In just under a week, voters will head to the polls in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea – the first political test for local councillors since flames engulfed the 24-storey Grenfell Tower in June last year, killing 71 people.
Though the area has been under Conservative control for 53 years, the fire has threatened to shift the political landscape on the ground. Councillors have been widely criticised, accused of apathy and incompetence by residents in the north of the borough who say they feel forgotten by the authorities.
Government minister Sajid Javid has reprimanded the borough for “totally unacceptable” delays, after it emerged that not all survivors of the fire would be rehoused in permanent accommodation in time for the one-year anniversary.
The charred remains of the tower, now covered in white hoarding, still stand over the local community, and here residents speak of a sense of injustice, remembering the slow response of the authorities in the hours and days after the fire spread. But in the southern and more affluent areas, out of sight of Grenfell, the concerns are very different.
Nahid Ashby, chair of Silchester Estate Residents’ Association, which is just metres from Grenfell, said the divide is keenly felt. “I think that most people [in South Kensington] have probably already forgotten it. But we are here, we see it every day… some people see it from every window of every room,” she said.
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW NEWS
Samia Badani, who lives near to Grenfell, agrees. She said the Grenfell tragedy has revealed that “there’s a system in this borough that excludes people, a system that fails us, specifically when it comes to our safety”.
Currently the northern wards of Dalgarno, Golborne, St Helen’s, Colville and Notting Dale – where Grenfell sits – are predominantly held by Labour. But move south, and the majority of the wards are Tory strongholds. The Conservatives currently have 37 councillors and Labour has 11, while the Liberal Democrats have two.
In South Kensington, and the wealthier wards of Chelsea Riverside and Stanley, it is parking, traffic, construction and dog poo that are the key concerns.
Paul Marshall, 74, has lived in Chelsea for 40 years. He said that traffic and pollution are two of the main problems affecting people in the area, adding: “Other than that, we are quite happy here.”
Marshall, who is retired, said that the tragedy has not affected his perception of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC). “It could have happened anywhere. I mean it happened in an area which is considered quite a rich borough and therefore there has been this sort of reaction, but it could have easily happened anywhere.
“So I don’t really blame the council and really they are not up to a disaster like that.”
The Conservatives have remained adamant that they are a party for the whole of Kensington and Chelsea, but tensions on the ground suggest otherwise. During an RBKC hustings event this week, a man who claimed to have lost relatives in the fire stormed the stage to confront Conservative candidates.
Thursday’s event, held just a mile-and-a-half from Grenfell, is thought to be the first time in this election campaign that a Conservative candidate who is not already an elected councillor attended a hustings in the north of the borough.
An hour into the debate and with little mention of the fire, Usama Ghamhi leapt on to the stage and told the panel: “Talk about Grenfell. I’ve been there since the day of the fire, none of you have come to see me.”
The outburst divided the room, with many applauding the 24-year-old, while others maintained that they wanted to hear other issues discussed.
Nicola Shulman has been a resident in the south of the borough for 30 years. The six most southern wards in Kensington and Chelsea are Tory heartlands, with both the leader of RBKC and her deputy, Kim Taylor-Smith, holding seats in the area.
Speaking near the Chelsea embankment, surrounded by grand town houses on tree-lined streets, Shulman said that this year is the first time that a councillor has come to the door canvassing. “It suggests that they feel that they are in some way threatened, but I’m not sure by whom,” she said.
Grenfell hasn’t had an impact in the south. In the south they don’t give a damn about GrenfellMohammed Tehrani
But Mohammed Tehrani, 62, who has lived in the northern ward of Notting Dale for more than four decades, feels less ambivalent. The grandfather-of-three has raised two generations in the area and now lives in the shadow of Grenfell’s charred remains.
He said he doesn’t think the fire will influence how those in the south of the borough will vote. “Grenfell hasn’t had an impact in the south. In the south they don’t give a damn about Grenfell.
Tehrani is a Labour supporter, but that he is doubtful that the party will be able to oust the Conservatives on May 3. “Can Labour get a majority? I really don’t know if that’s possible. It is the rich people in the south, they have got the majority,” he said.
Elizabeth Campbell, who took over from Nicholas Paget-Brown as the leader of RBKC in the aftermath of the fire, said she believes all residents in the borough are “open” to the Conservative message.
“We are campaigning in every ward. We have candidates in every ward, we have election leaflets going out in every ward and we will see what the voters think. The election is about whether people have connected with the Conservatives, let’s wait and see. But we are doing everything we can to connect with them.”
In total there are 18 wards in RBKC and 50 seats up for grabs. The Conservatives have candidates standing in every area, as do the Liberal Democrats, while Labour is campaigning in 12 – seven more than they currently hold.
The incoming council is guaranteed to look very different to the outgoing one, with more than a dozen Conservative councillors not standing for re-election this year.
Campbell would not be drawn on whether she believes Grenfell will impact her chances of being re-elected. “I can’t predict things. I can only just work as hard as I can, so we will see. Ask me afterwards.”
She added: “Grenfell is our first priority and we are absolutely determined to ensure that everyone is rehoused and rehoused in really good quality homes.”
But a new group, called Advance, is trying to shift the political landscape in RBKC. Annabel Mullin, the party’s leader, said the shock result of the General Election last year, in which the borough voted for a Labour MP for then first time in decades, “allows people to feel less attached to the norms”.
A former Liberal Democrat candidate, Mullin said Advance is hoping to make gains in the borough and is fielding candidates in 12 wards, where Grenfell will “undoubtedly” have an impact on how people vote.
One thing is clear: for thousands of residents, the poll is just another way to highlight how stark the divides in this central London borough really are.
“They say ‘get over it, ten months have gone by’,” says Tehrani. “It’s definitely divided, it has always been like that. It is the smallest borough in London but then again there is a problem with the south and north, the rich and poor.”