Socialist Worker

Kensington and Chelsea—a tale of two cities

In west London, people in poverty live side by side with some of the richest families in Britain. Isabel Ringrose looks at the lives of all the residents living in the shadow of Grenfell Tower

Issue No. 2735

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The rich worry about their luxury basements while other residents rely on food banks (Pic: Jo.sau/Flickr)


The smallest borough in London is home to the largest levels of inequality in Britain, and during the Christmas period this reality is harsher than ever.

Local billionaires, celebrities and royalty live in extreme wealth, while nearby food banks are desperately trying to feed their neighbours.

While three council wards in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea are in the richest top ten in London, three are also in the ­poorest.

This includes Notting Dale, home to Grenfell Tower.

Some residents will be spending thousands of pounds on festive food and drink for their social bubble. On the other side of the road many people will struggle to heat their homes, or will be relying on food bank parcels throughout December.

And it’s in this borough that 72 people died because of an agenda of penny pinching from housing bosses and construction firms. 

The inquiry into the Grenfell fire has already heard that the council thought that what the tower looked like was more important than how safe it was.

Leearna is a Grenfell activist who lives in nearby Ladbroke Grove. She told Socialist Worker that her street is “the perfect example” of the borough’s inequality.

“I live in a house that happens to be a council house, which is the only one on the street,” she said. “Everyone else’s is private and opposite us is a big social housing estate.

“If I walk less than 12 paces down the street and turn left, I’m where David Cameron had a property. There is huge wealth and extreme poverty.”

Austerity

Moyra, a campaigner for Grenfell, lives in North Kensington. She told Socialist Worker, “There have always been wealthy big houses among the estates. It’s the character of the area. 

“But the disparity between us has worsened as austerity hit and management of the estates declined.

“Our local population has been replaced with professionals. But south of the borough has always been wealthier than North Kensington.”

Leearna added, “The opera houses and museums ended up with hundreds of thousands of pounds each because of the lockdown, so why has social housing stock been left in such disrepair?

"I know about a man in Adair Tower in North Kensington. After the Grenfell fire the council started checking buildings and they found the render and insulation there were flammable.

“They took it off last year and haven’t replaced it. Two cold winters have passed. His flat is absolutely full of damp because he lives at the top of the tower and water has got in.

“The council attitude is ‘be grateful you’re not on the streets, because we could put you there’.” 

Since the Grenfell fire in 2017 Notting Dale has appeared in the top 20 most income deprived wards in London. 

Former Kensington MP Emma Dent Coad revisited her 2014 report 'The most unequal borough in Britain report' back in October. It looks, in detail, at the disparities between people living in different parts of the borough.

The report found that in the borough’s Golborne ward 38.9 percent of people experience deprivation due to “low income”. At the other end of the borough, for people who live off King’s Road, this figure is 1 percent.  

A brutal policy of gentrification is forcing people out of the area entirely. 

“The key policy that is unwritten by the council is gentrification of North Kensington. Property is too valuable,” Leearna explained.

Revealed 

“There’s been a huge impact on rents because this is now a prime area. Social housing providers say they provide realistically affordable rents, but this ‘affordable rent’ is ridiculous.”

Leearna said one social housing ­provider charged £280 a week for a studio flat. “The Citizens Advice Bureau at the Westway centre was sold off without consulting us,” she added.

“They sold the building off and put a Pret there instead. Just what we need—another coffee shop.

“They’re catering for the wealthy because that’s who they want there. We cost them money—they don’t want us.”

Public Health England revealed that the gap in life expectancy across the borough is 14.5 years lower for men in deprived areas compared to wealthier areas. For women, the difference is 10.1 years. 

“Life expectancy is higher in Chelsea because we’re impacted by things like the flyover,” Leearna added. “We get no fresh air because of the Westway. 

“And there are so many new ­food banks popping up everywhere. At ‘Kids on the green’ there’s been a big coordination to do Christmas food deliveries with different charities coming together.

“During lockdown the council financially helped a few ­food banks but would send councillors for photo opportunities. It’s a tick box exercise. 

“And they would ask people for evidence that they were in deprivation. This is humiliating.”

Many have slipped through the net as a result. Tender Loving Care Foodbank in Ladbroke Grove supports those affected by the Grenfell Tower fire and the pandemic.

Marianne, who runs the food bank, told Socialist Worker, “It’s about immunity for the community.”

