The Way things are done… A comment on Grenfell Tower and who is responsible.


Some spontaneous thoughts after another few weeks of coverage….

(slightly modified 20.15)

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC)  is where the dichotomy between rich and poor is the gravest in London, perhaps in England or even Europe, with a long-entrenched history of disempowerment, discrimination, racism and political and economical cynicism and exploitation.

 

Whatever of the above ingredient you pick you will find twisted and dishonest ways, from the history of housing in Notting Hill to the demand for and the creation and mismanagement of the West Way Trust or the KCTMO and so on.

 

There is no doubt, that RBKC council felt that Notting Dale should be remoulded. In Andrew O’Hagan’s London Review of Books piece The Tower  Rock Feilding-Mellen, the former person to oversee decisions and financing of housing renovations denies to want to have wanted to kick out social housing tenants, but he does admit in the same stroke that he wanted to construct space for Kensington’s left out Middle classes, especially people in professional vocations who could not afford to buy, and were not catered for.

 

Whilst O’Hagan cites this almost in Feilding-Mellen’s defence, it is by itself an astonishing admission. To be clear social housing homes were to be demolished so those new denser units would make a little space for left out professionals. It is not that it was wrong to want to create such housing units for professionals. The question is rather, why were social tenants and their areas to bear that burden? Why were their houses seen as the legitimate sphere where things could be demolished and rebuilt in that way?

 

There are historical precedents of the council wishing to demolish against the wishes of locals. Take Frestonia for example, or sold churches and emptied and community centres and spaces. The Tabernacle, a Caribbean centre of activism in the 1970s only survived, and barely so, after a struggle to save it. What O’Hagan misses, when he talks of the battle for the local library, in whose place another was offered, is, that the fight to safe spaces is one that is based upon the experience and fabric of the area, and the distrust, that promises once made, won’t be changed in some way to the detriment or continued sell-out of the area and its people.

 

The movie Notting Hill, in which Hugh Grant starred so famously before he infamously was caught out in the act with the African American sex worker Divine Brown in the USA also had much to answer for.

 

The embarrassing incident of the actor might just as well be symbolic. The film of the area, world-famous for its Caribbean style carnival, was deprived of any African Caribbean characters, in fact, any meaningful characters with a darker skin colour. Notting Hill, the film that is,  was a fantasy of a European Eldorado was constructed by the film producer Duncan Kenworthy and director Roger Michell. It was certainly not innocent. Rather, it was created, like so many films, to maximise the profit value of the film in the parts of the world with lighter skinned people, who were then able to imagine themselves in Notting Hill without the risk of blackness. A vibrant area just waiting for you to move in. Notting Hill, that lie about the area, went on to win a BAFTA, a Brit Award and the British Comedy Award. Beyond being a laughing matter,  it was literally, in the Grant Hugh tradition, a proper f***-over Notting Hill’s black heritage and residents. Notting Hill’s estate agents were loving it. International white families who gained their extraordinary inflated salaries in the City – the very lot, that crashed the world in 2007 –  bought up, whatever they could in Notting Hill, filled the cafes and cramped up especially the areas around the state schools. Millionaires do not like to waste money when a school can be free if you want a cliche. But I know it to be true in some cases I witnessed myself. That is of course not a problem until some less fortunate kids are squeezed out of the catchment area for that school.

In  2014 the Strutt and Parker Estate Agent advertising went even further.  It stated, that some in Notting Hill – depicting a person of wider African – Caribbean background,  are “born to dance”, whereas others, explicitly, Jeremy Montagu-Williams, at the time property sales manager, a white English person,  “are born to sell flats.” That was the 2014 way of stepping over “No Negroes, No Dogs” of the 1950s. Community protest made this ad disappear from the streets of North Kensington and had any right to highlight it. It is unbelievable how much reality can be twisted. You can see it today in the cafes of Westbourne Grove, where you will struggle to see people of African Caribbean background. I saw it in the indifference of hordes of tourists on Portobello Road on Saturdays after the Grenfell disaster.

 

Of course, the film Notting Hill was but a symptom of a development that had started much earlier on. Already, in the 1970s buildings in which multiple families had lived and had rented, were being converted into single ownership villas for those with money to buy – but not quite enough to afford Knightsbridge, amongst them an ex-Rhodesian / South African family, escaping the onset of Black African rule, but bringing with them their wealth, and where the lady of the house became a long-standing Conservative councillor in Kensington (she has since moved up North where she continues to serve as a Tory councillor and even gained an OBE). 

