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

THE HOMECOMING

Gently I stroll barefoot

Across the dew-soaked grass

The sun slowly rising

My feelings, my emotions stretching

Dusting off the fine particles of my subconscious dreams…

Is this the Promised Land?

I cannot return to the wilderness

Never again do I want to feel

It’s hard sand between my toes

Or hear the jackals howling at the moon…

I have made it this far

To the land of giants

Where their walled cities stand defiant…

Leaving behind my former self

Shredded like an old snakeskin

Blown away by the breeze…

This flawed, weak man 

Like a piece of driftwood

Made smooth by sea and sand

Tossed casually into the eternal flame

A sacrifice of unconditional Love

To glow amongst the embers

Finally, home

Finally free………………….

Mark C Bolton, August 2022

INITIUM NOVUM

A calmness entered my soul

Just briefly I was complete

Everything made sense

Feeling that inner peace 

Of refusing to fit in or go with the flow

I was right all along

The never ending war inside my head

Slowly rescinding as I accepted defeat…

Knowing I just had to be me

Taking risks-Putting it all on the line

No fear of rejection 

For there is truly nothing to reject

Being human wanting to love

To be intimate-To care

Sharing a moment in time 

For reasons I know not…

Gentle touches-A stolen kiss

Yet everything is slipping away

A landslide of the heart

Swaying like a reed in the breeze

Reaching out-Reaching inward

To feel-To grab

Hanging on to the thin thread of hope

Falling backwards into space

Beyond time-Towards darkness…

Then comes the bright piercing light

Blinding-Cleansing my soul

As I am born once more

Trying to hold on 

To my knowledge my experiences

But it’s all slipping away

Slowly slipping away

Knowing nothing once again……..

M C Bolton, July 2022

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

CROSSING THE RUBICON

Slowly I walk down slippery stone steps
A mist hovering over the Thames like mustard gas in no man’s land!
The creeping barrage inside my head
Keeping me one step behind insanity
Being by the river chills my bones, yet I feel truly alive
Connected to the past….
My own feelings, emotions like an old door
Drifting away on the current of time
I am stripped naked internally, laid bare
Left only with my faith in the power of deep Love….

Something has happened in my heart
This old warrior king has found his Queen
But the closer I get to her
The further she seems away!

I am sick of this world
The madness, dividing, faux religiosity, virtue-signaling hypocrisy!
Tombs full of dead man’s bones
Whitewashed to make death look magnificent!

Fumbling for some change
To give a kind-faced beggar
Who’s eyes reflect his crushed plans, broken dreams
My mind returning to rule my heart
I think of her, she has captured me I’m no longer free
Two lovers walk by holding hands
I spy their aura as they stop to kiss , embrace
Before disappearing quickly into the night
Like ghosts in a hurry
Returning to the graveyard before dawn
Their’s is a story within my own story…

Perplexed I sit upon a bench
Wheezing in the damp air
No fear, for my assassin has always been myself
Why this? When I had everything in order, planned out?
You entered my heart
Trashed its kitchen!
But don’t leave me,
Don’t go now!
It would be too much to bear
For I truly love you deeply………..

M C BOLTON

JANUARY 2022

What Happened to Lancaster West?

“Following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, there was clear recognition of the need to make real improvements to the Lancaster West Estate and the need to have the residents lead the process. Both the Council and central Government have committed funding to support an ambitious and resident-led refurbishment of the Estate. The Council has promised to refurbish the Lancaster West Estate sensitively, collaboratively and to create a model for social housing in the 21st century. Residents are and will continue to be at the heart of shaping any future work throughout the delivery of the programme. There will be no demolition of people’s homes.”

Your housing future: helping you decide,’ published by RBKC, July 2018 (our emphases)

The above quote from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) expresses a clear intention to transform Lancaster West Estate, site of the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017. Despite the fine words, the residents who are supposed to help lead the estate’s recovery say they are being treated as “an afterthought” by RBKC. There is little evidence of a transformation of the estate amid accusations that the local authority is backtracking on its commitments. We spoke to several residents who are involved in management and oversight of the estate to find out what has happened.

First, a little background…

Lancaster West

Lancaster West estate in west London, is home to 795 households, making it the largest estate in Kensington and Chelsea and one of the largest in the capital. It opened in the mid-1970s as part of Britain’s post-war slum clearance. The estate’s one high-rise block was Grenfell Tower, which still stands, covered, following the 2017 fire that took 72 lives prematurely and traumatised the whole North Kensington area.

