Change at RBKC? Case Study 3: The Curve

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

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Change is essential in North Kensington, an area of London still reeling from the Grenfell Tower fire, where 72 people were killed on June 14th, 2017. The trauma inflicted is only now starting to manifest in residents. On becoming leader of Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC) a month after the fire, Elizabeth Campbell promised “change”, invoking the word eleven times during a brief speech to survivors. She had the right idea – people wanted change – but has her council delivered? Of all the opportunities RBKC has had to make good on its promises, surely its own Grenfell recovery site, the Curve, is one where it would not dare to fail. But have they failed? It is a complex case study, and one in which I am personally involved.

What is RBKC’s Change Policy?

For years prior to the Grenfell Tower fire, people in North Kensington were routinely ignored, even when attempting to raise serious concerns about fire safety. Previously, to assess whether any tangible change to this pattern of willful neglect had been made, Urban Dandy used RBKC’s official policy, 12 Principles of Good Governance, as the yardstick. In the cases of Canalside House and Lancaster Youth Centre, it was clear that the policy had not translated from theory to practice. You can read about the two examples and the twelve principles here and here.

Facing widespread criticism and calls for commissioners to replace them in 2017, RBKC hired the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS) to carry out an independent review of the council. RBKC welcomed CfPS’s subsequent report and adopted “12 principles of good governance we should embed in the council.” The 12 Principles were bespoke, designed specifically for RBKC to act on its claims to want to “change” following the fire. The council’s leadership were to be held to account on this by its Executive and Corporate Services Scrutiny Committee. Papers to date reveal talk about listening forums and citizens panels, but nothing in the way of challenge or scrutiny from the Labour-led committee. 

What is The Curve?

The Curve Community Centre is a building rented at commercial rates by Kensington and Chelsea council. It was obtained shortly after the fire at Grenfell Tower. The Curve replaced the Westway Sports Centre as the focal point of the council’s response. It still provides essential services for survivors and the bereaved including housing support, post delivery and counselling. Additionally, it hosts workshops and classes and offers space for community cooking and other gatherings. The Curve has three principal sets of users: survivors and the bereaved; residents of Lancaster West estate and the wider North Kensington community.

The Curve sits on Bard Road, just behind Freston Road, by what was once the self-declared Republic of Frestonia. Nowadays the area is characterised by poverty, a high density of social housing and large national business’ headquarters; the Westway flyover runs nearby, and from the Curve’s windows visitors can look across the A3220 to Westfield and the old BBC Television Studios.

 

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From the outset, and probably inevitably, the Curve has been a controversial issue. Being council-run, it has naturally been scrutinised by local residents who have lived through the Grenfell atrocity and its aftermath. RBKC’s actions at the Curve can be taken as approximate indicators of where the council is, politically.

2018

In early 2018, RBKC decided to appoint an independent Board of Governors “to ensure that the Curve is accountable to the local community” and to be “critical friends” of the Curve’s management team as well as “to contribute critically and substantially to the public’s perception of the Curve” (The Role of Governor of the Curve, 26th February 2018).

I was appointed governor in May 2018, and quit in February 2019, but will try to give the public some perspective on the Curve: its place in North Kensington, the council’s approach to it and why I had to leave.

Governors’ Vision

From a North Kensington perspective, the Board of Governors has been notable mainly for its silence, a point of frustration to many local people wondering what has been going on at the Curve. The building is, after all, for the public and the Board is supposed to represent them. The Board spent its collective time and energy over the winter devising an alternative vision for the community centre, one that would take control of the building away from RBKC.

The governors’ vision was of the Curve being transformed into a fitting legacy for North Kensington, a space that would be congruent with the rich and diverse culture of the local area. Specifically, the governors proposed the Curve to be split into three areas of work: high quality, expert trauma therapy; skills training for jobs of the future for young people (in the technology, gaming, sports and culture industries) and a welcoming, safe living room environment for those wanting to drop in. Something roughly akin to the Tabernacle but for the West end of the borough. The plan initially called for the Curve to operate separately from RBKC as a charity, although the council would be expected to do its bit by providing the rent, which it could secure long-term and at a discounted rate.