 

The many years of attempted control over Notting Hill Carnival, cameras installed on Westway, questions over the carnival’s continuation, the constant regeneration of Portobello Road,and properties around. perhaps until all shops and cafes are global chains, the harassment of young black men with Sus Laws and Stop and Search policies, harassing anyone that did not fit the English white stereotype, all that created further antagonism towards the council, and what it allowed to happen, often enough, out of touch with residents, or so at least the feeling is. Feelings are important too, they are there to be disproven, and whilst there may be one or the other urban myth, or “narrative,” it does not need much to confirm the buying up of Notting Hill. 25 Million Pounds one property went for last year.

RBKC may have saved some social housing units, when other boroughs did not, but overall there was a deficit, not just in Kensington but all over London and England, created by national Conservative politics more than local perhaps, not much helped by Tony Blair’s new definition of affordable housing, and lack of investments under his watch.

The idea of a  redevelopment for the area around Latimer Road, however, kept coming up as an ambition by RBKC. A 2009 master plan for the area of Notting Barns South, in which Grenfell Tower stands, written on behalf of RBKC by the group Urban Initiatives overtly lies to achieve its ends. It misrepresents crime statistics, talks of irrational walkways, and presents wrongly the local community as near destitute.  Locals fought it, and won considerable battles. Sadly, Grenfell Tower was not one of these, though they rejected its demolition.

Any housing requires investment, repairs, modification to make it better, permanently. All over the country social housing estates were not receivers of generous repairs over the Thatcher years and beyond. That too must be remembered. A constant drop of water not fixed, can bring down a building. Funny how The Barbican, an almost entirely private high rise estate of the 1970s has no cladding, nor ever considered it.

 

Already in the 1980s, the local community was resolute that it wanted to have a higher hand in the management of the housing stock in RBKC so that things would get fixed when they need to. KCTMO was the answer all agreed to. But in the end, it was KCTMO that became resilient to consider the voices it was to consider, or so it appears. The inquiry will surely shed more light on that.

 

What we do know is that RBKC went ahead with reimagining Notting Dale. One sentence in the 2009 master plan for RBKC with surprisingly little evidence for it, judges, that “Grenfell Tower blights the view from Latimer Road.” What blights needs to be beautified. Cladding was the way to go, installed by others too. A massive high percentage of the refurbishment costs went into that.

 

You can picture those in decision making positions out for win win. In one go you could address heat insulation, and the shining metallic exterior, gave buildings a touch of ultra modern and contemporary, liked by all, including residents, for what did they know about grades of how flammable materials are. But ignorance in British law, especially by those who are employed or recruited to know, is no defence.

 

Residents had a list of other concerns, the usual stuff, really. Double glazing, leaks, functioning lifts, electric wiring, maintenance, cleanliness, fire safety, noise, better kitchen, cooking smoke extractors, hot water, and heatings, yes and some asked questions about fire safety too.

 

The windows installed in Grenfell were just as scandalous as the cladding, the cheapest possible plastic frames, and there were the fire doors, here low price trumped safety.  DId anyone ask questions?

 

You would think that legally, landlords are meant to be responsible for the standards of the houses in which they place tenants. Grenfell and houses like that, resembled in Rock Feilding-Mellens words, “savings in terms of risk management of the budget” rather than building risk management for residents. That was the two Pound saving per cladding panel to cut costs that degraded fire retardant to flammable.

 

And whilst there are 300 equally cladded buildings similar to Grenfell across the country, the ticking time bomb eventually blew up with  Grenfell Tower. The saga may be specific to Kensington and Chelsea but it is a symptomatic issue, beyond the borders of RBKC.

 

Not that there were no warnings. The Lakanal House Fire with its clear coroner’s recommendations being but one, and there were others. Nor that there were no guidelines on how to fit cladding, or whether to fit cladding at all  to high rise buildings. All this existed too. But it remained ignored and put aside by multiple agencies, all who could have raised concerns at any stage, if only one of them had.

