I know you my child born into Autumn weather wild I see a small part of me A deep still lake or tempestuous raging sea!
With an inner longing-always to be free I feel those things in you Observe them in your eyes underneath so blue or dark and cloudy skies Understand the places-that you often go
Aloofness of your spirit as you travel deep into your soul…
It’s not easy being different That internal mark of Cain Gaining so much knowledge to ever remain the same… But we who walk this narrow path quietly-in solitude -alone Will always be watching over one we call our own! Riders on the storm of truth in God’s hallucinogenic electric rodeo…..
Three and a half years on from the Grenfell Tower atrocity, councils in West London are back to the routine business of pursuing profit at the expense of residents. Rather than learning the lessons of the disastrous relationship between Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKC) and residents of North Kensington, just over the borough border, Westminster City Council is seeking to bypass resident rights to impose a detrimental new building development. Urban Dandy spoke to some of those affected and heard that Westminster has, to date, avoided genuine resident engagement.
RBKC & Westminster
Different boroughs, similar approaches, the border between RBKC and Westminster bisects Tavistock Crescent, with the eastern part of the road falling in Westminster. Harford House is the first building across the border, and its neighbour, a care home, is the site of Westminster Council’s proposed Westmead development for 65 new flats (10 ‘affordable’) in a bland, oversized block. Back across the border is Golborne, the most impoverished council ward in London, where life expectancy has declined by six years since 2010. This is the context for Harford House, an estate that is part of our neighbourhood yet is often missing from discussions because it happens to sit on a particular side of an invisible border.
Click here to see more on the Westminster website, reference 20/05708/COFUL.
This is not the first move against North Kensington residents since the Grenfell Tower of June 2017, when 72 people lost their lives and the whole area was profoundly traumatised. RBKC has inexorably returned to its previous role as antagonist to those who seek to preserve and uplift the local community. This blog recently outlined the ways in which RBKC leaders have failed to deliver on their promises to the Lancaster West estate, site of the burned out Tower.
Half a mile away from Grenfell Tower, Harford House residents face the same problem as that encountered by the Grenfell residents who tried to raise the alarm about their landlord’s irresponsible and avaricious plans for the Tower. The issues are crystal clear. Westminster doesn’t want to hear them, but here three local residents break it all down:
Problems with the proposed building by Lay-Mon Thaung, architect, resident of Leamington Road Villas
Westminster Council are seeking to destroy a good council estate and valuable community space. They must reconsider the scale and nature of the development and work with the community to consider alternative proposals.
The Westmead development site is dominated by 23 mature trees; a green square for all those who live around it. Some of these trees are the most mature trees in the area and significantly improve air quality. This is particularly important in North Kensington, which is in the shadow of the Westway flyover, constructed against the wishes of local residents. According to the anti-pollution campaign group RAP23:
70 people die from air pollution in North Kensington every year
Children born and growing up in North Kensington have smaller brains and lungs (due to there being less oxygen)
Miscarriages, still births and premature births increase in highly polluted areas and there is an 11% increase in dementia for people living 100 meters away from the Westway
Life expectancy is reduced by two to nine years due to pollution
The council want to remove ten mature, environment-preserving trees to make way for their over-scaled six-storey development. The new development would not only destroy the green square, it would block existing residents’ sunlight and views.
This site now needs the community’s protection for these reasons among others…
The existing Westmead site was designed under one coherent master plan, evident in the architectural style. All the buildings on the site and around it were built at the same time. The low 1-2 level nature of the care home sits low in the landscape, almost unnoticed, and acts more like a ‘green square’ with the trees dominant and central, enjoyed by all those who live around it. The houses on Tavistock Crescent are 4-storeys low (no lifts required) and they have a north-south orientation which implies they were never designed to have a higher development placed in front of them, because their south aspect is their only source of sunlight.
Likewise, Fallodon House (west of site, Tavistock Crescent, located in RBKC) was built under the same master plan, with single aspect flats, either facing west (away from site) or east looking directly onto the site. These three storey flats (from street level) or four storeys (from sunken ground level) are low and will be overshadowed by the new six-storey building which will block their only source of sunlight from the east.
The height of the existing Care home is congruent with the houses around it, which were orientated to look onto the green square and have good natural sunlight. The Westmead Care home forms part of an assembly of co-existing residential buildings, co-dependent on one another in terms of height, orientation, and aspect onto the green square to provide good sunlight and views to all residents. Once you understand these facts, you understand that anything that replaces the care home should also be low in nature.
