What has Kensington learned from the tragedy of Grenfell?

I walked slowly home from Kensington High Street on Wednesday night after watching our council’s first meeting since the Grenfell fire.

kensington grenfell

Most of the horde of journalists and camera crews had gone; it was dark. After four hours the meeting had finished abruptly when one of the survivors fainted.

I’d arrived early to make sure of a place; the wide stairs up to the odd, angular orange building were guarded by ranks of bulky black-uniformed men.

I was at the front of the queue and was slowly joined by my fellow residents, most of us middle-aged or old, many of us knowing one another, all standing there below the security guards for over an hour.

We were patted down, our bags were searched, a knife detector wand was waved over us and finally we were allowed into our Town Hall.

Most of the meeting was taken up with testimonies from people who survived the fire and the friends and relatives of those who died there. I have lived in the area for most of my life and it’s hard writing this piece while full of grief, so most of it will be the words of my local friends and colleagues.

Angela Spence is the director of Kensington and Chelsea Social Council. They have looked at the private rented sector in great detail and have doggedly lobbied for RBKC to think about the housing needs of all its residents, not just the super-rich.

Angela is a calm, thoughtful slow speaking woman but her response to the Council meeting was unusually fierce.

“Yesterday’s meeting highlighted to me more than ever why there is a need for culture change within the council. Passionate and articulate voices quite rightly justified why they have lost trust and faith in the state that was meant to service their needs.

“What needs to happen now is a genuine approach not in what we call resident engagement but in real resident participation and self-mobilisation. I recognise the need to work with the council and that decisions do need to be taken by the council.

“But surely now the one lesson we have learnt from this tragedy is that decisions that affect the lives of residents so drastically cannot be made for, but with people.  When complaints are made, view them first as a necessary part of active participation not something to fear or to learn from after the fact.

“It may not be an easy process. True resident participation is not supposed to be easy but that what makes it so valuable and trustworthy and can reap benefits for all in the longer term.”

My ward councillor Harrison Littler is part of the small Labour opposition group in Kensington, a teacher, the father of a baby son and a trustee of Amnesty International.

He did not get a chance to speak at Wednesday’s Council meeting, but shared these views:

“The ballot box will never be an entirely satisfactory mechanism for genuine representation, and the residents on North Kensington in particular are crying out for their voices to be heard and views to be counted.

“Our Labour Group amendment was passed calling for new methods of direct community representation to be established. We are calling for a diffusion of power away from the Executive to committees, and away from the Town Hall to communities.

“We are potentially on the brink of radical change in local democracy here. In saying this, I recognise that most people are not interested in governance and probably see much of what was achieved in that amendment as pretty abstract and unlikely to benefit them.

“But this is about amplifying the voices of residents who have felt shut out of a system for so long.

People are only disinterested in governance because governance appears to be disinterested in them. We are trying to change that. Councillor Campbell promised that if residents do not want to proceed with a specific plan for regeneration, then it won’t happen.

“This is an unimaginable leap for the RBKC we’re used to. We need to win those kinds of commitments and rights for residents to determine their own future in other areas of Council influence.

“What has been thrown into the spotlight in the wake of the disaster is the powerlessness of residents in a system like this. What Edward Daffarn and Piers Thompson articulated so well was the way in which they had exhausted all avenues of democratic input and been frustrated and dismissed at every step.

“They described the content and tone of these dismissals, quoting Councillors Rock Fielding-Mellen and Quentin Marshall among others. Under normal circumstances, the Tories are so self-assured, arrogant and emboldened by their electoral safety, that they feel able to dismiss this as hysterical nonsense from uppity nuisances as you describe happens to you, Lizzie.

“In the current context however, it was deeply humiliating as for once they are being watched by the world (not just the opposition and the ‘nuisances’ themselves) and judged accordingly.”

Edward Daffarn to whom Harrison refers there, is one of the many survivors who spoke at the meeting with intelligence, anger, dignity and terrible grief.

Ed has campaigned for years for social justice in North Kensington and is one of the Grenfell tenants who repeatedly warned of the dangers of fire.

Two women who also did so and were threatened with legal action if they did not stop, died in the inferno. Ed named the councillors who had refused to listen and finished his representation with:

“If you councillors from the ruling party honestly believe that you have the legitimacy to rule after everything you have heard here tonight, you need to reconsider.

“Because I’ll tell you one thing – the wounds of this community are not going to heal if you are ignorant enough to believe you have any legitimacy over us.’

Eve Wedderburn, a local resident, university teacher and mother, had earlier presented a petition from many community groups, for the Council cabinet to resign. They did not, but Eve’s presentation was fiercely articulate and her refrain of Councillor, Stand Down is now a local hashtag.

