“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.
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.
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 →
North Kensington is in a state of political, legal and emotional limbo. How and why? Here are summaries of some of the stories already published and the arguments already won….
This article contains references to the 14th June 2017 Grenfell Tower fire.
Two Significant Events
After the initial post-fire outpouring of grief, energy and hope, things have slowed to a crawl in North Kensington. The most significant developments have been with the Conservative leadership of the council (RBKC); its survival and consolidation of power.
Neither of these things was inevitable, with RBKC having to make promises of “change” to stay in power, then having to break the promises to prevent the dilution of its power in the north of the borough.
Two things will happen soon which could impact the current unsatisfactory and traumatising deadlock in North Kensington: The first is on October 9th when Kensington Labour party Councillors launch a People’s Convention in a bid to undercut RBKC’s business-as-usual approach.
This push for a greater say in decision making for Northern residents will be ignored by the Council, who will kick any devolution proposal into the long grass when Labour and groups of residents persist. Expect RBKC to employ its tried and tested bureaucratic mechanisms, outlined in detail in our previous article.
The Labour-led campaign for modest devolution is augmented by other moves aimed at balancing RBKC’s power with a more prominent role for residents.
Lynton Crosby-style tactics of calculating the absolute minimum they need to appear to be doing to pacify the population have carried RBKC this far. But their latest recovery gimmick, a gameshow-style decision-making process to distribute Grenfell-related funds, has only added to the sense that the local authority is unable to act in the interests of residents they hold in contempt.
Along with the devolution push, the upcoming findings of the Tutu Foundation’s investigation into alleged institutional racism, and the selection of a new Chair, at the Westway Trust could revive the sense that North Kensington is an area still alive with the ability to force justice and political change in the face of entrenched power structures.
The second upcoming event is the opening of phase two of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry in January 2020. Phase two will consider the design, refurbishment, fire safety and management of Grenfell Tower. It will also look at how the authorities communicated with residents, the immediate causes of the fire and the response to the fire by the relevant bodies.
The ability or otherwise of this phase of the Inquiry to move towards genuine justice will go a long way to determining whether North Kensington will ever be given the space it needs to recover from its collective and individual trauma.
While we wait for events to unfold, here are some truths that have been laid bare by our scrutiny of RBKC’s post-Grenfell performance so far:
1. The Tories Do Not Want to Change
The Kensington Conservatives will not change their approach any more than they have to. That much is evident from their performance since June 2017.
The post-fire Kensington Tories were smart enough to promise change. Without that promise, they might well have been removed or put into special measures by the national government. But the council’s record before the fire was so abysmal here in North Kensington that their piecemeal approach to change since has fallen woefully short of satisfying anybody.
Some people split hairs about RBKC’s performance over the past two years and identify some individual Tory Councillors or Council officers who at times appear sincere. This is probably more a reflection of how unbearable it is for some to acknowledge the reality of an uncaring culture operating within an indifferent system. Can it really be that after 72 deaths and widespread trauma, that there is no real change to either the rules or the power balance? Rather than face the harsh reality of the answer, some choose the palliative of picking out hopeful signs of potential change.
The Tory promise of change was followed by political maneuvers to deny this change actually happening, highlighted on this website over the past two years, see the links below. The logic for this is that there is more incentive for the Tories to not change than to change. To alter the power balance, even a little bit, would dilute Tory power in Kensington and might set an ideological precedent for other downtrodden areas to demand their own devolution and liberation.
On an individual level, these Councillors’ future careers as property developers, consultants (to property developers) and politicians (representing big capital – including property developers) hinge on their loyalty to one class at the expense of another. No horror changes this equation.
So while the people of North Kensington are retraumatised by unmet promises, RBKC has been able to get back to business-as-usual, with enough superficial ‘change’ peppering their work to satisfy the national government (represented by the implausibly meek Grenfell taskforce) and to convince themselves that they are doing good deeds on behalf of the ungrateful hordes.
2. Post-Grenfell Systems are Structurally Weak
RBKC cannot be persuaded or pleaded with to change. They could only be coerced by a rigorous system of checks and balances, so they avoid such a system. As we detailed in our investigation, How RBKC Subverts Democracy to Prevent Change, the policies put in place following the worst fire in Britain since World War Two lacked an implementation mechanism – it was left to the goodwill of Councillors with vested interests in keeping the status quo.
The Conservatives in Kensington Town Hall have manipulated the political system to avoid scrutiny. This is outlined, blow by blow, in our article. To do this was a political choice made by Cllr Elizabeth Campbell, her deputy Cllr Taylor-Smith and a host of highly-paid RBKC officers, starting with chief executive Barry Quirk and including many under him who have been complicit.
Nationally, the Conservatives need the Council in place. And at this point, Labour doesn’t see Grenfell as a big vote winner. Where is their outreach? Where is their mayor?
