By Urban Dandy
Less than eight months on from the Grenfell Tower fire disaster and Kensington and Chelsea Council’s money grab in the North Kensington community is back in full flow. Canalside House, one of the last remaining spaces utilised by charities, the voluntary sector, small businesses and other local enterprises, is to be sold to property developers. The decision raises questions about whether the Conservative council has learned any of the lessons of the Grenfell Tower fire, which was the culmination of years of neglect, indifference and wilful ignorance by the local authority. In the run up to the crucial local elections in May, the decision to sell Canalside represents a calculation by the local authority that the local population will be apathetic as one of the community’s last assets is stripped.
Canalside House, less than a mile from Grenfell Tower, is home to almost 20 organisations, most of which have played a direct and ongoing role in supporting the community in the aftermath of the unprecedented fire on Lancaster West estate on June 14th. In the absence of a serious local authority response to the disaster, local organisations and their volunteers stepped into the void left by the Tory council. The council is widely believed to be responsible for the 71 deaths and incalculable trauma in North Kensington.
Kensington and Chelsea has a large number of charities, but it is a borough that needs them, owing to the grotesque levels of inequality and high levels of poverty, much of which is concentrated in North Kensington. Canalside House is one of the main hubs for community organisations, serving hundreds of local people.
K & C council owns the land on which Canalside House stands. It has long coveted the sale of the building, confirmed in 2016 when residents were informed that they would be moving to a converted industrial site on Latimer Road. Canalside would then be turned into private flats. This was initiated by Councillor Rock Feilding-Mellen, the former Deputy Leader of the Council and the man apparently responsible for the catastrophic, bargain-basement refurbishment of Grenfell Tower.
The Grenfell Tower disaster forced the council to put their plan on hold. In Summer 2017, council leader Elizabeth Campbell was told by Canalside residents: “We’ve been doing your work for you after the fire, you can’t make us homeless now” and she said she would “pause” the Canalside sale.
But the sale is now back on. The residents only know this thanks to the posting of a video of the K & C Scrutiny Committee meeting by Grenfell Speaks on Facebook. No resident organisations were informed of the meeting. The decision was confirmed by the publication of the council’s Executive Decision Report:
Opposition councillors at the meeting said that the last they had heard about Canalside House was in February 2017, when they were told that it was “being sold”.
The council’s sale of Canalside means that all the residents will be forced to move. One, the Volunteer Centre, moved last year, having been presented, along with all the residents, with a fait accompli by K & C. Richard Egan, Director of Corporate Property Services at the Town Hall, in the latest meeting, used the Volunteer Centre’s move as evidence of current residents wanting to leave, but Volunteer Centre were offered space at a suitable location by the Westway Trust, and snapped it up while they could, rather than be forced to move to Latimer Road.
There are multiple issues with the proposed Latimer Road site, according to the Canalside residents: It is half the size of the current building; It offers no privacy, which is essential to every organisation in the building; There are no good transport links; It will be extremely expensive to build; And the move is to be “project managed” by Amey, the company that has so far failed to provide much-needed repairs and refurbishment to Canalside House.
The council’s determination to push on with the sale might reflect a narrowing window of opportunity. The local elections are on May 4th and are essentially a test of whether the richer wards in the borough will abandon the Conservatives in the aftermath of Grenfell. Should sufficient numbers of community-minded people engage in the election, there could be a change in who controls the Town Hall, and this could scupper the plan to turn Canalside House into another block of flats for the rich.
Even if the above analysis is wrong, it is a fact that at the Scrutiny Committee meeting, much of what was uttered by the council was untrue and aimed at a forcing through a particular agenda.
Director of Corporate Property, Richard Egan announced that “each tenant has been consulted” and had given “generally positive feedback”, “support for what we are doing”, “the people in there don’t like being in there”.
In fact, all those statements are wholly untrue, according to the very people he attributed them to. Urban Dandy spoke to most of the Canalside residents and each of them reported that their consultation had amounted to being summoned to the Town Hall individually to be told ‘Here’s the plan, take it or leave it’.
All the residents said they wanted to stay at Canalside House, which is perfectly situated for transport. It sits in the heart of the community, is spacious, familiar and appropriate for their tasks, which include delivering advice sessions, support for Grenfell victims, supplementary schooling and other services that are impossible to provide when you are hot desking and are not allowed to keep paper records on site…
Kensington and Chelsea Social Council were quoted by the Council as being supportive of the sale. But again, the evidence is that the opposite is true:
Egan was joined by the council’s Deputy Leader, Kim Taylor-Smith and Councillor Matthew Palmer.
Taylor-Smith backed Egan up by claiming that Canalside is “not a good building”.
And Palmer contributed his expert opinion, that the building is “not fit for the modern era”.
Canalside House is functioning with virtually no council support or maintenance. The residents want refurbishment, or a serious alternative that offers all the same benefits. But the residents also believe the building has been victim of the council’s managed decline policy, which played out so appallingly on Lancaster West.
Canalside residents recalled that the council turned down a grant of £100,000 from the Tudor Trust to install a lift to make the building easier for disabled users to access. This undermines the argument, repeated ad nauseam by the Council, that the move is necessary to serve the disabled.
The Real Deal
The opposition councillors at the meeting did well to drag the discussion out, despite the three-pronged bullying of the two Tory councillors and their quisling, and they secured some useful information for the public: Canalside House will be replaced by “luxury housing” – zero social housing.
Deputy Leader Taylor-Smith insisted that any further debate on the future of one of North Kensington’s last standing community buildings would be “a banal conversation”.
We disagree. The organisations in Canalside House disagree, as do their service users. It seems unlikely that the wider North Kensington community will be overjoyed to learn of these plans and will surely see the forced removal of another community asset on the back of a set of lies as a hostile move.
The very community that did the council’s work for it last summer is under attack again.
Facts for Activists:
– All Canalside House residents want to stay
– Latimer Road alternative not fit for purpose
– No consultation carried out
– Canalside to be replaced with flats for the rich, zero social housing