“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 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.
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.
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.
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.”
Emma Dent Coad, the only Labour politician to win Kensington in its true blue history, spoke to Urban Dandy about the Labour party’s decision to bar her from standing at the next general election.
Architectural historian, author, activist, and local resident Emma Dent Coad was elected to Kensington and Chelsea council in 2006. She campaigned on the full range of issues impacting residents in the most inequitable local authority in Britain including housing rights, poverty, and air quality. Dent Coad’s background in housing made her an ideal choice to be Labour’s 2017 parliamentary candidate in a constituency home to oligarchs and royals yet has seen a dramatic life expectancy decline in the borough’s poorest wards once austerity economics was imposed in 2010.
The councillor’s 2014 report, updated after the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, The Most Unequal Borough in Britain, used incontestable data to lay bare the shocking inequity of the borough where at one end 51% of children live in poverty vs at the other only 6% suffer this indignity. Dent Coad’s 2022 book, One Kensington, cemented her reputation as an expert on the impact of neoliberal economics in the borough.
On Friday, June 11th the final seat in the 2017 general election was declared and Dent Coad was elected MP for Kensington: a first-time Labour gain. Winning by 20 votes, Dent Coad joined the activist Labour MPs’ Socialist Campaign Group in parliament. The role of socialists diminished under New Labour, but backbenchers like Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, and Diane Abbott kept community-based democratic, internationalist socialist politics alive in parliament. Labour’s left-right, democrat-technocrat schism had widened under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, yet New Labour was confident enough in its political project to co-exist with anti-war backbenchers and their frequent rebellions.
Three days after the Kensington constituency victory, the fire at Grenfell Tower brought the local issues that Emma Dent Coad had campaigned on to national prominence, crystalizing her parliamentary priority: justice for Grenfell.
Party leader Corbyn and other Campaign Group members were supportive of North Kensington; but Labour’s bureaucracy was dominated by factional enemies, intent on sabotaging the leadership, and as came to be revealed, actively worked to deny Labour an election victory. The harassment of Diane Abbott, the diversion of funds from left-wing candidates in marginal seats to right-wingers in safe seats and smear campaigns were among the methods deployed by this group, which included Iain McNicol, Labour’s then General Secretary. In 2017, Labour finished just 2227 votes short of being able to form a government.
Internal Labour documents leaked in 2020 showed senior party bureaucrats favouring cronyism over Corbynism. They preferred Tory rule with all the misery that brings to their own party’s kinder, more equitable, leadership. As the leaks became public (albeit not reported in the mainstream news) Dent Coad revealed her campaign had received little support from Labour HQ even when it became clear that an historic win in Kensington was on the cards.
Dent Coad explained: “When the atrocity of the Grenfell Tower fire ripped through my neighbourhood, I was finally sent help from McNicol’s office. However, it quickly became clear that this was not the help requested; I needed assistance with my casework team, who were struggling to help those impacted by the fire, but instead the general secretary sent someone to police me.
“I had been going out every day, mostly on my own or with a couple of colleagues. There was no feeling at that time that I was in any kind of physical danger. However, on day three while I was addressing a crowd of local people, including a group of very distressed young men, my ‘helper’ attempted to drag me away, saying “Ian McNicol says you must get out of here”.
“Out of here? I lived there – and still do. These were my neighbours.”
Despite McNicol’s and other fifth columnists’ efforts, Dent Coad represented the shocked people of Kensington with grace and constant solidarity, pushing for justice against a series of hostile Home Secretaries and Communities Secretaries.
By 2019, Brexit dominated British politics, with battle lines drawn between those supportive of the democratic will of the people and those manoeuvring for another referendum. Chief among the latter category was Sir Keir Starmer QC who, with the patronage of Shadow Chancellor McDonnell, became Shadow Brexit Secretary.
Starmer, having committed political sabotage by reversing the leadership’s Brexit policy live on-stage at party conference, was reliant on McDonnell to survive on the front bench. McDonnell maintained that Starmer’s establishment profile was an asset, offsetting the activist image of other prominent Labour figures. McDonnell’s misjudgement, at a time when most Labour MPs were obsessed with stopping Brexit, stopping Corbyn, or both, forced Labour into an absurd position. For the 2019 election, Corbyn had to present a plan of negotiating a deal with the European Union, which would then be one of the options in another referendum, with prime minister Corbyn staying “neutral” on the EU exit agreement that he himself had made. In contrast, Boris Johnson could repeatedly declare that all 635 Tory candidates supported his “Get Brexit Done” strategy after he ejected 21 of his MPs from the party for backing Starmer’s opposition to the Conservatives’ exit deal.
