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.

Dearlove expanded the previously accepted definition of an interest group – private associations promoting their interests by seeking to influence policy rather than by nominating candidates for election – to incorporate groups who might not articulate specific demands but whose interests were already being attended to in policy and who wanted to keep it that way.

Interests

Dearlove heard Conservative councillors express preordained preferences for which policies should be pursued. Ideological biases “frequently served as arguments which were used by councillors to reject policy lines…urged on them by interest groups or the minority party.”[iv]  

Dearlove gave examples: one was a petition from residents of a North Kensington block of flats who wanted the council to purchase the properties following the financial collapse of the owner, Davies Investments. The residents wanted RBKC to either administer the block or sell it at a profit to a housing association. Housing associations were keen, and the district valuer had set a price at which RBKC could have compulsorily purchased the building. But the council rejected this idea on ideological grounds and the flats were bought by a private developer. A Tory councillor explained: “the people who have acquired the property are property experts and know what they are doing and should be left to get on with it.”[v]

At another meeting, Conservative councillors rejected a proposal to charge rates (what we now call council tax) on empty residential properties, with one councillor stating that to charge a landlord in such circumstances would be unfair because it would deter them from “trying to let it at the highest price.”[vi]  

RBKC’s Duty – 1968

The revolutionary fervour of 1968, in the United States, across Europe, even in Powis Square, must have felt a long way away from Kensington Town Hall for Dearlove when he interviewed 47 Conservative councillors and officers that Summer. He found that RBKC decision-makers judged interest groups based on three factors: who they were; their policy demands and their style of presentation.

Dearlove’s interviews revealed that councillors and officers considered it their duty to ensure:

  • The council played “a fairly small role…limited to the provision of statutory services.”
  • Low public expenditure, to meet the “needs of the ratepayers” (i.e. low council tax).
  • Balancing “providing for the underprivileged, housing and welfare services” with not “overburdening” car owners, ratepayers, a “certain type of resident.”
  • “The value of self-help, self-reliance and voluntary collective effort as opposed to government activity in the solution of public problems.”
  • Promoting and maximising the private administration of housing.

A council officer told Dearlove that the council could easily do more for residents, but stated: “we don’t make much use of permissive legislation, and that’s policy…every year it somehow comes about that only the essential is considered.”[vii]

League Table of Interests – 1968

The academic asked RBKC’s representatives to rank 20 local interest groups that had been active in ‘67 and ‘68. At the bottom of the league table, the groups considered ‘not helpful’ by the Conservatives, were Kensington & Chelsea Tenants Association and Kensington & Chelsea Inter-Racial Council. Dearlove: “The acceptance of those groups would involve not only the imposition of an additional burden on the council but could also involve the possible reversal of existing commitments.”[viii]

At the top of the table were interest groups whose presence in the public sphere jived easily with RBKC’s “favourable attitude to the voluntary principle, low taxation and private collective effort rather than government effort in the solution of public problems.”[ix] These favoured groups provided information and services that supported decision makers’ existing policy preferences; those who “instead of just shouting, get down to doing something”[x] as one councillor put it.

These preferred groups included Kensington Housing Trust and Campden Charities. RBKC’s motivation? From housing trusts, the council made money on loan interest as well as being relieved of some of the responsibility of providing affordable homes; charities likewise provided certain essential services, enabling the council to focus on its ideological priorities. Dearlove found an exact match between the favoured interest groups and the council’s policy predispositions. Moreover, favoured groups were found to use styles of communication considered “proper and correct” by RBKC, specifically they would raise concerns by contacting a local councillor “in a quiet, non-public way”[xi]. No favoured groups ever organised protests, campaigned via the media, or submitted petitions. All of these means were considered “a form of pressure”[xii] and therefore were dismissed, along with those who practised them.

Disorder?

What does it mean to have an impact locally? For Dearlove, it meant a group being able to influence policy. For certain interest groups in the north who didn’t pass RBKC’s three filters of approval (who they were, their policy demands, and their style of communicating) this meant watering down their demands and style of communication to have a chance of impacting policy. Such contortions caused groups and individuals to lose grassroots credibility and forego the support needed to represent others in the pursuit of change.  

Dearlove’s research identified RBKC’s default setting: low taxes and clean streets for the rich; the bare minimum permitted under the law for the rest. This level of class bias triggered occasional pushback. Dearlove witnessed four instances of what he described as “fairly anomic interest articulation”[xiii] from the public being met with the mayor clearing the public gallery on the basis of “disorder.”

The public was permitted to attend council meetings “but they may not participate or take part”[xiv] the mayor told them.

The earlier quote from a Tory councillor in 1968 – “instead of just shouting, get down to doing something” – was no isolated utterance. In 1967, the leader of the council lost patience with the Kensington & Chelsea Council Tenants Association, telling them publicly that RBKC were “not bad landlords (and) when we’ve had bad relations it’s because the tenants are communist-led and egged-on by their councillors.”[xv]

This ambivalence and anger towards campaigners for better conditions has remained a feature of local dynamics. It was reprised recently by Cllr Taylor-Smith, Deputy Council Leader and Lead Member for Grenfell, Housing and Property, by far the most consequential politician in post-2017 North Kensington. Facing the complaint that the council’s Grenfell Assembly had little or nothing to do with Grenfell, Taylor-Smith claimed: “it is often one of a small, but very vocal group, who are very much against any Council initiatives, but do not represent popular opinion.”

