ends on 17th January 2022.

Thanks”

15th January

At 20:39, an email from Eddie. He’s happy to tell me the work has started and he’s expecting it to last for…guess…two weeks!!! Rejoice.

He has a feeling we may be close to completion…. I can’t help laughing, I’ve been told two weeks since July! Eddie is professional, efficient and compassionate, but even with these qualities, he can’t overcome a chaotic L & Q system.

I find out from the receptionist at the hotel my booking was extended for another four weeks.

18th January

I miss a call from M****, newly in charge of the open complaint I made years ago regarding harassment I suffered from my neighbour (antisocial behaviour, stalking, invasion of privacy in the form of opened mails, peeping through my bedroom window, rubbish thrown outside my bedroom window). The complaint had previously been closed without the complainant being informed.

20th January

M**** calls to ask me how I am doing; she means well and is really trying to help but has also been caught in the web of an overcomplicated system.

I’m confused because it seems so pointless, she knows it, I know it. She can’t offer me a transfer as that falls to a different department; she is aware I’m being decanted, temporarily solving the harassment issues but still must call me to keep the complaint open! Are you still following?

24th January

I’m drinking a glass of Prosecco at my temporary home in Hammersmith, after a long day of work, although I’m not sure what I’m celebrating because I’ll have to follow up with L&Q soon regarding the end of my temporary accommodation booking coming up soon, admin / complaints / transfer request from years ago, advancement of renovation / philosophical questions like “Do we really know how long two weeks is?” but let me unwind and pretend everything is normal, just for a minute…

Tenants are customers in London in 2022. Duty of care and professionalism are indifference and incompetence. Two weeks is now indefinite. Justice is nowhere to be seen. I raise my Prosecco to the other flood victims of 2021 – those who didn’t have the strength to speak up, those left rotting in contaminated properties and those waiting for their two weeks in a hotel to end –  I hope they haven’t suffered the double disaster of the flood and London & Quadrant…

By ‘Miss W’

@urbandandyldn