Starmer’s Brexit sabotage created an unsustainable paradigm for Labour MPs in marginal seats. At a time when Labour could have been laser-focused on Corbyn’s campaign to transform the economy through popular policies, MPs were instead burdened with confused Brexit messaging.
The result was a landslide for the Conservatives, followed by Starmer’s emphatic win in the Labour leadership contest. Unlike the Tories, however, Starmer immediately abandoned his key election pledges.
In Kensington, reflecting the position of her constituents, MP Dent Coad campaigned as a Remainer. As well as the historically strong Tory vote, the incumbent had to contend with the Liberal Democrats’ repeatedly declaring that only they could stop the Conservatives and Brexit in Kensington and, despite polling clearly demonstrating they were a non-contender, the national media consistently parrotted these declarations. Thus, the Lib Dems cultivated a local following amongst anti-Brexit hardliners as The Guardian amplified their loose talk, advising Kensington residents to vote Liberal to stop Brexit. This combination, above all else, handed the Kensington seat to Tory Felicity Buchan.
Dent Coad has remained a local councillor and was elected leader of the Labour group at RBKC; Buchan voted against implementing the recommendations of the Grenfell Inquiry in the Fire Safety Bill.
Labour’s right, having fatally undermined the party from within in 2017 and ‘19, continued to attack its own. The Labour party has purged many grassroots members, detailed by al Jazeera reporting of a 500 GB leak of internal party documents. This data and its story were not reported by mainstream British media.
Al Jazeera’s documentaries reconfirmed that the “antisemitism crisis” in the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn was a fictional construct. Used to undermine lifelong anti-racist campaigner Corbyn, false claims of antisemitism were used to target MPs, councillors, officials, members, campaigners, and journalists. Using calculated and insincere tactics mimicking those of the McCarthyite era, Labour bureaucrats under McNicol deliberately slowed the investigation process of those accused. Showing a disregard for Jewish suffering, they enabled the notion that British Jews were under threat from Corbyn to become received wisdom. The accusation of antisemitism is so historically important that it should never be leveraged carelessly. When Jennie Formby, a Corbyn ally, replaced McNicol, the investigations process gained efficiencies and a seriousness in its fact-finding mission that led to the data-supported conclusion that less than 0.3% of Labour’s members had faced investigation, let alone been found guilty.
The media chose not to publish this underwhelming conclusion to the story. Having gorged themselves on exposés trashing the party’s grassroots, mainstream journalists remained silent on the results, facts, and findings. With media complicity, Keir Starmer was emboldened to attack the Labour left more directly and began a purge of socialists and activists from the party’s ranks.
Jeremy Corbyn’s and Emma Dent Coad’s commitment to those affected by Grenfell is an example of how to value everyone in society regardless of wealth, race, and creed. True leadership guides, supports and lifts success. An empathetic leader is dedicated to community and defends the contributions of those who may otherwise be swept aside or belittled by the wealth motivations of maintaining and increasing personal gain. Starmer’s defenders argue that his actions will get Labour into government. But leveraging an accusation as serious as antisemitism callously and insincerely to target and abuse grassroots members for personal gain is a shameful and abusive act, not an electoral strategy. The purposeful fear this has stoked is successfully silencing dissent and driving Labour further to the right, hence Corbyn losing the party whip in 2020 for mild pushback against his accusers.
This treatment of grassroots Labour members is wholly relatable to many people. Similar to the very real anxiety of the growing cost of living, food poverty, the heating crisis, the dismantling of public services and growing job insecurity, party activists not following the party line are silenced and isolated for fear that they may suffer the same public shaming and professional losses of Corbyn and Dent Coad, punished for championing the many over the few. The messaging is clear: anti-war anti-racists will be falsely accused, blamed, and shamed in the virtual town square. A powerful tool to silence discussion and dissent.
Urban Dandy strongly condemns antisemitism in all its forms. One manifestation of antisemitism scarcely mentioned is that of Labour politicians and officials manipulating and weaponizing it to stoke fear in Jewish communities and remove those that literally care for the poorer, marginalised elements of our society and want better healthcare, education, transit, and welfare for their fellow citizens.
