Friday, 16 June 2017

Grenfell Tower & Democracy's Inferno

The towering inferno in North Kensington which has so shocked this country was predicted almost exactly 6 months ago on the Grenfell Action Group's blog-

'It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders. We believe that the KCTMO are an evil, unprincipled, mini-mafia who have no business to be charged with the responsibility of looking after the every day management of large scale social housing estates and that their sordid collusion with the RBKC Council is a recipe for a future major disaster.'

What is the KCTMO?
An evil Corporation, right?
Probably owned by a shady oligarch through a series of shell companies in the Caribbean.

Even if this 'mini-mafia' is convicted of 'corporate manslaughter' in the Courts, only James Bond will be able to penetrate the oligarch's secret lair atop some Swiss mountain, or deep inside a Japanese volcano, in order to deal out summary Justice.
But, it turns out, KCTMO aint some heartless Corporate behemoth.
The truth is stranger than fiction.

According to its website- 'In the early 1990s, the tenants and leaseholders of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea decided to pursue their legal right to manage their own homes. Following two separate ballots in 1994 and 1995, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) was established on 1 April 1996 and the responsibility for managing 9,760 properties passed from The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to the Tenant Management Organisation.

In 2002 KCTMO took over the responsibility for major capital works from the Council to access extra resources and funding to enable KCTMO to bring the properties up to the Decent Homes Standard.

In other words, because a Labour Govt. refused to give money to elected Local Councils to spend on repairs, KCTMO, being an 'arms-length' organisation was able to use public funds to meet the Government's new energy efficiency target by installing external cladding which appears to have been highly flammable. Prior to 1986, the Law prevented them from doing anything so silly. External walls had to offer at least one hour's fire resistance. Then, under Mrs. Thatcher, this stipulation was dropped. External walls could be combustible but ought not- as happened here- contribute to flammability.

It has been suggested in the newspapers that they could have used a superior type of cladding for just a few thousand pounds more. No doubt, they'd have done so had the Residents wanted a change to the exterior- in which case they are scarcely likely to have sacrificed fire security for aesthetics when an extra spend of Five thousand pounds was all that was required. The truth is the Residents weren't initiating these renovations. KCTMO was only complying with the Blair Govt's target because public funds were available to do so and the Borough Council wanted to prettify this eyesore. The alternative was knocking the place down.

It is noteworthy that the residents don't appear to have fought hard for a sprinkler system- which might have cost a couple of hundred thousand pounds and added to the disruption caused by other up-grading work. With hindsight, this was a bad decision but, to be fair, the residents are mainly working people or retirees who are just managing to get by.
Thus, on the face of it, this is an example of poor people being economically constrained in the exercise of democratic control.
After all, their building sounds as if is run democratically.
KCTMO is managed by a Board of Directors comprising of eight elected tenant and leaseholder members, four appointed Councillor members and three independent appointed other members.

KCTMO is a company limited by guarantee with members whose main residence is in Council owned or leasehold accommodation. There are currently over 4,500 members of KCTMO, and we actively encourage residents to become members. If you are interested in becoming a member, please visit the KCTMO Membership section of this website.

The Board meets on a regular basis to monitor how well KCTMO is doing, agree plans for the future and decide on policies. Board members are also involved in committees, sub-committees, working groups and panels. Board members are elected for three years. They are not paid for their work and are not allowed to do paid professional work for KCTMO.

A Chief Executive, appointed by the Board, has overall responsibility for the successful operation of KCTMO, and for ensuring that the Board's decisions and policies are carried out.

At the time of the transfer of management responsibility to KCTMO, approximately 18% of the properties had been sold on long leases. Many of these had been bought under the Right to Buy legislation, first introduced in 1980, although for many years before the Royal Borough had been using its discretionary powers to sell property to its existing tenants. Many residents who purchased under the Right to Buy legislation have since sold on their properties and a large number of our leases are held by residents who have bought on the open market. These residents continue to be subject to the terms of the original lease.

What could be more democratic and decent than an organisation set up by residents to manage the properties they themselves live in?

