Grenfell Tower: politics and discontents in Kensington and Chelsea before the fire

by Dave Hill

The minutes of a full meeting of Kensington and Chelsea Council held in December 2015 provide insights into the historical backdrop to the Grenfell Tower fire, including the attitude of the council to Grenfell residents, the challenges presented by tower block refurbishment and efforts to get residents’ concerns about it heard.

At that point in time, people living in and close to the tower had already gone through the inevitable noise and disruption entailed by the construction of a new school and leisure centre adjacent to the tower (the Kensington Aldridge Academy and Kensington Leisure Centre) and were now experiencing it inside the tower itself, including their individual homes. The hot water system – boilers, radiators, pipework and all – was being replaced, as were the windows of the flats. The fateful external cladding was on the “regeneration” programme too.

At the council meeting, Labour councillor Judith Blakeman, who represents the ward where the tower is, presented a petition signed by 60 Grenfell Tower inhabitants asking the chairman of the council’s housing and property scrutiny committee to urgently look into the management of the refurbishment by the borough’s now much-criticised Tenant Management Organisation [TMO] and the Rydon company, which ran the works.

“While we recognise that, once completed, the Tower will – at long last – be fit for the 21st Century, during this process we have had to endure living conditions that at times have been intolerable,” it said, complaining that “residents’ views have been ignored or downplayed” and their day-to-day concerns “belittled and sidelined”, despite interventions by Labour ward councillors and the then Conservative MP for Kensington, Victoria Borwick.

A motion moved by Blakeman later in the meeting echoed residents’ broad welcome for the upgrade of the tower, which also included the addition of a boxing club, a creche, a new entrance and some additional flats for social rent. But it also raised the question of financial compensation for “having to live in very harrowing conditions for so long”.

The motion said that residents had each been offered £50, deriding this as a “meagre” sum that would not even cover the cost of replacement blinds or curtains for the new windows (which were of a different size to the old ones) or of repairs to internal decorations damaged by the windows’ installation. It pointed out that had the council chosen to demolish the tower, its residents would have been eligible for a statutory “disturbance allowance” of £4,900 and the overall cost of the regeneration would have been far higher. In view of that, surely RBKC could stump up more than a bullseye.

But no. An amendment to the motion by two Tory councillors said that residents had been offered a new backboard to go behind their new radiators and “help” with “finding a solution” to any repairs to their homes that needed doing as result of the works. It went on to point out that the £10.6m being spent on the refurb was “a very substantial amount when considered as part of the total resource available in the HRA [housing revenue account] capital programme”. The message seemed to be that Grenfell residents ought to be jolly grateful and pipe down, hardly contradicting claims frequently made since the fire that both the TMO and the council had long been unresponsive to a range of residents’ concerns, and tight-fisted with it. The amendment was duly passed by the council’s Tory majority

There are other things that might be learned from the December 2015 meeting’s minutes. Campaigners against the demolition-and-rebuild model of housing regeneration often cite the sometimes profound disturbance to peoples’ lives of being “decanted” and relocated, even if only in the short term. Often, they are right, and their preferred method of upgrading existing stock and, in the case of estates, densifying through “infill” rather than knocking stuff down and starting again has obvious appeal. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that the experience of Grenfell residents shows that having “regeneration” work done around and inside your home can bring its own stresses and strains. That’s what happens when you “get the builders in”.

Lastly, note the endeavours of Judith Blakeman, an experienced councillor who had previously led the Kensington and Chelsea Labour group. When she left that role in July 2014, the Grenfell Action Group, which much of the media have embraced as representing the views of residents in seeming preference to Blakeman and other elected Notting Dale ward councillorsresponded with delight, declaring itself glad to see the back of what it called her “collaborationist and defeatist political approach”. The action group, whose membership is not listed on its anonymously-written blog, much preferred Blakeman’s successor Emma Dent Coad, praising her “robust rhetoric”. Dent Coad is now, of course, Victoria Borwick’s successor as Kensington’s MP, following her sensational general election victory.

The matter of which individuals and organisations have most truly and effectively represented the views of Grenfell residents in the past and how the needs of the fire’s survivors are now best voiced and addressed remains an important strand of the Grenfell Tower story, and much of it has yet to be told.

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