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Losing London: Grenfell Tower Fire Shows Double Standard at Work in One London District

Of Earls and Ladies

Today, the face of London is the Muslim son of a bus driver. Sadiq Khan, the city’s directly elected mayor, in many ways represents how the city sees itself: multicultural, liberal and socially mobile.

But much local governing authority is devolved to the councils that run London’s 32 boroughs, which can look very different from that.

Of the Kensington council’s 50 members, 46 are white and 37 are Conservatives. The cabinet, led by Ms. Campbell, is entirely white. One of her fellow councilors is Lady Catherine Faulks. Another is Mr. Feilding-Mellen, the stepson of the Earl of Wemyss and March. Another is Prof. Sir Anthony Coates, known locally as a man of letters — the letters being those he lists after his name to highlight his credentials.

Timothy Coleridge, one of several councilors who attended Eton, Britain’s most exclusive private school, has served on the council since 1986, as did his father before him. Two years ago, he received an email from a distressed resident.

Subject line: “Our borough is becoming a nightmare!!”

Sports cars were speeding in his Knightsbridge neighborhood, one of the most expensive in London, the resident complained. Limousines hogged parking spaces outside his home.

“The super car situation was ghastly during the last few summers, keeping us all awake in North Terrace,” the resident wrote on June 2, 2015, demanding urgent action.

Mr. Coleridge sympathized. “We totally agree with you, and our experiences as local residents matches yours,” he replied, 14 hours after receiving the complaint. Lawyers were put to work. The police were consulted. Five months later, a Public Space Restriction Order imposing steep fines had been passed.

Councilors representing the north of the borough acknowledged that in the lives of the rich, this was a legitimate concern. “But the alacrity with which they took it up was remarkable,” said Robert Atkinson, a Labour councilor.

Grenfell Tower residents were treated differently. The council kept deducting rent from a Grenfell survivor even after the fire, a mistake Lady Faulks called a “tiny” thing before backtracking. The council’s former leader, Nicholas Paget-Brown, defended the body’s decision not to install sprinklers, suggesting residents did not want them. And his deputy, Mr. Feilding-Mellen, a property developer, had insisted on keeping down the cost of the external cladding used in a £10 million renovation in 2014, according to a leaked email, resulting in the choice of what turned out to be highly flammable materials.

Mr. Feilding-Mellen declined to be interviewed.

With the national government pursuing policies of economic austerity, grants for local councils have been slashed by more than half since 2010. Yet the Kensington council routinely underspent its budget. It currently has £274 million in usable reserves — money that critics said should have been invested in the north.

And a £100 tax rebate, for those who paid council tax in full before the 2014 local elections, was met with broad approval.

Yet South Kensington has hardly been neglected. A recent enhancement of Exhibition Road outside the Victoria and Albert Museum featuring an inset granite diamond pattern cost nearly £30 million, with the council picking up roughly half the cost.

Source: NYT > World

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