Socialist Worker

West of both worlds - inside the segregated borough of Kensington and Chelsea

by Alistair Farrow
Issue No. 2560

Holland Park. A million miles from Grenfell Tower, or a short walk depending on which way you look at it

Holland Park. A million miles from Grenfell Tower, or a short walk depending on which way you look at it (Pic: Andreas Praefcke/Wikicommons)


A very different side of Kensington and Chelsea - under the Westway

A very different side of Kensington and Chelsea - under the Westway (Pic: Kevan/flikr)


The Grenfell Tower fire has exposed the deep inequality at the heart of Kensington and Chelsea. The inequality and segregation that divides the borough goes back decades.

In the 1960s plans to build a motorway from central London to Acton were hatched by the council leaders and the Greater London Council (GLC). They decided it should go through the working class communities in the north of the borough.

Construction on the Westway began in 1964. Streets were cut in two to make way for the flyover. Upper floor flats looked out onto the motorway and were exposed to pollution, noise and car lights at night.

Residents waged a bitter fight against its construction, but the council simply ignored their complaints.

Tory grandee Michael Heseltine, then a junior minister for transport, faced protests when he came to open the motorway in 1970.

Afterwards the council set up the Westway Trust to manage the 23 acres of land underneath the motorway. The land was given to local people as community space by way of apology for tearing up their homes.

But just as the residents of Grenfell Tower were repeatedly ignored, so were people cut out of democratic control over the land under the Westway. The trust’s real aim was to fob off residents who wanted a say in how the land was used.

Rehoused

The campaign did manage to get many of the people living alongside the Westway rehoused. But the area around the motorway remains more impoverished than the rest of the borough.

To this day, the council wards through which the Westway snakes have the highest concentration of poverty in Kensington and Chelsea.

Hafsa, a resident, told Socialist Worker, “When you walk down to Holland Park and Notting Hill you see that’s where the rich people live.

“If you walk towards the north, Ladbroke Grove and Latimer Road, you’ll see more of the housing blocks.”

Figures released last week by the London’s Poverty Profile website show that five wards in the borough have child poverty rates above the average in Britain. Of these, the Westway runs through three.

This extreme inequality in Kensington and Chelsea—it was declared the most unequal borough in Britain—has been a long time in the making.

Protesters gather outside Kensington and Chelsea town hall before they marched to Grenfell Tower

Protesters gather outside Kensington and Chelsea town hall before they marched to Grenfell Tower (Pic: Socialist Worker)


On the Friday after the fire, survivors and supporters marched from the borough town hall to Grenfell Tower. As they passed by the posh bars and balconies of south Kensington, protesters accused the well-heeled spectators of benefitting from the ever-deepening inequality.

Watching

“They were just up there watching from their balconies,” Hafsa said. “The people that were on the protest were the people who live in council housing. The richer side weren’t on the protest. Kensington and Chelsea is an area that splits into two.”

She added, “Things have got more expensive in our area as time has gone by. More rich people are moving into houses nearby—that pushes up prices. Next to each other you’ll have a council block then some nice big expensive houses.”

It was rich residents in the borough who allegedly pressured the council to attach Grenfell Tower’s flammable cladding to hide the tower’s concrete face. Directly after the refurbishment of Grenfell in 2015 council leader Nicholas Paget-Brown declared, “It is remarkable to see first-hand how the cladding has lifted the external appearance of the tower.”

Now the whole world can see what his vanity project has cost ordinary people.

And Grenfell Tower is far from the exception to business as usual in Kensington and Chelsea.

The tragedy is the grim culmination of years of economic segregation and running down of public services.

The borough’s demographics have changed over time. But poverty remains concentrated in certain parts of the borough.

While people move around, the class makeup of Kensington and Chelsea has shifted little. In fact, figures suggest the borough has become more segregated by class, not less.

This polarisation has deep roots.

Poverty

Between 1980 and 1990, the number of households living in poverty increased by 29 percent. In the same period, the population increased by just 1.6 percent.

That trend continues today. Kensington and Chelsea is the only London borough that has seen its population drop over recent years.

But the number of people living in poverty has not dropped.

That suggests that poor people are being squeezed by rocketing rents rather than being pushed out.

That’s not to say that the Tory council hasn’t done its best to drive the poor out of the borough. “Regeneration” projects are all about forcing poor people out of certain areas to make way for the rich.

The gulf between rich and poor in Kensington is part and parcel of a system that puts profit ahead of the lives of ordinary people.

In 2015 deputy council leader Rock Feilding-Mellen announced a fund to buy homes outside the borough to move tenants out.

Feilding-Mellen claimed, “The small matter of some of the most expensive housing on the planet” meant the council couldn’t afford to house people in the borough.

That meant “we can either buy a few small properties in Kensington and Chelsea to house a handful of families, or we can buy more than 30 further afield.”

That argument disappeared when the council—under pressure from anger over the deaths at Grenfell—put aside some 70 flats in south Kensington for survivors.

Teaching assistant and housing activist Jan lives in Kensington and Chelsea. She told Socialist Worker that council attempts to force people out of the borough were nothing new.

“The council has been doing it for years,” she said.

Housing activist and council tenant Janice Sweeney

Housing activist and council tenant Janice Sweeney


“What has frightened me as well as many other council tenants is the regeneration of estates. I’ve seen what’s gone on in the Silchester Estate. They wanted to knock that down but people fought back against the plans.

“The one thing I hope the council has learned is that they need to halt these regeneration schemes.”

Now the Tories’ Housing and Planning Act is making it even easier for councils to wage war on tenants.

Worst

Kensington and Chelsea was even implementing some of the worst aspects of the act before it passed through parliament. It introduced fixed term tenancies of as little as two years that forced tenants to leave once their contract ran out.

That means people in social housing can’t plan for their futures. It reinforces the Tory belief that social housing shouldn’t mean a home for life, ignoring the fact that council housing pays for itself.

That Tory attitude is why the council has spent decades neglecting and marginalising the poorest people in the borough. Now an entire community has been ripped apart as a result.

“We’ve lost a little girl in our school, and her parents,” Jan told Socialist Worker.

“My granddaughter’s lost a girl from her class in school. I’ve never been so devastated—everyone around here knows someone who was lost in the fire. We don’t want to be treated as second class citizens because we live in council property.”

The gulf between rich and poor in Kensington is part and parcel of a system that puts profit ahead of the lives of ordinary people.

The potential for more disasters like Grenfell will continue unless we bring that system down.


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