There’s no room here to run through the track record of RBKC’s ‘change’ policy instituted after the Grenfell Tower fire. But the impact of the council’s refusal to implement fundamental change has undoubtedly contributed to the most neglected areas of the north of the borough sliding deeper into poverty[xvi].  

Complex

Compared to Dearlove’s findings from the early years of the borough, post-Grenfell RBKC presents a more complex picture, partly due to the public relations approach the council deploys, which, by definition, is deceptive and confusing. While 1960s council decision-makers were clear about their priorities, at least in their interviews with the academic, the 2017-2022 iteration has found new ways to disregard the communities and interest groups of the north, while simultaneously peddling a story of ‘culture change’.

Have a look at the council’s management structure (before the May 2022 elections):

Most attending meetings with RBKC councillors and officers experience this structure as a web spun to keep decision-making from local people who don’t pass the three filters. For example, under ‘Directors/service heads reporting to Executive Director of Environment and Communities’ we see Tunde Olayinka, Director For Communities. This officer hosted The Curve Community Meeting in February, a trauma-fest in which local people were offered no means to impact the decision to close the council’s primary Grenfell recovery centre.

The role of the Director For Communities at this meeting was not to direct anything, least of all the communities in that room. The agenda was printed on cheap off-white paper, the flyer featured all the vocabulary that signals an official con: “Help decide,” “come and influence,” “really need you and your local knowledge and expertise,” “a chance for the Grenfell-affected community to come together to start co-designing the new Curve Residents’ Steering Group,” “oversee the budget,” “community conversation,” “be involved,” “process of co-designing” and more. Written by people who use words as a means of reinforcing process, rather than to accurately describe something, it was propaganda, the defining characteristic of RBKC’s communications.

The RBKC management structure forms a vortex, sucking in ideas that then vanish because the people whose minds produced them aren’t considered worthy. The three filters identified by Professor Dearlove live on.

Comparing RBKC in 2022 with Dearlove’s observations of the 1968 iteration, it can be argued that the current council is actually worse in terms of its openness to democracy and empowerment of people in the north of the borough. Let’s stick with The Curve to provide some evidence.

In 2018 a board of governors was appointed to The Curve, by way of interviews conducted by pillars of local civil society. The governors were there, ostensibly, to hold the council to account over its management of this focal point of post-fire activity. I was one of those governors, on a board that was approximately representative of North Kensington’s demographics. We quickly realised we weren’t governing anything. Understanding the value of space and buildings to the community’s future, and in a bid to salvage something from months of frustrating engagement with RBKC, we drew up a proposal to turn The Curve into something very different to the trauma incubator it had become.

Looking at Dearlove’s definition of RBKC’s three filters (who we were, our policy demands, our style of communicating) you would think that The Curve’s governors might have stood a chance at influencing policy.

Who we were: governors of the council’s own building, appointed by the council via their chosen interview panel.

Our policy proposal: With initial financial support from the council, The Curve would become an independent centre for both trauma recovery and employability in the industries of the future for North Kensington residents. The key features of the proposal were to make The Curve a centre of genuine holistic recovery and to offer serious options and guidance for young people seeking to upskill and engage fully in the economy.

Our style of communication: We presented a business plan containing frequent references to entrepreneurship and enabling people to become economically self-sufficient.

Of the three filters, only the policy proposal filter can explain RBKC’s rejection. As with 1968, an interest group that wanted to see transformative policy was rejected by the council. The governors’ proposed business plan was potentially transformative for local people and would have guaranteed a building for long-term community use. But, in a meeting with the Executive Director of RBKC’s Grenfell Team, Robyn Fairman, the proposal was not even considered. Decisions on The Curve were made at the Town Hall and anything that didn’t match what had been preordained wasn’t of interest.  

Fairman absorbed some of the verbiage of the governors’ vision into the council’s austerity plan for the area before leaving with a pay-off of just under £500,000 of taxpayers’ money in 2021.

With The Curve closed, the empty building is an allegory for an institution stuck in another era, regressive and undemocratic. Meanwhile, local communities aren’t stuck for solutions and ideas. Yet we continue to be frustrated and disempowered.

By Tom Charles @tomhcharles

Thanks to Sara Soliman Riaño

References:

[i] John Dearlove, Councillors and Interest Groups in Kensington and Chelsea, British Journal of Political Science, Vol.1 No.2, April 1971, pp. 129-153
[ii] John Dearlove, The Politics of Policy in Local Government, Cambridge University Press, 1973
[iii] London Housing Survey, 1968, pp. 10
[iv] Dearlove, Councillors and Interest Groups in Kensington and Chelsea, p.134
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Ibid., p.140
[viii] Ibid., p.143
[ix] Ibid., p.146
[x] Ibid., p.142
[xi] Ibid., p.141
[xii] Ibid.
[xiii] Ibid., p.267
[xiv] Ibid., p.136
[xv] Ibid.
[xvi] Two reports detailing the extent and impact of poverty are: ‘Poverty and Prosperity in Kensington + Chelsea. Understanding Inequalities in a Borough of Extremes,’ Kensington & Chelsea Foundation, 2021; and ‘The most unequal borough in Britain – revisited,’ Emma Dent Coad, 2020

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

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

Change at RBKC? Case Study 3: The Curve

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

0_curve

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