John Oke – An Obituary

John Oke, inspiring ‘people person’ who founded pioneering organisations

Father-of-four tried to improve life chances for young black people failed by school system.

04 October, 2019 — By Angela Cobbinah

Source: Camden New Journal

JOHN Oke, who has died after a long illness aged 85, is remembered for dedicating himself to the frontline of grassroots politics in Camden for almost 40 years.

The two pioneering organisations he founded, Camden Black Parents and Teachers Association (CBPTA), and Odu Dua Housing Association, emerged out of the black self-help movement of the 1980s and from his own determination to make a difference.

Born in Oyo State, western Nigeria, in 1934, John Oluwole Oke arrived in Britain as a teenager in search of better opportunities.

After training as a civil engineer, he returned to Nigeria to work before making his way back to the UK during the 1970s and settling in Kentish Town, where he happily remained for the rest of his life.

As the father of four children, he realised that too many black youngsters were being failed by the schools system and leaving education without any qualifications with a damaged sense of self.

In response John set up the CBPTA in 1980, running it from the front room of his home before acquiring office premises.

The organisation spawned the Winnie Mandela supplementary school and Kuumba play centre, two Kentish Town-based schemes that emphasised African-centred education and activities through which hundreds of children passed.

In 1986, John established the Odu Dua Housing Association – named after a Yoruba deity – to initially tackle the high rate of homelessness among young black men in the borough before widening its remit to black and ethnic minority people living in Camden, Brent and Barnet.

Using short-life properties as its founding stock, at its peak it had a 300-strong portfolio, in­cluding flats and houses on the Lithos Road estate in West Hampstead.

John served as Odu Dua’s first chief executive and later its chairman, preventing it from being swallowed up by bigger housing associations in a mega merger.

He parted company with the organisation in 2015 but regarded it as his proudest achievement, his family said.

Gifted with great reserves of energy as well as a selfless determina­tion to improve the lives of those around him, over the years John was also a parent governor at Acland Burghley School and a governor at Edith Neville and St Michael’s CoE primary schools. He was also an active member of the Labour Party.

“Our father was a 100 per cent people person and was uninterested in accolades,” said his youngest daughter Alicia. “His work inspired so many lives and he was still in touch with young people he’d mentored along the way and who’d gone on to do well. They would always address him as Uncle John.”

A convert to Buddhism, John was diagnosed with cancer eight years ago but continued to be as active as possible, only stepping down as a trustee of the Camden Community Law Centre last year following more than three decades of service. He died peacefully at his home of 35 years in Leighton Road on September 13 surrounded by his family. He is survived by four children and two grandchildren.

John’s funeral took place yesterday (Wednesday) at Golders Green Crematorium.

I first met John when he attended the event in Euston that I had organised for my local Labour Party branch ‘Let’s Talk About Windrush’ last year. After the event, he came over to me and we spoke about colonialism and how it has affected but also brought together different BAME communities. I met him again at another event I co-chaired in Kentish Town ‘In Conversation With Nah and Angela’, two local Labour Party members who had contributed to the book New Daughters of Africa.

Since then, I learnt a lot more about John and the amazing work he had done over his lifetime as an activist for BAME issues. His legacy will live on through the people who worked closely with him on his projects and through the students whose lives he touched through the African-centred schools he founded.

Read more about the African-centred School John founded here:

Source: Guardian Website – Schools –

‘We shouldn’t learn we are black in the playground’

Supplementary schools build self-esteem and academic success for ethnic minority students

by Felicity Heywood, Tue 11 Oct 2005

An excerpt:

Back in 1980, a group of single mothers in Camden were concerned about the exclusions and suspensions from school that their children were experiencing. Classes started and for the next five years, around 10 parents taught their children supplementary lessons from their homes.

John Oke, one of the founders, now chairman of the CBPTA, says: “Unfortunately, around that time, you didn’t find black people in the banks, in schools, even in government. It is more common now. So the role models were the parents.” The low self-esteem of the children, society’s racism and the schools’ general misunderstanding of their needs as black parents were identified as the root cause of poor educational achievement.