In the shadow of the tower are the brutalist low-rise blocks, Hurstway Walk, Testerton Walk and Barandon Walk, designed as high-rise towers laid on their sides. These low rises are ‘streets in the sky’ based around communal green areas, designed by architects Clifford Wearden and Peter Deakins in 1963/64. A similar design, with connecting first floor walkways, was envisioned for nearby Camelford Walk, Clarendon Walk and Treadgold House, but the plans were abandoned and in-house architects at RBKC built these blocks in a less ambitious style, hence the diversity of styles which gives the estate its disjointed appearance.

Map of Grenfell Tower and the neighbouring walkways, part of the Lancaster West estate*.

Grenfell Tower is a 67.30-metre (220 ft 10 in) tall building and contained 120 one- and two-bedroom flats housing up to 600 people. In 2016 the tower was given an £9.2 million refurbishment, including new windows and cladding to improve the building’s appearance. The facelift made the tower more congruent with its immediate neighbours, the newly built Kensington Academy secondary school and the rebuilt and modernised Kensington Leisure Centre.

From 1996 to 2018, Lancaster West estate was overseen by Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO,) an arms-length management organisation (ALMO) that managed RBKC’s 9,000 social housing properties. The motivation for RBKC’s handing over of responsibility to KCTMO in 1996 was its fear of losing control of its social housing stock which had become subject to a compulsory tendering strategy introduced by the national government. To maintain its control of the housing stock, the council created the KCTMO, with a management team of 20 that initially included 13 residents. In the plan, KCTMO took control of the borough’s social housing properties, but for major works (costing over £400,000, such as the Grenfell Tower refurbishment) liability was shared equally with the council.

In 2002, to access the government’s Decent Homes funding, KCTMO dropped most of the residents from its management setup and became an ALMO, maintaining the misleading tenant management title. In 2009, an independent report by Local Governance Limited, identified “substandard” repairs and a need for major works across the borough’s social housing properties, recommending the Tory-run council take a greater role in monitoring KCTMO. In response, KCTMO chief executive Robert Black pledged to build trust between the TMO and tenants. To say he failed to meet that pledge would be an understatement.

In 2013, the Estate Management Board at Lancaster West was wound up. There were “terrifying” power surges at Grenfell Tower and plans for the new school and leisure centre were not received enthusiastically by many residents, the sense being that both KCTMO and the council were out of touch with, and even dismissive of, residents’ voices. It was widely understood that Lancaster West, like much of North Kensington’s community space, was in the sights of RBKC’s senior Councillors, whose personal wealth is often increased by their involvement in the property market. Even the council’s own chief executive, Barry Quirk, has described pre-fire RBKC as “a property developer masquerading as a local authority”.

Picture from lancwest.com/

In 2015, the Grenfell Tower refurbishment began, and the ongoing Grenfell Inquiry is revealing the corners that were cut to save money at the expense of safety. Those of us who have lived on the estate have lived with a landlord determined to oversee the managed decline of our homes. Those without that lived experience also have ample evidence, thanks to Grenfell Action Group, of the contemptuous attitude of both RBKC and KCTMO towards Lancaster West residents, their resistance to resident empowerment, collaboration and improvements to living conditions. While Grenfell Tower was receiving its refurbishments, the rest of Lancaster West saw no meaningful improvements whatsoever, and the deterioration of the estate continued.

Street art, Penzance Place, Notting Hill

Change

Following the June 2017 fire, RBKC unambiguously promised change. The council’s North Kensington recovery strategy, in both word and spirit, gave this as a vow to the residents of Lancaster West.

In a July 2018 document, ‘Your Housing Future’ RBKC stated: “The Council has promised to refurbish the Lancaster West Estate sensitively, collaboratively and to create a model for social housing in the 21st century” and “Residents are and will continue to be at the heart of shaping any future work throughout the delivery of the programme”.

In a document titled Our commitments to those affected by the Grenfell Tragedy, RBKC also made a commitment to achieve, by June 2020, complete refurbishment of Lancaster West so “the estate is somewhere residents are proud to live”.

RBKC’s new, more caring tone and rhetoric has been evident across all its public pronouncements since June 2017. There is no question that they have been consistent in that regard. But does the language reflect tangible improvements on the ground on Lancaster West?

