Emma Dent Coad won her Kensington seat just days before the Grenfell Tower fire. She speaks to Ella Jessel about the disaster; troll-handling advice from Diane Abbott; and why this is no time for a return to style wars. Photography by Anthony Coleman
As a councillor, Emma Dent Coad once padlocked herself to the railings of an Ernö Goldfinger-designed care home in west London in a bid to stop the council-ordered bulldozers.
It’s a stunt typical of the self-declared ‘community activist’, who has been a nuisance to the Tory-controlled Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) for more than a decade.
But, since an extraordinary election victory in June 2017 saw the 64-year-old design writer graduate from backbench councillor to become the first Labour MP in the borough’s history, Dent Coad has been agitating on a national scale.
When fire tore through Grenfell Tower just six days after that general election, claiming 72 lives, she was thrust further into the limelight as the borough’s representative. She hadn’t even been allocated a parliamentary office.
Rushing to the scene, what she witnessed, as she wrote in the AJ earlier this year, ‘changed everything, forever’. In her maiden speech, she said the tower’s ‘burnt carcass’ had revealed the ‘true face’ of Kensington – the country’s richest borough – namely: poverty, malnutrition and lack of care.
When we meet 18 months on, Dent Coad is as moved as ever on the subject of Grenfell.
She wants answers, she wants action and she wants architects to be accountable for their buildings. She also argues the architecture profession needs to step up its efforts to take back control over the design process.
Grenfell in green
‘I am still very angry and very sad [about Grenfell],’ she says in the café beneath her canal-side constituency office. Most of her anger is reserved for the council and the fact that, at her surgery today, she will meet more displaced families still living in hotels.
Her work on the ground won her praise in the days following the disaster. She got stuck in organising, lobbying ministers to support survivors and leading calls for an inquiry.
Someone needs to stand up and say: I may not be personally responsible for Grenfell, but we are accountable; the buck stops here and we will take charge
But she has received her fair share of criticism, too, largely for being outspoken, and not just on Grenfell. Her partisan language and criticism of the royal family has led the press to call her ‘royal-hating’, a ‘fanatical anti-monarchist’ and ‘sneering’. Certain comments she made about Prince Harry – in her words – ‘opened the gates to hell’.
‘They call me barmy Emma,’ says the MP, who, wrapped in a scarf and plenty of silver jewellery, has more the air of an outspoken art teacher than a rabble-rouser. ‘I try to be polite; but I’m an activist and always have been,’ she says.
Born in Chelsea to a Catholic professor of medicine and a vicar’s daughter, Dent Coad says she was ‘radicalised by a nun’ at her convent school in Hammersmith (‘a real women’s libber’). But her professional life has been spent writing for publications such as Building Design, Design Week and Blueprint.
Her family has Spanish roots. Dent Coad speaks the language fluently and has written two books on the country’s architectural history, Spanish Design and Architecture (1990) and another on designer Javier Mariscal. She has an MA in Design History and put a PhD on the architecture of Franco’s Spain on the back burner when elected. She is also a mother of three.
Emma dent coad cu
It’s a background that at first glance seems incongruous with the world of bin collections, leaking roofs and committees. A long-time Labour party member, she became a councillor in 2006. But for Dent Coad, housing, and by extension architecture, is inherently political.
‘It’s never just been saving the building; it’s saving the use that’s important,’ she says. One of her ideas is to list buildings for their social purpose, not just for their aesthetic merits. It was this that motivated her to campaign for ‘Goldfinger’s babies’ – the buildings that surround the architect’s imposing Trellick Tower, located five minutes from her office.
Despite the railings protest, Goldfinger’s Edenham Care Home was demolished, but her second campaign to list his houses on Edenham Way was successful, partially thanks to Terry Farrell – the architect overseeing the proposed redevelopment – who inadvertently tipped Dent Coad off about their impending fate at a planning conference.
There’re an awful lot of Labour councils out there demolishing beautifully designed post-war estates and putting up rubbish
‘The council was furious [about the listing campaign] but I was just shocked they were going to knock it down; it was Goldfinger!’ And Farrell? ‘He wasn’t very pleased,’ she says with a grin. ‘It was very nice of him to give me the heads-up.’
As a left-winger, she describes having to ‘hold my nose’ when door-knocking in the Blair and Brown years. She prefers the direction the party has taken under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership but says there is a ‘long way to go’ on housing.
‘There’re an awful lot of Labour councils out there demolishing beautifully designed post-war estates and putting up rubbish,’ she says.
It’s fair to say she became an MP against the odds. The Labour Party certainly did not see her victory coming, focusing campaign efforts in neighbouring constituencies. How did it feel to beat Conservative arch-rival Victoria Borwick by 20 votes?
‘And to overturn a majority of 7,331,’ she interjects. ‘I felt vindicated. I wrote all my own campaign material. The Labour Party didn’t think I had a hope in hell.’
She adds: ‘I suddenly got bombarded with invitations to garden parties. I thought, wow, this is going to be a nice summer: beautiful weather, change of day job.’
When the Grenfell fire took place, it was the toughest of crash-landings. Even now she experiences flashbacks if she goes too close to the charred structure.
