The Council of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea was never going to come out of the Grenfell Tower tragedy smelling of roses. The residents of North Kensington have always looked on the Council as being one run by aliens who have no understanding of the endless problems created by poverty which are faced by the typical North Kensington council tenant. Throw in the McDonnell/Corbyn eagerness to blame Tory councillors for the fire itself (deliberately according to McDonnell, recklessly according to Corbyn) and all those poor double-barrelled millionaires from the south of the borough who make up the majority on the Council were bound to become the villains of the piece. And now we have the government, just as eager as everyone else to find a scapegoat, laying into the Council for allegedly not doing all it could to help the victims in the aftermath of the disaster.
I hold no brief for the Tory councillors from South Kensington and Chelsea. I have no recent experience of them, but I knew their predecessors, forty odd years ago, pretty well. I worked for the then Conservative MP for Kensington. He, Sir Brandon Rhys Williams, was a patrician Tory of the old school. He found himself representing a constituency which was divided between poverty, in the North, and extraordinary affluence, in the South. His votes, of course, came, on the whole, from the South. But he cared deeply and genuinely about the deprivations faced by his Labour voting constituents in the North. He was tireless in his efforts to help them and would have been appalled at the suggestion that he should only be concerned for the vastly rich people in the South who actually voted for him.
One of my tasks was to organise and conduct, when he couldn’t be there, Brandon’s weekly constituency surgery. It took place in the North of the borough, under the A40 flyover on Ladbroke Grove. Of course, his constituents from South of Notting Hill were entirely welcome to come to the surgery if they wished. But Ladbroke Grove was chosen as its site for the simple reason that most of those who needed help lived in the council estates North of Notting Hill. The surgery was not, as I fear it is in many other constituencies, a device designed to gather votes. Brandon saw it simply as something he had to do for those of his constituents who needed his help.
Inevitably, a great many of the problems brought to the surgery had nothing to do with national government or Parliament. Most were related to the Council. Brandon, or I or both of us, would listen to the woes of a constituent. I would take a full note and then write to the Council asking that any wrongs should be corrected. After a while, Brandon suggested to me that we should have a councillor present at every surgery, so that he or she could get straight onto sorting out the problems. It was not possible, of course, to get North Kensington councillors, who were all Labour, to help us. But those from the South of the constituency, the ones who made up the majority of the Council, ought, surely, to agree to turn up.
I wrote to all the Tory councillors representing wards within the constituency asking them to agree to go on a rota for the surgery. One or two, it really was only one or two, said they would help. The others either didn’t reply or said they would be unable to trek North to Ladbroke Grove on a Friday evening. Many, obviously, headed to their country houses on Fridays. But others, I hate to say this, just couldn’t see any point in wasting their time on the problems of people who weren’t their voters.
In the end, we gave up. We went on with the surgery, and did all we could to help people in dire straits, but we had to cope without help from councillors.
Things may, of course, have changed in the last forty years (I do hope so). But my guess is that the Tory councillors of South Kensington and Chelsea still look on North Kensington as being a foreign country.
So, as you see, I don’t embark on my consideration of the Council’s reaction to the Grenfell Tower fire as a fervent admirer of the Tory councillors of Kensington and Chelsea. Nevertheless, I do wonder whether it could be that they are being unjustly attacked.
All reasonable people, other than the leader of the opposition and the shadow chancellor, now accept that it is far too early to come to any meaningful conclusion as to whether the Council behaved improperly in its refurbishment of Grenfell Tower. The evidence to date, indeed, suggests that it did nothing which was not done by countless other councils (Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem) throughout the country. But we must wait and see. What we can’t do is simply jump to the conclusion that, because Kensington and Chelsea is run by Conservatives, it must have knowingly taken appalling risks with the lives of the tenants (McDonnell goes further and says the councillors actually intended to kill or cause serious injury to those tenants – though to be charitable to him he may not know what “murder” means). The initial hysterical reaction to the awful tragedy has now passed. We’re back in the realms of sanity.
The case against Kensington and Chelsea is now a different one. What is said is that the Council did not do all it could, after the fire, to help the victims. “It was the community, not the Council, which helped the victims”. That is the cry. But, beyond that bald assertion, I have found no evidence at all to suggest the Council did not spring into action. Many hundreds of people became homeless. The Council has found new, temporary or permanent, homes for a great many of them. That must, surely, be the main priority. Perhaps the allegation is that the Council didn’t bring food, water, clothes and blankets to the homeless. I don’t know whether they did or didn’t. I do know that the magnificent people who ran the aid programmes announced at a very early stage that they didn’t need any more food, water, clothes or blankets. I accept that those whose approach to politics is different from mine think there should never be a place for charity in the modern world: only the state should help those in need. But reality should still play a part. If charity was able to alleviate the immediate needs, ought politics really to step in and insist that only state aid should be allowed? And would it not be better for the victims that the Council should concentrate on their housing needs?
There have been two concrete charges brought against the Council. First, the leader of the Council, as he then was, cancelled a public meeting on the grounds that journalists would be present. That was an astoundingly crass decision. It was made, we are told, on legal advice, the theory being that reporting of the meeting could prejudice the judicial inquiry into the fire. Tempting though it is to excuse Mr Paget-Brown on the grounds he was just doing what the lawyers told him to do, that will not wash. He did not have to be terribly bright to grasp the fact that the legal advice he was being given was complete and utter nonsense. He should have rejected it. But no harm was done to the victims. The harm was done to Mr Paget-Brown and his council. It was a PR disaster.
The other charge is that some tenants, now homeless, were still having rent deducted from their bank accounts after the fire. That was plainly very bad. But it happened because council officials (whatever the political make up of their councils) are dreadful bureaucrats. An instruction was apparently given that rent should not be charged. The officials just didn’t carry out the instruction (they probably reckoned that a least a month’s notice should be given before they had to act). The Council has confirmed that the rent payments are being refunded. Again, awful PR (and very distressing to the tenants). But not an offence caused by councillors’ unconcern for the people of North Kensington.
No, prejudiced though I still am against the Tory councillors of Kensington and Chelsea, I find it impossible to identify any fault, other than PR faults, on their part.