The Building Research Establishment (BRE) daylight and sunlight report submitted to accompany the planning application confirms numerous failures to meet the target values to ensure that neighbouring buildings retain adequate daylight and sunlight.
A Councillor in our ward who was formerly a town planner reviewed the daylight and sunlight report. This was his response:
‘There are significant losses to several living rooms in Harford House, on the lower ground, ground, first and second floors, on Leamington House, and in Fallodon House. If a building is breaching the light on three sides then that would raise my concerns.’
In the Covid era, with people working from their homes, the noise from a major three-year construction site which brings no benefits to the community is not welcome.
2. Conflict of Interest by Abraham Teweldebrhan, Film and TV Editor, Harford House resident
If the project was being pushed by a private developer, they would have to comply with all the rules and regulations imposed by local government. However, because the land belongs to Westminster Council and the developer is Westminster Council, they can break the rules with impunity. For example, this development is building higher than the mansard roofs that are no longer allowed in the neighbouring houses and it is removing trees which would otherwise have Tree Protection Orders.
Westminster Council are the site owner, developer and the approver. Westminster Council is submitting their proposal to themselves.
Communication has been very poor throughout. In our Zoom meetings with them, the Housing Programme Director was unable to answer direct questions and was dismissive of us. A greater effort could have been made to make sure every resident was made aware of such a major redevelopment. Just this week there were still residents who were not aware of this project or its true scale. We have been spending our evenings and weekends going round knocking on doors and putting posters up to let our neighbours know.
The developers have made pitiful attempts at outreach; leaflets written only in English, calls not returned, documents only available online… There is a wafer-thin pretence that this development is an improvement for the whole community but there is literally no upside for existing residents. None of our objections appear in the planning application.
3. Post-Grenfell, No Change? by Chris Arning, Entrepreneur, Harford House resident.
Resident anger has been compounded by a sense that adequate consideration has not been paid to our concerns. I am on the Tavistock Housing Co-Operative, responsible for spending service charge surpluses for improving this block and recently installed some new signage to spruce up the block’s aspect. I put two years’ work into planning this because our built environment hugely impacts our sense of self-esteem and wellbeing. Now, this ill thought out and frankly obnoxious Westmead development that City of Westminster seem intent on bulldozing through threatens everything I know residents love about this block – the beatific light coming through the South facing windows in the morning, green space and trees and the relative quiet.
Three years ago we saw the Grenfell tragedy happening in clear view of Harford House. I could only volunteer in the crisis, like many others around here, and felt so powerless around the abuse of power. The entirely preventable tragedy followed condescension towards social housing residents shown by Kensington & Chelsea. A similar attitude towards resident welfare and voice is being shown by Westminster, who I had always thought better of until seeing this proposal for Westmead.
Increasing Inequality in North Ken
The proposed development would provide a small number of ‘affordable’ housing and social housing units, but most of the flats will be private rental for the Council’s benefit. Even if the council replaced the care home beds on another site, we Harford House residents and other affected local residents, object to the total absence of any community thinking in the proposal.
Local residents have plenty of creative, workable suggestions of what would be congruent with the current neighbourhood, but Westminster seem determined to force their proposal through on their terms only without genuinely engaging resident expertise.
Once again, North Kensington communities are working overtime to be heard and taken seriously. So far, Westminster has given little space for resident voices to be heard. But without the residents’ input, the Westmead plan will remain ‘ill thought out’ and Westminster council will only reinforce their image as an ‘obnoxious’ local authority.
I await the night as summer slips away like an assassin behind a curtain of darkness entering Agartha to await its call Inner earth, where children of the Nephilim dwell…
Our minds being stretched, ploughed, prepared to receive fallen angels chained in caves now unleashed to deceive bringing peace, prosperity, equality, Utopia Finally ending the chaos that imps instigated…
The rusty gates of Hell now opening subtly unleashing all its fury persuasive yet without pity or mercy Its beautiful man of light appears, Adonis-like perfection adored, admired, worshipped Many kneel, bow, pledge their hearts as a tribute…
Others choose to die making a stand like Leonidas against overwhelming odds the few – protectors of truth exposers of falsehood holding strong-upon their own Thermopylae those of us that knew………
To calm the mind, the ego, to boost my self-esteem. Because low self-esteem is judged to be a hindrance in life.
