Before last year’s horrific fire at Grenfell Tower, North Kensington was grappling with the slow but steady gentrification that had been occurring since the area was transformed from the only affordable place that migrants could settle in the 1950s, to an extension of desirable Notting Hill. Community spaces were gradually being transformed in order to meet the demands of affluent newcomers moving into the area, with little or no regard to the existing residents. Chain coffee shops, luxury apartments, prep schools, and boutiques with extortionate price tags began to replace services that were actually accessible and useful for them and their families. Local people were forced to campaign to preserve facilities such as Canalside House – a hub for local community organisations, and home to a variety of Migrants Organise member groups – as well as Kensington & Chelsea College and North Kensington Library, each of which were threatened with closure. This process was also reflected in the housing situation – prior to Grenfell, 72% of the most vulnerable families in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) were placed in temporary accommodation outside of the borough.
These developments signalled to local residents that North Kensington was no longer theirs. Decisions around community spaces were deliberately made behind closed doors and consultations were either non-existent or merely a gesture to appease those raising concerns. This process of social cleansing – which is reflected in boroughs across London and, indeed, across the country – was one that was deemed as desirable as it was inevitable. It was viewed as a relentless force that could not be stopped.
And then, there was the fire at Grenfell. The tragedy that occurred a year ago today uncovered the fallacy of this belief by demonstrating that this process is, as it has always been, one with many perpetrators. Unlike the reductive version of events portrayed by Andrew O’Hagan in his now reviled piece in the London Review of Books, there is an increasing understanding that those directly responsible for the fire are merely the most obvious expression of a larger system of injustice that includes governments of all political stripes, and implicates local authorities, national governments, property developers, deregulated building standards, and the businesses who infiltrated government and whose flammable products continue to be sold. The egregious delays in achieving justice for victims of Grenfell are an expression of both the inadequacies of the legal system in achieving justice for corporate crimes committed by the wealthy, as well as the obfuscation and buck-passing that characterises the construction and administration of local housing.
The struggles that have taken place in the area since the fire have been, in the most immediate sense, to achieve justice for those killed – but also the realisation that the social cleansing and the lack of transparency and representation in decision-making, cannot continue.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the Westway Trust, the body established to administer the 23 acres of land that was appropriated from the North Kensington community in the mid-1960s to construct the A40 motorway. After the community mounted a considerable, but ultimately unsuccessful resistance to the demolition of their homes, it was conceded that the now-empty land left remaining beneath the motorway would be given to the local community, and a community Trust be established to administer its use.
Despite the hard feelings created by the road, at least the Trust would ensure that the land was to be used by the community for their interests. However, numerous complaints over the years have revealed a deep-seated unhappiness amongst the community about the operating of the Trust and its governance structure – which includes half-council, half community representation. Despite some positive elements, such as the land being available as offices for some community groups (including Migrants Organise) and sports facilities, there are still controversial uses of the space which have resulted in numerous campaigns, complaints and other issues.
The problems inherent in the Westway project epitomise the larger challenge facing North Kensington for, it is not whether or not individual projects are or are not popular, but whether the Trust is a truly democratic body through which the local community can determine how they would like their community to be run. For example, the Trust’s ongoing plans to transform Bay20 into a community hub with the support of the BBC’s DIY SOS programme should have been for the community to decide and shape, but this only happened when the community was forced to stand up and demand to be heard. The issue here can be redacted to a need for a redistribution of power; it is the basic rights of agency and dignity for which the community have been fighting for far too long.
Put simply, it is now clear that local structures of democratic governance are not fit for the purpose of reflecting the ideas, decisions and will of people in the area of North Kensington. The Centre for Public Scrutiny’s report outlines a number of recommendations which, if enacted, would take small steps to ensuring that the community is able to make decisions for itself.
However, unless communities achieve democratic control of the bodies that ought to represent them, and these decisions take precedent over the whims of politicians and big finance, then the lessons of Grenfell will not have been learnt.
Migrants Organise is supporting residents in North Kensington, including migrants and refugees, to take a lead role in campaigning and decision-making on key issues affecting the local community. If you would like our support, or are interested in learning more about civic participation in North Kensington, please contact our North Kensington Organisers, Maymuna Osman (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Didier Ibwilakwingi-Ekom (email@example.com).