When the group staged a sit-in for four weeks at the Kentish Town law centre because repeated applications for permanent premises were denied, Camden council offered them a short lease. Since then, they have their own rented council space, are awarded a core grant of £50,000 a year from Camden council and have a waiting list.

Today (2005) the Mandela school teaches children from four to 16 years and employs (and pays) eight teachers to lead one hour of English and maths a week and 50 minutes of black history. All are trained teachers, including two who are senior maths teachers at London secondary schools. The secondary pupils attend on Tuesdays after school hours, and the primary school-age pupils on Saturdays. With a focus on individual need, there is a maximum of 15 to a class. Boys outnumber girls almost three to one. Parents pay £35 each term to send their children. Camden Council stipulates that 75% of the pupils who attend must live in the borough.

Read full article here

Labour members – Stand With Our Posties!

“It’s obvious that the strike has enormous support amongst postal workers, but as Labour Party members, we must also place this struggle in the foreground of our vision .”

By Torr Robinson, London Young Labour, for 25 October 2019

Every member of the Labour Party is now deeply aware that an election is looming, but whilst elections can sharpen our political focus, we must not allow it to narrow our political vision. This week, the Communication Worker’s Union, which represents over one hundred thousand workers, voted by an enormous 97% (with a huge 76% turnout) in favour of strike action. Their strike comes in response to the Royal Mail bosses breaking the terms of an agreement reached last year to protect worker’s jobs and conditions. It’s obvious that the strike has enormous support amongst postal workers, but as Labour Party members, we must also place this struggle in the foreground of our vision. It would be easy to imagine that, as long as we win the election, everything else can come afterwards; but this has it backwards. The first battle of the election is already underway, and it is the CWU’s fight for their hard-won worker’s rights.

Privatised in 2013, the Royal Mail is the latest in a long line of privatisations, which have been central to the project of neoliberalism taken up by the ruling classes forty years ago. Starting with Thatcher, the forces of capitalism have waged relentless class warfare on the working classes, selling off public assets to be run on the sole principle of profit, whilst ruthlessly attempting to break the unions that resisted; an objective pursued with complete disregard for the lives and communities destroyed in the process. To legalise their war on the unions, the Tories have passed a series of reforms stripping away our labour rights. The most recent, the Trade Union Act 2016, was intended to make legal strikes harder than ever to organise. That the CWU passed a major legal strike motion despite this is a triumph, and a crucial show of defiance against those that have worked so hard to crush trade unions. If the strike succeeds, it represents the first victory in Labour’s fight to transform Britain in the interest of working people. To win the election we need the support of an organised working class that is mobilised to fight the ruling classes, exactly as the CWU is doing now.

This support will be especially necessary if we are to sustain a socialist government and implement our programme in power. Nationalisation, an irreplaceable part of any plan to reverse neoliberalism, includes the re-nationalisation of Royal Mail. To do this requires the support of postal workers to achieve, as the bosses will do everything they can to hold onto their profits. In all those industries we plan to run in the interest of the workers, we must have those same workers mobilised to succeed. Even more widely, we know that Royal Mail’s owners want to strip down the company into a gig-economy delivery business, so as to compete with the behemoth of Amazon. Rather than allowing Amazon’s exploitative practices to spread, we should instead be working to bolster the CWU’s workers to build an alternative, and to build a base for the unionisation and strengthening of Amazon workers rights and protection. After all, if we are bringing down neoliberalism and creating a new society, this is one place to start.

Read the full article on the new Labour Outlook website:
Labour Outlook: Positive news and views. The best of Labour’s Left Ideas. #JC4PM

Akala on race, class, culture and Camden

In his new book, the rapper/poet/philosopher examines how race and class have shaped life in Britain. Dan Carrier says we could all learn a thing or two from him

Source: Camden New Journal 19 July, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

Akala: ‘If there was anywhere in Britain that could serve as a petri dish for examining race, class and culture, Camden would be that place’. Photo: Alexis Chabala

IT is easy, poet-philosopher Dr Kingslee Daley aka Akala, writes in new his book, to forget that the curriculum we are taught at school is not the “result of some universal abstract truth but rather the designs of actual human beings like me and you”.

In Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, part personal memoir merged with a wide-ranging consideration of the “social, historical and political” factors that have shaped Britain today, assumed truths are dissembled with guile and wit. The purpose of this book, he says, is to examine how race and class have impacted and continue to shape our lives and he takes us on a historical journey that is both shared and personal.

Britain, he argues, has two competing traditions: “one rooted in ideas of freedom, equality and democracy and another that considers these words as mere rhetoric to be trotted out at will and violated whenever it serves the Machiavellian purposes of power preservation”.

Akala outlines a Camden childhood in the 1980s – “if there was anywhere in Britain that could serve as a petri dish for examining race, class and culture, Camden would be that place” – and describes the experience of being a young black Londoner in an era of neo-liberal triumphs and of entrenched racism.

He speaks of the prejudice he faced as a child. “Some of my white middle-class teachers made my school life extremely difficult and penalised me for the very thing they should have been nurturing – my intelligence,” he says.

His memories of school in the 1980s – he went to Brookfield and Acland Burghley – are mixed: he recalls being bullied by some adults (“my very first teacher was annoyed that I was a ‘know it all’, apparently,” he writes) and outlines the type of heartbreaking treatment he suffered.

But he also recalls those who helped him – the “countless teachers and community activists gave me the tools for navigating life’s roadmap”.

Akala remembers being seven years old and stepping into the junior school. His mother had a row with his new teacher, a man Akala does not mention by name but those of us who went to Brookfield (it is my former school) will recognise as the Anglo-Polish weightlifter-turned-teacher Andy Drzewiecki.

Akala’s mother’s argument at the start of the new term with Andy altered the parameters of the relationship between Akala and the school system.

“He had a talk about the problems I had been having; a conversation that ended with my mum agreeing to volunteer to come in on selected days to help children with their reading so she could keep an eye on me and be of use to the school as well,” he says.

The effects were dramatic. “My new teacher took such an active role in trying to unpick damage done to my self-esteem and attitude to school that he changed the entire course of my relationship with formal education.”

Chapters range from such recollections to a question-and-answer session, where Akala poses various lines he has shoved in his direction and dissembles them: “Stop playing the race card”, “You have a chip on your shoulder”, “Why don’t you just go back where you came from?”, “You are anti-British”, and various other nuggets of nonsense that, as an intellectual black man who has earned a platform, he often has to contend with.

In other sections, he takes to pieces preconceptions of the black man as some kind of genetically advantaged athlete, using the prism of Linford Christie and the 100m sprint.

He explains the paradoxes in a national memory that sways between a sense of pride for being part of the abolitionist movement to Britain’s empire and continued abuse of others.

He considers the British establishment’s hypocritical approach towards Nelson Mandela and compares it to their attitude towards Fidel Castro, and looks at issues in post-apartheid South Africa – namely the continued ownership of the means of production by a tiny section of the population.

Akala discusses the relationships between black American and British cultures, seen through music: he shows how such topics are linked. By feeding the reader different strands of thought, he considers the interconnectedness of race, class and culture and how it has shaped the world we live in today.

Whenever I see Akala on the TV or internet, hear him live or on the radio (or now having read his latest book), I can only hope that as many people as possible can be exposed to his learnedness, his ability to help you to look at what you thought was an accepted statement or situation and critically evaluate it.

We need Akala’s voice to ring out loud. This is a work of scholarly excellence, and is extremely entertaining. It demolishes accepted ideas that for too long have been a bedrock in the teaching of history and our understanding of what our nation represents. Everyone who is a mem­ber of Camden’s diverse “petri dish” should hear him identify our strengths and weaknesses as a community, and offer ways to improve it.

Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire. By Akala, Two Roads Books, £16.99

Read article here

Related articles:

Akala: “I don’t enjoy explaining that black people are human beings”

Excerpt from: New Statesman by Anoosh Chakelian OBSERVATIONS 3 APRIL 2019

The rapper and activist on knife crime, the myth of meritocracy and getting stopped by the police.


In late 2017, the rapper and political thinker Akala was driving in London, on his way to a meeting, when a police car pulled him over.

“Gang members drive cars like this,” the suspicious officer claimed, before an embarrassed colleague took him aside. She’d recognised Akala, whose activism, as well as five albums and 15 years in the music industry, has earned him public renown.

“The whole mood changed completely,” he recalls when we meet. “I got a sense of white people’s interactions with the police. Suddenly I’m not just any old black guy – what you could call class privilege, being a public intellectual, kicks in.”

“Believe it or not, I don’t actually enjoy having to explain that black people are human beings,” he says. “That the kinds of black kids likely to fall into violent crime come almost exclusively from a very particular set of circumstances, obviously. And those circumstances are the same as the white lads in Glasgow or Liverpool who are likely to fall into violent crime.

Read full article here

Has Akala just dramatically moved the race debate?

Excerpt from: Operation Black Vote, The Home of Black Politics

by Simon Woolley News 19 Mar 2019

Most Black writers or activists know that going on national TV and radio to talk about race issues, particularly race inequality, more often than not will be to enter a rigged debate. That is to say that most of the time the presenter and their chosen guests will not only set themselves up Full Square against you, but they will also attempt to characterize you as part of the problem for daring to raise the issues; rather than discuss some of the legitimate elements that cause persistent inequalities.

But what I witnessed yesterday on Good Morning Britain with the more than opinionated Piers Morgan was something quite extraordinary.

Rather than adopt his usual adversarial mode, Morgan had clearly read Akala’s notes beforehand and agreed with just about everything he said. In particular, that the UK, its media and Government, viewed recent ‘knife crime’ only through the prism of race. “Black people do not have the monopoly on serious crime or general bad behaviour’ stated Akala, adding, “but when soaring levels of knife crime occurred in Glasgow, for example, the race of the criminals was not an issue, but with Black people it’s the only issue.”

Now let’s be clear, it’s unlikely that this one interview, brilliant as it was, is not going to radically move the dial on racial politics anytime soon, but it could be a start. I think the dynamics of the interview should be widely shared, and we should urge other presenters to both see it and engage more in this type of sensible debate. That way we can begin to talk about solutions rather than justifying the debate at all.

Read full article here

Akala talks to i-d about the relationship between racism and violence

Excerpt from I-d.vice by Ciaran Thapar | CULTURE 26 March 2019

“It seems like some people wish to use this problem, which is affecting a very specific demographic of teenage black boys in London, as well as others all over the country, as a way of demonising black people as a whole.”

“Right now, Middle England is seeing more black people than they’ve ever seen on TV, and it’s only ever to discuss stabbings. I’ve seen Piers [Morgan] pay enough attention to knife crime. So I felt like I had an obligation to say, well, hold on a minute, what are the facts?” he says. “We live in such as an anti-intellectual culture, where people can go on national TV, chat shit, and just make emotional arguments with no stats. But I deal with facts. I think that’s why it resonated with people,” he explains. In Akala’s latest television appearance, pressed by Piers Morgan, while outlining proven root causes behind Britain’s long history with youth violence, Akala calmly dismantled the claim that race, and blackness specifically, is inherent to London’s knife crime epidemic. The video quickly went viral after being intensively shared on Twitter and Instagram by young fans as well as older commentators. “Then I went on Twitter and posted all my sources” he continues, grinning, his eyes sparkling with undeniable accomplishment.

Read full article here

Source: Reddit


‘Labour & Palestine’ was launched at the 2018 Labour Party Conference. We are currently in the process of setting up a ‘Highgate Labour & Palestine’ comprising of local activists from Labour & Palestine, JVL and Camden PSC. We hope to launch in late September, details will be publicised in due course.

