What Happened to Lancaster West?

“Following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, there was clear recognition of the need to make real improvements to the Lancaster West Estate and the need to have the residents lead the process. Both the Council and central Government have committed funding to support an ambitious and resident-led refurbishment of the Estate. The Council has promised to refurbish the Lancaster West Estate sensitively, collaboratively and to create a model for social housing in the 21st century. Residents are and will continue to be at the heart of shaping any future work throughout the delivery of the programme. There will be no demolition of people’s homes.”

Your housing future: helping you decide,’ published by RBKC, July 2018 (our emphasis)

The above quote from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) expresses a clear intention to transform Lancaster West Estate, site of the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017. Despite the fine words, the residents who are supposed to help lead the estate’s recovery say they are being treated as “an afterthought” by RBKC. There is little evidence of a transformation of the estate amid accusations that the local authority is backtracking on its commitments. We spoke to several residents who are involved in management and oversight of the estate to find out what has happened.

First, a little background…

Lancaster West

Lancaster West estate in west London, is home to 795 households, making it the largest estate in Kensington and Chelsea and one of the largest in the capital. It opened in the mid-1970s as part of Britain’s post-war slum clearance. The estate’s one high-rise block was Grenfell Tower, which still stands, covered, following the 2017 fire that took 72 lives prematurely and traumatised the whole North Kensington area.

In the shadow of the tower are the brutalist low-rise blocks, Hurstway Walk, Testerton Walk and Barandon Walk, designed as high-rise towers laid on their sides. These low rises are ‘streets in the sky’ based around communal green areas, designed by architects Clifford Wearden and Peter Deakins in 1963/64. A similar design, with connecting first floor walkways, was envisioned for nearby Camelford Walk, Clarendon Walk and Treadgold House, but the plans were abandoned and in-house architects at RBKC built these blocks in a less ambitious style, hence the diversity of styles which gives the estate its disjointed appearance.

Map of Grenfell Tower and the neighbouring walkways, part of the Lancaster West estate*.

Grenfell Tower is a 67.30-metre (220 ft 10 in) tall building and contained 120 one- and two-bedroom flats housing up to 600 people. In 2016 the tower was given an £9.2 million refurbishment, including new windows and cladding to improve the building’s appearance. The facelift made the tower more congruent with its immediate neighbours, the newly built Kensington Academy secondary school and the rebuilt and modernised Kensington Leisure Centre.

From 1996 to 2018, Lancaster West estate was overseen by Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO,) an arms-length management organisation (ALMO) that managed RBKC’s 9,000 social housing properties. The motivation for RBKC’s handing over of responsibility to KCTMO in 1996 was its fear of losing control of its social housing stock which had become subject to a compulsory tendering strategy introduced by the national government. To maintain its control of the housing stock, the council created the KCTMO, with a management team of 20 that initially included 13 residents. In the plan, KCTMO took control of the borough’s social housing properties, but for major works (costing over £400,000, such as the Grenfell Tower refurbishment) liability was shared equally with the council.

In 2002, to access the government’s Decent Homes funding, KCTMO dropped most of the residents from its management setup and became an ALMO, maintaining the misleading tenant management title. In 2009, an independent report by Local Governance Limited, identified “substandard” repairs and a need for major works across the borough’s social housing properties, recommending the Tory-run council take a greater role in monitoring KCTMO. In response, KCTMO chief executive Robert Black pledged to build trust between the TMO and tenants. To say he failed to meet that pledge would be an understatement.

In 2013, the Estate Management Board at Lancaster West was wound up. There were “terrifying” power surges at Grenfell Tower and plans for the new school and leisure centre were not received enthusiastically by many residents, the sense being that both KCTMO and the council were out of touch with, and even dismissive of, residents’ voices. It was widely understood that Lancaster West, like much of North Kensington’s community space, was in the sights of RBKC’s senior Councillors, whose personal wealth is often increased by their involvement in the property market. Even the council’s own chief executive, Barry Quirk, has described pre-fire RBKC as “a property developer masquerading as a local authority”.

Picture from lancwest.com/

In 2015, the Grenfell Tower refurbishment began, and the ongoing Grenfell Inquiry is revealing the corners that were cut to save money at the expense of safety. Those of us who have lived on the estate have lived with a landlord determined to oversee the managed decline of our homes. Those without that lived experience also have ample evidence, thanks to Grenfell Action Group, of the contemptuous attitude of both RBKC and KCTMO towards Lancaster West residents, their resistance to resident empowerment, collaboration and improvements to living conditions. While Grenfell Tower was receiving its refurbishments, the rest of Lancaster West saw no meaningful improvements whatsoever, and the deterioration of the estate continued.