We spoke with several residents heavily involved in the management of the estate to get their insights into what changes have been made, whether there has been genuine collaboration and whether Lancaster West’s trajectory is really heading towards a state-of-the-art model for 21st century social housing.

Residents Speak

The Lancaster West residents/officials we spoke to told us the following:

  • A 2018 ‘Ideas Day’ was a hopeful beginning for Lancaster West’s recovery. RBKC worked collaboratively with residents and architects to develop ideas. The architects were enthusiastic about the scope of the project, with their plans published in June 2018, but then “got pissed off because nothing happened for months.”
  • The £40,000 allocated per property is not enough to transform the estate into the promised “model for social housing in the 21st century.” Those we spoke to all agreed that the figure reflects a lack of sincerity on RBKC’s part regarding Lancaster West and that the council has now reverted to its “property developer” type.
  • The per-household figure, just under £40,000, allocated to Lancaster West, is actually the same or lower than the amount allocated per property by RBKC for its social housing stock across the borough.
  • Some of the residents we spoke to had been on a fact-finding trip to Portsmouth to see an estate that had undergone a significant and successful refurbishment. The Residents’ Association member who attended told us that the Portsmouth estate received investment of £100,000 per unit. RBKC, the richest local authority in Britain, which held reserves of a third of a billion pounds before the fire, was looking to achieve its stated aims with under half the per-unit budget of the Portsmouth estate.
  • The £9.2 million Grenfell Tower refurbishment meant that approximately £77,000 was spent per unit and the members of Lancaster West Residents Association (LWRA) we spoke to think this figure should be starting point for the wider Lancaster West refurbishment.
  • Central government gave £25m to Lancaster West but this has been treated by RBKC as an excuse to reduce their own commitment to the estate. More on this below.
  • RBKC has spurned opportunities to borrow at very low interest rates to enable it to boost the Lancaster West recovery.
  • RBKC is “prioritising the allocation of recovery funds to those who have the greatest ability to sue the council, namely Grenfell survivors and bereaved”.

Funding of Lancaster West

A pattern of money awarded, then money withheld from Lancaster West has emerged since the North Kensington Recovery Strategy was published. It is a pattern that undermines the council’s key promises: genuine collaboration, sensitivity and a model for social housing, according to all four people we spoke to.

There have been two phases of funding of the estate’s recovery. £30 million was initially received, with £15 million coming from central government and £15 million from the council. This rose later to £57.9 million. The additional money was added when it became clear that £30 million was not enough and consisted of £18 million from central government and just under that amount from RBKC. The council did not want to match central government’s offer.

That amount can be further bolstered by accessing the Mayor of London’s Energy Efficiency Fund and taking a low-interest loan. But we were told that when this was mooted by residents, they were told by RBKC: ‘You have nearly £60 million. If you receive more, we have to cut back the budget.’

A similar response came from RBKC to the prospect of a grant from the government’s Heat Networks Investment Project for Lancaster West to have environmentally friendly communal heating. The grant required the estate to have safe external insulation (in the form of cladding) applied to its exterior to make it more energy efficient. But concerns about cladding are not the motivation for RBKC’s reticence to follow through on supporting such moves. According to one person we spoke to, RBKC “keep clawing back funding when Lancaster West accesses funding elsewhere”.

We were told that RBKC’s Housing Revenue Account (HRA), the income the council gains from its housing stock, is not treated by the council as income to be re-invested in communities. The same resident told us: “They (RBKC) see social housing as a privilege. The estate makes a profit for the council from rent, service charges and council tax. The HRA income alone should be enough to pay for capital works on Lancaster West”.

Pattern

The pattern outlined by a number of the Lancaster West resident officials we interviewed is that the council capitalises on any funding secured by residents to cut its own outlay in contradiction of its stated commitment to the estate’s revival.

But Lancaster West is not an isolated example, carried out by one department, or one officer looking to tighten the purse strings. It reflects a pattern of governance by RBKC since the fire: The council’s documents and public pronouncements claim a newfound commitment to North Kensington; this satisfies those who have overseen the local authority, such as the government’s Grenfell Taskforce and the national media; the council then betrays residents by not following through on its commitments, or it pursues policies and strategies that not only do not meet their lofty exclamations of “change” but that actively and collectively neglect and punish residents in the north of the borough.

