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…  

The big front-page headline reads “Over 2,000 residents back council’s plan to save Notting Hill police station.” Since the borough’s establishment in 1963, crime and safety have been two of the Conservatives’ priorities, reflecting the anxieties of their voters, most of whom probably own quite a lot that might be coveted by the criminally minded. A local police station is a good thing, so taken at face value, this seems like a genuinely reassuring, and vote-winning, bit of information.

Council leader Elizabeth Campbell explains that saving the station will keep more police on the streets. Confusingly, the Evening Standard reported in February that RBKC would not maintain the building as a police station, quoting Kensington MP Felicity Buchan that the building would be retained as “something that will still help residents such as a GP surgery.” Buchan doubled down on this socialist approach by explaining, “what we don’t want is for it to be bought by a property developer who would turn it into luxury flats, many of which would probably remain unoccupied”.

A bit of background: The local Conservatives have asset sweated the north of the borough, including attempted sales of the local library, college, and a community centre. Their goal was precisely what Buchan finds so unpalatable for the middle of the borough: the removal of community assets, to make way for private investments. The cut-price refurbishment of Grenfell Tower was caught in this raft of aggressive Tory moves in North Kensington as they sought to drive out poorer communities from some of the most expensive land in Britain. No mention is made of the economic imperatives that might impel the sale of community buildings by local governments.

K & C News points the finger for the jeopardy facing the beloved police station at the local Labour party: “residents are starting to ask whether Labour councillors will ever put local priorities ahead of party loyalty.” Page one’s footer sets out what the publishers believe should be our priorities, instructing readers to “vote for a greener, safer and fairer borough on 5th May.”

Page one finishes with a teaser of what’s to come over the page: a photo of a bin lorry and a photo of three men in ‘K & C Community Warden’ vests staring at an empty café, possibly confirming to each other that “Café Society is here to stay.”

Page Two

Page two keeps the momentum with another photo of people in high visibility vests. One is Elizabeth Campbell, leader of the council, holding a pair of spectacles and squinting at a man. In the background we see a skip mounted on the back of a truck and a recycling bin in the middle of the pavement. I suspect the recycling bin was positioned there for this photo opportunity as it is rare to see a misplaced bin on the back streets of Notting Hill, Holland Park, or South Ken, such is the devotion to pristine pavements. The connection between the headline – “Council protects twice-weekly bin collections” – and the accompanying photo is tenuous as no bin collections are shown. It is perhaps implied that Cllr Campbell herself, who is wearing thick gloves, is about to collect some bins, such is her commitment to this policy.

The article reflects the elevated political status of rubbish in Kensington: “Protecting twice-weekly bin collections is a top priority for local residents. And as the cost of living rises, it’s more important than ever to make sure local services deliver value for money.” This newsletter is mainly aimed at people who will not struggle with the rising cost of living. Many will probably benefit from it.

Cllr Cem Kemahli is quoted as saying “our job as councillors is to protect the high-quality services residents depend on, while keeping the low council tax residents need.” Pretty liberal use of the words “depend” and “need.” RBKC has always prided itself on keeping council tax low but now equates an extra bin collection per week and a small amount of money saved in council tax per year with meeting essential human needs. The link between twice-weekly bin collections and mitigating the rising cost of living is not explained.

The target audience is again clear: “4,000 more homes in Holland Park and Notting Hill will have access to food waste collections.” North Kensington is omitted, and the focus is pre-empting the possibility of a minor first-world inconvenience for people who don’t have actual problems.

The second story on page two describes RBKC’s “crack down on noisy vehicles,” with the council planning to roll out its use of acoustic cameras to identify drivers of very noisy vehicles to Holland Road, Chelsea Embankment and Earl’s Court Road. North Kensington, the most polluted area of the UK with an elevated dual carriageway going over it, is again excluded.

Page Three

Yet more good news: “Kensington and Chelsea improves air quality the fastest in London.” The council has pledged £100 million to “cut air pollution” and £6 million to improve parks and green spaces, including Cremorne Gardens, Cremorne Wharf and Holland Park. A new open space is included in the council’s Earls Court Masterplan. No North Kensington parks are mentioned. There is a horribly pixelated photo of the Japanese garden in Holland Park.

The next article is titled “Whole borough parking permits here to stay.” For a small borough in central London spending £100 million to cut air pollution, you’d think that discouraging driving would be the consistent and green thing to do. But as that might be slightly inconvenient for the party’s base, unnecessary driving is encouraged. The Tories provide the feel-good factor of green policies without their voters having to slum it on the bus with the hoi polloi.

