Q and A with:
Catherine Gray, Chair of the Refurbishment Project Board and Kensal House Resident (CG)
Helena Thompson, Artistic Director for SPID at Kensal House (HT)
SPID (Social Political Innovative Direct) is a youth theatre company that has been based in the Grade II* listed community rooms of Kensal House council estate on North Kensington’s Ladbroke Grove since 2005. The charity works nationally as well as locally, championing social housing with free drama that celebrates estates’ architecture and history. After years of fundraising, SPID was awarded £2.4m of public money from backers like the Mayor and Lottery – to restore their own neglected building and bring it up to modern safety standards. Some Kensal House residents opposed the refurbishment and SPID’s landlord, Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC) appeared set to block the renovation. But at the last minute, following a campaign, they reconsidered. Just ahead of lockdown, residents, council, SPID, and the funders all came together to try and save the investment. What’s happening now?
What’s going on with SPID at Kensal House?
HT: SPID is trying to refurbish the community rooms, where we’ve been based since 2005. They’re depressingly run down and we want to restore and celebrate them. We always fought for investment in social housing and it’s long been our dream to save the heritage of this beautiful 1930s building.
CG: Residents share this dream. Kensal House was designed in 1936 by architect Maxwell Fry and social reformer Elizabeth Denby and the community rooms were a big part of their vision. Over the years they’ve been flooded and run down so much that they’ve fallen into disrepair. We hope SPID can restore them to their former glory.
What about that controversial extension?
HT: SPID proposed building a modest workshop space in a small corner of the garden. Landlord’s consent for this was denied by RBKC, so we’ve dropped it. We’re going to deliver the additional free activities we’d planned in some other way.
CG: Some residents objected to the extension, though others like me were in favour. What matters is the big picture and the fact that SPID has worked extraordinarily hard to find a way forward. If we can bring the space up to standard for the whole community to use then we all stand to gain.
How have the refurbishment plans changed?
HT: We’ve proposed a lift and a new bin room entrance. This is in addition to the restoration works and disabled access corridor originally planned. Though the community rooms were once used primarily by residents, they now serve a wider community. We want to improve access in a way that protects residents’ privacy.
CG: These new plans are so inspiring. The sloping corridor will mean those in wheelchairs can use the same sloping corridor as everyone else. Disabled people will have access to a lift via the same entrance without having to go through the car park or round the back of Kensal House. Rerouting the bins away from SPID’s entrance and from flats will be more hygienic and will improve security by keeping their gate to the car park closed. It’s all about inclusivity, security and aesthetics.
Who’s going to pay for all this?
HT: After 15 years of advocacy and fundraising, SPID has secured £2.4m from folks like the Lottery and the Mayor’s Fund. We are asking them to approve the changes to the plans and stay with us. The case we’re making is that this has always been an unprecedented project and that compromising will add value by ensuring all stakeholders benefit.
CG: Residents wholeheartedly support SPID’s efforts to keep the investment. We’re impressed by the flexibility and diligence with which they’ve reworked their vision. I never realised before just how much work goes into planning a refurbishment. It’s not just the architects and residents and the people paying for it whose views matter, it’s structural engineers and heritage specialists, and quantity surveyors too. To get everyone on board is a huge challenge and a massive achievement.
When will the refurbishment start?
HT: We’ve requested extensions to finalise our plans. Since the pandemic, funders have shown more flexibility. There are strings attached to the funding in light of financial year deadlines. We will need to start come February.
CG: I’m so excited for the refurbishment. This opportunity means such a lot to Kensal. It will finally show how valuable the building is both socially and historically. Positive change like this is something we all need to see.