3. Trauma is Being Perpetuated
People in North Kensington have engaged with the process but have been re-traumatised and exhausted by their efforts being met with a lack of tangible change. They might not know what change looks like (revolution, devolution, evolution…), but they know what it isn’t.
A lack of seriousness when it comes to delivering change in North Kensington has left us in this purgatory, unable to move on. There is no argument about where the blame lies for this failure.
Attention now falls on political and legal efforts to deliver change and justice to a community that deserves both.
Writing about life in Kensington sometimes creates friction with Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKC), the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Association (KCTMO) and the Westway Trust. The three constitute what has been referred to locally as the Unholy Trinity.
Roles & Responsibilities
RBKC is the local government, responsible for provision of many public services and dominated by councillors from the Conservative party, which retained control of the Town Hall by winning the local election in May 2018. For years the political leadership of RBKC has been dominated by moneyed property speculators who have sought to sell off North Kensington’s public assets, such as its library, youth club and college.
KCTMO is an Arms-Length Management Organisation and was given control of the borough’s 9,000 social housing properties from 1996. It was taken in-house, back to RBKC, after the Grenfell Tower fire; KCTMO staff now work in the same roles but use council, rather than TMO, email addresses. KCTMO is being maintained as a legal entity at a high cost to residents so that it can participate in the Grenfell inquiry.
The Westway Trust is responsible for ensuring the mile of land under the A40 flyover in North Kensington is used for the benefit of the local population who suffer from the noise, darkness and pollution imposed by the Westway.
Power & Mortality
The three institutions form a power establishment in the north of the borough. Between them they have the keys to properties and can move families out of London; they hold the purse strings for many charities, small businesses and community projects. Senior positions at all three tend to be held by people with a capitalistic approach and a natural class bias for maintaining the status quo.
History has shown that their agendas overlap and, on their watch, Kensington is “the most unequal borough in Britain,” not an abstract fact: here in North Kensington we men live for 22 years fewer than the wealthier men in the south of the borough.
Writing in Kensington and possessing a modicum of socio-economic or political consciousness requires awareness of how the trinity impact the population.
It is important to explain the phrase Unholy Trinity as it is a pronoun for three paradoxical institutions. All three are significant local employers: the council has well over 2,000 staff; KCTMO over 200 and Westway Trust approximately 100 (these figures do not include casual or contracted-in workers). They also provide vital services, sometimes effectively. Within each of the three organisations are fine and noble people, but the Trinity have not only failed to alleviate chronic poverty but have added to the misery in North Kensington.
Despite the misery, they carry on. The council has weathered the political storm after the Grenfell fire, mainly by playing silly and propagating corporate waffle about ‘change’ and ‘stronger communities’. Nobody in North Ken believes it, but they have no way to reject it. The government’s taskforce that oversees RBKC on behalf of the Home Secretary offered only token criticisms in its latest report which was a whitewash serving only to veil RBKC’s ineptitude. The property parasites of RBKC have proved ignorant and unteachable when it comes to the rich culture and dynamic potential of North Kensington making them less useful to the area than his fleas are to a dog.
KCTMO has been absorbed into the council, along with thousands of outstanding repair jobs it couldn’t carry out, despite £11 million a year of public money. And the Westway Trust’s 2018 keystone cops AGM was a mess, with allegations already carried over from previous years going unanswered. Every establishment, profiteering instinct of the decision-makers within the Unholy Trinity leads them to mess up big time in North Kensington and it is not possible to shame them into improving.
Many staff members at these institutions are comfortable with constructive criticism of their big bosses, and often agree, but others get jittery when local writers consistently, accurately identify the seriousness of the failings and when the finger of blame points steadily at those whose doctrines have done so much damage to the people they are paid to serve.
Lancaster West – Urban Dandy
Urban Dandy started off in 2011 covering art, music, local businesses and whatever else we felt like talking about. Jen, Angel and I were always philosophical, ear-to-the-street, socially and politically conscious types though.
The blog was conceived on Lancaster West estate, which probably set in train the trajectory Urban Dandy has taken. In the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, in a climate of rage and truth, no issues were raised about our comments on the local power system. Now, in the post-Grenfell world, it’s different; people have adjusted their minds to circumstances that would have been unthinkable before 2017. Being sensitive to the times, it was inevitable that if we kept writing we’d come up against the Unholy Trinity.
The Masque of Empathy
It is painful to write but what we see now in North Kensington is a gravy train about to smash into the buffers. Profiteers motivated by personal gain, not limited to the business or political classes, have cashed in on tragedy. Integrity has been trumped by fear of missing out, not helped by the panic-stricken local authority almost literally throwing money (£400 million and counting) at the community, to maintain the established order, rather than investing in people to transform standards of living and create opportunities.
Financial corruption in the third sector, corruption of the minds of those who are first to proclaim their piety, adds to the corruption so obvious in the upper echelons of the council and KCTMO. The perversions possibly peaked with the presence of the leader of the council on the monthly silent walk for Grenfell. Her deputy feels relaxed enough to poke fun at those who attend council meetings to demand justice. Eighteen months is an infinitude in politics.