Street art, Penzance Place, Notting Hill

Change

Following the June 2017 fire, RBKC unambiguously promised change. The council’s North Kensington recovery strategy, in both word and spirit, gave this as a vow to the residents of Lancaster West.

In a July 2018 document, ‘Your Housing Future’ RBKC stated: “The Council has promised to refurbish the Lancaster West Estate sensitively, collaboratively and to create a model for social housing in the 21st century” and “Residents are and will continue to be at the heart of shaping any future work throughout the delivery of the programme”.

In a document titled Our commitments to those affected by the Grenfell Tragedy, RBKC also made a commitment to achieve, by June 2020, complete refurbishment of Lancaster West so “the estate is somewhere residents are proud to live”.

RBKC’s new, more caring tone and rhetoric has been evident across all its public pronouncements since June 2017. There is no question that they have been consistent in that regard. But does the language reflect tangible improvements on the ground on Lancaster West?

We spoke with several residents heavily involved in the management of the estate to get their insights into what changes have been made, whether there has been genuine collaboration and whether Lancaster West’s trajectory is really heading towards a state-of-the-art model for 21st century social housing.

Residents Speak

The Lancaster West residents/officials we spoke to told us the following:

  • A 2018 ‘Ideas Day’ was a hopeful beginning for Lancaster West’s recovery. RBKC worked collaboratively with residents and architects to develop ideas. The architects were enthusiastic about the scope of the project, with their plans published in June 2018, but then “got pissed off because nothing happened for months.”
  • The £40,000 allocated per property is not enough to transform the estate into the promised “model for social housing in the 21st century.” Those we spoke to all agreed that the figure reflects a lack of sincerity on RBKC’s part regarding Lancaster West and that the council has now reverted to its “property developer” type.
  • The per-household figure, just under £40,000, allocated to Lancaster West, is actually the same or lower than the amount allocated per property by RBKC for its social housing stock across the borough.
  • Some of the residents we spoke to had been on a fact-finding trip to Portsmouth to see an estate that had undergone a significant and successful refurbishment. The Residents’ Association member who attended told us that the Portsmouth estate received investment of £100,000 per unit. RBKC, the richest local authority in Britain, which held reserves of a third of a billion pounds before the fire, was looking to achieve its stated aims with under half the per-unit budget of the Portsmouth estate.
  • The £9.2 million Grenfell Tower refurbishment meant that approximately £77,000 was spent per unit and the members of Lancaster West Residents Association (LWRA) we spoke to think this figure should be starting point for the wider Lancaster West refurbishment.
  • Central government gave £25m to Lancaster West but this has been treated by RBKC as an excuse to reduce their own commitment to the estate. More on this below.
  • RBKC has spurned opportunities to borrow at very low interest rates to enable it to boost the Lancaster West recovery.
  • RBKC is “prioritising the allocation of recovery funds to those who have the greatest ability to sue the council, namely Grenfell survivors and bereaved”.

Funding of Lancaster West

A pattern of money awarded, then money withheld from Lancaster West has emerged since the North Kensington Recovery Strategy was published. It is a pattern that undermines the council’s key promises: genuine collaboration, sensitivity and a model for social housing, according to all four people we spoke to.

There have been two phases of funding of the estate’s recovery. £30 million was initially received, with £15 million coming from central government and £15 million from the council. This rose later to £57.9 million. The additional money was added when it became clear that £30 million was not enough and consisted of £18 million from central government and just under that amount from RBKC. The council did not want to match central government’s offer.

That amount can be further bolstered by accessing the Mayor of London’s Energy Efficiency Fund and taking a low-interest loan. But we were told that when this was mooted by residents, they were told by RBKC: ‘You have nearly £60 million. If you receive more, we have to cut back the budget.’

A similar response came from RBKC to the prospect of a grant from the government’s Heat Networks Investment Project for Lancaster West to have environmentally friendly communal heating. The grant required the estate to have safe external insulation (in the form of cladding) applied to its exterior to make it more energy efficient. But concerns about cladding are not the motivation for RBKC’s reticence to follow through on supporting such moves. According to one person we spoke to, RBKC “keep clawing back funding when Lancaster West accesses funding elsewhere”.

We were told that RBKC’s Housing Revenue Account (HRA), the income the council gains from its housing stock, is not treated by the council as income to be re-invested in communities. The same resident told us: “They (RBKC) see social housing as a privilege. The estate makes a profit for the council from rent, service charges and council tax. The HRA income alone should be enough to pay for capital works on Lancaster West”.

