“Developers can get away with murder” – an interview with Kensington’s Emma Dent Coad

One short week in May exposed the fault lines at the heart of our communities. Three months on from a shock election result, as the Grenfell inquiry opens, Kensington’s new Labour MP talks housing, education, poverty and politics with Nathan Akehurst.

Nathan Akehurst
26 September 2017

Image: Emma Dent Coad MP, at the Grenfell Tower inquiry preliminary hearing. PA Images, all rights reserved.

The night after the general election, a crowd throwing flowers greeted Emma Dent Coad at Kensington and Chelsea’s red-brick town hall on Hornton Street. After four recounts, I watched the veteran councillor snatch the home of Kensington Palace and the Daily Mail by twenty votes.

Days later crowds were back at Hornton Street, this time in shock and desperate grief. Missing posters, police cordons and debris lined the roads after a blaze ripped through Grenfell Tower in the worst civil disaster in London since World War II. The scene wouldn’t have looked out of place in a war zone. Emma lives a few minutes’ walk from the tower.

Three months on, I meet her in Parliament on a busy lunchtime sandwiched before the Grenfell inquiry opening and after the EU Withdrawal Bill. “Brexit was present in my campaign but not as much as everyone thinks”, says Emma. The area’s political ecosystem - thrown into the spotlight by the fire - is far more complex; and few understand it better than its new MP, who I first encountered fighting funding cuts whilst still at school.

“There are lifelong Conservative voters who say I understand the constituency’s DNA, that they’re embarrassed by the government and they’d vote for me again. We’ll see surprises”, in next year’s local elections, she predicts.

“Then there are people inspired by the leadership and manifesto who returned to Labour, and people who’d never voted. And lots fed up with the previous incumbent.”

She adds wryly, “It’s difficult for me to judge her as I’ve not seen her anywhere much at all.”

Her aversion to the snobbish end of Kensington is tempered by an embrace of all the seat’s corners. “There’s a hard core of wealthy narrow-minded people but they’re a minority”, she says. “There are more decent-minded people. The fact that I’m there and the world hasn’t ended will encourage them - I haven’t literally painted the borough red.”

“I’ve stood up over malnutrition in council meetings and been laughed at”

But it’s the minority who she says set policy. “Life expectancy is decreasing. We have one of the richest people in the world – the Sultan of Brunei – down the road from where life expectancy is falling in 2017.”  

“I’ve stood up over malnutrition in council meetings and been laughed at. A Tory cabinet member actually said to me: ‘Labour love the idea of rickets.’ We now have a child with full-blown rickets – a lifetime disability. The number of children with asthma from overcrowding, damp and filthy air is shocking.”

There’s a moment of shared understanding; I grew up in squalid accommodation in South Kensington at the mercies of an uncaring town hall. A route out of that predicament was provided by my school; London’s first comprehensive. That route has narrowed since it converted to an academy with little consultation (Emma helped me with an ill-fated campaign against the conversion in my last year.)

“Holland Park had its ups and downs”, she says, “but it had a proper mix of local kids. Now it’s harder for people from the north of the borough and they’re getting far more – let’s name it – white middle class kids.”

“There’s a cringeworthy video on their website where you can see exactly who they’re going for. I complained and they managed to find an Asian boy doing a science experiment and shoved that on the website”, she says with a hollow laugh. “It’s shameful, given the local taxpayers’ money that funded the school.”

There are new schools, such as Kensington Aldridge Academy, built on the only open green space belonging to Grenfell residents after a flawed consultation. But Emma says little has improved – the deficit in school places leaves five out of six applicants to the academy, without a place.

Of her own education, she laughs, “Sacred Heart Hammersmith turned me political at fifteen”.

“In the old days someone like me would work for a housing association…”

If education is a fault line running through Kensington, housing and planning is a deeper one. From threats to local markets to rows over oligarchs’ subterranean super-garages to dilapidated social housing, every inch of space is contested.

At Grenfell, anger has been directed at KCTMO, the Conservative council’s housing management organisation. Emma argues housing governance needs “reviewing altogether, not just ALMOs but also housing associations.”

“I’m terrified by these massive merger operations. They’re unwieldy, could crash at any moment, and I don’t think those running them have the expertise needed. In the old days someone like me would work for a housing association, but now they’ve become businesses that pay badly and don’t train staff properly.”

Emma rattles off a checklist of housing associations she’s clashed with. “Genesis. Kensington Housing Trust. Catalyst. Notting Hill Housing is still worst for everyday repairs and answering phones. They’re merging with a group I believe is in debt and has a very poor record.”

If housing associations are playing loose with rules, big developers are driving coaches and horses through them, Emma contends.

“Developers can get away with murder. They have whole teams of lobbyists and lawyers getting round viability.”

The “viability assessment” is an infamous loophole exploited by developers to minimise their duties to build affordable homes. Their huge legal departments can outgun whichever councils are prepared to fight. On the new “community infrastructure levy” which was supposed to make developer contributions more transparent, Emma is dismissive. “I don’t think we can see where the money’s going.”

On Warwick Road sits the luxury Kensington Row development. It was obliged to provide limited social housing – but some wealthy residents were enraged to see Grenfell survivors resettled there.