This is the establishment utilising an evil that nobody could ever defend for personal gain, to protect the wealth of a few and ensure services are not given to the many. It is both calculated and gross. No one defends or associates themselves with an antisemite! To wield this accusation so broadly, even vaguely is absolutely unconscionable. Yet there is no recognition that it must only be used precisely, so important is it to defend those who could suffer under such oppression.
As you will read below, the antisemitism fiction was utilised by senior party bureaucrats to eliminate Emma Dent Coad from Labour’s candidate list here in Kensington, joining accusations as infantile as having ‘smiled or laughed’ at a comment made about Starmer to manufacture a context for their purge.
We sat down with Emma Dent Coad on the day that her successor as MP for Kensington, Felicity Buchan was announced as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Dent Coad describes this appointment as “the ultimate kick in the face for Grenfell bereaved and survivors. She’s voted with everything the Tories have done. She’s never even spoken on housing.”
Urban Dandy: How are things at Kensington CLP (Constituency Labour Party) after what happened to you?
Emma Dent Coad: “People are supporting different candidates, in good faith according to their personal priorities. But what we need is somebody to truly represent Kensington. Grenfell was a symptom of what’s been going on here for 50 years, but in Kensington and Chelsea deprivation and inequality is unforgivable because the Council has the funds to tackle it. In my book ‘One Kensington’ I show that during the austerity years when many councils lost a lot of funding, we lost very little government funding because Business Rates Retention, which was designed to soften the impact of cuts, brought in so much money.
“In terms of the local party, we should be a healthy, broad church. We should work together campaigning to get the elected candidate elected. We did even when Blair was leader and the Iraq War was affecting so many residents. It was tough campaigning, but we did it. Our then MP Karen Buck voted against the war; she wasn’t blocked from re-standing.
“I’d like to know more about the remaining candidates. What they’ve done to support communities. I’d like to see their full CVs. Some of the candidates don’t have much of a footprint from their previous work.”
UD: What happened when you were barred from being a candidate? What’s the process?
EDC: “I was asked to attend a “due diligence interview” and emailed a list of alleged ‘crimes’ a few days before the interview. At the interview, there are three members of the panel and one observer. The chair of the panel makes the decision.”
UD: So, it’s a real interview? Or have they already made the decision by the time you get there?
EDC: “It felt like they’d already made the decision.”
UD: Officially, why were barred from standing? We saw a list of the reasons online, and they were ridiculous. But were there any where you thought ‘fair enough, I can just about see their point there’?
EDC: “No, there weren’t any that felt fair, and some were simply inaccurate or wrong, like things I couldn’t have done because they were during lockdown, and I was at home for months recovering from cancer. One of the things on their list was that I went on a Counterfire march during lockdown. The thing is, Counterfire don’t organise marches. It was a Stop the War Coalition march in 2019 and there was a photo of me. In the background was somebody holding a Socialist Appeal placard. My crime was standing near someone who was holding a placard from an organisation that was proscribed – two years after the march.”
UD: Is it all just things from social media? Do they just go through people’s social media accounts till they find something they decide they can use against them?
EDC: “It feels like that.”
UD: What else was on their list?
EDC: “A lot of it was Thought Crime, a lot of it was straw-clutching, things you wouldn’t give a second thought to. They created a long list of these things then concluded I have “poor judgment” so shouldn’t be a Labour candidate.”
UD: So, the length of the list is used to justify the decision even though it’s all fluff?
EDC: “Yes. Prince Harry came up, and when they read it the chair actually laughed at the joke I made about whether or not he was able to fly a helicopter. This was at a Republic meeting. So I’m allowed to be a republican and I’m allowed to be a pacifist but can’t crack silly jokes. One of the ‘crimes’ was that when I was an MP I spoke at a CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) rally in Parliament Square. Bruce Kent was speaking, so I listened to him, then I gave my speech, and then went back to work. During the rally, somebody played guitar and sang a song that the chair said was ‘offensive.’ I didn’t even hear it, but that was on the list.
“It’s guilt by association – joint enterprise if you like – and nothing I said in the interview would have made a difference.”
UD: So, it’s called a ‘due diligence interview’ but it isn’t really due diligence?
UD: Did antisemitism come up?
EDC: “Yes. I had ‘liked’ a comment years ago on Facebook that one elderly Jewish CLP member had made to another elderly Jewish CLP member, criticising Israel. It was a short factual comment, but this was deemed antisemitic; this was well before the IHRA definition was adopted by the way. When I was elected to parliament, I voluntarily arranged to meet the Board of Deputies; as far as I know, I’m the only MP to have done this. It was a positive and helpful meeting. I also did antisemitism training twice with the Jewish Labour Movement. Words matter and we need to be careful with how we describe others. So I generally kept quiet about the Middle East, which is hard when you have so many constituents with family there, and you can’t speak out for them without being accused of something so repellent.”