A year ago, if anyone had drawn my attention to the Grenfell Action Group's blog, I'd have dismissed it as the work of a crank- perhaps someone who had lost an election to the Management Board or else someone with an eccentric or extremist political agenda. After all, KCTMO is a democratic set-up. Democracy is always a good thing- right?
The Grenfell Action Group explains why- 'Unfortunately, the Grenfell Action Group have reached the conclusion that only an incident that results in serious loss of life of KCTMO residents will allow the external scrutiny to occur that will shine a light on the practices that characterise the malign governance of this non-functioning organisation. We believe that the KCTMO have ensured their ongoing survival by the use of proxy votes at their Annual General Meeting that see them returned with a mandate of 98% in favour of the continuation of their inept and highly dangerous management of our homes. It is no coincidence that the 98% is the same figure that is returned by the infamous Kim Jong-un of North Korea who claims mass popularity while reputedly enslaving the general population and starving the majority of his people to death.

'It is our conviction that a serious fire in a tower block or similar high density residential property is the most likely reason that those who wield power at the KCTMO will be found out and brought to justice! The Grenfell Action Group believe that the KCTMO narrowly averted a major fire disaster at Grenfell Tower in 2013 when residents experienced a period of terrifying power surges that were subsequently found to have been caused by faulty wiring. We believe that our attempts to highlight the seriousness of this event were covered up by the KCTMO with the help of the RBKC Scrutiny Committee who refused to investigate the legitimate concerns of tenants and leaseholders.'

Why did Grenfell Tower Residents not use their voting power to effect change?
My guess is that many of them were sub-leasing and thus could not register to vote.
The original tenant's proxy vote remained with KCTMO who thus had less incentive to check this reflected actual occupation.
No doubt, there is a class angle to this as well. Those Council tenants who could exercise their right to buy probably sold up and took a windfall profit. Subsequent owners probably found it more remunerative to rent out units in decrepit high-rise buildings rather than live their themselves. Their proxy votes might well support an organisation which cuts corners when it comes to poorer people while delivering a good and cost effective service to better off members living in salubrious areas.

Reading the Grenfell Tower Action Group's blog shows that Local Councillors tend to be responsive to resident's concerns. However, they are a minority on the Board. Thus, though the normal Democratic check, via the intervention of elected local politicians, is in place, it has in fact been diluted- and, it may be, defeated- by the appearance of something more Democratic yet- vz. the fact that elected Residents formed the majority on the Board.

The Grenfell Towering Inferno has become a symbol of the failure of what appear to be Democratic Social Choice Mechanisms across the breadth of the land. Even the Daily Mail's front page is carrying stories trashing Conservatives- like the former Head of the Council who says the residents didn't want the disruption associated with putting in sprinklers, or Boris Johnson who, as Mayor, told a Labour colleague to 'get stuffed' when tackled over his swingeing cuts to the Fire Services. Amazingly, the Daily Mail appears to be praising Jeremy Corbyn for suggesting that the empty apartments of the ultra-rich in the Borough should be seized to re-house the victims. Theresa May, on the other hand, is disparaged for her cowardly refusal to meet the aggrieved local people. Grenfell is being called her Katrina movement. More than her political future is now in doubt. Even the Telegraph has a picture of Corbyn comforting a grieving young woman. His claim regarding the 'North South' divide in the Royal Borough is, rightly, being treated as a call, even by the die-hard Tory press, for root and branch reform within the party. Sadiq Khan, London's Mayor, is taking a beating for having been lukewarm to Corbyn. 

Emma Dent Coad, the new M.P for the area- elected with a margin of just 20 votes- sums up the anger we are all feeling. She claims that the work done on the Grenfell Tower- which turned it into a fire-trap- was a purely 'aesthetic re-fit' which the residents neither wanted nor benefited by. The Council's sole concern was to improve the optics of the area so as to attract yet more speculative development from which nobody really benefits.

Something similar happened to democratic politics when image won out over substance. There was a purely 'aesthetic re-fit' which ended up making the whole structure more flammable.

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