There are numerous examples of this pattern playing out, some covered previously by Urban Dandy including the council’s light touch approaches to applying its own Twelve Principles of Good Governance and its Charter for Public Participation. Seen in this context, the failure of RBKC to meet its stated goals on Lancaster West is no aberration but part of a deliberate shift back to pre-Grenfell austerity and the denigration of long-suffering residents.

Relations with RBKC

According to the residents we spoke to, the council refuses to collaborate with them in upgrading the estate. Regarding a recent council scrutiny meeting, the residents told us: “we had to write to ask to attend.” One of those we interviewed, a member of LWRA stated: “We have to go and see them, they don’t come to us, we’re an afterthought”.

They further criticised RBKC’s engagement strategy, saying “they use community organisations to tick boxes, they don’t check on delivery” and complained that LWRA, supposedly at the heart of the collaborative strategy is “never included in budget discussions” in which money for the council’s management is always approved. RBKC’s strategy of buying up houses in the aftermath of the fire was also described as “money wasted”.

The residents described a lack of transparency around money that is making Lancaster West’s and North Kensington’s recovery unnecessarily complicated. They cited the pot of money for community recovery including a 1.2 million annual budget for The Curve (the council’s main Grenfell recovery centre) but questioned who from the local community utilises The Curve, a venue that has proved toxic among many people locally and lacks empowered resident oversight.

We asked about the estate’s relations with national government. It seems that meetings held with successive Tory leaders have been perfunctory, forcing residents to rely on RBKC to make any progress. They said they lobbied RBKC, proposing that they collaborate on lobbying the government to secure more recovery money. We were told that “they (RBKC) would never consider doing that.”

Positives

By its original design, life on Lancaster West is a communal experience, so even private residents (as I was) need an effective system of communal repairs, decision making and management. The residents we spoke to said that the estate “needs a holistic approach” and cited investment in communal areas as key. In my time on the estate, communal areas were neglected and miserable. I knew of a Councillor living on the walkways who lobbied for some minimal improvements, pot plants, to be made in the communal area. RBKC refused.

Things have improved since then. We were told that:

  • The walkways have finally been refurbished, with empty / abandoned flats revived.
  • The positive changes have been implemented by a new organisation called W11 – Lancaster West Neighbourhood Team, which replaced KCTMO as the estate’s management body following the fire, when the TMO was relieved of its management duties. W11 is an on-site management team serving just Lancaster West albeit still funded by the council.
  • W11 is a “positive change” but the residents were also clear that they think RBKC sees W11 as “a danger” as it could become “a precedent for all estate management to become resident-led” so RBKC has vested interest in it not becoming too successful or independent.

From July 2019 until June 2020, staff at W11 carried out a comprehensive consultation throughout Lancaster West with very high engagement rates with residents. Priorities for the estate’s recovery were established, but will residents get what they have asked for?

Image from instagram.com/lancasterwestneighbourhoodteam

RBKC Response

We asked RBKC deputy leader Councillor Kim Taylor-Smith for a response on behalf of the local authority to the main criticisms of the resident officers, namely that RBKC has failed to transform Lancaster West; RBKC has not committed enough money to the estate’s recovery; RBKC is not genuinely collaborating with resident representatives to the extent that they describe experiencing deliberate exclusion by the council; that these criticisms reflect RBKC’s general performance in North Kensington since June 2017.

Neither Councillor Taylor-Smith nor any of his colleagues in the leadership team responded.

A council spokesman emailed: “We are sensitive to the special circumstances of Lancaster West residents and that is reflected in a scope and specification of work which is far beyond that of other estates.

“We have scoped the works collaboratively with residents and there is close control and scrutiny on the investment being made on Lancaster West, which is reviewed with the Lancaster West Residents’ Association and representatives at a quarterly programme board.

“We remain confident that this will be a model 21st century improvement programme.”**

RBKC Deputy Leader Cllr Kim Taylor-Smith having fun on Lancaster West. Image from instagram.com/lancasterwestneighbourhoodteam

Conclusions

Lancaster West is a profit-making estate, vibrant, creative and a key hub in a culturally rich corner of the world; its residents were steadfast in the face of the managed decline imposed by RBKC, only to be traumatised by a horror on the scale of a war crime. The same forces that failed to prevent the fire then failed to respond now seem to be equivocating about whether the estate’s recovery is really worth funding properly.

