This article contains information about the Grenfell Tower fire that readers might find distressing.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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