Pattern

The pattern outlined by a number of the Lancaster West resident officials we interviewed is that the council capitalises on any funding secured by residents to cut its own outlay in contradiction of its stated commitment to the estate’s revival.

But Lancaster West is not an isolated example, carried out by one department, or one officer looking to tighten the purse strings. It reflects a pattern of governance by RBKC since the fire: The council’s documents and public pronouncements claim a newfound commitment to North Kensington; this satisfies those who have overseen the local authority, such as the government’s Grenfell Taskforce and the national media; the council then betrays residents by not following through on its commitments, or it pursues policies and strategies that not only do not meet their lofty exclamations of “change” but that actively and collectively neglect and punish residents in the north of the borough.

There are numerous examples of this pattern playing out, some covered previously by Urban Dandy including the council’s light touch approaches to applying its own Twelve Principles of Good Governance and its Charter for Public Participation. Seen in this context, the failure of RBKC to meet its stated goals on Lancaster West is no aberration but part of a deliberate shift back to pre-Grenfell austerity and the denigration of long-suffering residents.

Relations with RBKC

According to the residents we spoke to, the council refuses to collaborate with them in upgrading the estate. Regarding a recent council scrutiny meeting, the residents told us: “we had to write to ask to attend.” One of those we interviewed, a member of LWRA stated: “We have to go and see them, they don’t come to us, we’re an afterthought”.

They further criticised RBKC’s engagement strategy, saying “they use community organisations to tick boxes, they don’t check on delivery” and complained that LWRA, supposedly at the heart of the collaborative strategy is “never included in budget discussions” in which money for the council’s management is always approved. RBKC’s strategy of buying up houses in the aftermath of the fire was also described as “money wasted”.

The residents described a lack of transparency around money that is making Lancaster West’s and North Kensington’s recovery unnecessarily complicated. They cited the pot of money for community recovery including a 1.2 million annual budget for The Curve (the council’s main Grenfell recovery centre) but questioned who from the local community utilises The Curve, a venue that has proved toxic among many people locally and lacks empowered resident oversight.

We asked about the estate’s relations with national government. It seems that meetings held with successive Tory leaders have been perfunctory, forcing residents to rely on RBKC to make any progress. They said they lobbied RBKC, proposing that they collaborate on lobbying the government to secure more recovery money. We were told that “they (RBKC) would never consider doing that.”

Positives

By its original design, life on Lancaster West is a communal experience, so even private residents (as I was) need an effective system of communal repairs, decision making and management. The residents we spoke to said that the estate “needs a holistic approach” and cited investment in communal areas as key. In my time on the estate, communal areas were neglected and miserable. I knew of a Councillor living on the walkways who lobbied for some minimal improvements, pot plants, to be made in the communal area. RBKC refused.

Things have improved since then. We were told that:

  • The walkways have finally been refurbished, with empty / abandoned flats revived.
  • The positive changes have been implemented by a new organisation called W11 – Lancaster West Neighbourhood Team, which replaced KCTMO as the estate’s management body following the fire, when the TMO was relieved of its management duties. W11 is an on-site management team serving just Lancaster West albeit still funded by the council.
  • W11 is a “positive change” but the residents were also clear that they think RBKC sees W11 as “a danger” as it could become “a precedent for all estate management to become resident-led” so RBKC has vested interest in it not becoming too successful or independent.

From July 2019 until June 2020, staff at W11 carried out a comprehensive consultation throughout Lancaster West with very high engagement rates with residents. Priorities for the estate’s recovery were established, but will residents get what they have asked for?

Image from instagram.com/lancasterwestneighbourhoodteam

RBKC Response

We asked RBKC deputy leader Councillor Kim Taylor-Smith for a response on behalf of the local authority to the main criticisms of the resident officers, namely that RBKC has failed to transform Lancaster West; RBKC has not committed enough money to the estate’s recovery; RBKC is not genuinely collaborating with resident representatives to the extent that they describe experiencing deliberate exclusion by the council; that these criticisms reflect RBKC’s general performance in North Kensington since June 2017.

Neither Councillor Taylor-Smith nor any of his colleagues in the leadership team responded.

A council spokesman emailed: “We are sensitive to the special circumstances of Lancaster West residents and that is reflected in a scope and specification of work which is far beyond that of other estates.

“We have scoped the works collaboratively with residents and there is close control and scrutiny on the investment being made on Lancaster West, which is reviewed with the Lancaster West Residents’ Association and representatives at a quarterly programme board.

