Tom Charles reports on a proposal by Kensington and Chelsea Council to redevelop one of the last standing community spaces in the borough
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When Grenfell Tower burned in June 2017, the building’s owner – the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea – was missing in action.
Among those to step into the breach to provide emergency relief and respite were community organisations based at Canalside House.
Less than a mile from the Tower, these groups have continued to support residents attempting to recover from the catastrophe which took 72 lives. But RBKC now plans to sell one of North Kensington’s last standing community spaces to an international property developer that will demolish the building.
It appears that RBKC is now back to business as usual.
In the years before the Grenfell fire, RBKC had been busy altering the demographics of one of Britain’s most vibrant and culturally diverse neighbourhoods. Its means of achieving this included asset-stripping North Kensington.
Entire estates, including Lancaster West, home of Grenfell Tower, were slated for demolition and community buildings were targeted by the then Council’s Deputy Leader – and property developer – Rock Feilding-Mellen.
Canalside House has long been home to groups providing social care, mental health support, youth work, sports, supplementary schooling, business start-ups, housing cooperatives and African Diaspora representation. In 2016, the council informed resident organisations that their time in the historic building on Ladbroke Grove was ending and that they would be moved to a hot desking space on a converted industrial site with poor transport links.
In Summer 2017, with then Communities Secretary Sajid Javid forcing Feilding-Mellen to resign, new RBKC Leader Elizabeth Campbell acceded to demands to pause the Canalside sale.
Under scrutiny from the media, Theresa May’s Grenfell Taskforce and long-suffering residents, the new leadership at Kensington town hall promised to change RBKC’s approach to the north of the borough, admitting it had been “a property developer masquerading as a local authority”.
The local community forced the council to abandon its planned sale of North Kensington Library, which Feilding-Mellen had planned to give – cut-price – to a private preparatory school that his children would attend. Campaigners saved the local college and Lancaster Youth Club.
By Winter 2017, as the news cycle moved on, RBKC’s new Deputy Leader and lead member for Grenfell housing and social investment, Councillor Kim Taylor-Smith – also a property developer – issued an executive decision that Canalside House would be sold as part of the huge development on the Kensal Gas Works site. Zero social housing was to be included. Taylor-Smith branded Labour councillors’ objections as “a banal conversation”.
The move was slapped down by the Grenfell Taskforce and furious locals. A contrite RBKC publicly committed to upgrading the building, part of its post-Grenfell ‘change’ policy.
But the threat to the Canalside organisations lingered.
In late 2018, RBKC tried again, claiming that Canalside House had to be demolished to facilitate the Gas Works development. Conservative councillors claimed that it offered poor disabled access and the building’s generally poor condition made refurbishment too costly.
But it was RBKC that had squandered a £100,000 grant secured by residents to install a lift. The Kensal-Canalside Development Team confirmed to residents that the building did not intrude on the planned development so could be retained alongside the planned new neighbourhood.
Councillor Taylor-Smith stated that the council had “no plans whatsoever” to sell or demolish the community centre. Investment was promised. But RBKC’s managed decline continued while plans for the adjacent development progressed.
Late last year, RBKC stopped renting out Canalside House’s vacant offices and organisations were forced to deliver services without heating. Last month, the community’s fears came true, with the exposure of an agreement between Councillor Taylor-Smith and Ballymore that will see the building out of use by early 2024.
Without democratic oversight or consultation, this contradicts the post-Grenfell promises of council leaders.
A spokesperson for Ballymore’s Project Flourish told this newspaper that it was RBKC that had initiated the deal, asking the developer to include Canalside House in its plans. There are concerns about Ballymore’s suitability, a company that was among the last to sign the Government’s new building safety contract.
On Ballymore, former Kensington MP and current leader of the Labour group at RBKC Councillor Emma Dent Coad, told Byline Times: “Their early designs had a single staircase – so shocking within sight of Grenfell Tower in its shroud. Will an outfit like this rehouse the Canalside tenants, or leave it to our slippery council?”
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Ballymore’s spokesperson said: “Our proposals incorporate all the community-focused activities of Canalside House… including this additional land will allow it to be opened up as another area of public space for the community to use.”
Councillor Kim Taylor-Smith, RBKC’s Deputy Leader, told Byline Times: “We would only sell the building if Ballymore were able to meet the proposed terms, including on reprovision of community space, and if they are also able to get planning permission from the council.”
“Community space” is a term that can be broadly applied and there has been no specific commitment to the tenant organisations, so integral to North Kensington’s recovery and culture, replicating their current shared space and its ideal location.
Ballymore added: “We understand RBKC is working closely with the remaining charities based at Canalside House to find them a new home in a more modern building with better facilities nearby.” But resident organisations believe Ballymore has been misinformed and have said that there is no equivalent space locally.
“RBKC is back to its old ways… Where is the transparency we were promised?” asked Councillor Dent Coad.
The horror of Grenfell awakened a spirit of defiance and democracy in North Kensington. But hopes for justice via the courts and redistribution of political power have been thwarted. If one of the community’s last remaining assets is demolished, it is likely to symbolise the end of the post-Grenfell era and a return to ‘business as usual’ in Kensington.
Tom Charles is a former resident of Lancaster West estate and editor of the North Kensington blog ‘Urban Dandy‘, which has monitored the way power systems have denied justice to the Grenfell victims
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