But part of me doesn’t lack esteem – it is aware of its position, its stature.
Something else – ego – doesn’t accept this stature as real. Ego doesn’t feel that it is justifying its existence unless it is telling me to improve something, or telling me it’s no use, I’m no good, everything is bleak.
This is the constant dance.
During lockdown, ego has been on top, dominant, with Rajas and Tamas. But Sattwa* is always there. All things are always there – relax and experience them.
*Rajas, Sattwa and Tamas – the three Gunas – Hindi philosophy for understanding human experiences. Rajas = Movement; Sattwa = Lightness; Tamas = Heaviness. More on the Gunas here.
“Following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, there was clear recognition of the need to make real improvements to the Lancaster West Estate and the need to have the residents lead the process. Both the Council and central Government have committed funding to support an ambitious and resident-led refurbishment of the Estate. The Council has promised to refurbish the Lancaster West Estate sensitively, collaboratively and to create a model for social housing in the 21st century. Residents are and will continue to be at the heart of shaping any future work throughout the delivery of the programme. There will be no demolition of people’s homes.”
The above quote from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) expresses a clear intention to transform Lancaster West Estate, site of the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017. Despite the fine words, the residents who are supposed to help lead the estate’s recovery say they are being treated as “an afterthought” by RBKC. There is little evidence of a transformation of the estate amid accusations that the local authority is backtracking on its commitments. We spoke to several residents who are involved in management and oversight of the estate to find out what has happened.
First, a little background…
Lancaster West estate in west London, is home to 795 households, making it the largest estate in Kensington and Chelsea and one of the largest in the capital. It opened in the mid-1970s as part of Britain’s post-war slum clearance. The estate’s one high-rise block was Grenfell Tower, which still stands, covered, following the 2017 fire that took 72 lives prematurely and traumatised the whole North Kensington area.
In the shadow of the tower are the brutalist low-rise blocks, Hurstway Walk, Testerton Walk and Barandon Walk, designed as high-rise towers laid on their sides. These low rises are ‘streets in the sky’ based around communal green areas, designed by architects Clifford Wearden and Peter Deakins in 1963/64. A similar design, with connecting first floor walkways, was envisioned for nearby Camelford Walk, Clarendon Walk and Treadgold House, but the plans were abandoned and in-house architects at RBKC built these blocks in a less ambitious style, hence the diversity of styles which gives the estate its disjointed appearance.
Grenfell Tower is a 67.30-metre (220 ft 10 in) tall building and contained 120 one- and two-bedroom flats housing up to 600 people. In 2016 the tower was given an £9.2 million refurbishment, including new windows and cladding to improve the building’s appearance. The facelift made the tower more congruent with its immediate neighbours, the newly built Kensington Academy secondary school and the rebuilt and modernised Kensington Leisure Centre.
From 1996 to 2018, Lancaster West estate was overseen by Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO,) an arms-length management organisation (ALMO) that managed RBKC’s 9,000 social housing properties. The motivation for RBKC’s handing over of responsibility to KCTMO in 1996 was its fear of losing control of its social housing stock which had become subject to a compulsory tendering strategy introduced by the national government. To maintain its control of the housing stock, the council created the KCTMO, with a management team of 20 that initially included 13 residents. In the plan, KCTMO took control of the borough’s social housing properties, but for major works (costing over £400,000, such as the Grenfell Tower refurbishment) liability was shared equally with the council.
In 2002, to access the government’s Decent Homes funding, KCTMO dropped most of the residents from its management setup and became an ALMO, maintaining the misleading tenant management title. In 2009, an independent report by Local Governance Limited, identified “substandard” repairs and a need for major works across the borough’s social housing properties, recommending the Tory-run council take a greater role in monitoring KCTMO. In response, KCTMO chief executive Robert Black pledged to build trust between the TMO and tenants. To say he failed to meet that pledge would be an understatement.
In 2013, the Estate Management Board at Lancaster West was wound up. There were “terrifying” power surges at Grenfell Tower and plans for the new school and leisure centre were not received enthusiastically by many residents, the sense being that both KCTMO and the council were out of touch with, and even dismissive of, residents’ voices. It was widely understood that Lancaster West, like much of North Kensington’s community space, was in the sights of RBKC’s senior Councillors, whose personal wealth is often increased by their involvement in the property market. Even the council’s own chief executive, Barry Quirk, has described pre-fire RBKC as “a property developer masquerading as a local authority”.