“We remain confident that this will be a model 21st century improvement programme.”**

RBKC Deputy Leader Cllr Kim Taylor-Smith having fun on Lancaster West. Image from instagram.com/lancasterwestneighbourhoodteam

Conclusions

Lancaster West is a profit-making estate, vibrant, creative and a key hub in a culturally rich corner of the world; its residents were steadfast in the face of the managed decline imposed by RBKC, only to be traumatised by a horror on the scale of a war crime. The same forces that failed to prevent the fire then failed to respond now seem to be equivocating about whether the estate’s recovery is really worth funding properly.

The residents we spoke to were clear and unified in their vision: “to achieve a ‘model for social housing’ we need money for communal areas.”

and

“We need somewhere we’re proud to live and that the council is proud to own.”

RBKC claims the same aspirations but Lancaster West residents might now be questioning just how sincere their council is.

By Tom Charles. @tomhcharles

 

*Picture credit: Phoenix7777 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60587246

**The response from RBKC was added after this article’s initial publication following an email from a council spokesman.

What’s Going on at SPID? #2

IMG_1647

Q and A with:
Catherine Gray, Chair of the Refurbishment Project Board and Kensal House Resident (CG)
Helena Thompson, Artistic Director for SPID at Kensal House (HT)

SPID (Social Political Innovative Direct) is a youth theatre company that has been based in the Grade II* listed community rooms of Kensal House council estate on North Kensington’s Ladbroke Grove since 2005. The charity works nationally as well as locally, championing social housing with free drama that celebrates estates’ architecture and history. After years of fundraising, SPID was awarded £2.4m of public money from backers like the Mayor and Lottery – to restore their own neglected building and bring it up to modern safety standards. Some Kensal House residents opposed the refurbishment and SPID’s landlord, Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC) appeared set to block the renovation. But at the last minute, following a campaign, they reconsidered. Just ahead of lockdown, residents, council, SPID, and the funders all came together to try and save the investment. What’s happening now?

What’s going on with SPID at Kensal House?
HT: SPID is trying to refurbish the community rooms, where we’ve been based since 2005. They’re depressingly run down and we want to restore and celebrate them. We always fought for investment in social housing and it’s long been our dream to save the heritage of this beautiful 1930s building.

CG: Residents share this dream. Kensal House was designed in 1936 by architect Maxwell Fry and social reformer Elizabeth Denby and the community rooms were a big part of their vision. Over the years they’ve been flooded and run down so much that they’ve fallen into disrepair. We hope SPID can restore them to their former glory.

What about that controversial extension?
HT: SPID proposed building a modest workshop space in a small corner of the garden. Landlord’s consent for this was denied by RBKC, so we’ve dropped it. We’re going to deliver the additional free activities we’d planned in some other way.

CG: Some residents objected to the extension, though others like me were in favour. What matters is the big picture and the fact that SPID has worked extraordinarily hard to find a way forward. If we can bring the space up to standard for the whole community to use then we all stand to gain.

How have the refurbishment plans changed?
HT: We’ve proposed a lift and a new bin room entrance. This is in addition to the restoration works and disabled access corridor originally planned. Though the community rooms were once used primarily by residents, they now serve a wider community. We want to improve access in a way that protects residents’ privacy.

CG: These new plans are so inspiring. The sloping corridor will mean those in wheelchairs can use the same sloping corridor as everyone else. Disabled people will have access to a lift via the same entrance without having to go through the car park or round the back of Kensal House. Rerouting the bins away from SPID’s entrance and from flats will be more hygienic and will improve security by keeping their gate to the car park closed. It’s all about inclusivity, security and aesthetics.

Who’s going to pay for all this?
HT: After 15 years of advocacy and fundraising, SPID has secured £2.4m from folks like the Lottery and the Mayor’s Fund. We are asking them to approve the changes to the plans and stay with us. The case we’re making is that this has always been an unprecedented project and that compromising will add value by ensuring all stakeholders benefit.

CG: Residents wholeheartedly support SPID’s efforts to keep the investment. We’re impressed by the flexibility and diligence with which they’ve reworked their vision. I never realised before just how much work goes into planning a refurbishment. It’s not just the architects and residents and the people paying for it whose views matter, it’s structural engineers and heritage specialists, and quantity surveyors too.  To get everyone on board is a huge challenge and a massive achievement.

When will the refurbishment start?
HT: We’ve requested extensions to finalise our plans. Since the pandemic, funders have shown more flexibility. There are strings attached to the funding in light of financial year deadlines. We will need to start come February.

CG: I’m so excited for the refurbishment. This opportunity means such a lot to Kensal. It will finally show how valuable the building is both socially and historically. Positive change like this is something we all need to see.

 

 

2020 Vision: RBKC & North Kensington

“This Council – its policies, its leadership, its senior people and its culture – has changed.”