‘Change’ at RBKC amounts to a masquerade of empathy for which they are sent on training courses, funded by residents.
The Masque of Anarchy
Back to the blog, and when Mark joined us, we had London’s greatest poet, the perfect foil for news stories and the op-eds. Philosophical, social and poetic. Perhaps something is stirring in England, but in Kensington, the Royal borough, the Unholy Trinity still decides the life chances of many families and the council has a democratic mandate for power.
What to do? Blogging, or citizen journalism, is the fourth estate in this borough. Temporarily, Urban Dandy is the only show in town outside of the social media echo chamber. We hope we won’t be alone for long though: others cannot be matched for their assiduousness; and one local blog takes the fight to the Unholy Trinity almost daily.
Rage, though it manifests in our words, was never the purpose of Urban Dandy and it won’t chew us up. The power system endures because it was designed to, that is a fact of life but we remain philosophical, knowing that big doors swing on small hinges.
The second centenary of the Peterloo massacre is marked by Joyce Marlow’s brilliant, authoritative book. Making use of all that was published in Lancashire and across Britain at the time, she tracks the fear among the ruling elite of revolution in England and the spirited, non-violent call for dignified living conditions in Manchester that was turned into a massacre of its own people by the British army. The book also tells the story after the massacre as the population is subjugated by the state’s control of the courts, parliament, media and arms. In 2119, we hope historians researching the atrocity in North Kensington find our blog and recognise an honest account.
Stepping back and renewing is the early year theme of the poetry, articles and art on the blog, as we mop up the chaos of 2018 and look forward.
The anarchy we glimpsed in Summer 2017 has given way to the old order, and it is a great sadness that an alternative system for North Kensington has not been established. A mechanism to enable the community to make its own decisions in its own interests, which briefly seemed possible, is not even discussed any more. Squabbles and petty ambitions dominate North Kensington while the privileged, dividend-collectors at RBKC relax, bloated by their success.
Like any logical article, even a stream of consciousness comes full circle. In this case back to the Unholy Trinity. We’ve ignored the murmurs of discontent about our work and started 2019 with an insider account of alleged Westway Trust corruption and a serious look at the abuse of the word ‘change’ by RBKC. We’ll write whatever we feel like writing about and might step back from covering North Kensington’s Unholy Trinity quagmire. But stepping back means having a better view of the whole picture, and their injustice will remain on our radar…
The Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) was responsible for running the Lancaster West estate, including Grenfell Tower, in North Kensington. This year, its responsibility for Lancaster West was terminated following the Grenfell Tower fire of June 14th 2017, which killed 72 people. But what is KCTMO? Has it really ceased to exist? And why do these initials provoke such antipathy in North Kensington?
A Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) is traditionally a small, tenant-led group that takes over some of the landlord management responsibilities and oversight for an estate from a local authority. Of the 200 TMOs in Britain, the KCTMO was distinct in being an Arms-Length Management Organisation (ALMO) and therefore, by its very design, not representative of residents. KCTMO was created to directly take over the council’s management of its social housing, rather than to provide representative oversight.
The KCTMO story takes place against the backdrop of Conservative party predominance over the Kensington and Chelsea council. This was no different in 1996, when the council feared it might lose control of its social housing stock, which was subject to a compulsory tendering strategy from national government. To maintain its control, the council created the KCTMO, with its management team of 20, including, initially, 13 residents. In the plan, KCTMO would take control of the borough’s 9,000 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 Labour government’s Decent Homes funding, KCTMO became an ALMO, reducing the number of tenants on its board whilst maintaining the TMO designation in its name. By the late 00s, serious issues were emerging. An independent report in 2009 identified “substandard” repairs and a need for major works, recommending the Tory council take a greater role in monitoring KCTMO.
In response to the alarming report, newly appointed KCTMO chief executive Robert Black pledged to build trust between the TMO and tenants. But this did not come to pass.
In 2013, when I lived on the estate, the Estate Management Board at Lancaster West was wound up. There were “terrifying” power surges at Grenfell Tower and plans for the Kensington Academy secondary school and new Kensington Leisure Centre, next to Grenfell Tower were not received enthusiastically by residents, the sense being that KCTMO and the council were out of touch with, and even dismissive of, residents’ voices.
The council of Kensington and Chelsea has revived its plan to get rid of North Kensington community asset Canalside House and replace it with flats. The resurrection of the plan will be viewed by many as signalling the explicit return of the council’s long-standing policy of asset-stripping North Kensington. Will it be third time lucky for the council?
What is Canalside House and Why Does it Matter?
Opened in 1929, Canalside House is an integral and much-loved part of the North Kensington community, serving many hundreds of local people each year, including hundreds of children, the disabled and other vulnerable groups. It is ideally located at the north end of Ladbroke Grove, with excellent transport links. It continues to play a vital role for people in West London, including with its role as a hub for Grenfell recovery and support.