 

As a result, unsafe buildings were constructed against evidence, and against best building practice, against best safety testing, because – well, because others did so, and because you could, everybody did. The man who jumps after the crowds who jump the cliffs also perishes. There are many people who bear a shared responsibility. If it will be builder, designer, fire tester, manager or owner, or even panel maker, who carry the largest responsibility that will be decided soon. It is a long chain and Grenfell Tower in RBKC is where it all blew up in murderous flames, exposing more than but just one ill, and consuming, no killing 72 people, some of whom were highly vulnerable.

 

For that at least Kensington will also have to answer questions. To place people with physical movement restrictions and disabilities in some of the highest flats, in a building in which often enough the lifts failed, what sort of responsibility and care is at work here? Do people get paid for such incredible way of housing allocation indifferent to the facts in front of them?

 

Not just the history of Kensington, not just the history of council and social housing, not just the history of racism and marginalisation, but also complacency in the building and construction trade, amongst those who carry out safety inspections for example, or consultations with the desired outcome for those who finance it, and quite likely a fire service that was not as well prepared and equipped, as it should and could have been, given the amount of new high rise buildings in London.  The fire services are being furnished and paid for by the public purse, and so that too, in the end, goes back to people who make decisions on budgets, people like the former mayor Boris Johnson in London, who closed fire stations against much uproar and opposition, which perhaps contributed to Grenfell, before he gave the country Brexit.

 

When campaigners shout the Tories have blood on their hands and posters are hung up in Kensington with Conservative politicians as the main culprits, it can sound like an too easy vilification. Yes, there is a political battle out there, Labour for sure wishes to score points. But such accusations are neither without any truth. At least the previous Labour ideologists demolished the Heygate Estate or sanctioned the Tottenham  development. The headings are always the same, to regenerate, to help, to do good. Eleanor Kelly, Chief Executive of Southwark Council and, interestingly, designated leader of the government’s Grenfell Response Team, said, the Heygate Estate, was just not working. Many residents disagreed. The consultations and plans for Elefant Park the estate that followed Heygate, were similarly staged as in Notting Dale, and they were undersold to the developer Land Lease.  

What happened in Grenfell is too serious, to allow for monotone versions of blame or excuses from any one side. Thank goodness there is a public inquiry with competent lawyers and a criminal investigation too. Here at this time, one party after the other abrogates culpability. We just did as told, they say, pointing at the next person down. Well that, frankly, is no longer good enough in the light of so many dead. Let the lawyers and prosecutors deal with that.

Any person who has been given power that affects the lives of others has a duty to ask the right questions and as many questions as possible. What are the implications of this move? Is it risky? Is it best practice? Can it be checked again, and perhaps independently?  Can I rely on the independence of this body? Have I done the utmost rather than the minimum to warrant safety? What about external stairs, sprinklers, fire extinguishers, alarm systems, even drills? I

When people do not do that for a building that houses hundreds, you run into Grenfell Tower.   It is possible that the problem in Britain is not just one of a political and economic divide, but a true cavalier attitude to health and safety and best practice, often called Red tape and Nanny State by critics (there are lots of nannies about in Kensington, mind you).

Such behaviour rewards with quick gains without hard and solid labour, and without care or responsibility of the possible consequences.

That is also not exactly a condition fit for a country about to try to convince the world how good it is in doing things, as an independent nation outside the EU. Standards alone do not warrant themselves. They need to be safeguarded and tested.

When it comes to safety and best practice there can really only be but one standard. The standard that is safe for the most vulnerable person housed in a building. That standard exists in RBKC in many of the private flats, where pop and rock stars fight over the installation of underground swimming pools, when in the tower block a stone throw away the dry rise hydrants failed to carry water up to the flames.

The change that must follow Grenfell is therefore beyond the culpability of but a Conservative figurehead.  It is neither just about Labour or Tories. It must be a fundamental shift in how things are done regardless of who leads the country. It is about law too, like the Human Rights  (Article 25) that guarantee a standard of living adequate for housing and it is about robust and infallible safety standard bodies.

 
But of course, everybody knew how things have to be done, like former RBKC leader Nick Paget-Brown, the former head, from whom the sentence escaped, that in North Kensington the locals do not know how things are done. Evidently, for if they had 72 people would still be alive today – but some at least tried to do something, if only it was, in the end, but a bit of noise upsetting some know-it-all heads in the KCTMO!

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