Labour & Palestine

Labour & Palestine is supported by Aslef, CWU, NUM, TSSA, Unison and Unite, and our founding statement has been signed by over 2500 Labour members from over 450 CLPs.

Our purpose is to build solid support for Palestine across the Party and the labour movement.

If you are interested in being informed and helping promoting Palestine within Labour please sign the ‘Speaking Up for Palestine’ statement here.

Labour & Palestine have a model motion for Labour Party Conference 2019. Here is the Peace & Justice for Palestine Model Motion and accompanying Q&A. Please pass it in your CLP and Trade Union branches.

New pro-Palestine network to be launched at Labour conference

Morning Star article A new political network is to be launched in order to “stop the silencing” of the Palestinian cause within Labour. The movement is intended to temper fears from Palestinians and Palestine solidarity campaigners that the cause of the state has been “pushed under a bus” by the British labour movement.

Palestine Solidarity Campaign

Many of our members are active in one of our local branches. These branches are the bedrock of our campaigns, winning support from individuals and groups in their areas. Below you will find contact details for all of the current PSC local branches.

PSC logoFor details of upcoming branch events, either visit the branches’ own websites and Facebook pages (where available) or try our events page.

Please note you do not need to be a national PSC member to attend branch meetings, but why not  join us now!

Camden Palestine Solidarity Campaign: Email, Facebook page

Jewish Voice for Labour

Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) is a network for Jewish members of the Labour Party. Our political priorities are universal human rights and dignity; justice for all; freedom of expression; and democracy in the Labour Party.

Our mission is to contribute to making the Labour Party an open, democratic and inclusive party, encouraging all ethnic groups and cultures to join and participate freely.

Continue reading “Palestine”

Cllr Maryam Eslamdoust: Mayor of Camden 2019

Source: Camden Council website London, 16 May 2019

Camden’s Mayor for 2019-2020 was appointed at the annual Mayor-making ceremony on Wednesday evening.

Councillor Maryam Eslamdoust succeeds outgoing Mayor Councillor Headlam-Wells. The new Deputy Mayor is Councillor Sabrina Francis.

She is the first Iranian-born woman ever elected to public office in the UK, and currently due to give birth this month, she will be the first Camden mayor to give birth in office.

Councillor Maryam Eslamdoust was born in Tehran and moved to London as a child, with her family making their first home in Kilburn, where she has been a Labour councillor since 2010.

Before her election to the council, Maryam studied in two of the borough’s universities – the School of Oriental and African Studies and at University College London. She started her early career in the legal and charity sector.

Pained by her own experiences in discrimination, Maryam has devoted her time on the council towards elevating the lives of Camden people from marginalised sections of society. She has campaigned on race, gender and disability issues and led on policies to protect Camden residents.

The Mayor’s chosen charity is Solace Women’s Aid.

Councillor Maryam Eslamdoust, Mayor of Camden, said: “Domestic violence should have no place in Camden. I want to raise awareness and encourage people to speak out when they see signs of abuse. My chosen charity, Solace Women’s Aid, offers free advice and support to women and children in London to build safe and strong lives – free from abuse and violence.

“By this time next year, I hope that everyone in our borough recognises the wider impact of domestic abuse on individuals and on their families. My aim is to put this issue firmly in the spotlight.”

Mary Mason, CEO for Solace Women’s Aid, said: “We are absolutely delighted to be chosen as the Mayor’s charity for 2019-20, as Camden is one of the boroughs where Solace first began supporting women over 40 years ago – so is a place which is very dear to my heart and is part of our DNA. Since then Solace has grown to become the leading specialist charity in London supporting women and children experiencing domestic abuse and sexual violence and we have supported thousands of families in Camden during that time.”

In the UK, two women are killed every week by a partner or ex-partner, while one in four women and one in six men will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime. It can happen to anyone – regardless of age, gender identity, sexual orientation or culture. Domestic abuse isn’t just physical – it can include verbal, psychological, sexual, financial, and emotional abuse including controlling and manipulative behaviour.