Cllr Elizabeth Campbell, Leader and
Barry Quirk, Chief Executive
Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, March 2020

 

Since June 2017, Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKC) has claimed to be undergoing a culture transformation. This website has shown that this assertion is untrue; that public money has been spent to thwart resident empowerment, while austerity spending cuts have been imposed on vital services. Two strategies used by RBKC to frustrate North Kensington’s development have been manipulation through public relations and divide-and-rule of the community. We tackle both here, exposing the PR con using contributions from local people who have stayed faithful to the ideals of community through three traumatic years and have come together to produce this piece.

Background

In this article, we update our challenge to RBKC over its claims to have changed following the Grenfell Tower fire. Since June 14th, 2017, we have presented an evidence-based rebuttal to the council, revealing a fraud perpetrated against residents by RBKC before, during and since that crisis. Not once has RBKC disputed our criticisms with evidence. While we have provided real-life examples of serious failings, the council’s response has been to parrot their ‘change’ mantra.

This update was planned before the Coronavirus had impacted daily life so severely. Many people have been quick to predict that positive political, economic, social, philosophical and cultural transformations will spring from the crisis. We believe that only unified, grassroots action changes things and that adversarial journalism is indispensable in this.

1

 

RBKC’s Change Policy

By Tom Charles

The Conservative leadership of RBKC lives in an altered reality. On the ground: no change; in their press releases and public utterances: change. It seems that truth is not important, careful PR management is. RBKC remains intractable in this approach, typified in the quote above from the leader and chief executive of the richest local authority in the country. Over the past three years, we have published the following stories, exposing the lie of Campbell and Quirk, two functionaries for a rotten council that needed root and branch change… Continue reading

What’s Going On at SPID?

By Ivor Flint and Joseph Rodrigues

SPID (Social Political Innovative Direct) Theatre is in a nationally renowned, charitable theatre company based at a community space beneath Kensal House, a social housing block on Ladbroke Grove in North Kensington. SPID works on other estates too, on participatory youth performance projects aimed at regenerating community spaces. In summer 2019, SPID was awarded almost £2.5 million in funding to refurbish its Kensal House headquarters. Some Kensal House residents have opposed the refurbishment and SPID’s landlord, Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC,) appears set to block the renovation…

We are writing on behalf of the residents who support SPID Theatre’s refurbishment of Kensal House community rooms, as shown in our film. SPID is a mixture of residents and professionals who use local roots and national profile to champion high-quality community theatre on council estates. We are lucky to have had them here on our estate for fifteen years, making interactive youth shows which advocate for social housing.

Restoring and improving Kensal House estate community rooms is a dream we’ve shared with SPID ever since we asked them to run the neglected space. Four years ago they started fundraising for what we see as incredible plans. By June 2019 they finally confirmed an award of funding of £2.4 million from the London Mayor, the National Lottery and five other non-council funders. When RBKC refused permission – first for planning in Sept 17th 2019, and then for landlord’s consent December 31st 2019 – we took action at Kensington Town Hall.

The Appeal

It had been a tough day, mopping up leaks in Kensal House, an estate riddled with flooding pipes that force residents into temporary accommodation, despite our appeals to our council landlord to fix them.

Shivering in the shadow of Kensington’s town hall, it was a relief to be allowed in to appeal at planning committee. But once the hearing started, our ‘SPID stands for solidarity’ t-shirts felt flimsy and cold. ‘Helena Thompson is not a resident,’ said the first to speak against us. This opened the floodgates for others to attack SPID’s artistic director.

The sad fact is that here in North Kensington, infighting is rife. Thirty-one months on from the Grenfell Tower fire, the total absence of any justice is traumatising and re-traumatising the area. It suddenly matters how ‘local’ you are – with different factions competing for status while survivors, bereaved and affected local people continue to absorb insults from the national government. Here, Residents’ Associations are set against each other as if they are rivals. Here, leaders of faith and managers of community spaces are punished for working with the ‘wrong’ groups’. Mental health and trauma are the elephants in every North Kensington meeting room, yet RBKC imposes austerity including in its mental health budget.

The borough’s planning department had bowed to an onslaught of local objections which painted the charity we know and love as cutthroat, outsider property developers. Those who appealed to speak for SPID were cut off after just two minutes. We closed our eyes, and waited for the axe to fall…

Objections

The chair summarised the objections. He understood the concern over the extension into their communal garden. But in reality, changing the garden’s layout would not reduce it as the extension occupies one-tenth of the garden, with all green space to be replaced by extending the greenery. He listed the benefits: a new community space; investment that only a charity could secure; free activities for young people. As the councillors slowly raised their hands, the final vote swung things in our favour. In the silence, time seemed to stop.