In 2015, the Grenfell Tower refurbishment began, and the ongoing Grenfell Inquiry is revealing the corners that were cut to save money at the expense of safety. Those of us who have lived on the estate have lived with a landlord determined to oversee the managed decline of our homes. Those without that lived experience also have ample evidence, thanks to Grenfell Action Group, of the contemptuous attitude of both RBKC and KCTMO towards Lancaster West residents, their resistance to resident empowerment, collaboration and improvements to living conditions. While Grenfell Tower was receiving its refurbishments, the rest of Lancaster West saw no meaningful improvements whatsoever, and the deterioration of the estate continued.
Following the June 2017 fire, RBKC unambiguously promised change. The council’s North Kensington recovery strategy, in both word and spirit, gave this as a vow to the residents of Lancaster West.
In a July 2018 document, ‘Your Housing Future’ RBKC stated: “The Council has promised to refurbish the Lancaster West Estate sensitively, collaboratively and to create a model for social housing in the 21st century” and “Residents are and will continue to be at the heart of shaping any future work throughout the delivery of the programme”.
In a document titled Our commitments to those affected by the Grenfell Tragedy, RBKC also made a commitment to achieve, by June 2020, complete refurbishment of Lancaster West so “the estate is somewhere residents are proud to live”.
RBKC’s new, more caring tone and rhetoric has been evident across all its public pronouncements since June 2017. There is no question that they have been consistent in that regard. But does the language reflect tangible improvements on the ground on Lancaster West?
We spoke with several residents heavily involved in the management of the estate to get their insights into what changes have been made, whether there has been genuine collaboration and whether Lancaster West’s trajectory is really heading towards a state-of-the-art model for 21st century social housing.
The Lancaster West residents/officials we spoke to told us the following:
A 2018 ‘Ideas Day’ was a hopeful beginning for Lancaster West’s recovery. RBKC worked collaboratively with residents and architects to develop ideas. The architects were enthusiastic about the scope of the project, with their plans published in June 2018, but then “got pissed off because nothing happened for months.”
The £40,000 allocated per property is not enough to transform the estate into the promised “model for social housing in the 21st century.” Those we spoke to all agreed that the figure reflects a lack of sincerity on RBKC’s part regarding Lancaster West and that the council has now reverted to its “property developer” type.
The per-household figure, just under £40,000, allocated to Lancaster West, is actually the same or lower than the amount allocated per property by RBKC for its social housing stock across the borough.
Some of the residents we spoke to had been on a fact-finding trip to Portsmouth to see an estate that had undergone a significant and successful refurbishment. The Residents’ Association member who attended told us that the Portsmouth estate received investment of £100,000 per unit. RBKC, the richest local authority in Britain, which held reserves of a third of a billion pounds before the fire, was looking to achieve its stated aims with under half the per-unit budget of the Portsmouth estate.
The £9.2 million Grenfell Tower refurbishment meant that approximately £77,000 was spent per unit and the members of Lancaster West Residents Association (LWRA) we spoke to think this figure should be starting point for the wider Lancaster West refurbishment.
Central government gave £25m to Lancaster West but this has been treated by RBKC as an excuse to reduce their own commitment to the estate. More on this below.
RBKC has spurned opportunities to borrow at very low interest rates to enable it to boost the Lancaster West recovery.
RBKC is “prioritising the allocation of recovery funds to those who have the greatest ability to sue the council, namely Grenfell survivors and bereaved”.
Funding of Lancaster West
A pattern of money awarded, then money withheld from Lancaster West has emerged since the North Kensington Recovery Strategy was published. It is a pattern that undermines the council’s key promises: genuine collaboration, sensitivity and a model for social housing, according to all four people we spoke to.
There have been two phases of funding of the estate’s recovery. £30 million was initially received, with £15 million coming from central government and £15 million from the council. This rose later to £57.9 million. The additional money was added when it became clear that £30 million was not enough and consisted of £18 million from central government and just under that amount from RBKC. The council did not want to match central government’s offer.
That amount can be further bolstered by accessing the Mayor of London’s Energy Efficiency Fund and taking a low-interest loan. But we were told that when this was mooted by residents, they were told by RBKC: ‘You have nearly £60 million. If you receive more, we have to cut back the budget.’
