Thursday, 7 March 2013

Fighting gentrification, one cupcake at a time

Conservative Councillors are putting the finishing touches
 to their speeches


Kensington and Chelsea Council’s Budget Meeting last night (6 March) was a dreary/exciting four hour marathon. By the end of the evening the majority (TORY!) party Budget was agreed, a spending plan partially based on self-service, ignorance and complacency.

Not to say that everything in the Budget is wrong-headed; some of it is sensible and logical and necessary, partly thanks to our highly intelligent and caring senior officers – and to the odd Tory with half a heart. And there is the occasional item that has been ‘re-visioned’ -  something the Labour Group proposed in previous years, but renamed so they can claim the credit. 

But hey ho, that’s life in opposition.

Cllr Pat Mason and EDC
For new readers, I would like to reiterate some surprising facts about the ‘Royal’ Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, a supposedly rich borough which has £170m in unallocated Reserves. My ward in the north of the borough, where Portobello Market stops in sight of Trellick Tower, is the joint poorest ward in London on extent measure [see p 7]. This means that every part of the ward is equally poor, around 50% of its children, which is worse than Calton in Glasgow. Other wards in North Ken also have poor estates, of say 40-45% poverty, but in Golborne it’s the most widespread.

Award-winning Morrocan Soup stall,
scrumptious food for hungry people
This is a huge surprise to many people, who might wander up Portobello Market to find the hot food stalls and restaurants and independent shops on Golborne Road. You would never guess how poor it is.

I teach a bit at the Bartlett School of Architecture and Planning, and there’s a trick I play on the students who come on a Friday walkabout. ‘There’s an estate round here,’ I tell them, ‘that is in the poorest 5% in the entire country’. Eyes like saucers, they ask to see it, expecting gangs of hoodlums and burnt-out cars. ‘Gotcha, it’s right here,’ I tell them. They look around the wonderfully swept and pruned and cleaned-up award-winning 1970s Purcell Miller Tritton Swinbrook Estate, utterly confused.

The Council is good at sanitising poverty. It is all a façade, a Disneyfied or stage-set Kensington. Behind closed doors mothers are economising on food and heating to pay the rent, there is malnutrition, and rickets, and early death from preventable diseases. Parents sleep on the sofa while children sleep heads and tails on the floor. I’ve seen it. There is a gap of 18 years life expectancy between the south and the north of the borough [see graph]– but that’s an average of averages, it’s much greater if you take in the whole range of 98 for a British man in Hans Town, and 62 for a Moroccan man in North Ken.

But these inequalities are hidden to attract the homogeneous gentrification the Council longs for. I’ve lived here most of my life, and while Paulton’s Square where I was born among artists, bohemians and academics now houses the rich, it is the mega and mega-super rich who are in danger of destroying the borough: the plutocrats, the Far Eastern oil magnates, the ‘buy to leave’ foreign investors, some of whom, if we are to believe Simon Jenkins [click to read], are laundering dirty money.

The council does little, caught between need and greed. Look at the repugnant sale of Holland Park School’s southern playground for £110m for super-prime housing (affordable on site ‘unviable’ of course), while ploughing back £80m into arguably the most extravagant school in Europe (the relevant Cabinet Member trilled 'I spent £80m but it cost nothing'). The most expensive is not always the best; the same architects built a school in Belgium of the same size, to Passivhaus standard, for a quarter of the cost [click to read].

The Council’s complicity in overheating property prices is so blatant they don’t even bother to deny it. With £170m in Reserves they believe they are untouchable.

However Kensington and Chelsea is a borough of extremes, and inequality is growing.

Having trawled through the 2011 census figures for anything interesting, I was genuinely appalled to discover that somewhere in K&C was an estate even poorer than Swinbrook. After a hunt – hampered by disbelief – I found it. Henry Dickens Court, which I had leafleted several times during the third ‘unfortunate resignation due to child porn allegations’ by-election, is even better maintained than Swinbrook and I’m told is used by the Council to demonstrate to visiting dignitaries and national politicians how well they care for their ressies.

So here it is. Henry Dickens Court, an estate of cc500 homes, right next to the beautifully preened and bay-treed and utterly Tory Norland Conservation Area, suffers from 58% child poverty. Some 26% of its residents have no formal qualifications whatever; health is appalling; work is manual, if any [ONS stats].

To counter this the Council encourages and sponsors ‘entrepreneurialism’, and if you don’t know what that means, it’s making cupcakes and selling them on the market.


They don’t need cupcakes; they need core skills and training and well-equipped libraries and homework clubs.

Opera Holland Park
 - like it? You bought it!
So actually the Council isn’t rich at all. It is greedy but also parsimonious; simply not spending where most needed. While preaching self-reliance it chucks money at the near £1m/yr loss-making Opera Holland Park, nearly as much again for the loss-making Leighton House and Linley Samborne museum, arts strategies with accompanying lavish receptions to launch ‘cultural place-making’ and ‘creative clusters’ (which an Arts Council director friend ridicules), and last year, the completion of the frankly disgraceful expense of £23m of Council taxpayers’ money on repaving Exhibition Road. Did South Kensington need regenerating? ‘course not, but no doubt it’s whacked up property prices. The Council is playing Monopoly with people’s lives.

This is the key of course. K&C Council has no idea what regeneration is. Regeneration in their world is pimping unsightly areas to make poverty palatable, tidying up ‘grot spots’, planting odd corners and sticking substandard corporate art and up-lighting on flyovers; all this Disneyfication to attract developers to gentrify the poor bits. And their plan for actual people, for the poor for whom they have statutory duties? Move them to Peterborough [click to read].

This can’t last. Fortune favours the bold. The ‘Royal’ borough is blessed with old-fashioned Tories who, despite their dodgy politics, despise the blinkered and self-servative faction on the Council. It could be that they topple the current balance, or if they don’t UKIP may get a foothold. There are  nine hard-working Labour Councillors who are watching their every move. And of course our wonderful residents, loyal and supportive, waiting and working for a better chance at life.

EDC robed for a Council meeting
- not really, another scene from Opera Holland Park
of olde worlde Kensington as some would have it

At some point, the property bubble will burst and the Disneyfied version of the borough will look foolish. The ruling Tories in K&C have no Plan B for stage-set Kensington. But we do.

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