UD: Do they at least show appreciation for the work you’ve done over the years before they tell you you’re not allowed to stand? Is there a sense that they value your contribution?
EDC: “No, there was nothing.”
UD: Did they mention Grenfell?
EDC: “Grenfell wasn’t mentioned once. I think they want to make it go away.”
UD: So, they don’t have to justify their accusations?
EDC: “No. One of the things was that I criticised Labour’s lack of policies last year. But they weren’t coming out with any policies, I was just stating a fact.”
UD: The thing that stayed with me most from the al Jazeera documentaries was that the people who were being targeted by the party were really innocent people who had probably never thought about any kind of factional rivalries. They were just trying to do their best for their communities and they were subjected to harassment and abuse for no good reason.
EDC: “It’s really difficult. They say all these things about you and then you’re vulnerable. As I was coming here, I heard somebody behind me call my name and for a second I thought ‘oh no’ because it could be somebody abusive. But it was my neighbour saying ‘Don’t worry, Emma, we don’t believe this stuff,’ and he gave me a hug.”
UD: Who was on the panel?
EDC: “Three NEC members and one observer. One of the panel had already publicly declared their support for one of the other potential candidates in Kensington. We reported this conflict of interest but there was no response at all. The panel were clearly all on the right wing of the party; I didn’t stand a chance.”
UD: What is your take on the national Labour party now?
EDC: “It’s a shame they’re narrowing the sphere. The world is changing all the time and we need people with a variety of experience. There is little or no expertise in the built environment in parliament, and that is something I can offer. After 40 years in the party, I’ve always been in the Labour family, and it has been inclusive. Not now.
“More than anything it’s difficult to have been blocked rather than having the chance to present myself to local membership as a candidate.
“But we are where we are. I’m a team player, and I will continue to represent residents as I have done for the past 16 years.”
By Jennifer Cavanagh @Jannanni & Tom Charles @tomhcharles
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.
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 →
Now & again, we are invited to deliver writing workshops for young people. Here’s what I like to tell them…
I tell them that the aim of the workshop is for them to write skilfully, to express their ideas creatively and with confidence. We encourage them to take ownership of their English language; it belongs to them, not their teachers, schools, or exam board.
Why does writing matter?
Because people think with words, vocabulary is very important; it allows us to understand ourselves, each other, and our world. And all jobs require communication, from applications to emails, to writing reports, and blogging – a way with words boosts your chances of success in any career.
We always emphasise that we are not there to judge them. We aren’t following the national curriculum. We are genuinely curious about what they have to offer. Usually, blank faces look back but some grasp this concept of creativity for self-expression and liberation. Writing is largely a self-taught discipline; anybody can develop a style that works for them, with enough practice.
Words can be used for various reasons – to hurt, inspire, inform, lighten, uplift, and connect. People without words are frustrated and angry, they feel impotent.Continue reading →
North Ken News is a Kensington & Chelsea Council magazine, delivered to thousands of residents in the borough’s less affluent wards. Ill-conceived and half-heartedly produced, it typifies a local authority lacking the ambition to truly change following the Grenfell Tower fire.
In January 2019 Kensington & Chelsea Council (RBKC), after holding ‘Creating Stronger Communities Conversations,’ produced its Grenfell Recovery Strategy, saying the document “demonstrated a strong desire” on the part of local residents “to shape recovery directly, building on the existing strengths and talents of communities.”
The aspirations RBKC identified in its consultations with locals included:
RBKC enabling “stronger community leadership”
RBKC tapping into “existing skills and networks” and
“The need to improve Council communications to all North Kensington residents”
North Ken News, along with other mass distribution puff pieces, are RBKC’s responses to the frustrations raised about the council’s communications. These publications amount to little more than public relations for a disgraced local authority. A true provider of grassroots news and analysis, the blog THis Is North Kensingtonsummarised North Ken News as “PR self-analysis of the supposed Grenfell Strategy.”
Norland Ward in Kensington & Chelsea is 0.2 miles from Grenfell Tower. In a rational political culture, local politicians seeking election in that ward on Thursday would express support for the victims of the Grenfell fire and solemnly vow to address the worsening economic and social inequality that characterises North Kensington. But in the Royal Borough, pushing policies of injustice and inequality can guarantee you a safe seat, as the Tory candidates make clear in their campaign literature.