A similar response came from RBKC to the prospect of a grant from the government’s Heat Networks Investment Project for Lancaster West to have environmentally friendly communal heating. The grant required the estate to have safe external insulation (in the form of cladding) applied to its exterior to make it more energy efficient. But concerns about cladding are not the motivation for RBKC’s reticence to follow through on supporting such moves. According to one person we spoke to, RBKC “keep clawing back funding when Lancaster West accesses funding elsewhere”.
We were told that RBKC’s Housing Revenue Account (HRA), the income the council gains from its housing stock, is not treated by the council as income to be re-invested in communities. The same resident told us: “They (RBKC) see social housing as a privilege. The estate makes a profit for the council from rent, service charges and council tax. The HRA income alone should be enough to pay for capital works on Lancaster West”.
The pattern outlined by a number of the Lancaster West resident officials we interviewed is that the council capitalises on any funding secured by residents to cut its own outlay in contradiction of its stated commitment to the estate’s revival.
But Lancaster West is not an isolated example, carried out by one department, or one officer looking to tighten the purse strings. It reflects a pattern of governance by RBKC since the fire: The council’s documents and public pronouncements claim a newfound commitment to North Kensington; this satisfies those who have overseen the local authority, such as the government’s Grenfell Taskforce and the national media; the council then betrays residents by not following through on its commitments, or it pursues policies and strategies that not only do not meet their lofty exclamations of “change” but that actively and collectively neglect and punish residents in the north of the borough.
There are numerous examples of this pattern playing out, some covered previously by Urban Dandy including the council’s light touch approaches to applying its own Twelve Principles of Good Governance and its Charter for Public Participation. Seen in this context, the failure of RBKC to meet its stated goals on Lancaster West is no aberration but part of a deliberate shift back to pre-Grenfell austerity and the denigration of long-suffering residents.
Relations with RBKC
According to the residents we spoke to, the council refuses to collaborate with them in upgrading the estate. Regarding a recent council scrutiny meeting, the residents told us: “we had to write to ask to attend.” One of those we interviewed, a member of LWRA stated: “We have to go and see them, they don’t come to us, we’re an afterthought”.
They further criticised RBKC’s engagement strategy, saying “they use community organisations to tick boxes, they don’t check on delivery” and complained that LWRA, supposedly at the heart of the collaborative strategy is “never included in budget discussions” in which money for the council’s management is always approved. RBKC’s strategy of buying up houses in the aftermath of the fire was also described as “money wasted”.
The residents described a lack of transparency around money that is making Lancaster West’s and North Kensington’s recovery unnecessarily complicated. They cited the pot of money for community recovery including a 1.2 million annual budget for The Curve (the council’s main Grenfell recovery centre) but questioned who from the local community utilises The Curve, a venue that has proved toxic among many people locally and lacks empowered resident oversight.
We asked about the estate’s relations with national government. It seems that meetings held with successive Tory leaders have been perfunctory, forcing residents to rely on RBKC to make any progress. They said they lobbied RBKC, proposing that they collaborate on lobbying the government to secure more recovery money. We were told that “they (RBKC) would never consider doing that.”
By its original design, life on Lancaster West is a communal experience, so even private residents (as I was) need an effective system of communal repairs, decision making and management. The residents we spoke to said that the estate “needs a holistic approach” and cited investment in communal areas as key. In my time on the estate, communal areas were neglected and miserable. I knew of a Councillor living on the walkways who lobbied for some minimal improvements, pot plants, to be made in the communal area. RBKC refused.
Things have improved since then. We were told that:
The walkways have finally been refurbished, with empty / abandoned flats revived.
The positive changes have been implemented by a new organisation called W11 – Lancaster West Neighbourhood Team, which replaced KCTMO as the estate’s management body following the fire, when the TMO was relieved of its management duties. W11 is an on-site management team serving just Lancaster West albeit still funded by the council.
W11 is a “positive change” but the residents were also clear that they think RBKC sees W11 as “a danger” as it could become “a precedent for all estate management to become resident-led” so RBKC has vested interest in it not becoming too successful or independent.
From July 2019 until June 2020, staff at W11 carried out a comprehensive consultation throughout Lancaster West with very high engagement rates with residents. Priorities for the estate’s recovery were established, but will residents get what they have asked for?
