But in the northern margins of the borough, lies an enclave of poorer communities, around Ladbroke Grove, Kensal Rise and North Kensington. Densely populated, mainly in high rises. centred around a raised major trunk road the Westway, which carries you out of the area as fast as possible into the West End.
|The raised Westway and tower blocks|
|Compare & contrast, these are the Portobello toilets closed by the council|
When the Council targeted the stallholders more directly, wanting to remove them in favour of more antique stallholders, I was involved in a community campaign to defend them. I volunteered our shop's photocopier for producing the leaflets (without seeking permission of my bosses) and stallholders came in and out frequently to get or drop off their petition sheets, standing out like a sore thumb among all the punks and techno DJs picking through the record racks. I attended local meetings and we won this particular round. I haven't been to Portobello for 10 years or so, and wonder if the fruit stalls are still there or not.
Before I consider a specific initiative by Conservative local councils, I just want to finish the story of national forces on the state of housing. Once Thatcher left power and Tony Blair came in for Labour, make no mistake, he did very little - despite huge 100+ majorities in Parliament - to reverse the policies of the previous Conservative regimes. Right to Buy had run out of steam anyway, since those who could afford to buy had done so by now. Deregulation was not reversed, standards within selling property remained low. Credit was still cheap, so that now property was regarded as much as an investment as it was the place for you to live and call home. The budgets of local councils were not refloated, low public housing stock not significantly replenished. Let's be clear about this, Labour failed the most distressed communities that the Conservatives had created. And when the Conservatives returned to power under David Cameron, the UK economy and level of debt was in a very parlous state. Austerity became the watchword, with cuts to every aspect of the public sector. The commodification & privatisation under Thatcher was even more central to Cameron who looked to make budget savings. Rather than go after their allies in Big Business to make them pay appropriate tax, they trimmed and slashed services already at critical levels. This includes the many aspects that notionally fall under the responsibility of local councils, but had in fact been contracted out to private firms and agencies whose primary motivation is profit. Add to that that Cameron declared war on what he called the health and safety culture and standards slipped even more off the bottom of the scale. Everything was done on the cheap, with little scrutiny since the numbers of inspectors had been cut as a cost saving, while ideologically there was not only no appetite for due oversight, but downright hostility to it.
So now we return to the local council level. Despite its property riches, London is a Labour city. Consistently since 1997 it has voted for a majority Labour representation, with the sole exception of two terms as London mayor for Conservative Boris Johnson. The Conservatives are in the main restricted to the richest central boroughs and those well-off suburbs around the fringes of the city. Three of the central boroughs are Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea and Wandsworth. In the 1980s, bolstered by Right To Buy and the property boom sending house prices shooting up, the Conservatives undertook the most ideological (and craven) of policies to try and ensure these boroughs remained Conservative in perpetuity. While the poll tax that replaced the local rates system of local taxation went up in most London boroughs to try and make good the shortfall of government funding, in these three boroughs the poll tax was at negligible levels. This was subsidised by an incentive from central government, allowing the councils to run a low level of local taxation. But in Westminster it went further. The then council leader Dame Shirley Porter ran a clandestine scheme of "Homes For Votes" , trying to socially engineer parts of the borough to make them guaranteed Conservative wards. This was a more naked, far-reaching expression of the class cleansing that RBK&C were envisioning in the next door borough. On the border between the two, was the Harrow Road tower blocks which were condemned for containing asbestos, yet still undesirables and the homeless were moved into them, immortalised in song in 1988 by RBK&C squatters World Domination Enterprises in their song "Asbestos Lead Asbestos". Eventually Porter's regime were taken to court for their flagrant gerrymandering and found guilty. Like all good patriots with a stake in their country, Porter immediately fled overseas to avoid sanction and financial punishment. Wandsworth at a Parliamentary level has two Labour MPs and one Conservative, RBK&C for the first time in history returned a Labour MP a fortnight ago as one of its two MPs. Westminster also has one MP from each Party. So the Conservative initiative has not taken, Londoners have retained their independence of mind.
And finally to the Grenfell Tower fire. All the above factors feed into this tragedy. Private management of housing, austerity and cutbacks (though RBK&C has a contingency fund of £300 million so that it has no excuse for being too cash strapped), and class cleansing. RBK&C didn't have to be as blatant as Westminster, since it was under less threat of losing control to Labour and its poor and impoverished were already grouped together in a specific locale of the borough, that of North Kensington. Every council has a legal requirement to house the 'unintentionally homeless' and because those that could buy their council homes have, this means that all councils now only really house the most vulnerable and needy members of society. Look at the survivors of Grenfell Tower on TV, or consider the list of names of the missing and unaccounted for and this is abundantly clear. In some places such areas might be considered ghettos, but not here so diverse was the local population, truly representative of all continents of this earth. But they were vulnerable, mainly economically rather than social and cultural. The Council just did not care or value them like it did its private householders. Local residents had warned for years about the deficiencies of their housing, including safety issues. No sprinklers. Shortage of lifts and so on. They were ignored and palmed off as troublemakers. The Council allowed their private contractors to 'upgrade' the fire safety of Grenfell Tower with a cladding material that saved the measly sum of £6,250 on the total budget. If the death toll is of the likely order of 100, that works out to be £625 saved at the cost of each life. Read that and weep. Really really weep. The sight of people waving for help on the top floors and babies being thrown out windows to those down on the ground, echoes the imagery of the Twin Towers during 9/11. Our terrorism was not based overseas and the low level campaign against residents was to unsettle rather than terrorise, but our terrorism is named corporate manslaughter. It is a campaign waged for profit and ideology that has been running since the 1980s and the people responsible must be brought to justice. It is time for all people's lives in this country to have a genuine equal value, rather than this faux rhetoric of Thatcherite egalitarianism, or Cameron's "we're all in this together". If Britain isn't moved by this tragedy towards a whole different way of thinking and regarding of our fellow citizens, then we have not only missed an invaluable opportunity, we are actually lost as a nation for good.