View of Bramley House (foreground), Silchester Estate high rises and Westway from the 17th floor of Grenfell Tower, 2015
If you put your ear to the ground, what can you hear?
Perhaps Counters Creek - the subterranean stream that flows down from Kensal Green
And threads past Silchester and Lancaster West Estates in North Kensington, London.
If you start to excavate Lancaster West Estate, what fragments do you unearth?
Possibly cups and saucers made by the Victorians and still serving post-war descendants.
These are buried in the slum clearance of the 1960s and 70s.
Now open up your inner being and listen to not just the stream and shattered shards,
But the cries of people who were displaced by the town planners:
During the first phase of redevelopment in this area
Decades before the building of More West and the cladding of Grenfell Tower.
The last words uttered, in-between sips of tea and beer.
Here is one of those distant voices that rings loud and true:
"To whom it may concern
Having received your notice of your intention of developing this area
And your formality to ask me to object,
I SHALL, most sincerely, object on the below grounds:
1. Before I bought this property on Talbot Grove, I came to your Town Hall in person enquiring into any future development. A map was taken out, overlooked and I was informed that you had no immediate plan. I purchased the property.
2. After purchasing the property, I spent what is a large sum of money, to me (over £500) to insert a damp proof course, where after I was able to have a closing order removed.
3. I bought the property for private and undisturbed accommodation for my children. If their home had to be taken away, it would re-open a sore of housing accommodation and restrict their movements.
4. I have NO CONFIDENCE in the Kensington Town Hall. I have a genuine grievance which I believe is equally reciprocated by the Town Clerk and his colleagues. i have been in my opinion cheated and my feelings were expressed in various correspondence to him, Colonial Office and other officials, all to no effect.
5. As a negro, I have no status, I have NO ONE to whom I can go for sincere advice. NO ONE to whom I can seek redress.
6. If my property has to be taken by the Town Hall, I am sincerely afraid that it will be priced to suit the Town Clerk's wishes.
I DO SINCERELY OBJECT
North Kensington, late 1960s; consultation meeting regarding redevelopment
Reproduced from Community Survival in the Renewal Process, PHD by Derek J. Latham, 1970
That was 1966. Here is another, less anguished, but equally desperate voice from 1971:
Re: Town and Country Planning Act - 1962
Proposed Development at Lancaster Road, W11
Our main objection is that we fear not enough compensation will be paid, to enable us to purchase a similar property where we can live and carry on our business. A change of business will undoubtedly cause difficulties to our business. We feel that in running the Oriental Casting Agency, we are rendering an important service to the Entertainment industry by supplying them with mainly Afro-Asian artists. We are the oldest established Agency of this type in London, and we provide a livelihood for many Afro-Asian actors, actresses and models etc. A change in address would have considerable effect on the growth of the business, which has, in the past few years, been very marked.
We have carried out numerous improvements to the property that was purchased in 1964.
We would like to make it clear at this early stage in the proceedings that before we could agree to the development taking place, we would insist on the following points:
a) Either we are provided with an alternative house of a similar type and condition, suited to our requirements.
Or we are provided with adequate compensation.
b) When and if we come to an agreement with the G.L.C. over this matter, we will be allowed at least ten months to enable us to make arrangements for the transfer of our business to the new address.
The Oriental Casting Agency. I suspect they might have supplied the plethora of Afro-Caribbean actors used in Leo The Last; the powerful film about an aristocratic slum landlord who is radicalised by his poverty-stricken community and whose townhouse is destroyed in the process. It had just been filmed on Testerton Street prior to that being demolished for the Lancaster West estate.
Testerton Street, west side, 1969; where all houses are painted black by the set designers of Leo The Last
RBKC Local Studies and Archives
Walkway at Lancaster West estate built over Testerton Street
Left: Salambo Mardi (acted by Christine Richer)
Right: Leo The Last (acted by Edward Daffarn and Constantine Gras)
Oil pastels, 16.5 x 23"
We can trace a line of community protest through official and non-official channels. The ones that are officially recorded, pre-internet, are the petitions taken to the town hall. They tell a story of how residents organised themselves and attempted to shape the urban development of what was to become Lancaster West estate.