We asked RBKC deputy leader Councillor Kim Taylor-Smith for a response on behalf of the local authority to the main criticisms of the resident officers, namely that RBKC has failed to transform Lancaster West; RBKC has not committed enough money to the estate’s recovery; RBKC is not genuinely collaborating with resident representatives to the extent that they describe experiencing deliberate exclusion by the council; that these criticisms reflect RBKC’s general performance in North Kensington since June 2017.
Neither Councillor Taylor-Smith nor any of his colleagues in the leadership team responded.
A council spokesman emailed: “We are sensitive to the special circumstances of Lancaster West residents and that is reflected in a scope and specification of work which is far beyond that of other estates.
“We have scoped the works collaboratively with residents and there is close control and scrutiny on the investment being made on Lancaster West, which is reviewed with the Lancaster West Residents’ Association and representatives at a quarterly programme board.
“We remain confident that this will be a model 21st century improvement programme.”**
Lancaster West is a profit-making estate, vibrant, creative and a key hub in a culturally rich corner of the world; its residents were steadfast in the face of the managed decline imposed by RBKC, only to be traumatised by a horror on the scale of a war crime. The same forces that failed to prevent the fire then failed to respond now seem to be equivocating about whether the estate’s recovery is really worth funding properly.
The residents we spoke to were clear and unified in their vision: “to achieve a ‘model for social housing’ we need money for communal areas.”
“We need somewhere we’re proud to live and that the council is proud to own.”
RBKC claims the same aspirations but Lancaster West residents might now be questioning just how sincere their council is.
Peer orientation, discussed in part three, is augmented by technology as a threat to healthy adolescent development. The things that are needed for successful maturation, namely space, boredom and genuine connection, are easily undermined by technology. The defence against this threat lies with you, the adult, staying in an active role.
If parents let go of their child prematurely, a developmental tragedy plays out as the adolescent falls into the grip of peers, technology or a combined attachment to both. Traditional cultures provided what humans needed to navigate adolescence: interactions with relatives living close together (an attachment village); religious customs; ideology; mentors; elders; rituals based around nature; occupations; defined social roles and more. Without these factors in our society, it is more important than ever that the adult steps in to guide the adolescent.
In contrast to the traditional role of culture, modern digital culture is a mere palliative for those going through change. The digital world offers temporary, short-lived relief from the pain of separation by triggering the brain’s attachment reward system and releasing feel-good chemicals. Used to fill the void, social media, video games and pornography offer the adolescent a world devoid of real defeat or rejection. But in being depersonalised and dehumanising, these stimulants bypass the real-life experiences necessary for healthy development.
Like peer connections, digital connections shut the adolescent down emotionally. This can create the illusion of strength and independence. It can also reduce the pressure on the adult who can start to believe that their parenting work is done and enjoy new freedoms as their child does their own thing. But the adolescent needs adult guidance as much as ever.
The digital world offers short cuts to relieve boredom, enabling young people to immerse themselves in worlds of fantasy where there is no danger that their pain will be known to others. The chemical release in the brain means they feel safe, but it is really only a short-lived respite, that will soon need to be topped up. In the process, healthy development is suppressed or strangulated.
The phrases social media and online community are oxymorons for adolescents. True attachments are made in person, through the senses, where significance, belonging and loyalty can all be nurtured. All of these qualities are absent in digital connections. Corporations use the human longing for attachment to advertise digital products that push young people away from profound fulfilment and development. Images of happy people connecting to each other dominate technology ads, and for a good reason: superficial digital contact between people is a goldmine for corporations precisely because it does not work. Their insatiable customers must keep returning for more because their need is never satisfied.
The changes that have taken place with peer and digital orientation invading the space previously held by adults are stark. From admiring and imitating, adolescents now tend to mock; from loving, they now loathe. It has also worsened social ills ranging from depression to self-harm to suicide. Boredom is not something people seek, but it is an ally in the maturation process, allowing the authentic person to begin to emerge from the fog of adolescence. This emergence requires a degree of teenage awkwardness, the digital world offers a way to bypass this process.
Pay attention for a few days, once this lockdown is over, to the snippets of conversation you hear in the street; you will notice that chat between two pre-teens (pre-mobile) is usually more intelligent and considered than that of people in their 20s, 30s or 40s. The reason is the infantilising effect of technology, specifically the constant availability of superficial gratification and distraction via mobile technology which has made contemplation a fringe activity in our culture.