If the vision was adopted, obvious issues would remain, including the Curve’s location, which is considered unattractive and unsafe by some residents. The building, its lighting and signage would need to be beautified if the Curve were to be transitioned from a community centre run by a distrusted local authority to a beacon of recovery, culture and opportunity. Challenges, certainly, but not insurmountable ones, if RBKC could grasp the potential of both the building and the local population and make resources available to help something happen.

My perspective was that North Kensington is in desperate need of public spaces and we should keep the Curve and make it work for the community. The poverty of the area is compounded by a scarcity of space. Many children live in appallingly overcrowded accommodation, with no space to do homework or relax, let alone learn new skills or prepare for success in their adult lives. One 11-year-old I have worked with lives in a two bedroom flat occupied by 11 (eleven) people of ages ranging from toddler to pensioner. Why? Because the council does not build the housing that would enable people to live in dignity. Community centres offer these children what they need: space. To RBKC, such public spaces are wasted opportunities better handed over to property speculators or private schools. I hoped I could help to secure another public space for the area…

RBKC’s Vision

The council has its own visions for the Curve and none of them are expansive. One RBKC vision sees budget cuts that would be applied to staffing, services or both; another sees the Curve closed, possibly as early as July 2019. RBKC has indicated there is some scope for changing what is on offer to the public at the Curve, but budget cuts are not conducive to transforming people’s life chances.

Such is the political landscape in early 2019. RBKC are no longer feeling the pressure from Downing Street and there is no appetite to push forward and invest in North Kensington’s potential. Austerity, the euphemism for impoverishment, is the real legacy, and North Kensington is the last place in Britain it should be imposed. It was RBKC’s devotion to austerity that led to them ignoring North Kensington’s residents for so long.

Last year, Philip Alston, the UN rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, after a fact-finding mission to the UK, said that child poverty levels were “not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster” in the world’s fifth largest economy. He said the government had caused “great misery” with its “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” austerity policies. Projected figures suggest that the number of additional deaths caused by austerity policies in the UK between 2009 and 2020 will be 152,141.

Nowhere was the 2010 shift to austerity taken up more enthusiastically than Kensington Town Hall and nowhere is the injustice more obvious than here in North Kensington. But this is what the Curve’s Board of Governors are being maneuvered to acquiesce to. The final straw for me was a meeting in February with Robyn Fairman, Executive Director of RBKC’s Grenfell Team, to present the governors’ alternative vision. Fairman seamlessly absorbed the vision into the council’s austerity plan. Not for one moment did RBKC’s representative entertain the idea of a breakaway from the local authority. There was no hint of imagination, no sense that the community might take the lead, that it might know better than senior councillors what the area needs…

Why I Quit

This kind of absorption into the council’s existing plans barely registers as a problem any more; from the massive cuts of the RBKC youth review, to Canalside, to the Curve, RBKC is comfortable and complacent. We have come a long way since summer 2017 when the people of North Kensington responded heroically to the fire at Grenfell and the idea that we would be left powerless was unthinkable. Even a Board of Governors genuinely representative of the diversity of the area has been side-lined, reduced to the role of ‘advisers’ to a service-cutting Tory council, and certainly not ‘governing’ anything.

This was the limit for me and I handed in my resignation the day after the Fairman meeting.

Problems

The problematic dynamic between the governors/wider community and RBKC didn’t appear suddenly at the meeting with Robyn Fairman. Disquiet has simmered since summer 2017, and chaos is to be expected in the aftermath of a disaster so shocking that it made headlines worldwide. In such chaos, serious commitment to principles (of good governance) are needed. But this is lacking with RBKC.