K & C News spells it out: “getting around easily is a priority for residents.” Cllr Josh Rendall then adds some spin: “From nurses getting to our world class hospitals in Chelsea, to teachers travelling to our outstanding schools in Kensington, the borough permits help so many of us”.

Cllr Rendall doesn’t add that a nurse might need to drive because they don’t live anywhere near their workplace. The average nurse’s salary is £33,384 (Royal College of Nursing figure). If they paid zero tax, spent no money, and worked for 140 years they would be able to buy an average-priced house (Foxtons figure) near one of the hospitals in Chelsea.

People who do dedicated and skilled work that benefits other people are the ones impacted by the unfolding cost-of-living crisis. Tory voters in Holland Park are not impacted. Yet the council’s political project is to slavishly attend to the latter group at the expense of the former. This is well understood, and K & C News can be seen as a signal to inform the public that this power imbalance is in safe hands.

The token mention of Grenfell Tower appears on page three. It is titled ‘Grenfell Update’ and consists of one sentence from Cllr Campbell:

“Continued support and meaningful recovery for the communities most affected by the Grenfell tragedy will be at the heart of everything we do.”

That sentence barely reaches the level of a sick joke, but to the target audience, it perhaps satisfies their curiosity regarding Grenfell recovery.

Far from being “at the heart of everything” the council does, Grenfell recovery is not touched by a single policy or priority mentioned across the four pages of K & C News.

Page three finishes with the first bit of pan-borough news: every RBKC neighbourhood will get its own “dedicated community warden” who will focus on “anti-social behaviour.” The article conflates this policy with the Tories saving the police station (but not really) story; Cllr Emma Will explains that “a visible police presence is really important” but doesn’t explain what hiring a few community wardens has to do with it.  

Page Four

The final page has two news items. First, “Council works to protect residents from cost of living rise” in which North Kensington finally gets a mention. Unfortunately, the article links poor people and their capacity to stay above the poverty line to RBKC’s commitment to low council tax. The real beneficiaries of the low council tax policy are the wealthy people the publication is aimed at, who save a few pounds a year, many probably pay little to no income tax and enjoy huge passive incomes from the most unproductive sectors of our economy. Cllr Campbell’s naming of the actual victims of the government’s cost of living crisis – “teachers to street cleaners, young families to pensioners” – is inserted to ameliorate any uncomfortable thoughts entering the minds of the Tory voters. ‘We’re all in it together, this policy that benefits me is also benefiting the poor.’

“Holding Thames Water to account” is the final chapter of this RBKC fiction. It refers to the July 2021 floods when “residents’ homes across Holland Park and Notting Hill were seriously affected by flooding.” Again, the north is omitted despite being hit hard by the floods. “The council plans to implement sustainable drainage schemes in Holland Park and Notting Hill” but not in North Ken.

Kensington & Chelsea News finishes its Spring 2022 edition with 10 election pledges from the Conservatives. One would have sufficed: ‘We’ll protect the status quo.’

None of the ten policies have anything to do with “continued support and meaningful recovery for the communities most affected by the Grenfell tragedy.” The cosmetic approach taken to this most serious issue signals to the Tory base that the Conservatives will continue to prioritise their quality of life over everything else. And to the rest of us, the message is clear: ‘Your recovery is over – our class war has just begun…’

What’s Missing?   

In politics, what isn’t said is as telling as what is. This is certainly true with the council’s latest PR publication. Its newspaper-style format suggests that the content is meant to be accepted as the natural order of things rather than a series of political choices.

North Kensington and the other impoverished neighbourhoods of Earl’s Court and the World’s End are virtually ignored while the interests of people who have no actual problems expand to fill the space, like the fishes in the Kyoto Garden. Hypothetical inconveniences to wealthy residents are attended to assiduously while actual problems, like the absence of any justice following the Grenfell fire, are not considered worthy of coverage.

Also missing are serious political leadership and vision. A confident leadership with a serious political project would seek to take their base along with them in pursuit of higher goals, innovation, and genuine change.

RBKC’s leaders have internalised their own propaganda and believe that North Kensington’s recovery is omnipresent in everything they do. Not a single Grenfell-related policy is mentioned in the publication, yet we’re told it is “the heart” of the Tories’ policies. This is Orwell’s doublethink – holding contradictory positions and believing them both to be true.  

A party that was serious about serving all communities in the borough would take steps to address the scandalous levels of impoverishment in K and C. The legwork has been done for them, in Kensington & Chelsea Foundation’s report on poverty and Emma Dent Coad’s report on the borough’s economic, social, educational and health inequality. Both were published after the 2018 local elections but neither has impacted the ruling party’s priorities.

Five years on from the Grenfell fire, the Conservatives’ masquerade of humility and ‘change’ is largely gone, and their propaganda now reflects this.

