‘Feel free to check your facts, timelines and who made decisions when.’
Yesterday Emma Dent Coad, the Labour candidate for North Kensington in the forthcoming General Election, issued a formal statement refuting the claims made in 2017 by the constituency’s former Conservative MP, Victoria Borwick — and repeated this week by the current Liberal Democrat candidate, Sam Gyimah — that, since she sat on the Board of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants’ Management Organisation, Dent Coad shared ‘collective responsibilty’ for the Grenfell Tower fire. I won’t comment on the cynical use of this disaster by all three political parties to score points against their opponents in the lead-up to this election, except to say it accords with the moral vacuum in which UK politicians operate in their grasp for power. But in refuting these claims, Dent Coad points out that she was on the KCTMO Board between June 2008 and left in October 2012, and that all the decisions about the refurbishment, and indeed the decision to refurbish itself, were made after this date:
‘In October 2012 (around the time I left the TMO) the then Cabinet Member Cllr Tim Coleridge announced that a major refurbishment would be undertaken. Residents were pleased.’
Now, this is a half truth at best. The decision to refurbish Grenfell Tower may have been announced in October 2012, but the decision to regenerate the Lancaster West estate on which the tower stands predates that announcement by nearly four years.
In February 2009, eight years before the Grenfell Tower fire, Urban Initiatives Studio, a practice specialising in urban design, planning and change management, was appointed by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to create a masterplan for the regeneration of Notting Barns South, an 18 hectare site in North Kensington containing the Silchester and Lancaster West estates, including Grenfell Tower. 6 months later they produced Notting Barns South: Draft Final Masterplan Report, which included the following observations and recommendations, beginning with this Executive Summary:
‘The area suffers from housing stock in need of ongoing and expensive refurbishment, a range of social deprivation and other issues often associated with large post-war housing estates. This context means that land values are artificially depressed closer to the centre. The Far-sighted Option aims to maximise overall value in the long term and create a high quality new neighbourhood. This requires a number of significant interventions. We estimate that the project could deliver significant returns to the council. In order to present the most attractive offer in a competitive bidding process the winning consortium would need to adopt the most optimistic approach to cost and/or values.’
To back up the necessity of the council adopting their proposals, the report also addresses what it calls Issues and Opportunities, the former of which include the following:
‘Although a diverse population in terms of age, ethnic and religious backgrounds, the area is limited in terms of its economic profile and is predominantly made up of social housing tenants. The ward of Notting Barns South suffers substantial issues of deprivation relating to employment, health and crime, however, the intensity of deprivation varies. The Lancaster West estate is within the 10 per cent most deprived areas in the country, and similarly crime is more severe in the east of the study area.’
In fact, as shown by the 2015 Indices of Deprivation interactive map, although Lancaster West estate does lie within the 10 per cent most deprived areas, its crime rates are shared by 40 per cent of areas, and is in fact far lower than in the surrounding areas where terraced housing predominates. However, as in every other estate regeneration scheme in London, the vast majority of which (195 out of 237 estates) are being implemented by Labour councils, this unsubstantiated and factually incorrect assumption about the criminality of the communities that live on council estates gave the Conservative council the justification for demolishing not only the Lancaster West estate but also the neighbouring Silchester Estate.
To this end, particular attention was given in the Urban Initiatives report to the development options on the towers in the area, starting with the four 22-storey towers on the Silchester estate:
‘It would be very challenging for the scheme to reprovide this number of homes should they be demolished. Therefore our preferred approach is to assume retention and refurbishment. In certain cases it may be possible to transfer these towers to private sector developers to provide private sale or rent units.’
Grenfell Tower, however, had no such reprieve:
‘We considered that the appearance of this building and the way in which it meets the ground blights much of the area east of Latimer Road Station. It also provides no outdoor space for residents and is likely to be of a type of construction that is hard to adapt. It does contain 120 homes. On balance our preferred approach is to assume demolition.’
The report then went on to outline the Phasing and Delivery of the proposed 15-20-year masterplan, from which the following extracts are taken:
‘Phase 1. Includes the construction of the new school immediately to the east of the railway line on the existing Games Court and Kensington Sports car park. Adjacent to the station two private 12-storey towers are erected.’
‘Phase 2. East of the railway the eastern part of Lancaster West is demolished together with Grenfell Tower. This building blights the area, provides no outdoor space for residents and is difficult to refurbish. The remainder of Lancaster, which is being refurbished, is completed into a closed street block with infill development. By the end of this phase the regeneration of the Silchester and Lancaster area is almost complete.’