Petition 1, June 1968
A petition was presented by Cllr. Douglas-Mann, urging the council to consider the plight of residents living within the boundaries of the development scheme who were unfurnished tenants. The recent housing survey undertaken by the Notting Hill Summer Project had shown that there were 167 furnished tenancies and all the families living in these cramped rooms, often without heating or water, were in need of being rehoused. Social workers and community organisers were raising this as a major concern. This petition was signed by 1,194 residents with 538 within the development area.
The council at the time was under no obligation to rehouse furnished tenants but would consider cases of genuine hardship. The priority was given to those on the waiting list.
Petition 2, June 1969
The following statement and petition was handed in to the Deputy Town Clerk by Mr J. Denham of the Lancaster Neighbourhood Centre. He and 30 children and 2 mothers had marched from North Kensington to the town hall.
"To the Council,
We are told that the infant mortality rate of our borough is 40% higher than the average for the other London boroughs. We feel that child care in this borough is as good as in any other. Our conclusion is that the bad and often insanitary housing prevalent in North Kensington, overcrowded conditions, and lack of playspace and amenities constitute a direct threat to the health and happiness of all children in North Kensington.
In view of this we urge:
1) That there should be more provision made for the rehousing of large families under the Lancaster West Redevelopment Scheme
2) That no family shall be evicted under any clearance scheme, whether they are furnished or unfurnished tenants
3) That North Kensington should be considered a housing emergency area and that all available local and national resources should be mobilised to see that every family in North Kensington has a decent house.
Lancaster Neighbourhood Centre."
The council generally regarded furnished tenants as mobile and of temporary duration, but would consider for rehousing those were who were long-term residents and who had genuine hardship.
Petition 3, Nov 1974
Cllr John F. S. Keys presents a petition protesting at the conditions of the roads and footpaths around the Lancaster West Redevelopment Area. This was signed by 250 local residents. "We call upon the council to take immediate action to eliminate the danger to pedestrians, cyclists and motorists."
The Council noted the concern and although this was beyond the normal resources of its cleaning service, would consider the possibility of introducing an Environmental Code of duties for contractors.
Petition 4, July 1978
A petition signed by 135 residents and children of Lancaster West Estate calling for more open play spaces in the area.
The council believed the residents were not aware of their plans to include more play spaces in the development.
Petition 5, May 1979
Cllr. Ben Bousquet presented a petition from tenants of the Lancaster West estate urging the council to reconsider their policies of switching off the central heating at estates at the end of april and extending services until the end of may.
Petition 6, November 1981
A petition was presented signed by 238 residents which contained the following "prayer":
"We the undersigned residents of the Lancaster West estate demand that the council gives priority to resolving the problems caused by the plague of cockroaches, bugs and other insects in our homes. Further, we understand that these insects constitute a health hazard and we are taking legal advice to our rights against our landlord, the council. Meanwhile, should nothing be done we may consider withholding our rent and rates until those insects are eradicated from our estate."
The council noted that cockroaches had gained a foothold in ducts and pipes at Grenfell Tower and Camelford Walk and were responding to this. Although a pest, they have little medical importance beyond the psychological effect of their unpleasant appearance. It was difficult for the council to access flats as a blanket treatment would be carried out to prevent further spread; legal forced entry might be required. The other insects mentioned are thought to be ants which appear from time to time on the estate. Tenants would be left to deal with this themselves.
Edward Daffarn reading from a petition handed to the RBKC Scrutiny Committee, 2015
Petition 7, January 2016
Grenfell Tower Residents address RBKC Scrutiny Committee
The residents had invited me to attend and document this meeting.
This is a summary of the speech given by Edward Daffarn:
"Thank you for allowing the residents of Grenfell Tower the opportunity to inform the Scrutiny Committee of the ill treatment, incompetence and plain abuse that we have experienced at the hands of the TMO during the Grenfell Tower Improvement Works. I am speaking to you in my capacity as a Lead Representative of the Grenfell Tower Resident Association, that was formed through adversity, in the summer of 2015 with the support and encouragement of our local MP, Lady Victoria Borwick.
To back up the testimony of Grenfell Tower residents to the Scrutiny Committee members of our R.A recently conducted a quantitative survey of leaseholders and tenants to measure levels of resident satisfaction / dissatisfaction as a result of the TMO's handling of the Improvement Works. The findings of this survey are truly shocking.
