SPID Theatre takes on RBKC for Housing Justice

How to deal with an inflexible, disconnected, disgraced local authority that gets to mark its own homework on its supposed Change policy?  SPID Theatre on Ladbroke Grove spun its web and caught some official flies with an up-close performance of The Story of Fires and Floods. It then headed to the V & A to perform the same show and screen its film The History of Neglect. The event was also used to announce that SPID and residents of Kensal House are taking legal action against the council for its neglect.

Three of the protagonists break down how this all came about….

Act One – Sophia

‘Social, Progressive, Interconnected, Diverse!’ we shout.

The audience at the Victoria and Albert Museum rises, celebrating with us Kensal House Estate’s heritage and breathing life into the museum. The place buzzes with community spirit – artistic activism in action. It’s empowering to meet the eye of so many press and SPID funders as I announce class action against our landlord, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) for their negligence.

I tell the crowd I’m proud to be Vice Chair of SPID, the award-winning charity whose art advocates housing justice. I tell them RBKC has been found liable for Grenfell which displaced my son and me and hear respect in the silence. We were fighting to be rehoused from a hotel when SPID flyered us at the bus stop on Ladbroke Grove. Their theatre, which was then in Kensal House, was pretty run down, but it felt like home.

SPID is the best therapy. That’s how my son learned the value of social housing and how I processed and expressed all we’ve been through. SPID taught me to go forth and not feel hidden or ashamed.

When SPID raised £2.6m to restore their theatre, I opposed the council’s old-school divide-and-rule tactics. I saw they we reusing every tactic they could to oppose positive change and avoid having to fix the leaks that were causing misery for Kensal residents and threatening SPID’s ability to continue. I was one of the first to join Residents for Refurb, uniting folks on the ground to get the investment greenlit. When our Royal Borough called me “aggressive” and accused me of playing the race card, SPID’s light kept me going through the dark.

SPID is on the side of black people like me. So many people of colour live in social housing. I love SPID like a sister. As the black single mum of a black boy with learning difficulties, RBKC called me “lucky” to live in their borough! Lucky is being part of SPID.

It’s important to fight, unite and not be afraid. I know from experience that RBKC do not apologise, but they recant if you beat them on their own terms. Words matter, language matters, it’s how I got my family a home that’s fit for purpose.

The council has a duty of care to know who is in their building. When the flames came to Grenfell Tower, they were knocking on the wrong doors. I saw disabled people, vulnerable people, getting dragged out.

At Kensal, RBKC claimed they had to send disabled people through the car park and around the back of the estate because it’s listed. Access is the landlord council’s duty. They’ve given planning permission for a lift yet they want SPID to be covering the cost.

Kensal and Grenfell share a landlord that fails to fulfil minimal access and safety. It’s time RBKC paid for their negligence.

The tagline for SPID’s Story of Fires and Floods, ‘Grenfell had fires, Kensal had floods’ says it all. The production features the voices of myself and other North Kensington residents.

However tough it is to relive that night in June 2017, I do it so the effects are understood. I get panic attacks when anything touches my head or feels warm. Late at night, I start scratching my skin takes to take from the pain of what I’m seeing.

At the V & A, I tell my allies that what we’re doing is right. In performing for all present to bear witness, we’re turning the spotlight on a history of neglect and holding the council to account.

The cheers sound like music. The nerves in my chest melt to passion in my belly. SPID has a meditation for change as part of the performance, and it says what I know to be true: Justice is the public face of love.

by Sophia Ollivierre, SPID Vice Chair. Sophia and her family were displaced following the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017.

Act Two – Naomi

The night of the Grenfell fire will always stay with me. I had the misfortune of witnessing the fire that killed my friends and neighbours. Everyone knew that RBKC were liable, even my then eight-year-old nephew knew they were liable. It didn’t need to take five years for a court to tell us this, although I am happy that it has.

What makes the fire even more tragic is that among the residents of Grenfell who had voiced their concerns the loudest were three Black women like Sophia, Sylvia, and me. They were branded “troublemakers.” Similarly, the council has called SPID “difficult” for exposing decades of floods at Kensal House. Those women in the Tower were threatened with legal action – now they’re dead.

Serving itself is the council’s MO. They lack basic humanity. The aftermath of the fire demonstrated this when it was left to the local community to rally together and get organised. The Queen later came to speak to the community with compassion after Grenfell because she understood duty. RBKC never will. The council was nowhere to be found- RBKC don’t see social housing residents as equals. The way they treated us was inhumane.

It’s clear they think they’re better.

RBKC is obsessed with cover-ups and how things look, rather than how they are. Plastic over Grenfell, claims that Kensal’s leaks are fixed, always symptoms, never addressing the causes! When they say they’ve patched a pipe it’s a plaster on a massive gauged ripped artery. Everyone knows there’s internal bleeding, and they just look away.

RBKC’s own roof reports say Kensal’s roof’s waterproofing is on its last legs. They promised SPID’s funders they would share full surveys of the drains and reports of the works, but of course, they never did. What they fail to accept is that history and the law are on our side. Kensal House is a listed building. They cannot neglect it this way.

I was proud to join Sophia and Sylvia as one of the local voices recorded – along with Ivor Flint, the Kensal resident who co-chairs SPID with me. To hear from the 14 Kensal residents suffering chronic leaks and floods is heart-breaking. When SPID performed The Story of Fires and Floods backstage at Kensal during a meeting with RBKC officers, the council tried to call a halt. Tokenists will turn on a dime, but we’ve got each other. We kept going, giving presence to the past to validate and protect these precious estates.

The council’s representatives were so patronising, so dismissive, all lip service and platitudes. When I asked why they were ignoring the leaks, they claimed all Kensal needed was a good flush. Systemic injustice needs more than a flush!

by Naomi Israel, SPID Co-Chair

Act Three – Sylvia

My husband and I were the second family to be rehoused from Kensal by SPID’s Fix The Leaks campaign. He is on dialysis; our living conditions were appalling. The floods which poured on SPID came from flats above. It’s thanks to SPID that we no longer live in sewage water.

Making the council watch The Story of Fires and Floods was a turning point in our fight for justice. They had refused to meet until after the refurbishment started, so the banging thuds of the construction were loud.

We were squashed backstage together: officers, politicians, residents, and SPID. The housing chiefs knew they couldn’t get away. They faltered when called upon to read out their duties. It was an amazing event as we held hands in solidarity to close the performance.

But the next day, we got a letter. It admitted negligence and offered compensation. When we went to share the news, we found that the council had also been found liable for Grenfell – first for the test case of five of their victims; and by implication, for all. Every day the figure rises. These are important precedents.

It’s a privilege to unite Kensal residents and tenants in making the council do their job. Their time is up – it’s vital they pay for disabled access and for the leaks and floods. The crowd at the V and A are on their feet, clapping and chanting: want what’s right, don’t give up, we can win, we’ve got the love.

by Sylvia Akajioli, SPID Trustee, rehoused from Kensal House due to floods.

SPID’s Estate Voices at the V and A received 4 stars from Everything Theatre and featured:

The Story of Fires and Floods

SPID meditation for social change

The Burning Tower

A History of Neglect

Visit www.spidtheatre.com or check out A year with SPID

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