We remembered all the changes SPID had been asked for and made. The escalating jealousy over the chance of investment, the endless objections to everything, from disabled access to building works. We were relieved, but we also felt loss, for the love that North Kensington estates had always stood for.

SPID’s youth, advocacy and living history work are all about that fellowship. They champion social housing for the unique way it stamps community itself into architecture. This is where the union of people and place and time is most sacred. And this is what we stand to lose if we let the community divide and destroy itself at the time we most need to be strong.

We will always stand by SPID, and be forever grateful to the people who do the same. We are sorry for the misplaced frustration they’ve suffered, for the bullying and false accusations. We share their passionate conviction that community investment in social housing benefits everyone. But SPID have shown us that suffering a hate campaign does not have to mean reciprocal hating.

RBKC – Slum Landlord?

And now we have a new challenge and we are prepared to stand with them and to stand firm. On the eve of 2020, the council decided to deny landlord’s consent because of objections already addressed at the town hall – the plans have listed building consent, and support from Historic England, and cannot be altered again without losing funding.

For no benefit, RBKC’s decision to withhold sacrifices everything. It means the community rooms will continue to deteriorate and become unsafe as Kensal House and SPID’s shared heritage continues to decline – with frequent leaks, ancient electrics, no disabled access, and blocked fire exits. Kensal House residents will no longer receive investment to spend on improving their neglected homes and the communal benefit for the whole estate will not materialise.

There will be no additional space available when the hall is booked, and local people will be deprived of paid work placements, new jobs, and free business mentoring. Local youth will be deprived of free drama, heritage, sports, filmmaking and homework clubs. In short, an area that is suffering a £1.1 million cut to its already insufficient youth provision, is about to spurn a substantial financial injection.

The prospect is heart breaking. After 15 years of fighting for investment in social housing, SPID had raised unprecedented funding from the Mayor and the Lottery, with no help from RBKC. The theatre even pledged their own reserves towards improvements for the whole of the estate. SPID asked the council to invest at the same time by finally doing their statutory duty and bringing all of Kensal House up to standard. Instead, RBKC rejected a timeline to fix the estate’s leaks and vetoed the urgently needed refurbishment.

Residents For Refurb was set up with support from SPID’s Estate Voices program to challenge this decision. We believe that if the council listened properly to North Kensington residents, they would have fixed the chronic leaks on the whole estate, consulted with the thousands of local residents who use the space each week, and granted consent for the urgently needed refurbishment. There is a petition to restore the dignity Kensal House community rooms deserves by finally giving this crumbling building and local young people a future.

RBKC’s dithering and lack of leadership over SPID suggest a strategy of divide and rule by the council in this proud community. Millions of pounds can fall by the wayside and there is no formal process available for the tenant to challenge the landlord. There is however a deadline of 31st January for us to persuade the council to reverse its denial of consent.

As it stands, the future direction of SPID theatre and Kensal House is dictated by how RBKC feels, politically. Their claims of wanting to improve North Kensington appear hollow and their track record of overseeing managed decline does not give us cause for hope. But we will continue to push for positive change in North Kensington. Will this council, for once, show some leadership?

 

Ivor Flint and Joseph Rodrigues are residents of Kensal House

Residents for Refurb: residentsforrefurb@gmail.com

 

 

How RBKC Subverts Democracy to Prevent Change

This article is a defence of the principles of democracy and transparency – people’s right to know what is being done in their name and with their money. It examines Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC)’s claim that fundamental changes are being made in response to the Grenfell Tower fire of June 14th 2017, which killed 72 people. The analysis focuses on RBKC’s Twelve Principles of Good Governance policy. Council documents have revealed that the Twelve Principles policy has not been implemented and Councillors have not been held accountable for this despite the rising financial cost to the public. The Twelve Principles seem to have been lost in a haze of bureaucracy; we examine how the Conservative council’s grip on power in Kensington has been tightened and what this means for North Kensington.    

This article is divided into three sections. Section one introduces RBKC’s change policy. Section two exhaustively uses council meeting minutes to show how people’s hopes for change being realised were deliberately dashed. Section three draws a number of conclusions and includes a response from the council’s leader.  

1. The Review – RBKC’s Policy for Change

In 2017 the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS), – the national centre of expertise on governance and scrutiny – were commissioned, with funding by the Local Government Association (LGA), to carry out an independent review of RBKC. The local authority welcomed the CfPS’s subsequent report and adopted “12 principles of good governance we should embed in the council.” The Twelve Principles were bespoke; designed specifically for RBKC to act on its professed claims that they sought to “change” following the Grenfell Tower fire.

