- Interview by
- Owen Hatherley
Emma Dent Coad’s election as Labour MP for Kensington was one of the shocks of the 2017 election. In the aftermath, it was used as evidence for the claim by various pundits that Labour had become a ‘middle class party’. Mere days later, the fire at North Kensington’s Grenfell Tower showed what sort of a place Kensington actually is, bringing home both the shocking inequalities of contemporary London and the lethal effects of David Cameron’s ‘bonfire of red tape’. Now Dent Coad is fighting to hold an extremely marginal seat, sharply divided between places like super-rich South Kensington and Holland Park, and much more mixed areas like Earls Court, Ladbroke Grove and North Kensington. We spoke to her about her background as an architectural historian, about the disastrous financialisation of the construction industry, about the politics of housing in Kensington and elsewhere, and about an election in which she faces off both against the Tories and a ‘post-truth’ campaign from the Liberal Democrats.
Architecture and Fascism
I wanted to start off with something not connected to the election, and talk a little bit about architectural history. Because I don’t know of any other architectural historians in Parliament…
I don’t know any! There’s maybe the odd Pugin fanatic, but besides that…
I would assume Rees-Mogg is a big Pugin fan.
You’ve published a lot on 20th century Spanish architecture, and you were working on a PhD about architecture under Franco when you were elected in 2017. You’ve also published a book on the design, public spaces and public buildings of post-Franco Spain, which especially in Barcelona was a big model for the last Labour government. Do you see a particular connection between this work and your politics?
Yeah. My MA covered the first ten years of the Franco regime, when he was passionate about neoclassicism, and he was very much establishing authority. So my subject really is social control through architecture in various different ways, whether governmental or however that’s done. So the first ten years, when he embraced neoclassicism and he actually had advice from Nazi architects – this is all documented – is a really interesting period because he’s trying to establish that authority on the face of what before that was the Republic. So they’re really trying to trample people with this vision of authority. One of the reasons I’m interested in this is that I have Spanish family, some of whom were involved, right in the thick of it, and on the other side of the divide. So I was interested then to look at the rest of the Franco period, and the point when he changed from this passionate adherence to neoclassicism, and what that meant – which was trampling down with authority – into accepting modern movement architecture, which previously he’d seen as a total aberration, which he called ‘Marxist, Semitic and godless’ – that’s how he personally named it.
As Modern Movement architecture was very popular during the Republic.
Yes, exactly. And then he changed. And interestingly and quite shockingly for me, one of the people who changed his mind was an uncle of mine. I came to discover this during my research, that my uncle was actually a key person, he was a very suave international architect, who introduced this cheroot-smoking kind of modernism to Franco if you like, and persuaded him that it was an expression of internationalism and sophistication, which was very different to what he’d seen it as before. I looked at some of the villages, the social housing that was built in those years, and he was in charge of it. In the early years it was built under the auspices of the Falange. My family were very closely involved in the Falange, and one relative was one of the founders of the Falange, so it was fascinating for me to dig through this very dark period in my family’s history.
So I found out how they built what they called ‘peasant villages’, and how they decided how people should live, while keeping people very much under control, and how they thought they were providing for people. The absolute basic minimum of education, and otherwise keep them on the land, basically. Some of the villages they built didn’t even have basic water supplies, it was just absolutely horrific. So they kept people very much ground down. That was a deliberate policy, because they didn’t want people to rise up through being educated, and wanted them to accept authority. So my overall interest is social control through architecture, and looking at the fascist side of it has been very timely for me for how I see the modern political landscape. For me politics and architecture have always been completely, intrinsically linked. My interest has been to see how architecture forces people to live, or encourages people to live, and in contrast, through the DOCOMOMO working groups, which I’ve been involved with for many years, I’ve looked at the London County Council architects, and how they created a foundation for people to live and thrive, which was so very very different. They were creating family friendly, open aspect environments – or so they thought, not all of them worked beautifully, and they weren’t managed properly – which is the complete opposite of what was happening just before in Spain.
It’s striking how much that 1930s and 1940s authoritarian rhetoric about architecture has come back lately. The only statement that this government has ever made about architecture has come through their ‘Building Beautiful’ commission, chaired by a 1980s New Right intellectual, Roger Scruton. It has gone right back to the New Right idea of keeping people in their place, and modern architecture being foreign and dubious.