“I wouldn’t want to live there”, says Emma. “The social housing is a barrier block in front of a very busy road. There’s two feet of soil in the garden and nowhere to hang out.”

“It’s dense, stale, and the kind of place you’d want to get off the bus or park, and run to your flat. It’s not the friendly neighbourhood promised in all their bumph.”

A long-time student of architecture, Emma says that “you can’t design something on paper and hand it over”, adding, “I know the architect who designed Grenfell. They talked to people about what they wanted, and stayed from beginning to end.”

“By denigrating 60s and 70s architecture, we’re missing out on good lessons. We say the buildings are scruffy or there’s antisocial behaviour - but usually they haven’t been properly managed.”

The example she gives is Trellick Tower, a Grade II-listed cultural icon in her ward with a chequered history. “Trellick suffered under mismanagement – the intended concierge went and cleaning was cut so it went through a very bad patch.”

“But the Cheltenham Estate is renowned worldwide not just because of the gorgeous tower but because it’s designed as a cradle to grave project. Low- and high-rise, nurseries, doctors, shops, family houses, sheltered accommodation, and in the heart of it an old people’s home. There’s a lovely canal behind and a garden with different spaces.”

Barge moorings, a skate park and a wildlife garden still sit adjacent on the Grand Union Canal.

She adds that planning chiefs and council management are rarely local. “I’ve taken each planning director for walks around the borough and they’ve no idea of the place they’re working in. I find that shocking.”

“On the morning of the fire locals took control because no-one else did”

A thread is running through the conversation about empowering people; responding to a sense of powerlessness captured at one end by Corbyn’s “for the many” pitch and at another by the Leave campaign’s rallying cry to “take control.”

“On the morning of the fire locals took control because no one else did. Now they’ve taken the reins they won’t give them back easily. People must be given real power to decide on spending priorities.”

What might those priorities be? Kensington and Chelsea was lauded as a flagship borough by then-communities secretary Eric Pickles (and Emma sympathises with fears that councillors may be shielded by high-level relationships with government). Meanwhile money has been piled up in reserves and tax breaks while small community projects have gone.

“Elizabeth Campbell [the new council leader] personally axed some nursery provision, causing higher rates to be charged, and said if parents can’t afford it they can just apply for more benefit.”

“There are homework clubs which kids depend on when their homes are overcrowded or noisy. They rely on a computer and teacher, and their parents can work. They’re tiny and inexpensive but essential. Then there’s a Persian elderly women’s group with a weekly lunch club that cost the council hardly anything. It was keeping those women alive, to have a space to speak Farsi and share food.”

“And now we know, from fire survivors stuck in hotels who have lost their networks, how much of a killer isolation can be.”

Campaigner and survivor Edward Daffarn has raised the idea of “reparations” for Grenfell; saving local amenities that are under threat including a library and a college. Emma is supportive, and points out that the locals who set up a WhatsApp to coordinate relief on the morning of the fire were linked through an umbrella campaign to save these spaces.

“Here at Hogwarts you hear a lot of nonsense”

There has been progress. At the first full council meeting following the fire, a Labour motion proposed halting major “regeneration” projects, and using reserves to fund new social housing. With hundreds watching the debate and survivors’ testimonies on screens outside, the motion was waved through.

“It’ll have to be followed through”, Emma says. “They said it in front of a hell of a lot of people. Here at Hogwarts” – she gestures at politicos scurrying around the floor below us – “you hear a lot of nonsense, and people are sick of the empty promises.”

This brings up another question; will the council listen now? Emma says she’ll keep an open mind, but later adds grimly: “the team in control think people in social housing are lesser beings. I really do think that.”

“They’re seen as less important, grasping and a nuisance. I know that from comments I’ve heard for years that I’ve kept records of.”

“I think the fire is the result of that”, she concludes.

While most of our conversation is not directly about the tower, it is a constant presence, just as its blackened frame continues to loom over Kensington.

But, Emma insists more positively, “there is an appetite for something different.” She shifts from reflective melancholy, back to being upbeat, irreverent, and discussing the future.

While Seventies towers and Victorian mansions still mark out the borough’s topographical peaks, the pace of change below has been staggering. And spaces held by local communities, from housing to the renowned Notting Hill Carnival, remain at risk.

“I came from a shiny-elbowed academic family”, Emma reminisces. “With six children and my granny we didn’t have much space – there were lots of similar families then, in the middle. It’s much less mixed now.”

“It’s hard to find decent work and nothing is properly planned. I believe if you have work, school and home reasonably close, then life is much better.”

“And overdevelopment affects everybody. Not everyone living in smarter areas is rolling in money for luxury shops they can’t buy their cornflakes in.”

Representing one of England’s most divided enclaves on its slimmest parliamentary majority would be hard enough. Yet Emma Dent Coad now has to help her home rebuild after the horrors of the Grenfell fire, at the same time as charting a course through turbulent national politics.

Much like her party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, Emma spent decades on the political margins before confronting the challenges an unlikely victory presented. She inherits a slice of London where every social dividing line seems to be sharper and more extreme. But to her it’s just home; a vibrant, colourful home. Her approach is simple.

“There are shared values here, and they start with caring about our neighbours and wanting to be in a place where we can all live well, and get what we need.”

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