We previously looked atKensington & Chelsea News, the local Conservative Party’s main election propaganda, which sets out their key policies: bin collections, borough-wide parking permits, clean air, low council tax, saving the local police station and money for parks. While some of these pledges are contradictory and some are probably fibs, they are accompanied by the biggest profanity of all; council leader Elizabeth Campbell claiming that “continued support and meaningful recovery for the communities most affected by the Grenfell tragedy will be at the heart of everything we do.”
North Ken Censored
The election propaganda for Norland Ward is more of the same, talking up the threat of a Labour-run council, promoting absurd policies, and ignoring residents in the north of the borough. Even though Norland’s boundary reaches into North Kensington, there is no mention of Grenfell or the poverty that plagues the area.
The Conservative candidates, Stuart Graham and David Lindsay, have ultra-safe seats and plenty of political space to express any conscience or vision they possess. They instead follow the council strategy of studiously ignoring North Kensington. They state they are “committed to standing up for the residents of Holland Park and Notting Hill,” omitting North Kensington completely.
The Norland campaign literature is aimed squarely at those who already live in comfort. In the irrational borough, this group is attended to slavishly: “We need a council that has a record of standing up for residents and delivering more while costing less.”Continue reading →
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.
‘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 →
“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.
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.
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.
Four years and three months of trauma have unfolded since the Grenfell Tower fire which claimed the lives of 72 people in London’s North Kensington. Those with the power to facilitate justice and recovery have chosen alternative courses of action, victimising residents while protecting their own narrow power interests. So, it is unsurprising that the final betrayal looms.
The Government seems as though it is on the brink of disregarding the bereaved, survivors, wider community, even the notion of the sanctity of life, in deciding the fate of the Grenfell site, without consulting those most affected.
A leak to The Sunday Times a fortnight ago broke the news that the tormented structure is to be “torn down” due to unspecified “safety fears”.
The leak came from “senior Whitehall sources” who described the plan to fell the Tower as a “fait accompli”, making a mockery of the Government’s own Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission which has worked to “ensure that the bereaved families, survivors and North Kensington residents lead decision-making on the long-term future of the Grenfell Tower site”.
There is resistance locally to the Tower being taken down. Not just because there is no expert consensus on it being unsafe but, more importantly, many among the bereaved consider it to be the burial ground of their loved ones; a sacred place.
This latest insult to the victims is no anomaly. From the outset, those with power have cynically contradicted their own performative pronouncements of ‘change’ to deny the victims the means to rebuild our tight-knit community.
A month after the fire, newly installed Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKC) Leader, Elizabeth Campbell, used the word “change” 11 times in a speech to survivors. At the same meeting, one of those survivors pleaded with the council: “I beg you, do not play a game with us. I beg you, do not tell us lies. I beg you, do not waste our time.”
But Campbell’s claim of change has not converted into action and the desperation of the community has endured.
Theresa May also promised action when she was Prime Minister, with new homes to be offered to survivors within three weeks of the fire. RBKC’s 1,200 long-term empty homes, 9,300 second homes, and 6,000 homes owned by companies registered in tax havens were not utilised. Instead, the council – overseen by the Government’s Gold Command and Grenfell Taskforce – made survivors endure excruciating waits to be rehoused, often offering inappropriate flats.
Sajid Javid, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary at the time of the fire, declared in its aftermath: “The legacy of Grenfell can and must be a whole new approach to the way this country thinks about social housing… It demands nothing less.”
In 2018, RBKC followed suit, stating that the Lancaster West estate, the site of Grenfell Tower and a target of RBKC’s rapacious social cleansing before the fire, was to become a “model for social housing in the 21st Century”. By 2020, this vision had been downgraded to “a model 21st Century improvement programme” with the estate receiving no more money per property than other estates in the borough.
With the local authority missing in action when the Tower burned, the local community stepped in to provide emergency support and relief. Yet, in 2018, with local children suffering from trauma, RBKC cut £1.1 million from its youth services budget. Gold Command and the Taskforce made no intervention. The Government was silent again when, that same year, RBKC attempted to sell-off one of the area’s last remaining community centres, Canalside House – only stopped by a grassroots campaign.
