RBKC set to become “the best Council”?

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

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

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

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

Click link below to read in full

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

Problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expectations

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

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

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

“Devastatingly Frank”

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

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

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

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

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

 

By Tom Charles @tomhcharles

SPID Theatre takes on RBKC for Housing Justice

How to deal with an inflexible, disconnected, disgraced local authority that gets to mark its own homework on its supposed Change policy?  SPID Theatre on Ladbroke Grove spun its web and caught some official flies with an up-close performance of The Story of Fires and Floods. It then headed to the V & A to perform the same show and screen its film The History of Neglect. The event was also used to announce that SPID and residents of Kensal House are taking legal action against the council for its neglect.

Three of the protagonists break down how this all came about….

Act One – Sophia

‘Social, Progressive, Interconnected, Diverse!’ we shout.

The audience at the Victoria and Albert Museum rises, celebrating with us Kensal House Estate’s heritage and breathing life into the museum. The place buzzes with community spirit – artistic activism in action. It’s empowering to meet the eye of so many press and SPID funders as I announce class action against our landlord, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) for their negligence. Continue reading

Retrograde Borough of Kensington & Chelsea

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

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

Sixties London

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

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

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

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

Review: Kensington & Chelsea News

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

Page One

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

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

RBKC: Flattening The Curve

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loads of Buildings?

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

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

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

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

Steering Committee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image from Frost Meadowcroft’s brochure

Last Night’s Meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Tom Charles @tomhcharles

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

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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.