Exactly. So what they have done – just looking locally, as a local councillor before Grenfell – the aim of the local cabinet member for regeneration, as they call it, was that they were trying to develop the area around the Grenfell Tower, and he wanted to make Grenfell Tower look ‘better’ for the development which was to come. He was very much an adherent of this ‘Building Beautiful’ neoclassical style, and got various neoclassical architects involved, designing ‘beautiful streets’. All of this kind of thing was very much changing the way people live and act daily. Whatever they look like on the outside, you can put as many twiddles as you like on the outside, they are people warehousing, keeping people in their homes. There was one estate which had been developed very near Trellick Tower, where people who used to interact daily in their walkways and their public spaces are now literally just contained in their flats, and then they go out and they’re in the street – but there’s no intermediate space, there’s no natural exchange of daily communication and so on, it’s completely changed the way people live, and a lot of people don’t understand that.
Building a Disaster
Going back to Spain and Britain and the differences between them, I found talking to architects in the rest of Europe about Grenfell that those who hadn’t worked here found it very difficult to imagine how it could even have happened, whereas talking to architects who had worked in Britain, they all could well imagine how it could have happened because they’d had experience of the British construction industry. How has it happened that this enormous gulf has opened up between the standards here and the standards in otherwise comparable countries?
In Spain, for example, an architect sees a project right through. You can’t build any kind of building without an architect. You have to have a qualified architect to be in charge and they follow the building right through and then they sign it off. If there are faults in that building, the architect is personally responsible. I had a very good friend who lost everything because there were faults in a building that ultimately he was responsible for. Absolutely horrific for him – but it means that they are responsible. The line of accountability, the golden thread, is so short. It’s the architect, and they oversee every possible stage, and they sign it off, and that’s what we’ve lost now. I knew Nigel Whitbread, who has sadly passed away, one of the architects who worked on the Lancaster West estate next to the tower, and he was also in DOCOMOMO, and we’ve talked about that era. And he said to me that they were responsible, they were on site, all the time, as indeed Goldfinger was at Trellick Tower. On a lot of these estates people remember the architect walking around and talking to them. We have completely lost that. We’ve lost vast amounts of that immediacy, of the architect protecting and being responsible for every stage, as indeed they should be, but also there’s the huge amount of financialisation of every tiny stage. Money is being extracted at every stage of the contract, and you end up with poorer and poorer quality. That is unfortunately just the capitalist system, as it runs now, that makes it possible to do that. They put out to tender, and they take the ‘Best Value’. I’m sure we’re going to find out eventually at Grenfell Tower how that could have happened, but they wanted the ‘Best Value’, and they ended up with the cheapest. There was something like, I’m trying to remember how many contractors were involved in the refurbishment of Grenfell…
Dozens, I think?
Dozens and dozens. So finding that ‘golden thread’ that Ben Derbyshire (head of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA)) and Judith Hackitt (head of the review into building safety regulations after Grenfell) talk about is going to be a complete nightmare, and we should never have allowed that to happen. But it’s consistent. It’s not only, to be fair, the horrific neoliberalism that has taken over the whole construction system, it is actually also because there was so little understanding of the whole process within Parliament. I’m the only person saying ‘do we have to build 150,000 new homes a year, well of course we do, but do we have the capacity? Have you seen the construction industry, and how it’s teetering on the brink of recession? We don’t have the skills, we don’t have the materials, if we leave the EU we won’t be able to afford them – we don’t have the industry to back this up. How on earth are we going to build when we don’t have that capacity?’ I have yet to meet anybody who actually understands that side of it, and I find that very frustrating. There’s nobody on either side who actually gets that.
Even on the left there’s so little understanding of the importance of contracting and procurement, and how central it is both to the housing crisis and the disaster at Grenfell, I’ve tried I think mostly without success to talk to people about how labyrinthine and primitive the whole PFI and Best Value system is – and people just don’t get it, they think you can just flick a switch and we can build like we did in 1950.
Exactly. It’s very difficult. I’ve done quite a lot of work for the tower about the council, and how they procure. They lost millions and millions on the most shockingly bad contracts, because they have no idea how to do it – they don’t understand the process. They take contracts in good faith. So there’s no understanding of that. I saw it when James Brokenshire was the secretary of state (for housing), and he was talking about Building Beautiful or whatever they’re calling it this week, and I said ‘you can’t just talk about architecture, you actually have to understand how buildings work’. And there was no understanding of that. You can make buildings look whatever you like, if they don’t function properly, people don’t thrive in them, you are throwing your money away, and it’s a complete waste of time looking at exterior aesthetics, you know? They don’t understand that at all. So I’ve seen three consecutive secretaries of state, none of whom had any understanding at all of what they’re in charge of. None of them have any kind of experience or knowledge or openness to other people’s opinions on this, at all.
I thought it was interesting when John McDonnell informally talked a couple of years about bringing back Direct Labour Organisations in local authorities as a means of circumventing the construction industry, but not much has come out of that since.
