Photography by Guy Smallman
Trigger warning: mention of infant death
Driving across the elevated Westway on the A40, I dread seeing the bright green heart rise from beyond the steel barriers on the road. It has been draped over a white, blanketed block on the Lancaster Gate Estate for two and a half years. To visitors of London, it could look like an art installation, but to locals it is a grave reminder of the Grenfell Tower fire that tore through that very block, killing 72 people in June 2017. The incident exposed the reality of the glitzy façade that Kensington borough had put on for so long, parading its high flying areas to outsiders (such as Ilchester Place, which made news for being the most expensive street in Britain), whilst it made cuts to residents most in need.
Only a week before the tragedy, Labour MP Emma Dent Coad was cheered in after her shock win in 2017. With a background as an architectural historian and long-time campaigner for better housing, she was well placed to review the council estate blocks that had been ignored for so long by Victoria Borwick, Kensington’s Conservative MP between 2015 to 2017. She attended the Grenfell Tower Inquiry on 30 October to hold accountable those who have escaped scrutiny, including Boris Johnson who was Mayor of London until 2016 and made extensive cuts to public services.
However, last week’s general election reopened old wounds as Conservative MP Felicity Buchan won the seat from Emma, a mere two and a half years after the party’s negligence came to light. The work towards achieving justice for the victims may have been in vain as Felicity, who, echoing the behaviour of Kensington council members who failed to turn up on the streets to support locals and emergency services battling the fire, has never even attended the silent walks for Grenfell and made no mention of resolving continuing housing and welfare issues in the borough.
“Kensington’s new MP has never even attended the silent walks for Grenfell and made no mention of resolving continuing housing and welfare issues in the borough”
It’s painful to recall the first time I heard each victim’s name read out on the news. One of them was Logan Gomes, a stillborn baby who was delivered only a few hours after the fire. Felicity only entered the House of Commons on 13 December and has participated in no debates or parliamentary votes. It is hard to tell what her approach will be as Kensington’s MP, but her lack of vocal support to the community is already perturbing. She had the opportunity to address residents directly about her plans but failed to do so.
Ninety per cent of the Grenfell victims were from a minority background and roughly 60% came from a Muslim background. For Felicity to not utter a word about the deceased or their families during her campaign and inaugural speech is a telling sign of how she perceives the lives lost. It shows us what little importance they have been given on the Conservatives’ agenda, which has no renewed policies regarding housing safety. It becomes difficult not to view the lack of attention Grenfell residents have received a racial issue, especially considering the rampant Islamophobia in the Tory party.
So, how exactly did Felicity get elected?
Kensington was a Remain constituency with 69% voting against Brexit, yet Felicity, a prominent Brexiteer, did not speak on the issue during her inaugural speech. It was this very topic that gave Liberal Democrat candidate Sam Gyimah a 9% swing of critical votes (9,312) as the party pledged to reverse Brexit, giving Remainers in the borough a beacon of hope. Tactical voting sites being used to catapult referendum-backing MPs, like Sam, into power backfired, as it seems Labour could have safely reclaimed the seat. When votes between Labour and the Conservatives, chants of “shame!” filled the room.
Sam was a Conservative MP until September of this year when he rebelled against his party’s no-deal Brexit plans and lost the Conservative whip. The decision to place him in a borough he has never contributed to was met with trepidation, leaving residents in the less wealthy areas such as Ladbroke Grove and Lancaster West Estate reeling at the results. He has a poor human rights record as an MP, voting against investigations into the Iraq War and against raising welfare benefits to be in line with prices, so I wonder how he intended to help the underprivileged minorities dominating North Kensington. Sam and his party had no hand in helping those affected by the Grenfell fire. I am sickened at the tactics used for a gain in political power, with no regard for the needs of citizens.
“I am sickened at the tactics used by the Lib Dems for a gain in political power, with no regard for the needs of citizens”
Local resident Deborah Gebreselassie told me that she believes the Brexit-centric rhetoric during the election left people misinformed on the best way to vote. A Lib Dem member knocked on her door and mentioned reversing Brexit, but he did not focus on any social policies; she did get a pamphlet to look into their manifesto online though. She stated that no one else had come to speak to residents on her street personally and it was “a good look” for Sam to have done so. The divide between the wealthy South Kensington and impoverished North Kensington is noticeable. Deborah says residents of the latter “do not feel heard and people are still organising protests and walks for Grenfell”. She’s witnessed her friends grieve their neighbour, Khadija Saye, a rising Gambian-British photographer who lost her life in the fire. Lack of affordable housing, cuts to local schools, disability benefits, mental health care, and overcrowding were all dismissed under Victoria and there are fears that Felicity will do the same.
The local council is still under investigation for corporate manslaughter since faults with the building were raised long before the catastrophe. It was whilst Victoria was in power that suggested improvements to the building were rejected. Since then, more towers with the same aluminium composite cladding (susceptible to fires and spreading them) have been found within the private sector. Existing flats with the cladding that were supposed to be rectified remain as they are, with residents living there at risk. In fact, 319 of the 446 identified buildings in need of updating have not been altered at all. However, neither Felicity nor Sam’s campaign discourse made any mention of key issues that Grenfell brought to the fore or long term plans for the families affected. Residents of the tower are still piecing their lives back together, with some families still in temporary housing, over two years after the incident and it doesn’t look like much will change in the near future under Felicity.
In her op-ed piece for Huffpost in the aftermath of the Kensington vote, Emma stated that Sam had been reported to police. He claimed that she was “on the council and was part of all the discussions that went on in terms of cladding” before the deadly fire. This has been found to be a false allegation. She stated it is “quite rightly, a crime to lie about an opponent in an election in order to sway the electorate. I hope this may result in a prosecution”. This news must sting those living in Kensington, who already feel they have been duped by the Liberal Democrats.
Kensington is a microcosm for the wider havoc the Conservatives have wreaked, and it has highlighted the deceitful tactics the Lib Dems are willing to use. Their views on minority communities are not so different to the Tories, as they would like us to believe. Whilst hundreds of people in London and Glasgow attended anti-Boris protests over the weekend, Kensington residents held yet another local walk for Grenfell, but both messages remain unheard.