The Curve cannot contain the entropy, as trauma manifests and fights its way out of people in a setting ill-equipped to address it. One drama after another has beset the Curve’s management. At board level, resident steering groups that were promised for us to work alongside on day one still have not been created, undermining the governors’ credibility and effectiveness. Meanwhile, RBKC has sat back, their every move orchestrated by communications officers with their corporate jargon.

Oversight of RBKC is undertaken by Home Secretary Sajid Javid’s independent Grenfell Taskforce who have reported back to Javid in fairly glowing terms regarding the council’s progress towards “change” since the fire. In none of their three reports to date have they used the words austerity or poverty – suggesting less an independent group and more an establishment cover-up. What is omitted is far more revealing than what is included in such reports: no mention of Canalside House, which the disgraced council tried to sell; no mention of Lancaster Youth Centre, left to rot by the council. No library, no college, no context…

Perhaps the idea is to narrow the scope of any scrutiny so that RBKC leaders can convince themselves they are changing. Certainly the long pause in the Grenfell Inquiry does not help. While in legal limbo, pursuing serious change might look like an admission of guilt by RBKC. It is not just business-as-usual with the council, there is a kind of forced joviality to the tone of their communications, inappropriate for a local authority apparently implicated in the Grenfell fire.

The result is an uneasy marriage between RBKC and local people who engage with them. With a functioning inquiry, if the possibility of guilty verdicts being handed to RBKC or TMO staff were less distant, or if the public could hear the evidence and start to understand the political background to the fire, it would curtail the council’s phony change agenda. The imposition of austerity would be harder to get away with and feel-good reality TV shows showing the resilient Grenfell community would be considered in bad taste. With some legal clarity it would not be possible for residents engaging with the RBKC change agenda to remain apolitical.

The council, who claimed to have “no intention of defending anything” at the inquiry, but then did just that in their opening statement, have to maintain the illusion that they are changing. They have to maintain it in their own minds at least, even while every political instinct they possess takes them back to the same policies and same approach as before 2017. Their inability to change has been exposed in all three case studies we have looked at and there is nothing substantial they can use to refute the damning evidence.

Change at RBKC?

There is no change in approach. Over £400 million has been spent on Grenfell ‘recovery’ – but who has recovered? The Conservative leadership. Meanwhile millions in cuts are imposed on North Kensington. As a governor at the main recovery site, using up more public resources, I saw the jig was up – there is no partnership, there is no change. I fear the Curve’s Board of Governors has sleep walked into being a tick box exercise for a highly ideological local authority who hide their true intentions behind well-paid bureaucrats and well-meaning residents.

Change at RBKC? No, they are still committed to austerity, and all that it brings, in North Kensington.

 

Tom Charles @tomhcharles

 

 

Change at RBKC? Case study 2

As reported previously, the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS) were commissioned to undertake an independent review of Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC) in July 2018 following the Grenfell Tower fire of June 2017, in which 72 people died. The CfPS made a number of recommendations which the council voluntarily agreed to adopt, including twelve recommended “principles of good governance.” We put RBKC’s adherence to their principles to the test with the first case study: the North Kensington community building, Canalside House. RBKC was found wanting, but will they fare any better as we look at Lancaster Youth Club?

 

CfPS

The main criticism of the CfPS independent review is that it provides very little in terms of effective tools to hold the Council to account…It seems the Council heard these critics and responded to say, “the council recognises that it (sic) essential to put these principles into practice.”.  However, the story of Canalside House (where community groups were told their building would be demolished and turned into luxury flats) demonstrated that RBKC are really struggling to stay true to their word on this.

The council has a plan of action.  Unfortunately, it seems to involve demolishing a lot of buildings purposed for community use.  Canalside House was not the only community space at threat of closure. Lancaster Youth Club, located by the crossroads of Ladbroke Grove and Lancaster Road, neighbouring two private schools (Chepstow House and Notting Hill Preparatory,) the historic North Ken library and the bohemian 19th century pub the KPH (now sold to property speculators,) was also threatened with demolition two years ago. Lancaster Youth Club is not far from Grenfell Tower in the north of the borough and a real asset for young people in an area where community space is at a premium. 