The survey revealed the following facts: 90% of Grenfell Tower residents have reported that they are dissatisfied with the way in which the TMO has conducted the Improvement Works. The survey found that 68% of residents said that they had been lied to, threatened, pressurised or harassed by the TMO. The survey also revealed that 58% of residents who have had the Heating Interface Unit (HIU) fitted in their hallways would like them to be moved to a more practical and safe location.
As a result of the findings of our survey and with the support of Lady Borwick, the Grenfell Tower Resident Association is calling for the Scrutiny Committee to commission an independent investigation into the Grenfell Tower Improvement Works, not least, so as to prevent the traumatic experiences of local residents being replicated when the RBKC undertakes the Improvement Works to other tower blocks in North Kensington."
Link to full speech on the Grenfell Action Group blog.
At the Scrutiny meeting, the council agreed for an investigation to be undertaken on behalf of the residents. However, this was to be managed by the TMO.
I was artist in residence at Lancaster West estate from April 2015 - June 2016 where I interviewed all of the original architects about their vision for the estate. I was not allowed direct access to Rydon and the other contractors tasked with the renovation of Grenfell Tower. Although commissioned by the TMO to make a short positive film about the works and to produce an art work for the new community space, I found myself deviating somewhat from the brief, especially once I started to listen to and record the life stories of residents. For a previous project, I made art with residents from Silchester Estate that drew on the social and mythic parallels with Leo The Last. This time around, I felt more like Leo, the individual who is observing and then directly implicated in the ensuing struggle that was taking place between residents and TMO/contractors/council. The film I made was a one hour portrait of residents. This was visually admired by the TMO, but was rejected as not fit for PR purpose. The art work made by children during the Grenfell fun day also languished and was never displayed in the tower after the works were completed.
Silchester Baths photograph, protected during building works in the lift lobby at Grenfell Tower, 2015
It should be noted that throughout its forty-year plus history, Grenfell Tower only had one art work on display. This was an evocative archive photo of Silchester Baths, the Victorian building that was sited near the tower and which critically altered the original masterplan as it became temporarily listed before being demolished; it subsequently became car parking, green space and is now the site of the Aldridge Academy. There was never a description included with the photo to explain to newer residents why the Baths were of importance to the local area. I raised this with the TMO, but it was not important in the scheme of things.
With my ear and inner being, I hear and then evoke.....
Generations of residents living in houses at Testeron Road as they bathe their bodies and wash their clothes at Silchester Baths.
The Baths and houses were caught in the red line of Slum Clearance programmes.
A film maker took hold of Testeron Road prior to it being wiped off the map by the council.
A false posh house was build by the film crew and then cinematically destroyed.
Leo The Last tells us that we can't change the world, but we can change our street.
Out of a ruined landscape, Testerton Walkway was built, one of the three blocks of housing that radiates out from the tower.
Grenfell Tower was renovated from 2015-2016 with an artist employed on site.
72 people died in the fire on the 14 June 2017.
When I think of Silchester Baths, Testerton Street, Testerton Walkway and Grenfell Tower, they should all be an interconnected and positive inspiration for how we manage space and housing; how this relates to play, heating, the control of pests and the consumption of social cups of tea. We symbiotically draw our health and wellbeing from the underground currents. Alas, those currents contain an equal measure of bitter tears and spilt blood.
Tuesday, 25 July 2017 Grenfell Tower Inquiry
Consultation on terms of reference
A voice from the floor:
"Looking at Grenfell Tower is like peeling back layers of the onion. At the surface a range of issues about building safety and failure of services to respond adequately to an emergency and tragedy. Behind that is the history of contempt and neglect that enabled those building regulations failures.
But behind that is the reality of discrimination. The process that decides who it is gets burnt to death and who sleeps happily in their comfortable homes. Many survivors have put their fingers on that underlying reality. They were given unsafe housing and the terms to make it safe refused or ignored because of who they are. They are by and large on modest incomes, black and from ethnic minorities or migrants.
This is not just about housing allocation in Kensington and Chelsea. Some of those killed were private leaseholders or private tenants. It's about how some people end up in worse housing, and then it's about how those people are treated as residents, as citizens, that they are effectively excluded from the important decision and that compounds their disadvantage. That's not just a problem in Kensington and Chelsea, but sadly there's nothing worse than Kensington and Chelsea."
Artist studio at Shalfleet Drive, 2015
A map of the listed buildings and structures in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea
I added Silchester and Lancaster West Estate to the list as they were threatened with regeneration