Yeah. Interesting, because the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation, who are in charge of all our council stock, they actually set up some Direct Labour, though they also had contractors. What they did was that they took on people who’d been doing it before, badly, and they took these people into the council. The problem is the skills. We don’t have people with the necessary skills. What on earth do we think we’re doing? I read a lot on the Construction Industry Training Board and the lack of skilled workers, and we’ve lost around 70,000 skilled workers now who’ve gone back to Europe, many of them from Eastern Europe. We were relying on them, and while we were relying on them, we weren’t thinking ‘we must train our young people’, because it can be well paid and it can be a very good job, it can be a career, it’s not just a burger-flipping job but actually a lifelong career. There was no oversight of that at all, no strategy, nobody looking at the whole picture, but only at little bits of it. We all failed on that. I was at a series of RIBA meetings a couple of weeks ago, and I said ‘will one of you get into Parliament, because nobody understands how this works’.
The Real Kensington
I want to move on for a bit onto Kensington itself. When you got elected, you’ll remember all those stories about how Labour winning in Kensington and losing a seat in Stoke meant that it had become the middle class party of the London elite, etc etc – and then days later Grenfell happened, and people saw what a lot of Kensington actually is. I thought ‘well, all of this is going to stop, now you’ve seen 72 working class people die in a fire in Kensington, this will all stop’. And it didn’t, and we’ve had exactly the same bullshit for the last two years.
It’s because there’s no political will from the top to change anything. Political will in the current government is to keep everything pretty much as it is. There’s been some tokenistic changes but there’s no radical vision of how to make sure it doesn’t happen – they just feel really sorry it happened. One person said sorry five times. That’s how sorry they were. They have done bugger all to keep people safe in their homes now, or in the future. Where the action is actually happening isn’t in the government at all, it’s in for instance the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, who have a global standards setting and are going to encourage their members to sign up to it as a contract. We’ll have to catch up with them, and with other organisations who have been doing brilliant work like the RIBA and the Royal Institute of Insurers. I’ve been saying ‘can you just stop insuring buildings that aren’t safe?’ and they’ve said ‘yeah, it may come to that.’ If the insurers refuse to insure buildings that’s the end of the game, that’s it, and we actually have to put up safe buildings. We have been knocking down buildings – there’s this estate up the road that is being redeveloped by Catalyst Housing. There’s a block there, Pepler House, about which the architect there told me he was told to build to last 200 years. That is being knocked down, and they’re putting up some shitty people warehousing block, which I’ve seen. The space standards are appalling, it’s got low ceilings, there’s no outside space, it’s very unfriendly, the corridors look like some dodgy hotel – it’s a grim, grim place to live. There’s no understanding of that at all, of how buildings can encourage people to thrive, their health and well-being, to be more neighbourly and so on – all of those things have been completely ignored.
A few days after the fire, I was telephoned by a journalist at the Evening Standard, who was working on an article about some of the people who died. He said something like ‘the editor is very interested in the fact that among the people who died were professionals, like artists and architects, and he wants an article on this’. I was amazed by this. So first of all George Osborne, who five minutes before was Chancellor of the Exchequer and was part of the Tory Party’s ‘Notting Hill Set’ along with Cameron, so someone who actually lived in North Kensington, isn’t aware of the effects of Right to Buy on council housing in places like that – and second, he has no idea who lives literally in the same area he does. He had no idea that professional middle class people would also live in a council tower block.
The interesting thing is that it gave them a whole new vision. Obviously in their minds, people who are architects are worth more. So it changed their whole mindset, because they think that those people are more valuable to society. That’s the shocking thing about that – not only that they had no idea who was living down the road from them, but that it changed their mind when they realised that valuable people like architects also lived there. I find that pretty distasteful, having met so many people who escaped from the tower, and people who were badly affected by it – what kind of society have we got where somebody who is disabled and can’t work and is really struggling is worth less than an architect? I find it really disgusting. The instances of completely unconscious racism and classism – I’ve actually reported members of the council on various racist comments they’ve made, and they’re not happy about it – they just have no idea at all. These are ‘little people’. This is genuinely how they see it.
And you know what, our council is actually out of step with a lot of the One Nation Tories who live in the area, more of whom I’ve met in the last two and a half years – though I knew a lot before, I’ve met hundreds more since then. That mindset is completely out of place, because the councils we have now have got if anything even more right wing as time has gone on. I find them very uncaring. We don’t have any One Nation Tories left on the council, and those we do have been overheard saying things like ‘I think we’ve had enough of this, let’s get over it now’. And there are people who are living who are still in shreds emotionally because of what happened.