Kensington & Chelsea News, promoted by Kensington and Chelsea Conservatives, is out now.

By Tom Charles @tomhcharles

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

RBKC’s Alarming Indifference Continues…

We just received the above image from a former Lancaster West resident. The image shows an official RBKC notice announcing that the council has designated 14th June, the anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, as the date for the first of a series of fire alarm tests in one of its properties.

Four years on from the horrors of Grenfell, with no justice, widespread trauma and a PR-heavy change programme at the local council which has been ignored by the national media but exposed as a sham on this blog and elsewhere, RBKC is still finding new ways to be incompetent and insensitive.

On and on it goes….

@tomhcharles @urbandandyldn

RBKC Propaganda Policy

The word propaganda is rarely used by politicians, who prefer to use ciphers like public relations, communications strategy and messaging. Propaganda is reserved for foreign enemies like Nazi Germany or Iran. Like the word imperial, the negative connotation means it is avoided. And like imperialism, it goes on every day, it has a home here in London and Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC) is fully committed to it.

The propaganda we discuss below is generated by RBKC. It is not an abstraction to be debated by intellectuals, but a real problem destroying people’s life chances across the borough. For RBKC, propaganda is not just a way to put the best possible spin on a policy, it is their policy.

Lancaster West

Back in August we wrote about Lancaster West estate, site of Grenfell Tower, which has been undergoing refurbishment since 2018 when RBKC stated that the estate would be transformed into “a model for social housing in the 21st century” through an ambitious, resident-led approach. Continue reading

“Ill Thought Out and Frankly Obnoxious” – Westminster Council in North Kensington

Three and a half years on from the Grenfell Tower atrocity, councils in West London are back to the routine business of pursuing profit at the expense of residents. Rather than learning the lessons of the disastrous relationship between Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKC) and residents of North Kensington, just over the borough border, Westminster City Council is seeking to bypass resident rights to impose a detrimental new building development. Urban Dandy spoke to some of those affected and heard that Westminster has, to date, avoided genuine resident engagement.

RBKC & Westminster

Different boroughs, similar approaches, the border between RBKC and Westminster bisects Tavistock Crescent, with the eastern part of the road falling in Westminster. Harford House is the first building across the border, and its neighbour, a care home, is the site of Westminster Council’s proposed Westmead development for 65 new flats (10 ‘affordable’) in a bland, oversized block. Back across the border is Golborne, the most impoverished council ward in London, where life expectancy has declined by six years since 2010. This is the context for Harford House, an estate that is part of our neighbourhood yet is often missing from discussions because it happens to sit on a particular side of an invisible border.

Click here to see more on the Westminster website, reference 20/05708/COFUL.

This is not the first move against North Kensington residents since the Grenfell Tower of June 2017, when 72 people lost their lives and the whole area was profoundly traumatised. RBKC has inexorably returned to its previous role as antagonist to those who seek to preserve and uplift the local community. This blog recently outlined the ways in which RBKC leaders have failed to deliver on their promises to the Lancaster West estate, site of the burned out Tower.

Half a mile away from Grenfell Tower, Harford House residents face the same problem as that encountered by the Grenfell residents who tried to raise the alarm about their landlord’s irresponsible and avaricious plans for the Tower. The issues are crystal clear. Westminster doesn’t want to hear them, but here three local residents break it all down:

  1. Problems with the proposed building by Lay-Mon Thaung, architect, resident of Leamington Road Villas

Westminster Council are seeking to destroy a good council estate and valuable community space. They must reconsider the scale and nature of the development and work with the community to consider alternative proposals. 

Environment

The Westmead development site is dominated by 23 mature trees; a green square for all those who live around it. Some of these trees are the most mature trees in the area and significantly improve air quality. This is particularly important in North Kensington, which is in the shadow of the Westway flyover, constructed against the wishes of local residents. According to the anti-pollution campaign group RAP23:

  • 70 people die from air pollution in North Kensington every year
  • Children born and growing up in North Kensington have smaller brains and lungs (due to there being less oxygen)
  • Miscarriages, still births and premature births increase in highly polluted areas and there is an 11% increase in dementia for people living 100 meters away from the Westway
  • Life expectancy is reduced by two to nine years due to pollution

The council want to remove ten mature, environment-preserving trees to make way for their over-scaled six-storey development. The new development would not only destroy the green square, it would block existing residents’ sunlight and views.  