The principles:

  1. “Connecting with Residents”
  2. “Focusing on What Matters”
  3. “Listening to Many Voices”
  4. “Acting with Integrity”
  5. “Involving Before Deciding”
  6. “Communicating What We Are Doing”
  7. “Inviting Residents to Take Part”
  8. “Being Clearly Accountable”
  9. “Responding Fairly to Everyone’s Needs”
  10. “Working as Team”
  11. “Managing Responsibly”
  12. “Having the support we need”

The Democratic Society (Demsoc) supported CfPS in researching and writing the report over a period of six weeks. Their role: “Demsoc have helped to reach out to residents, asking about their experiences of being involved in decision making processes by the Council, and how involvement can be increased and improved in the future. This has been done by gathering evidence through surveys, desktop research and observing meetings, as well as talking face to face with focus groups and workshops”.

Urban Dandy understands that, given the scale of the work, the time frame was considered too tight by Demsoc.

The council’s own report endorsing the CfPS recommendations was titled ‘CHANGE AT THE COUNCIL: THE COUNCIL’S RESPONSE TO THE INDEPENDENT REVIEW OF GOVERNANCE’ (their capitals) and came four months after the independent review, with RBKC stating: “the council recognises that it (sic) essential to put these principles into practice.” The council’s leadership were to be held to account on this by RBKC’s Executive and Corporate Services Scrutiny Committee.

The council leaders who held the relevant portfolios and who endorsed the report were Elizabeth Campbell (leader) and Cllr Gerard Hargreaves (responsible for Communities and Culture), both of whom were cabinet members prior to the Grenfell Tower fire. It was the fire that prompted RBKC to commission the review and so it is right that the council’s success in applying its Twelve Principles be measured against the gravity of what happened at Grenfell Tower.

It is worth dwelling briefly on the role played by Campbell, who, on becoming leader of RBKC a month after the Grenfell fire, promised change. In a brief speech to fellow councillors and victims of the fire in July 2017, Campbell used the word ‘change’ eleven times. Her words are particularly significant given her key role in the decision to adopt the Twelve Principles as policy and in the subsequent roll-out of the policy.

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In correspondence with Urban Dandy the CfPS confirmed the amount of the grant paid to them and Demsoc to cover the cost of the review: Continue reading

Urban Dandy Exclusive: The True Cost of RBKC’s ‘Change’ Programme

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How does a local authority go from being a national embarrassment on the verge of special measures to being secure in its position and back to business-as-usual in under two years?

The 2017 Grenfell Tower fire was the worst domestic fire in Britain since world war two and it happened in the richest borough in the country. Seventy-two lives were taken, more have been lost in the fall-out. There have been no arrests of politicians, council officers or others who made fateful decisions and ignored warnings in the run-up to the fire.

In 2018 Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKC) commissioned the Centre for Public Scrutiny and the Democratic Society to carry out a review of the Council and to produce recommendations to enable the local authority to move forward. The ‘Change’ programme that resulted has suffered from a severe lack of public scrutiny and has been anything but democratic…

Urban Dandy uses RBKC’s own documents to reveal how the Council adopted a policy known as the Twelve Principles of Good Governance, then proceeded to bury it in a complex bureaucratic system. The article shows how opportunities to apply the principles were spurned, and worse, how Councillors often seemed determined to ensure there would be no real change.

Overseeing the process has been the leader of RBKC, Elizabeth Campbell, who promised ‘change’ to survivors and the bereaved but who has appeared at key moments and in key meetings to help ensure no fundamental change has been implemented. We are awaiting comment from her on her role and the performance of her Council in delivering on her promises.

We also reveal the rising costs of the ‘Change’ programme, the methods by which RBKC has managed to stifle meaningful challenge to its approach and how they have been aided by the media and the national government. Questions are also raised about the role of the local Labour party and we look at the calls for devolution for North Kensington.

The article is a defence of democracy and transparency in Kensington and will be published at the start of September.

Our previous articles following this story can be found here.

 

@urbandandyLDN @tomhcharles

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. Continue reading

RBKC Scrutiny #1 Grenfell United in Parliament

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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. Continue reading

Hillsborough & Grenfell – Proximity & Pain

Warning: Some of the content of this article may be upsetting to people. This is a personal exploration of the impact of two major events in English history: the 1989 Hillsborough disaster and the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire.

 

 

Hillsborough and Grenfell are two names that will forever be associated with disaster, atrocity and horrific, needless loss of life in England. In both cases, the victims were abused and dishonoured by the British establishment including the government, police and media. Following Hillsborough, the establishment abusers included Margaret Thatcher’s government, South Yorkshire Police and The Sun newspaper; after Grenfell, it has included the government (local and national), the London Review of Books and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation.