The awful comment that Rees-Mogg made about ‘common sense’, you know, that the ‘common sense’ thing would be to leave the tower – someone who had been bereaved, who was very distressed, tried to take their life because of that comment. The Rees-Moggs of this world are looking down on people and saying ‘well they’re stupid, that’s why they didn’t save their lives’. Words have consequences. That had the effect of someone feeling so guilty that they’d survived and their family didn’t, that they tried to take their life. That’s disgusting, it’s absolutely disgusting, and that attitude prevails.
Let’s say that next week there is a Labour government elected, committed to building new council homes and so forth and try and make the country and the capital a more equal place. That will be an uphill struggle generally, but especially in somewhere like Kensington, with South Ken at one end and Grenfell at the other – how do you make somewhere like that fairer?
We have to have the ideological will, and that’s going to be a hell of a battle. I’ll give you an example. We’ve had a couple of battles over developments lately, and one of them is at Newcombe House in Notting Hill Gate, which is very very anti-resident to put it lightly. The other one is Kensington Forum Hotel in Gloucester Road, which is again very resident unfriendly, and again, it’s because they’re both sixties buildings, and the way they’ve been planned is that they’re set back, they don’t take up all the light and so on – the sort of thing people don’t recognise until they lose it, that modernist period buildings are very courteous to the neighbourhood even if they don’t like the height, there were a lot of things that they recognised then which have no been forgotten. Now they’re trying to just fill the space with building, very high.
So I’ve had, unfortunately, to have debates with the Mayor’s office about these two projects, and they’ll say ‘well, we’re getting a few bits of social housing here and there’. Their argument is that because we’re getting 15 social homes here and 20 here that we have to allow this monstrosity. I’ve looked into this quite a lot, and what I have to tell people who are very angry about the position of the Mayor’s office is this. Kensington and Chelsea council are building barely any social housing at all – however, they are land-banking. They’ve been buying property and pieces of land for years, because they’re land-banking and waiting for the moment to change, because they want to build private homes everywhere and squeeze people on low incomes out of the borough. There’s absolutely no doubt about that, there’s been endless debates and information has been leaked to me about their project, which is to build the poor out, basically. But they have land-banked, and our argument should be that the council should be building social housing on these plots that they have been buying and sitting on for years. This is how we have to do it. But there has to be the political will from the top, and the way the council is constituted now, it’s not going to happen. But they’re going to get it in the neck from me endlessly, because I’m going to reveal where all these plots of land are where they could build social housing and are not doing it. The Mayor has just given the council a load of money to build new social homes, and one of their plans, which will happen over my dead body, is right next to the Westway in one of the most polluted spots in the whole borough. They want to put social housing right there, where there’s really filthy, disgusting air. And yet they’re sitting on plots down in Chelsea, at Chelsea Creek, where they’re refusing to build and just banking it. So they’re acting just as a property developer.
The Lies of the Lib Dems
The last question is about the Liberal Democrats, who have parachuted in the former Tory Minister Sam Gyimah to contest the seat in Kensington. During the campaign he made some inaccurate and likely libellous comments alleging you were on the council when the decisions were made on cladding Grenfell, and you’ve asked him to apologise or face legal action. Has he apologised or retracted yet?
No. I’ve given him every opportunity to retract – I spoke to him personally and said ‘if you’d just like to withdraw your comments, I’ll leave it’. We also wrote to him privately and said ‘just withdraw, I just want to get on with the election’, and I didn’t get a response or an acknowledgement to my letter. Then via Compassion in Politics, which is a campaign that I signed up to and that Jo Swinson, interestingly, has signed up to, which is all about truth and decency, via them I wrote to Jo Swinson to ask her to ask this Tory to retract his comments, and had absolutely no response. So it is going through the process. I heard from the Police two days ago, and they have to go through the evidence. Nothing’s going to happen before the election, but how they get away with endless, endless lies, I find extraordinary.
In a few days they’ll throw the book at me, I know it already – they’ve already started saying I was partly responsible, I was complicit in the fire, I’ve been through all that. The first time I was accused, by the Standard, incidentally, of being complicit in the fire because I was supposedly on the committee that decided on the cladding – which is nonsense, complete nonsense, I’d left three years before – the first time that accusation was made, I had three hundred death threats. I had to have advice from the Police and protection, my house was on special schedule and so on. This is happening again, and he’s potentially endangering the lives of me and my staff. North Kensington doesn’t believe it for a moment, they know it’s complete nonsense, but it only takes one person who’ll see me on my own roaming the street, as I do. It only takes one person to make your life a complete misery or worse. It’s not only a political lie which should never have been allowed to stand, it’s also putting people in danger. How they get away with it I have no idea. This election has been toxic, and I’m refusing to respond with anything other than the facts. People will have to decide for themselves who they believe.