Sunday, 23 March 2014


The most articulate reaction to the Labour Group’s alternative Budget at Full Council on 5 March, focussing on the finding that RBKC is the most unequal borough in Britain, was that of a stunned silence. We spoke of pensioners attending Food Banks – nothing. We described residents with mental health crises being hauled off to police cells due to a lack of appropriate support – nothing. We told them ten children had been sent to hospital with rickets – this was ‘minor’. Ten children with rickets - in Kensington and Chelsea!

Their silence spoke volumes; the richest borough in Europe had nothing to say. The Council has lost its voice.

The Council Leader has been in place for a year, but has yet to makes his mark. He wishes to appear approachable, but ignores residents’ pleas. Had he whipped the Cabinet to be quiet? Or were they shocked into silence? All the evidence and statistics are here [End of Term Report] to confirm, they are undeniable.

Inequality in our borough is appalling, and getting worse; it is gob-smackingly bad. In my speech I quoted a timely and well-written report of 2006 on the subject. The Councillor responsible for the report missed the point entirely; I was NOT complimenting the author of a report that has done nothing whatever to narrow inequalities in eight long years!

It is very clear to me that the ethos, values and education – in its broadest sense – of most of the Conservative majority at RBKC has been strict and disciplinarian. When young, they are taught to obey their elders. When older, they are taught to discipline their juniors; they are ‘prefects’ for life. They apply the judgmental/punitive approach to all who they deem to be lesser mortals; sadly they lack the intelligence to function in any other way.

It’s as if they were saying, like a feudal overlord: ‘The estate will not be dictated to by the village’. One of the Cabinet is reputed to have actually said that in another forum; I cannot believe anyone would say that in all seriousness.

'We are Kensington'

In the Labour Opposition we are a broad church and representative of our community. We prefer to nurture, encourage, empathise, and hand responsibility over. Trust builds trustworthiness. Forthrightness is repaid with honesty. Our Council will engage on small matters, on trees, and planting and supporting photogenic local groups when it suits, but on more fundamental issues ‘will not be dictated to by the village’.  

Time to draw the line.

This narrow and self-serving world view supposes that residents will always vote for self-interest. Our annual Residents’ Survey proves precisely the opposite. This self-selecting group votes year on year and is clearly shifting towards a preference of paying more Council Tax, not less, to support the most vulnerable. Year on year, the Council proposes a freeze on Council Tax, assuming – wrongly – that the electorate thinks as selfishly as they do. This year they are giving a £100 bonus, or as the Telegraph called it ‘pre-election bribe’ to Council Tax payers; a classic example. It will cost the Council an insane £7.5m, that we were told was ‘spare money with no particular purpose’ - while they cut and slice essential services.

To counter the Council’s wilful ignoring of residents’ wishes, this year the Labour Group instigated ‘Ask Mrs Braithwaite’. Mrs B is an indomitable and forthright grandmother to half her community in North Ken, for whom she speaks eloquently and fairly and with huge wisdom – if at great length. She is the famed Mrs B of Bloomberg News, whose Council Tax rate for her three-bed Council home comes in at just £40/month less than the Sultan of Brunei, for his (mostly empty) 16 bed mansion in Kensington Palace Gardens [Bloomberg News].

Let’s say this now. There is a causal link between our huge Reserves and the shameful inequality in ‘Europe’s richest borough’. If the majority party cannot see the connection, we in the Labour Group will be forced to remind them, regularly.

Labour Group Leader Judith Blakeman said of the borough in her Budget speech ‘we want to be a global village, not the world’s piggy bank’. But while bleating dismay at the ill effects of the over-heating housing market, the Council is itself monetising every square inch of the borough, and welcoming others who wish to do likewise. The ill effects of foreign investment hollow out the borough and destroy communities like flesh-eating necrotising faciitis; still the Council does nothing.

But residents will have their say.

Now we see that the Labour Group are not alone in their concerns for the effects of an increasingly disconnected and uncaring Cabinet. At the time of writing two groups of residents, who feel ignored by the Council on various issues, have stated they will stand as Independents in the local elections in May. The growing goodwill for these groups, from all quarters of the social spectrum, should be a wake-up call for out-of-touch senior Tory Councillors.