This site now needs the community’s protection for these reasons among others…

Architecture

The existing Westmead site was designed under one coherent master plan, evident in the architectural style. All the buildings on the site and around it were built at the same time. The low 1-2 level nature of the care home sits low in the landscape, almost unnoticed, and acts more like a ‘green square’ with the trees dominant and central, enjoyed by all those who live around it. The houses on Tavistock Crescent are 4-storeys low (no lifts required) and they have a north-south orientation which implies they were never designed to have a higher development placed in front of them, because their south aspect is their only source of sunlight.

Likewise, Fallodon House (west of site, Tavistock Crescent, located in RBKC) was built under the same master plan, with single aspect flats, either facing west (away from site) or east looking directly onto the site. These three storey flats (from street level) or four storeys (from sunken ground level) are low and will be overshadowed by the new six-storey building which will block their only source of sunlight from the east.

The height of the existing Care home is congruent with the houses around it, which were orientated to look onto the green square and have good natural sunlight. The Westmead Care home forms part of an assembly of co-existing residential buildings, co-dependent on one another in terms of height, orientation, and aspect onto the green square to provide good sunlight and views to all residents. Once you understand these facts, you understand that anything that replaces the care home should also be low in nature.

The Building Research Establishment (BRE) daylight and sunlight report submitted to accompany the planning application confirms numerous failures to meet the target values to ensure that neighbouring buildings retain adequate daylight and sunlight.

A Councillor in our ward who was formerly a town planner reviewed the daylight and sunlight report. This was his response:

‘There are significant losses to several living rooms in Harford House, on the lower ground, ground, first and second floors, on Leamington House, and in Fallodon House. If a building is breaching the light on three sides then that would raise my concerns.’ 

In the Covid era, with people working from their homes, the noise from a major three-year construction site which brings no benefits to the community is not welcome.

2. Conflict of Interest by Abraham Teweldebrhan, Film and TV Editor, Harford House resident

If the project was being pushed by a private developer, they would have to comply with all the rules and regulations imposed by local government. However, because the land belongs to Westminster Council and the developer is Westminster Council, they can break the rules with impunity. For example, this development is building higher than the mansard roofs that are no longer allowed in the neighbouring houses and it is removing trees which would otherwise have Tree Protection Orders.

Westminster Council are the site owner, developer and the approver. Westminster Council is submitting their proposal to themselves.

Communication has been very poor throughout. In our Zoom meetings with them, the Housing Programme Director was unable to answer direct questions and was dismissive of us. A greater effort could have been made to make sure every resident was made aware of such a major redevelopment. Just this week there were still residents who were not aware of this project or its true scale. We have been spending our evenings and weekends going round knocking on doors and putting posters up to let our neighbours know.

The developers have made pitiful attempts at outreach; leaflets written only in English, calls not returned, documents only available online… There is a wafer-thin pretence that this development is an improvement for the whole community but there is literally no upside for existing residents. None of our objections appear in the planning application. 

3. Post-Grenfell, No Change? by Chris Arning, Entrepreneur, Harford House resident.

Resident anger has been compounded by a sense that adequate consideration has not been paid to our concerns. I am on the Tavistock Housing Co-Operative, responsible for spending service charge surpluses for improving this block and recently installed some new signage to spruce up the block’s aspect. I put two years’ work into planning this because our built environment hugely impacts our sense of self-esteem and wellbeing. Now, this ill thought out and frankly obnoxious Westmead development that City of Westminster seem intent on bulldozing through threatens everything I know residents love about this block – the beatific light coming through the South facing windows in the morning, green space and trees and the relative quiet.

Three years ago we saw the Grenfell tragedy happening in clear view of Harford House. I could only volunteer in the crisis, like many others around here, and felt so powerless around the abuse of power. The entirely preventable tragedy followed condescension towards social housing residents shown by Kensington & Chelsea. A similar attitude towards resident welfare and voice is being shown by Westminster, who I had always thought better of until seeing this proposal for Westmead.

Increasing Inequality in North Ken

The proposed development would provide a small number of ‘affordable’ housing and social housing units, but most of the flats will be private rental for the Council’s benefit. Even if the council replaced the care home beds on another site, we Harford House residents and other affected local residents, object to the total absence of any community thinking in the proposal.

Local residents have plenty of creative, workable suggestions of what would be congruent with the current neighbourhood, but Westminster seem determined to force their proposal through on their terms only without genuinely engaging resident expertise.

Conclusion

Once again, North Kensington communities are working overtime to be heard and taken seriously. So far, Westminster has given little space for resident voices to be heard. But without the residents’ input, the Westmead plan will remain ‘ill thought out’ and Westminster council will only reinforce their image as an ‘obnoxious’ local authority.

RBKC on the left, Westminster on the right, the Westway and Trellick Tower across the bridge

by Tom Charles @tomhcharles

Photos by Chris Arning & Tom Charles

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 emphases)

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.

COST

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