Camden Council has a dedicated support service, Camden Safety Net, with trained advisors who can offer impartial and confidential advice to any resident who has concerns about their relationship. Camden’s message to anyone experiencing domestic abuse is you’re not alone – we’re here to help.Residents can contact Camden Safety Net on 020 7974 2526 or visit, where they can also watch our short film that highlights some of the different forms domestic abuse can take.

More about Solace Women’s Aid

Domestic abuse and sexual violence can take many forms. Solace provides life-saving support to over 16,000 women and children in London every year. They run 37 refuge and move on accommodation properties with space for 168 women and their children. Last year 139 women and children lived in their Camden refuges giving them somewhere safe to stay when they had nowhere else to turn. In the Camden refuge women and children would have built their new lives with support from Solace staff, everything from overcoming trauma to starting a new school. Across Camden, Solace Women’s Aid supported 377 women and children to rebuild their lives, with therapy, group work and other support that meant they had a strong future.

For more information on Solace Women’s Aid visit

Mayor of Camden gets a new escort as she gives birth to baby boy

Councillors thank NHS staff for their care as little Xerxes arrives two weeks early

Source: Camden New Journal 13 June, 2019 — By Richard Osley

CAMDEN’S mayor has given birth to her own first citizen!

Maryam Eslamdoust was caught by surprise when new baby boy Xerxes arrived on Wednesday, two weeks earlier than expected.

Mayor Maryam Eslamdoust and her husband Cllr Thomas Gardiner with baby Xerxes

“I was doing mayoral events right up until the day before,” she told the New Journal. “I was at a memorial service for the London Fire Brigade and then baby came early. We rushed to University College London Hospital late on Tuesday evening – and then he arrived on Wednesday afternoon.”

It is three four since Cllr Eslamdoust became Mayor of Camden at a special council meeting.

Her consort is husband Thomas Gardiner, a fellow Kilburn councillor and now a proud father. The baby’s full name is Xerxes Arthur Gardiner.

His first name is pronounced Zerk-seez, the Mayor said, explaining that several well-wishers had asked about this. Cllr Eslamdoust, the first Iranian-born woman to become a mayor in the United Kingdom, writes an unusual new chapter in Camden’s political history as the first mayor in the borough to give birth in office.

Baby Xerxes at UCLH

She said at her mayor-making ceremony that her yet-to-be-born son would be one of her escorts.

Over the next 12 months, she has resolved to use her time wearing the mayoral chain to raise money for Solace Women’s Aid, which supports women and children who have ex­perienced domestic abuse. The charity helps with refuge places and assists with therapy, with the aim of giving women a chance to make fresh starts.

Cllr Eslamdoust was first elected in her Kilburn ward, alongside Cllr Gardiner, in 2010. The couple, part of the left-wing caucus on Camden’s Labour group, had been politically active beforehand, however; the picture below shows them march­ing against the Iraq War.

Thomas Gardiner and Maryam Eslamdoust marching against war in 2003

While council staff often take around nine months of maternity leave, Cllr Eslamdoust is expected to be back on the beat in about four weeks.

Her deputy, Sabrina Francis, was on duty at events this week as the new family return­ed home from hospital.

“We are so happy about our beautiful son arriving,” said Cllr Eslamdoust. “I must give huge thanks to the NHS staff at the UCLH for how they looked after Xerxes.”

‘Their Voices Can No Longer Be Heard’: Grenfell Survivors Call For Inquiry Overhaul

Family members of the victims of the Grenfell fire have called for an overhaul of the inquiry procedures over worries that they are not being heard. 

Source: by By Meka Beresford

Freelance News Editor, 8th May 2019

Image credit: Flickr

Ahead of the second phase of the inquiry, 38 families representing 46 of the 72 people who died in the fire worked with the charity Inquest to release the report, Family reflections on Grenfell: No voice left unheard.

The report criticises the first phase of the inquiry and sets out concerns and recommendations for how to continue.

A Change In Approach 

Image credit: Flickr

A key criticism in the report was the decision to hold the hearing in Holborn Bars, as families said that there was too much distance between the inquiry and the Grenfell fire site.