The residents we spoke to were clear and unified in their vision: “to achieve a ‘model for social housing’ we need money for communal areas.”

and

“We need somewhere we’re proud to live and that the council is proud to own.”

RBKC claims the same aspirations but Lancaster West residents might now be questioning just how sincere their council is.

By Tom Charles. @tomhcharles

 

*Picture credit: Phoenix7777 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60587246

**The response from RBKC was added after this article’s initial publication following an email from a council spokesman.

Mid-Lockdown

I never post anything just for the sake of it – Been very dry+uninspired last few days…but as in boxing, most fights are won or lost in the middle rounds,

So whatever you’re going through don’t give up. I won’t…It’s never over until the final bell..xxxx

by Mark Bolton
@MarkCBolton1

below by @tomhcharles

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North Ken in Limbo

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.

 

 

 

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Two More 

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.   

 

 

By Tom Charles @tomhcharles

Related previous articles:

Trauma: https://urbandandylondon.com/2019/05/20/trauma/

‘Change’ @ Canalside House pt.1: https://urbandandylondon.com/2018/02/08/rbkc-council-selling-vital-community-aset/

‘Change’ @ Canalside House pt. 2: https://urbandandylondon.com/2018/03/16/councilcanalside/

‘Change’ @ Canalside House pt.3: https://urbandandylondon.com/2018/10/02/rbkc-bites-back-canalside/

‘Change’ @ Canalside House pt.4: https://urbandandylondon.com/2018/12/07/canalside-curiouser/

‘Change’ @ Canalside House pt.5: https://urbandandylondon.com/2018/11/07/change-1/

‘Change’ @ Lancaster Youth: https://urbandandylondon.com/2019/01/31/change2/

‘Change’ @ The Curve: https://urbandandylondon.com/2019/03/18/curve/

‘Change’ @ KCTMO: https://urbandandylondon.com/2018/11/16/kctmo1/

RBKC Scrutiny 1, GU: https://urbandandylondon.com/2019/07/19/scrutiny-1/

RBKC Scrutiny 2: https://urbandandylondon.com/2019/07/19/scrutiny-2/

RBKC Scrutiny 3, Administration Committee / Scrapping Grenfell Scrutiny: https://urbandandylondon.com/2019/07/20/scrutiny-3/

RBKC & Toxins, THINK post for UD: https://urbandandylondon.com/2018/10/17/grenfell-air-myers/

Unholy Trinity – RBKC, TMO, WT: https://urbandandylondon.com/2019/02/05/unholytrinity-2/

All Grenfell-related articles: https://urbandandylondon.com/category/grenfell/

 

 

 

Urban Dandy Exclusive: The True Cost of RBKC’s ‘Change’ Programme

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How does a local authority go from being a national embarrassment on the verge of special measures to being secure in its position and back to business-as-usual in under two years?

The 2017 Grenfell Tower fire was the worst domestic fire in Britain since world war two and it happened in the richest borough in the country. Seventy-two lives were taken, more have been lost in the fall-out. There have been no arrests of politicians, council officers or others who made fateful decisions and ignored warnings in the run-up to the fire.

In 2018 Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKC) commissioned the Centre for Public Scrutiny and the Democratic Society to carry out a review of the Council and to produce recommendations to enable the local authority to move forward. The ‘Change’ programme that resulted has suffered from a severe lack of public scrutiny and has been anything but democratic…

Urban Dandy uses RBKC’s own documents to reveal how the Council adopted a policy known as the Twelve Principles of Good Governance, then proceeded to bury it in a complex bureaucratic system. The article shows how opportunities to apply the principles were spurned, and worse, how Councillors often seemed determined to ensure there would be no real change.

Overseeing the process has been the leader of RBKC, Elizabeth Campbell, who promised ‘change’ to survivors and the bereaved but who has appeared at key moments and in key meetings to help ensure no fundamental change has been implemented. We are awaiting comment from her on her role and the performance of her Council in delivering on her promises.

We also reveal the rising costs of the ‘Change’ programme, the methods by which RBKC has managed to stifle meaningful challenge to its approach and how they have been aided by the media and the national government. Questions are also raised about the role of the local Labour party and we look at the calls for devolution for North Kensington.

The article is a defence of democracy and transparency in Kensington and will be published at the start of September.

Our previous articles following this story can be found here.

 

@urbandandyLDN @tomhcharles