The food bank gives out fresh foods to help people stay healthy during the pandemic. It now supports 650 people a week with care packages.

Marianne said, “We also provide food for people on Christmas day who otherwise wouldn’t have a hot meal.”

In Kensington and Chelsea inequality is running rampant. It’s a Dickensian picture of the poor struggling to eat while their rich neighbours gorge on luxury foods.


Across the royal borough life is very different for those living in the wealthiest areas in Europe. Some households have an annual income of £1.8 million, while others struggle every day to get by.

Knightsbridge in the borough is the location of luxury department store Harrods—a business worth £2 billion. Houses here are priced 530 percent above the London average.

Down the road is Kensington Palace. This is where the royal family scrounge—buildings are worth over £450 million and funded by taxpayers.

It’s royal palaces like this that get expensive refurbishments, not the likes of Grenfell Tower, which was clad with cheap and dangerous materials. The rich enjoy private gardens, where they work out with personal trainers, while the council try to build on the limited parks that poor children have access to.

It’s a borough characterised both by huge levels of poverty and vast personal wealth of the few. 

According to Dent Coad's report Kensington and Chelsea has 1,500 long term empty homes and 9,300 second homes.

Overcrowded

Yet after Grenfell, families were rehoused for long periods of time in hotel rooms. And today, one in six households in Notting Dale is classified as overcrowded.

But in Kensington Palace Gardens, less than three miles away, one in five homes are empty or are second homes.

Leearna said that there’s a “class divide” between people who use the same park, live on the same street, but have very different lives.

“During the first year after Grenfell there was a lot of unity. But now people have gone back into their little bubbles. It’s the working classes carrying on that fight, and it’s a difficult one.”

In Kensal Town child poverty levels are at 41 percent, but in Queensgate ward—20 minutes away—poverty rates are one hundred times less, the report also found.

Houses in Notting Hill are lovingly painted in pastel colours, and seven-story mansions are the height of grandeur. 

In November a £16 million house in Chelsea collapsed while a new luxury basement was being built. Three other properties on the same street are ­undergoing similar extensions for glamorous home cinemas or gyms.

Eye-wateringly rich residents lavish themselves with their bottomless wealth, but a stone’s throw away, residents of Grenfell lost their lives due to corporate greed.

Moyra said, “For young people it creates a level of resentment. The inequalities are in front of their face. Grenfell was genuinely scary because it showed ‘this is what they’ll do to us’.

Hanging baskets

“It’s very much a class issue. North Kensington is working class. But the council is spending less in the north of borough and more on things like hanging baskets in the south.”

The Chelsea Flower Show is the highlight of upper class life. A few months later in Notting Hill, the ­biggest carnival in Europe hits the streets.

“During carnival weekend the rich go away and employ someone to stand outside their house,” Moyra explained.

“In North Kensington no one would think about going to the Chelsea Flower Show. Why? Because it’s for poshos. Yet young people have found it therapeutic post-Grenfell to garden.

“One of my young colleagues filled the space under the Wall of Truth by the Westway. He’s been given a space at the show, but he is not going as a token.

“Gardening is assumed to be a white, middle class skill. Within the context of Black Lives Matter, it’s time to ask ‘why is the working class so unrepresented?’”

Leearna explained that she used to live near a wealthy journalist ­working for the BBC and his wife was a professor.

Passive

“They had a couple of kids and sent them at Key Stage 1 level to Oxford Gardens primary school”, she said.

“They did this to save money. They knew they needed to send them to a private school for Key Stage 2. They’re wealthy and used the system to benefit themselves to save money, but they don’t buy into that system.”

Despite the hardship working class families are not passive.

“Young children look at what they’ve got around them and they have culture, which is the thing they hang on to. We have a lot of creative youth”, Moyra said.

“Especially during the pandemic they are shaping the recovery from Grenfell. It’s empowering people to take some control over their lives.”

Bridging the gap between rich and poor is only possible by ripping the system apart.

Moyra said, “It’s about recognising that we in the north are not just victims of a tragedy. Grenfell was an atrocity.

“We need to start taxing rich if it’s a question of money. The local private school Latymer has massive grounds—open it up for the kids on the estate.

“We’re a model of what the Tories want society to look like. Security and gated communities.”

Leearna agreed. “Lots of us are now ready for a revolution. We need to keep empowering people to fight back.”

Grenfell three and a half years on—memorial and speak out. Mon 14 Dec, 1-3pm, Downing Street, London WC1

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