“Families [wanted] to be situated in front of those speaking, so they could see their faces as they spoke, and believed anyone being questioned should do so while face to face with those bereaved by the fire,” the report noted.

“It is high time the inquiry team and the government listened to these voices and provide an inclusive and truthful inquiry that delivers structural change and accountability.”

Deborah Coles, director of Inquest

As well as a location change, it suggested that anyone dealing directly with families of the victims should have proper training and that each survivor have a key caseworker present who is independent of the council and can work as a liaison providing information and updates on the inquiry.

The report also called for an independent, diverse decision-making inquiry panel, for public authorities to be franker in their approach to the inquiry and for a change in the way witnesses are questioned. A plan to help coordinate emergency services in the event of future disasters was also proposed.

Representing The ‘Voices’ Of Grenfell Victims

Image credit: Flickr

One Grenfell survivor, Sadik Kelbeto, explained that it was essential the report is taken into consideration to pay respect to those who died

“My whole family was wiped out by the fire. Their voices can no longer be heard. I have to represent them. I owe it to them,” Kelbeto said.

“This report is important because these are our words and our voices. The government have an obligation to listen to us. If they don’t listen to us, then who will they listen to?”

This report is important because these are our words and our voices. The government have an obligation to listen to us. If they don’t listen to us, then who will they listen to?

Sadik Kelbeto, a bereaved family member

The report insisted that so far, the bereaved families and survivors had been “left questioning the effectiveness of an inquiry that is failing to recommend life-saving changes as early as possible.”

“It is high time the inquiry team and the government listened to these voices and provide an inclusive and truthful inquiry that delivers structural change and accountability,” added Deborah Coles, the director of Inquest.

The report was welcomed by the Grenfell Inquiry, with a spokesperson saying that making it “as accessible as possible has always been a priority”.

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Failing Grenfell Again

Tribune Magazine by Emma Dent Coad 30.04.2019

Almost two years after the tragic fire in Grenfell Tower, local MP Emma Dent Coad explains how Kensington and Chelsea Council have systematically failed its victims.

As the second anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire approaches, there is a feeling of desperation and growing panic in the air from those with responsibility for rehousing the homeless. 

This also applies to those responsible for the mental and physical well-being of the community, and for the long-term future of a neighbourhood which will always bear the scars of what happened on 14th June 2017.

This determination to get everything under control, to clear the decks, to get back to ‘business as usual’ has produced a hardening of attitude from some who should know better.

There are officers in the Council, and indeed councillors of all political persuasions, who have worked admirably, and been patient, kind, empathic and understanding with the hundreds of affected people they have met. 

Then there are the others.

Bishop James Jones’ Charter for Bereaved Families was established in response to the treatment of families of the Hillsborough disaster. In late 2017, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council signed up to the Charter and its six principles which commit the Council to the following: 

  1. In the event of a public tragedy, activate its emergency plan and deploy its resources to rescue victims, to support the bereaved and to protect the vulnerable.
  2. Place the public interest above our own reputation.
  3. Approach forms of public scrutiny – including public inquiries and inquests – with candour, in an open, honest and transparent way, making full disclosure of relevant documents, material and facts. Our objective is to assist the search for the truth. We accept that we should learn from the findings of external scrutiny and from past mistakes.
  4. Avoid seeking to defend the indefensible or to dismiss or disparage those who may have suffered where we have fallen short.
  5. Ensure all members of staff treat members of the public and each other with mutual respect and with courtesy. Where we fall short, we should apologise straightforwardly and genuinely.
  6. Recognise that we are accountable and open to challenge. We will ensure that processes are in place to allow the public to hold us to account for the work we do and for the way in which we do it. We do not knowingly mislead the public or the media.