Citing the area as providing no outdoor space for residents as a justification for the demolition of Grenfell Tower in Phase 2 is ironic at best, given that Phase 1 began with building the Kensington Aldrige Academy on that outdoor space, thereby taking it away from residents; but like the stereotypes about crime in the area this didn’t halt the concluding phases, when the ‘Far-sighted Option’ that aimed to ‘maximise the overall value’ of the area came into its own:
‘Phase 3. This phase realises a large proportion of high-end, high-value market housing.’
‘Phase 4. New housing can benefit from the proximity to and overlooking of the park, and market housing is expected to realise increased values.’
‘Phase 5. During this phase 610 units are developed or refurbished with a high percentage of private units.’
All of which led the authors of this report, Matthias Wunderlich, Stuart Gray and Dan Hill, to the following conclusions:
‘The farsighted option for the masterplan presented within this report has the potential to transform the social and physical characteristics of Notting Barns in a positive manner. Because of the existing tenure mix and the decline of Right to Buy, the estate will never become a more mixed and integrated community. This work shows how sensitive the potential residual land values are to residential sale values and, in particular, to the potential values for high end flats and houses. To achieve the highest values, the area will need to undergo significant change to improve its visual appearance.’
Following the financial crash, however, house prices in London in 2009 fell for the first time in decades; and — presumably for this reason, which doubtless dissuaded private development partners — Kensington and Chelsea council declined the ‘Far-sighted Option’ and chose, instead, what the report called the ‘Early Value Option’. In its broad outlines this is the masterplan that, updated in May 2016 by CBRE building consultancy, continued to threaten the residents of the Silchester estate with the demolition and redevelopment of their homes right up to the Grenfell Tower fire, as well as building the Academy on the playing fields that blocked the London Fire Brigade from having full access to the burning building. But it is also the option that led to the refurbishment of the Lancaster West estate, including the fatal cladding of Grenfell Tower.
So what does all this have to do with the Labour candidate for North Kensington in the General Election? Well, this decision, and the reasons given for making it — which included not only the false claims about the criminality of residents of council estates but the more believable claims that a post-war, reinforced concrete, council tower block would depress potential residual land values for the development of ‘high-end’ market-sale properties on the demolished Silchester Estate, were all made while Dent Coad was on the Board of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants’ Management Organisation.
It’s unfortunate, therefore — and, in the context of her statement, slightly suspicious — that in her public denial of any responsibility for the Grenfell Tower fire, the Labour candidate says nothing about her opposing any of these decisions or the justifications for the council making them; or indeed about anything else she did in the four years and four months she sat on the KCTMO Board of Directors between December 2008 and October 2012.
Nor does Dent Coad say anything about her Membership of Kensington and Chelsea council’s Housing, Environmental Health and Adult Social Care Scrutiny Committee for four-and-a-half years between May 2006 and October 2010.
Nor does she say anything about her membership of the Planning Applications Committee for six years between May 2007 and May 2013, leaving some 7 months after she says the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower was announced.
Nor does she say anything about her membership of the Major Planning Development Committee for four years and two months between May 2010 and June 2014, leaving 20 months after the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower was announced, and — more damningly — five months after the planning application for the refurbishment was agreed — by her own admission — in January 2014. Did she not, in her capacity as a member of this planning committee, have any input into this decision?
Nor does she say anything about her membership of the Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee, also for four years and two months, between May 2010 and June 2014, also leaving 20 months after the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower was announced, and — far more damningly — two months after the council awarded the contract for the reduced-cost refurbishment scheme to Rydon in April 2014. Did she not, in her capacity as a member of this committee, exercise any scrutiny of this contract?
But then, why would Dent Coad mention this? As a Labour politician — first as a Labour councillor sitting for 8 years on various housing and planning committees of Kensington and Chelsea council up to and beyond the decision to refurbish Grenfell Tower, then as a Labour MP, and now as a Labour candidate seeking re-election to the constituency of North Kensington — Dent Coad is politically committed to the estate regeneration programme that, across Labour-run London boroughs, has reproduced the same privatised and unaccountable management structure, the same outsourced services to the same private contractors, and the same marketisation of housing provision within a privatised framework of competitive tender that caused the Grenfell Tower fire that killed 72 people.