In both cases, the abuse appeared reflexive, a perverse survival instinct on the part of these establishment pillars. Lies, cover-up and dehumanisation over Hillsborough; it is a similar situation regarding Grenfell. Human vulnerability and mortality are met by a system that wants to survive.

Hillsborough

I reflected on the Hillsborough disaster through my own eyes, those of a 10-year-old child on April 15th, 1989. Hillsborough being possibly my favourite place on earth at that time, somewhere I had been going for years and that had captured my imagination with its noise and camaraderie, a place of fun, release and excitement, all the drama of football. It was edgy but safe.

On that day my team wasn’t playing as it was being used as a neutral venue for the Liverpool v Forest FA cup semi-final. The way football fans were treated in those days – penned in, pushed around – was indicative of the attitude of the authorities to the majority of the population, especially in restless industrial areas like Sheffield. And Liverpool.

The news coming in over the radio, then the pictures on TV, my family talking about it, then all the talk at school on the Monday morning, then visiting the stadium to pay our respects on the Tuesday all caused confusion in my young mind. Those children that died were the same as me, I realised that immediately. The sense of injustice that pervaded Sheffield in the 1980s suddenly became bigger – it was no longer just a sense; it was 96 innocent lives.

I moved on, as you do when you’re 10, but I remained profoundly affected.

Grenfell

Twenty-eight years on, I saw what was once the tower block next to my flat burn. I had lived on a so-called ‘finger block’ underneath Grenfell Tower until 2014. On June 14th, 2017, I saw my view, my estate and my neighbours engulfed. The same palpable feel in the air as when I visited Leppings Lane in 1989. Of course, there is sadness, but there is also much more.

Unlike Hillsborough, there has been very little relief from the trauma. It is only now, after two years, that I can start to think that I have moved on. I live in North Kensington and Grenfell permeates everything here. Working in the third sector, having to deal with Kensington and Chelsea council and having a personal commitment to honouring the victims have all added to the ongoing presence of Grenfell in my mind.

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Media Lens

In both cases, I find it very difficult to accept hearing about them through a media filter, sanitised and commodified, adjusted to fit into a ‘news agenda’ or presented rationally as part of the ‘news cycle’. On top of the media gloss, I find it offensive that people try to worm away from justice in the face of death, scorning the sanctity of life. Thatcher, South Yorkshire Police, The Sun, RBKC, KCTMO and the rest…

Thinking about my reaction brings to mind the American Professor Norman Finkelstein describing his mother’s hysterical reaction to seeing coverage of the Vietnam war on television. She saw that human life is sacred and should not be presented in this dry, ‘rational’ way. She had experienced the Nazi holocaust and so the reduction of human suffering to a news item, or even entertainment was beyond her capacity to deal with.

My brain might be similar. Any approach to these disasters that omits emotion is impossible for me to passively consume. When the Hillsborough atrocity has been in the media, I have become tense and uptight, then I feel rage swell up. I then have to switch off. It is the same with the Grenfell Tower.

Where does this rage come from? How much of it is healthy, rational and necessary? How much is something else?

The rage is real and fully alive. It makes my mind work in a different way and my calm demeanour is gone, overpowered. I live in the space between the two extremes of raw pain and peace. I do not want to suppress what needs to come out, to manifest and find expression.

And so, I am left with this class-based rage. I do not want it, it is not freedom, but it may be a healthy thing to learn to express and fathom.

The writer and activist Audre Lorde talked of anger’s utility as a pathway to change: “We have to learn to orchestrate these furies so that they do not tear us apart.” Many in North Kensington could take heed, especially us men.

If this article is crossing the narrow lines of self-indulgence or self-pity, I hope it might also serve to encourage a few men to accept or examine their own trauma. Like many people in North Kensington, I tell myself I haven’t really suffered, there are hundreds and probably thousands of people worse off than me within a mile. The victims’ families and close friends, my old neighbours on the Lancaster West estate, the fire fighters, young local children and the elderly.

In North Ken, I see men with the stiff upper lip and I see the rage coming out sideways, and of course I see that I am maybe better off – at least geographically, I’m slightly removed from Grenfell, and I am learning ways to understand and express my trauma; I can even help people a little bit. But trauma isn’t a relative thing. The fact that others have suffered more doesn’t make my pain easier to bear for me.

To express pain and anger is to express life itself. It is a necessary process.

 

by Tom Charles @tomhcharles

The Trauma Matters weekend is on at the Tabernacle, Notting Hill, 15th-16th June, for more info and free tickets for North Ken residents, click here.

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