Now here’s a prediction, though I hope I’m wrong. They will not listen, they will fight.

And the fight will be dirty and dishonourable.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Bullingdon Fodder, at 'the socialist Eton': the sorry tale of Holland Park Academy

Original design, from 'Metropolis', and school as built

Residents sometimes tell us ‘the Council is pouring our money down a black hole’. Well here above, ladies and gentlemen, is the picture we are supposed to admire, and here below is the very hole our money is being poured down, at the cc£100m Holland Park Academy.
A very expensive hole indeed 
Well, ok, that isn’t the actual hole eating your money, but it makes an eloquent metaphor. For this is the exploratory hole through which engineers and hydrologists and various other highly qualified and very expensive consultants are trying to ascertain the cause of one of the Great Mysteries of the Modern World: why does Holland Park Academy’s brand new swimming pool leak – inwards? In the words of the Head Teacher, it is in a ‘parlous condition’ and ‘we wish we had the answer’.

I had attended the Open Evening to which the governors had invited ‘everyone’, who in this case were mainly the well-heeled and curious long-term residents of Campden Hill with their perms and pearls, and retired banker husbands. I spoke to quite a few. Some had swallowed hook, line and sinker the ‘we spent £80m but it cost nothing’ story put about by the Council, whereas others could see that selling a public asset – a large if ill-maintained playground – and turning it into super-prime property whose empty-eyed penthouses like vultures will greedily overlook Holland Park, is hardly a cost of ‘nothing’.

Head Teacher addressing staff
Back to the pool. Mrs Perm didn’t really care, it was a detail that did not concern her. Mrs Pearl was disdainful of the whole project, and stated authoritatively that several of the new basements in the area have 24-hour pumps working to keep them dry; there are springs, that spring eternally.

Another aspect of this metaphor for our times is the Head Teacher’s desire to change entry criteria. If governors have their way, in future entry to HPA will be not be decided according to whether or not a student went to primary school in the borough, so their family would have contributed to the near £100m the school cost. In future it will be decided by how far you live from the school.

While the HT insists that the new building ‘hasn’t changed the ethos or aims of the school at all’, let’s consider some facts. The current student make-up comprises some 27.5% on free school dinners, many of whom come from the culturally diverse north of the borough. Pass down Campden Hill Road at the beginning and end of the day and you see a representative slice of a population that is ethnically rich. Look at the school website, however, and you see what may or may not be the school’s aspiration of almost entirely white students, and not a hijab between them. Given that some years have up to one third Muslim students, with a Kensington mix of black African, Afro-Caribbean, Asian and others, what is this telling us?

Whether this was deliberate or accidental, we can draw our own conclusions.

NOT the HPA prom pic, but could it be?
One of the photos shows two young men togged up, possibly for the sixth form dinner, which is held, we are told, in a fancy-pants restaurant. The cost of the dinner is £70. I wouldn’t wish to embarrass the poor lambs to slaughter (Bullingdon Club fodder?) further or invite outrage by reproducing the photo, but it is here for all to see:

The actual photo shown here is of cast members of the repellent ‘Made In Chelsea’, possibly a representation of what the school’s future students will look like.

What a terrible waste of human endeavour, and of our money.

We can only imagine that the aspiration of the near £100m school once called ‘the socialist Eton’, paid for by my Council Tax and yours, is to produce a future Conservative Prime Minister.

This is not an aspiration to be proud of.

A word on blame.

When building projects run over cost, it is often the architects who are held to account. Holland Park Academy cost the taxpayer more than double (some say treble) its original estimate. Architect friends find this funny. Let an architect have their head, and an open cheque-book, they tell me, and they will spend and spend. Tell an architect to produce a mind-bogglingly wonderful zero-carbon school for £24m, and they will do it with pride and gusto.

I have interviewed architects charged and found guilty of profligacy (Scottish Parliament, Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences) and they say ‘no one told me to stop’. So who – implicitly or explicitly – sets the agenda?  

The blame lies with those holding the purse-strings; politicians, in this case local politicians. And we all know who was in charge of this reckless and extravagant project.