Pre-mobile phone, pre-games console primary school children emerge with curiosity. But with unlimited access to digital sources, curiosity is dying out. Abundant quick fixes mean we can do a search to back up our pre-existing ideas and beliefs, with algorithms and overwhelming amounts of meaningless information reinforcing this cycle. Ready-made, socially acceptable personal identities based on the narrow parameters of what digital platforms allow do not necessarily support healthy development. The individual must emerge in her own sweet time, but digital orientation has intensified the pressures of peer orientation with adolescents particularly vulnerable to experiencing the isolation and alienation of this unsupportive culture.
Digital culture is not governed by the customs and taboos that protect healthy attachments and direct the adolescent to where they can be nurtured. The result is unhealthy fixations, with the average teenager sending thousands of texts every month and spending several hours a day on social media. Combined with family time being in freefall across western societies, there is less and less encouragement for children and parents to spend quality time together, a developmental disaster.
I recently witnessed a 14 year-old in genuine panic when her phone ran out of battery and she couldn’t find the charger – maintaining her peer relationships did not allow for this gap in contact and she did not enjoy strong, comforting attachments to the adults in her life. From the epitome of cool to existential shrieking, demanding to know where her mother had put the charger, she exists in the extremes of peer and digital orientation, her true self lost in the middle somewhere, without the time, space and nurturing required to emerge.
As discussed in the previous articles, for adolescents to emerge as viable, healthy adults, certain conditions are needed. Space is crucial, but this does not mean being left entirely alone. Adults need to hold the space, playing the role of governor and gatekeeper of the solitude and experimentation that allow the real adult to develop out of the raw adolescent.
For the adolescent attached to social media, there is not enough space for the individual and no motive for the authentic self to emerge. Social media is dominated by deterrents to emergence. Other adolescents online cannot invite a youth to emerge, lost as they are in groupthink and the pursuit of acceptance. Virtue signalling dominates, sometimes in the form of cruelty to others. The desire to impress means that the adolescent cannot truly be known. If the authentic, vulnerable human self begins to present itself online, it is likely to be shot down by peers or faceless haters. The peer pressure means internalising and stifling one’s own needs, pure loneliness masquerading as fitting in.
If an adolescent is hooked on digital stimulation in this way, it is a sign that his attachment needs have not been met in the right place at the right time by the right people. Here, the adult needs to step in again and reclaim their territory. If the teenager’s life lacks approval, closeness and warmth, the digital world is a problem waiting to happen. If his life is filled with approval, closeness and warmth, technology will be cleverly utilised by the adolescent to develop their skills and knowledge, instead of a short-lived attachment fix.
How does this latter eventuality manifest? According to Dr Gordon Neufeld, three things need to happen:
The adolescent needs to be in the process of developing their own ideas before they have access to digital technology
The adolescent needs to experience the developmental stage of futility, instead of bypassing it using technology
Loss and defeat are necessary developmental experiences. Without them, the adolescent will need to dominate others, leading them deeper into the pit of peer and digital orientations where this bullying can be expressed cheaply.
These positive, albeit painful, experiences mean that the adolescent can be free of the need for peer approval and be boosted with the confidence and fulfilment of their safe relationships with adults.
And what does an adult capable of facilitating a healthy, attuned attachment relationship with an adolescent look like? They believe in their own power as an adult and the role they must fulfil; they are comfortable with their teenage child being dependent on them even as their peers orientate to other teenagers with apparent confidence; they will enact rules and rituals that protect the attachment from outside harm, pointing the youth to the things that stay the same and reminding them of their next period of quality time together.
A confident adult will collect before they direct the young person and be prepared to pull rank to remind the child they are in a secure hierarchy. The adult will be confident that the adolescent will invite them to be a part of their lives, a key player in their development because the adult has cultivated a safe, caring relationship based on unconditional positive regard. None of this is available in the digital world.
A smart adult attachment figure will refrain from inviting the enemy onto their territory. Sleep overs with the school friends they’ve already seen all week and unfettered social media are developmental junk food unable to satisfy the adolescent. True nourishment comes from a profoundly beautiful adult-adolescent relationship. Everything else can follow.
By Tom Charles @tomhcharles
This is part four of a series on adolescence based on the teachings of developmental psychologist Dr Gordon Neufeld,