Dent Coad is telling the truth when she writes that she did not sit on the KCTMO Board that oversaw the fatal cladding of Grenfell Tower. And, undoubtedly, there are people who bear far more responsibility for the fire than her, over 60 of whom we have identified in the ASH report on The Truth about Grenfell Tower — in which, given the positive feeling of the traumatised local community towards their newly-elected Labour MP, we deliberately did not include what we knew about her collusion in the refurbishment. And as a Labour member of committees dominated by Conservative councillors, the question remains of how much input she had into their decisions. Nor was she the only Labour councillor to sit on these and other boards and committees, including the ones that directly oversaw the fatal cladding. These included Labour Councillor Judith Blakeman, who took over Dent Coad’s seat on both the Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee from June 2014 till June of this year, and the Board of Directors of the KCTMO from October 2012 to October 2017, occupying both positions throughout the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower. Indeed, far from being Labour’s heroic defenders of residents against the Conservative council, in December 2015 Blakeman dismissed calls by the Grenfell Action Group for an independent investigation of the KCTMO with the words:
‘The Labour Group would need strong evidence to request a further investigation of the TMO, particularly given the stream of favourable monitoring reports that have gone to the Council on the TMO’s performance. I am afraid largely anecdotal dissatisfaction would not be sufficient evidence.’
It would be useful, therefore, if Dent Coad — instead of threatening legal action against anyone who dares question her role — would make a factually substantiated statement about her role in these decisions, instead of listing all the decisions in which she didn’t have a role, which suggests she has something to hide. She should also indicate clearly at which point — if at any — she withdrew her support for the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower; and explain why, if she was opposed to it, she did not make her fears about its financial, contractual and material conditions — of which, given her long membership of these housing and planning committees, she can hardly claim to have been unaware — public? And — since she has drawn a convenient cut-off line of responsibility between her membership of the KCTMO up to October 2012 and the decisions that were made after she left — does that mean Dent Coad attributes shared responsibility for the fire to her fellow Labour councillors who continued to sit not only on the Board of Directors but also on the council’s housing planning and scrutiny committees up to the Grenfell Tower inferno?
If she isn’t, is Dent Coad arguing that the Labour councillors that sat on these committees — which includes herself — were not competent to make any decision about the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower, and were merely following the professional advice of the contractors the council employed? If that is her argument, then does that not also apply to the Conservative council itself, which to my knowledge didn’t contain a professional architect or engineer who might have had the competence? From the moment the full extent of the Grenfell Tower fire was revealed to a horrified public, the Labour Party has sought to employ this disaster as a weapon with which to attack the Conservative Party, and certainly both council and government bear the primary responsibility for the deaths; but Labour’s parallel attempt to absolve itself from all responsibility — and indeed complicity — in the policy, management and technical conditions that caused the fire doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Dent Coad can’t have it both ways. Either all of Kensington and Chelsea’s councillors, both Labour and Conservative, were incompetent; or all the councillors, including herself, have — admittedly different — but shared degrees of responsibility.
But whatever retrospective denials and disclaimers the Labour candidate for North Kensington may choose to make, the undeniable and factually verifiable truth is that Dent Coad was there at every stage in the Kensington and Chelsea council’s fundamental decisions: initially to demolish, and then to cosmetically refurbish, the Lancaster West estate. And as on every other estate regeneration scheme in London, this was done not in order to improve the living conditions of residents — or even to reduce the conveniently forgotten claims of their criminal behaviour — but specifically in order to change the external appearance of Grenfell Tower sufficient for it not to interfere in the council’s plans to realise the uplift in the residual land values in this patch of North Kensington. But then, why wouldn’t Dent Coad participate in such a scheme? This is as much Labour policy on estate regeneration as it is Conservative or Liberal Democrat policy, and the Labour candidate for North Kensington knows it.
I can well understand why a Labour Member of Parliament who has carefully positioned herself as the defender of the local community after the Grenfell Tower fire is eager to blame the fire on ‘Tory austerity’, which is the standard Labour line designed to deflect her party’s own complicity in the estate regeneration programme that caused this man-made disaster. I can also understand why Dent Coad is trying to draw a line between her membership of the Board of Directors of the KCTMO up to October 2012 and the subsequent decisions made to reduce the costs of the refurbishment. But while the use of lower-quality insulation and screening most likely contributed to the rapid spread of the fire, tests on the hundreds of other towers in the UK to which a similar ACM-cladding system has been applied show that it is that system — and not merely the materials out of which it was built — that made the Grenfell Tower fire so deadly. Given the ‘facts, timelines and decisions’ to which she was party over many years, Dent Coad’s denial of any responsibility whatsoever for the fatal regeneration of Lancaster West estate — when it is the explicit and ongoing policy and practice of the political party she represents, and which residents of Grenfell Tower complained about right up to the moment it killed them — does not stand up to scrutiny.
A vote for Labour is a vote for estate demolition, social cleansing of estate communities, and privatisation of housing provision that is placing the value of the land our council homes are built on above the housing security and fire safety of the residents that currently live in them.
Architects for Social Housing