However, the hiring of a large and well-funded Media Communications team at the same time caused concern, and some of their actions since then have rung alarm bells. Loud and often. I could give countless examples, but here are a few: 

  • The Leader of the Council, in October 2018, nervously stated at Full Council that she knew nothing about the soil toxicity tests carried out in late 2017. This is despite the fact that half of North Kensington were aware of minutes of a meeting she had attended nine months previously to discuss that very issue.
  • Countless examples of MediaComs and senior councillors downplaying the number of families made homeless by the fire. In essence only people from the Tower and Walk are counted, not those from the adjacent blocks. Currently the number of homeless households is 67. 
  • Constant misrepresentation of the state of the council’s finances; they still have decent reserves, have found £7 million to extend Leighton House Museum, and £400,000 a month for legal services.
  • Reports of poor treatment of some survivors and bereaved by some officers and councillors, incidents of which have been witnessed.
  • Reports of comments by officers and councillors, including the use of racist words, to describe the community, as well as racist comments made within the Council. I met two former BAME officers who left because they could no longer tolerate this but refused to report it.

While defending the Council’s indefensible actions at every turn, MediaComs refuse to support traumatised survivors who have been hounded and persecuted by the press. 

The government-appointed Task Force is about to report back for the fourth time. They have demanded cultural change for which there is little evidence. Instead, I see the Council placing their own reputation above public interest, I see candour only when it suits their purpose, I see few learning from past mistakes. Officers and councillors too often defend the indefensible, and too often affected people are treated with disdain. 

Quite a few of the 186 households who have moved into permanent accommodation are unhappy for various reasons and have come back to me for help. When they ask to be moved, they are treated as a nuisance. When one expressed his anger in words, he was called “volatile.” 

These families are treated as troublesome rather than troubled. I have heard of four suicides, two additional attempts and one sectioning in the past few months. It would be wrong to attribute them directly to the Council’s ineptitude and lack of care, but it is clear that many local people are struggling emotionally and mentally, and not getting the help they need from the £50 million of targeted NHS support. 

The Council claims to have bought 300 properties for households made homeless. If 186 households have now moved in, what’s happened to the remaining 114? No one will say.

While spinning their webs with tales of community meetings, people being “engaged,” graphics, graphs and indecipherable management speak, the truth does eventually leak out.

Meanwhile, councillors dig in their heels. Comments reported in recent months have included “haven’t we [senior Tory councillors] suffered enough?” and “I don’t know why we’re wasting so much on mental health, they all seem fine to me.” 

The “exciting and innovative” Council Plan and Review of the Scrutiny Process, currently being rushed through, would reduce councillors to community engagement officers and leave the decision-making to just nine senior councillors. 

And this after the proposed Plan had “engaged” just 28 people in the whole of North Kensington, a number fewer than that which North Ken Councillors could “engage” on a local shopping trip. And the third Task Force Report said they must improve scrutiny.

Then there is the disastrous, unpopular and indefensible determination to end the Grenfell Recovery Scrutiny Committee, when it was just turning a corner and beginning to function. 

A Council that has learnt so little cannot absorb such a large quantity of sensitive work. But no dissent is accepted. We must get back to “business as usual,” as a senior Director told me. 

This flies in the face of the Task Force and Grenfell Recovery Strategy, which both state clearly that we should never consider returning to the previous administration of the Council which let 72 people burn to death in front of their families, friends and neighbours.

We have some lovely, empathetic, community-minded millionaires in Kensington, and not all vote Labour. But those in charge at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, many of whom can afford a high life of yachts, polo games and Lamborghinis, are not of that ilk. 

I’ve met Brexit-supporting Tory MPs from the Home Counties with more empathy. One told me “they should have got the army in to house people, and the Commissioners in to take over the Council on day one.”

We need a team of people with intelligence, experience and humanity to deal with a mess of our Council’s own making. For as long as people are determined to point the finger of blame elsewhere for their own failures, I and many of my community will continue to distrust them.

Our demand is for #CommissionersNow.

Bishop John James’ report on Hillsborough was called The Patronising Disposition of Unaccountable Power. It has never been more apposite. Anyone interested to know why, almost two years on, those who suffered at Grenfell are still denied justice should read it.

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About the Author

Emma Dent Coad is the Labour Party Member of Parliament for Kensington.