In 2017, the council proposed that the Youth Club be demolished (sound familiar?). According to RBKC: ‘the building whilst generally fit for purpose, is not energy efficient and is relatively costly to run for its size.’ The demolition of Lancaster Youth Club did not occur in 2017 as plans for regeneration were put on hold after the Grenfell Tower fire.  The space has lay empty ever since and Deputy Leader of RBKC, Kim Taylor-Smith rejected refurbishment work that would have made the building operational again. 

At the same time, the community has increased its provision to meet demand and community space is needed more than ever. EPIC, the Community Interest Company currently commissioned to run the centre, have had their contract extended until September 2019 when the Council will announce all newly commissioned youth services in the borough. Meanwhile, dust is left to accumulate at Lancaster Youth Club and workers do not know what will happen to the space or if their jobs are safe, but we are told to not be so cynical as the council has a plan. 

The Plan

The youth review, painstakingly carried out during 2018, claims that “young people were also involved in co-designing youth services” but it is expected that ultimately RBKC’s offer will be derisory due to the local authority’s commitment to austerity. Already it is clear that there will be very little space afforded to North Kensington’s young people, many of whom live in acute poverty in overcrowded accommodation[i].

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Gated Community – Lancaster Youth Club, currently unused, with an uncertain future

The Strategy for Redesign and Implementation of Youth Services states that the new youth offer ‘will consist of two main youth hub sites; one in the North of the Borough (Lancaster Road area), and one in the South (in Chelsea Riverside ward) and five youth club sites.’  Reading between the lines, it seems Lancaster Youth Club might be re-purposed as a youth ‘hub’ and is perhaps safe from demolition for now, but the real question is why young people, residents and community groups have not been kept in the loop? Why is the council not abiding by the principles it promised to adopt not just in theory but in practice?

A reminder of the principles: 

  1. “Connecting with Residents”
  1. “Focusing on What Matters”
  1. “Listening to Many Voices”
  1. “Acting with Integrity”
  1. “Involving Before Deciding”
  1. “Communicating What We Are Doing”
  1. “Inviting Residents to Take Part”
  1. “Being Clearly Accountable”
  1. “Responding Fairly to Everyone’s Needs”
  1. “Working as Team”
  1. “Managing Responsibly”
  1. “Having the support we need” (not relevant here as it only applies to internal RBKC issues)

 

Change?

In the case of Lancaster Youth, as with Canalside House, RBKC has willfully ignored its principles of good governance. CfPS offers no useful mechanism for ensuring change in the council’s approach.

The national government’s Independent Grenfell Recovery Taskforce, made up of four members, who report directly to Home Secretary Sajid Javid, similarly have no power to insist upon real change. They appear unaware of the 12 Principles, which do not feature in its latest report, which is little more than a whitewash, focusing on procedure rather than people. It fails to mention the Lancaster Youth Club or Canalside House, let alone discuss the needs of those who benefit from the services provided at each.

When the issue of the youth review was raised with a Taskforce member by the governors of The Curve, he responded by suggesting that North Kensington should be grateful that there is a youth service at all. The Curve is another community space that seems likely to be either abandoned by the council or expected to limp on with severe budget cuts in 2019.

This from a council that has spent in excess of £400 million on its own political survival since the fire. Now they are secure, will they deliver on any of the promised change? Or is North Kensington in a new phase of austerity and impoverishment?

Conclusion

Have the principles been put in to practice? Has change arrived? No.

 

By Anonymous*

 

*The author who submitted this article to Urban Dandy asked to remain anonymous to avoid any prejudicial attitudes being shown towards her community-based organisation by RBKC councillors or staff.

 

Some edits and additional information by Tom Charles @tomhcharles

 

[i] Overcrowding in the Golborne ward, which Lancaster Youth Club borders, is at 68% https://urbandandylondon.files.wordpress.com/2017/12/after-grenfell-inequality-report.pdf