On May 30th 2017, the former Leader of Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council wrote a scathing opinion piece in the local paper. The object of his contempt was a landlord found guilty of ‘flouting safety standards.’ The message, he fumed, was that ‘any landlords who fail to meet their obligations will face prosecution by the council.’ The judge had said the property was a ‘death trap,’ an ‘accident waiting to happen.’
The former Leader explained how ‘the property had no automatic fire detection system… no early warning system to alert occupants to a fire.’ He concluded: ‘All of this is completely unacceptable and put the tenants’ lives at risk.’
Two weeks later, I witnessed this same paragon of fire safety being interviewed by the world’s press as people burned to death in Grenfell Tower behind him. He stated that the council had offered the tenants the option of sprinklers, but they had refused. A statement on record, which we knew then, and has been proven to be, a misrepresentation.
In the weeks after the fire, senior councillors and senior officers connected to Grenfell in any way were ‘retired,’ furloughed or sacked, and in one case allegedly being removed from the council building by police because they refused to leave. The objective was to wipe the slate clean. Gone from the council were the perpetrators of ‘One Nation’ patronage at best, and frank disdain for the ‘lower orders’ at worst. We are still however, at last count, paying £400,000 a month in legal fees to defend them.
In their place, a team of ‘empathy trained’ operatives, were appointed or elected – advisors, consultants, senior officers and councillors – one of whom publicly stated they were ‘so, so, so, so, so sorry’ for what happened at Grenfell, yet treat those who have been so horribly wronged as charity cases. In one infamous case, a well-qualified and well known government medical officer, speaking at a full council meeting, turned to the public gallery and pronounced ‘I feel your pain’ – to howls of protest from people who had lost everything in the most horrific circumstances.
There have been several cases where families who refused replacement homes that were unsuitable for their needs, and were told they should be grateful for what they have been ‘given.’ There are 19 families still in temporary accommodation.
Excoriating reports from the government appointed task force brought little structural change. Indeed, the task force seems to have abandoned the battlefield in despair. But their reprimands on lack of trust inspired the council to set up an industry of what they believe is ‘community engagement.’ Given that this crucial task has been sucked into the council’s media and comms team, we see their game.
Any criticism of how the council ‘engages’ is met with yet another round of staff recruitment. What they do not understand is that success lies not in heavily staged get-togethers, photo ops and enforced camaraderie but in true community empowerment. To right the endless wrongs they are responsible for, they must trust the community and hand over power. It may be messy, but it would be better than this current show.
Not long ago the council regularly mobilised its vast reserves to ‘improve’ the public realm. In truth, community engagement is their latest vanity project.
Just before the second anniversary last year, as Kensington’s MP, I held a backbench debate in parliament on the Grenfell response. It had taken nearly a year to get it supported and timetabled, so I made the most of it. It was a wide-ranging debate covering everything from the mental ill-health of people affected, to the underfunding of the fire services, to inadequate housing and fire safety policies.
I also discussed what I see as endemic racism within the council, which – in my opinion and that of many others – was behind some very poor decision-making. I had politely highlighted this problem with a senior officer six months previously, but there had been no progress. So to draw attention to the issue, I read out a number of unattributed comments made by senior councillors and senior officers over the past few years. Within a few hours I had received an outraged email from one senior councillor, and the next day a letter from another.
To be clear, I stayed on the council after election as MP. It is not unusual among MPs who have lived in their area for many years. After Grenfell, I felt I had no choice.
Of course, under parliamentary privilege, I could say what I wish. So their threats to discipline me as a councillor, for ‘bringing the council into disrepute,’ went nowhere.
Did they reflect, consider, take it seriously? No. Their first reaction was denial and defence. They wanted to unearth the specific perpetrators and deal with them individually. But when racism is endemic, it must be dealt with systemically. I refused to name names.
Some of the comments I read out had been made in full council meetings, in their presence. I had met several former employees who had actually resigned from the council because of racist comments either directed at them, or made in their presence. None of them had made formal complaints, and I understand why.
Their considered response was to send a barrister after me to ‘investigate.’ Six months later, the barrister submitted a report, but a full year later I have yet to see their response. Meanwhile, they have appointed a handful of BAME directors. Which, of course, they were about to do anyway.
Covid-19 has once again revealed the blatant ineptitude of a council in love with pastel-coloured bar charts and management speak – which is no substitute for a lack of genuine equivalence, let alone competence, to carry out the job in hand.
Pitying those family members burnt to death in front of our eyes, while scarcely hiding your impatience when they don’t want what they have been ‘given’ will not redress the balance. Pitying those who they have helped to impoverish does nothing to redress the balance. Questioning the eligibility of people to access food during these terrible times – which they do – is indefensible, especially when, we are told, it is carried out on the pavement outside food banks.
Reacting to criticism by employing dozens of new staff and directors doesn’t make you more efficient when they are still functioning ‘at’ us and not ‘with’ us. Our council has 33 directors against the leaner and more efficient, more caring Hammersmith and Fulham Council’s 13 directors. And while Hammersmith and Fulham have given over their main hall to a massive food bank, ours stands empty.
My plea is to stop using what is called ‘community engagement’ (which more often results in community enragement) as a proxy for real change and empowerment of communities. What we need now, as ever, are fewer photo ops at food banks and more structural realignment.
This means reprioritising serious funds to projects working on the ground where they can effect real change, not only on jollies which many enjoy, but on reinstating nurseries, homework clubs, youth services, supporting FE and training, and employing more local people at all levels of management. And this will be ever more important in the coming recession.
After what happened at Grenfell, the council should aim to stand as a beacon of equity, inclusiveness, positivity and meaningful change. It should be a first class example of public service. Instead, by defending every error and misstep, chasing critics with lawyers, wrapping the ongoing disaster in cotton wool and spin, and demonstrating personal frustration against residents, the council – specifically senior officers and senior councillors – resigns itself to continued failure.