The next day we had a conversation about the impossible gulf we face when speaking truth to power here. I’d been left frozen by the dissonance between the new Leader Elizabeth Campbell insisting in tones of absolute upper class certainty “we will rebuild trust brick by brick” and the furious working class constituents shouting at her to resign.

The Kensington Tories seem to genuinely believe they are obeying noblesse oblige by staying on. Yet their doing so further distresses the residents who are calling for them to admit their culpability for scores of unnecessary deaths.

Eve said simply: “What was crystal clear last night is that the councillors in power are really only comfortable when people are weeping or begging.

“I was watching Elizabeth Campbell last night and the face she made at Ed was the same one that she made when she was asked if she’d ever been in a tower block. Full on eye rolling contempt. They like us when we are desperate.

“But when we have the temerity to articulate questions about their actions or challenge the veracity of their wide eyed platitudes, the mask slips.”

I asked Councillor Campbell to contribute her perspective for this piece but have had no reply.

Amelia Mustapha is the director of SMART, a well-regarded Kensington and Chelsea mental health charity which has stepped forward to help Grenfell survivors and volunteers deal with the tragedy.

We worked together recently to develop strategies to help people being evicted from their homes because of rent arrears; Amelia is keenly interested in lateral community-led solutions to the housing crisis.  I love SMART.

It genuinely responds to what the people who go there want, and is characterised by creativity and laughter. Like many people I’ve spoken to this week, Amelia had not fully realised how upset she felt personally about Grenfell, till she took a step back.

“It’s going to take at least the next 10 years to suture the wounds of our community and we, the service providers, are only going to be able to help do that when we realise that we’re also the patients. So we need to wield fewer words – more carefully – and do a whole lot more listening.

“I have been particularly interested to note the increasing use of language by service providers, to divide people into, essentially, those who ‘do things’ and those who ‘have things done’ to them.

“When did we start using the term social housing? That was asked of me at our SMART meeting about the terms of reference for the Grenfell fire Inquiry. It’s a good question.

“This use of language is so insidious that even the people I work with often identify themselves by diagnosis or socio-economic status. Division is entrenched in the language of social pathology; the idea of “them and us” is spouted mindlessly and endlessly.

“Here’s another term: Area of high deprivation. Do you mean skint and badly served? Because what I see are phenomenally resilient, vibrant people with no shortage of love, passion and community spirit.

“And another: community engagement. Oh, you mean that thing you do with inaccessible meetings, when the agenda has been set and the outcome already written up?

“Doing things to people ‘in need’ safely keeps our fellow woman or man segregated from us in tight demographic tick boxes. Working in this way means framing and solving the problem within our own blunt and narrow terms of reference.

“It is a particularly fabulous way of providing services that people do not want or need. Have people like me, who ‘ do things’ forgotten that we are public servants? We do not know the problems or have the answers to them until we have asked the people we serve.

“And we have no right to ask those questions until we have built meaningful relationships based on parity of esteem.”

I thought about Amelia’s reflections on language when a couple of days ago RBKC’s policy round housing Grenfell’s survivors was published.  The commitment is to house everyone within a year and there is a hierarchy of priorities for this to happen.

Some of the language used is simply extraordinary in its Victorian lordliness: “An illegitimate child shall be treated as the legitimate child of his/her mother and reputed father” is my favourite, though allowing “half-blood” relatives the same rights to share a home as “full bloods”, comes close.

The whole document is a bleak read. People are expected to fit into a system that is neither humane nor flexible, but RBKC is finally releasing some of its millions of reserves to buy new homes and everyone who qualifies will get a social rent and a lifetime tenancy.

Much of the populace on social media is furiously outraged about this, and their objections span the full gamut of racism, resentment of refugees and contempt for all social tenants.

I just do not know if the social housing sector, Kensington Council or anyone else with all this power over our lives, will learn from what was inflicted on the people who lived in Grenfell Tower.

I have too much more to add, to fit in here. I think I’ll stop writing now. My mind keeps returning to last weekend when I was helping at a community centre which is open to anyone from Grenfell who wants a quiet cup of tea and company.

A small man with a friendly, tired face came in and asked me if we had any sticking tape. I laughed at that because there was a huge roll on the table in front of him, and handed it over. Then he produced three big portrait photos of a smiling, curly haired young girl from a brown envelope.

“She is beautiful” said the volunteer next to me softly. “Shall we go and put the pictures up?”

The father looked at his photos and suddenly reeled, clutching at the table to steady himself. Then he and the kindly woman walked outside to add the pictures of his daughter to the wall of the dead.