‘It was horrible. I will never tell anyone about some of the things that I saw. It’s too much.’
The aftermath was traumatic too. ‘People saw me and said, “Thank God Emma’s here, what’s happening?” And I thought: fuck knows. It was utterly chaotic, disgraceful. Already there were people on the telly trying to justify themselves.’
This is no time for a return to architectural style wars, which are and always have been a thinly disguised class war
Today, with survivors still in hotels, Dent Coad is pushing for government commissioners to take over rehousing from the council. Meanwhile, the Grenfell Inquiry meticulously trawls through the evidence.
How has the architecture profession and the construction industry responded to Grenfell? ‘There is no real accountability,’ says Dent Coad. ‘Someone needs to stand up and say: “I may not be personally responsible, I may not be to blame, but we are accountable; the buck stops here and we will take charge”.’
But how to work out who is to be held accountable at Grenfell, whose refurbishment, as the inquiry has shown, involved a complex procurement chain of contractors and subcontractors?
‘Design and Build has been the bane of our lives and [has given rise to] some appalling, appalling new buildings,’ she says, citing the case of Solomon’s Passage in Peckham Rye, where new-build apartments are having to be substantially refurbished or demolished and rebuilt after only six years.
Dent Coad insists that ‘someone is accountable’ for the decisions made at Grenfell Tower that gave rise to the tragedy. ‘Someone, somewhere, knew what they were doing to a residential tower block.’
The council has said the cladding of Grenfell Tower is ‘strictly a matter for the inquiry’ and that it would not debate details and opinions outside that forum.
She has faced questions over her own accountability after her predecessor, Victoria Borwick, claimed Dent Coad should take ‘collective responsibility’ for the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower, on the grounds that she had sat on a tenant management organisation committee when the decision was taken to press ahead with the works.
Rejecting the accusation, Dent Coad argues that, while she was on the committee between 2008 and 2012 and welcomed plans for the overhaul, she then left and what happened next ‘had nothing to do with me’. ‘This [accusation] has been fabricated; it will never go away. I’m still accused of having signed off the cladding,’ she says.
What happened at Grenfell shows that the construction industry needs wholesale change, she says, urging architects to ‘step up’ and take charge of the entire design process.
‘It’s for architects to say: “We have the expertise; we’ve learned how to do this at vast expense; we’re not going to draw things out and let other people bugger them up.” Architects shouldn’t draw their extensive plans and walk away from projects.’
Part of the problem, she argues, is that ‘within the Labour Party there is very little expertise on architecture, design and planning’. There is herself, and Helen Hayes, MP for Dulwich, who is a former town planner and partner at Allies and Morrison. Within the government there is, she asserts, ‘no expertise at all’.
She is an enthusiast of Modernism in architecture and has been a member of Modernist campaign group Docomomo for 25 years. So it is perhaps unsurprising she is unimpressed with the government’s new Building Better, Building Beautiful commission, which, she says, will do nothing to solve a housing crisis ‘as bad as [that of] the post-war period’.
She says: ‘The government is embracing an entirely subjective, hierarchical and paternalistic vision of “beauty”. This is no time for a return to architectural style wars, which are and always have been a thinly disguised class war.’ Its chair, the traditionalist Roger Scruton, she rounds on as ‘an old-world bigot with some very unsavoury views’.
So which UK architects does she admire? She pauses for a while before opting for Mae Architects, ‘who do thoughtful, intelligent social housing at human scale’.
‘I get bored of all the big projects and the awards,’ she says when asked about the RIBA Stirling Prize. She jokes it was comments like this – saying things that ‘weren’t very popular’ – that meant she never edited an architectural title.
What else would she change? ‘Let’s take all the pictures out [of the magazines] and use words instead,’ she says, adding ‘and can we not write about buildings until they are 18 months old? We have to know that they function beautifully before we can say they are functional. I’ve seen total aberrations in real life that looked lovely in the photographs.’
Her radical suggestions regarding architectural publishing, while hardly heinous, give a flavour of Dent Coad’s readiness to speak her mind. Her outspokenness has landed her in hot water, particularly in the wake of the Grenfell disaster.
One of the biggest controversies in her short parliamentary career was when newspapers picked up on a 2010 blog post in which she quoted a description of Tory candidate for mayor Shaun Bailey as a ‘token ghetto boy’.
She emphasises, exasperated, that she was referring to someone else’s description of Bailey. ‘It was very clear on my blog they were other people’s comments – they were in inverted commas. I certainly wish I hadn’t quoted them,’ she says before adding dismissively: ‘He [Bailey] is not liked in North Kensington generally.’
In the ensuing backlash, despite being ‘hugged by strangers in Ladbroke Grove’, people on social media were less forgiving. Diane Abbott took her for tea in Portcullis House to hand out advice on dealing with the trolls. ‘I mute them’, she says. ‘It’s horrible, but it makes me more determined if anything.’
Dent Coad the MP might be rubbing shoulders with the shadow cabinet and warring with tabloids but she has held a stubborn grip on her council seat in Golborne ward, near the Westway, and certainly hasn’t changed her activist approach.
‘I’m still willing to tie myself to trees,’ she says. ‘I’ve got a chain and padlock at home waiting in my hallway. I’m not joking.’