The council scrapped its Grenfell Scrutiny Committee in 2019 following a ‘consultation’ attended by 15 people. Attempts to democratise life in the borough have been blocked by the local Conservative Party, that dominates the wealthy central and southern areas but has no mandate in the north of the borough.
While the streets around Holland Park – a mile from Grenfell Tower – have flats that sell for £10 million, North Kensington is sliding backwards across a range of indicators. A Moroccan man residing there can expect to live for 20 years less than white British man in the south. Infant mortality has risen alarmingly in the north since the Conservative Party’s austerity campaign, the 2009 rate almost tripling by 2019.
In this context, the local and central Government’s response to the fire has been little more than public relations spin. It has safeguarded its authoritarian grip over this borough of obscene wealth, royals and oligarchs but has done nothing to empower those so devastated by the Grenfell atrocity.
Taken individually, each betrayal can be rationalised as a mistake. Taken together, they represent the systematic abuse of the Grenfell victims.
North Kensington is now a neighbourhood frozen in time, at the exact moment when 24-hour news crews departed the scene in 2017. Lives have continued, further elections have been fought, but the trauma is still lodged in our bodies. We cannot undo what happened, and we are still waiting for justice.
Those with the power to improve our lives have only worsened the torture by repeating the soothing ‘change’ mantra, calculated to ensure that whatever is offered to the community by way of empowerment remains illusory, superficial and, ultimately, humiliating.
With all other attempts by the community to engage with the Government having ended in frustration, the Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission represents the last hope of controlling the legacy of Grenfell.
With 10 representatives from the community (five next of kin, three former Grenfell residents, and two Lancaster West residents) the Commission’s stated aim is to “develop a community-led vision for the memorial” which will then be implemented by the Government.
Staffed and run by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (now the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities), it has been handicapped from the outset.
The Memorial Commission has suffered from the inevitable consultation fatigue of RBKC’s four years of ‘community engagement’. Just 17% of Grenfell households and 4% on the rest of the estate voted to elect the community representatives.
No checks and balances on Government power exist. On the fate of the Tower, the Government is the strongest player.
At a Memorial Commission meeting this year, I advised the co-chair and the community representatives to review the terms of reference as a matter of urgency. Without decision-making power, their function is merely to facilitate the Government and council with a masquerade of ‘consultations,’ ‘change’, and ‘community-led’ ‘co-design’.
The Sunday Times story exemplifies that power imbalance. By undermining the community’s ability to decide, the Government is stripping us of our most basic dignity.
Primarily, it has not explained the ‘safety concerns’ that exist in relation to the Tower and why, if they are so serious, the children of Kensington Academy are back at school in the shadow of the structure. It is understood, with second opinions gleaned from other architects, that at least 10 of the 24 floors of Grenfell Tower could be preserved and incorporated into a fitting memorial.
There is plenty of discussion in North Kensington about the fate of the Grenfell site. The community should be empowered to decide how to honour those lost, rather than being hamstrung by the machinations of government.
Differences of opinion on this personal and sensitive issue exist, but there is also an apparent consensus on the site becoming green; a place of nature and tranquillity, open to everyone, a symbol of hope, peace and dignity.
As well as being the UK’s most traumatised area, North Kensington is the country’s most polluted, dominated by the A40 Westway flyover, which was imposed on the local population in 1970 and causes one in 12 local deaths with its pollution. An immersive experience of nature, using the Biofilic design movement, would facilitate reduced anxiety and depression, would be welcomed in this concrete jungle.
Why not be ambitious? Smaller cities than London have shown what is possible: Singapore’s solar-panelled Supertrees; Paris’s rooftop urban farm; and, perhaps most presciently, Milan’s Vertical Garden, built in a tower block.
There is no shortage of imagination and inspiration here in North Kensington. But to create something impressive and effective as a memorial, an empowered local community is a prerequisite. We need a safe space to implement the will of the people – without leaks, games, spin, insults and pain. If we are disenfranchised yet again, the memorial will be insufficient to honour the scale of the loss and pain.
There must be no “fait accompli” regarding the way we, as a community and as a nation, honour the victims of Grenfell. The site must never become a reflection of establishment control; devoid of imagination and empathy, a symbol of class war and indifference.
The legacy of the Grenfell Tower can and should be a break with the past and become a green sanctuary representing the vibrancy of North Kensington.
By Tom Charles @tomhcharles
Photo by Melanie Juno Wolfe / North Kensington Community Kitchen
This article was first published by theByline Times@BylineTimeson 23rd September 2021