“Ill Thought Out and Frankly Obnoxious” – Westminster Council in North Kensington

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:

  1. 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. 

Environment

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…

Architecture

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.

Conclusion

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.

RBKC on the left, Westminster on the right, the Westway and Trellick Tower across the bridge

by Tom Charles @tomhcharles

Photos by Chris Arning & Tom Charles

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