If you want a symbol for the neglect of social housing in the capital, here’s one. In the ceiling of a handsome undercroft space at the top of Ladbroke Grove there is a gaping raw hole, like a six-foot-wide gunshot wound. Pipes and cables hang out of it. There’s a complex mesh of ancient concrete poured over a grid of steel cables, which have rusted and burst apart. You’d never guess you were in a landmark Grade II*-listed building in one of the richest boroughs in London. It looks like Aleppo.
The building is Kensal House, a pioneering and architecturally visionary social-housing development that dates back to 1937, and the undercroft is the home of SPID (Social Progressive Interconnected Diverse), an independent theatre charity whose free youth drama workshops are aimed at locals kids, and who is helping them change their lives. I’m here with its artistic director, Helena Thompson; its chair Ivor Flint, a Kensal House resident; SPID project coordinator Sean Cleary, who lives round the corner; and Sue Redmond, whose charity Full of Life is also based on the estate. We’re all standing around and craning our necks upwards to look at the huge hole glowering above our heads.
‘It’s a historic building, so a lot of the pipework dates back to the ’30s,’ says Thompson. ‘We’ve been trying to get them to fix the leaks here for 16 years.’ The campaign that SPID has run with the residents is finally seeing results, with a commitment to sort out the estate-wide water damage, but this example of council-housing neglect seems shocking, not least because the local authority in question is Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council, which was also responsible for the upkeep of Grenfell Tower. The irony is that Kensal House was specifically designed and built to foster the local community and prevent its fracturing and dissolution. Now it’s literally falling apart. That’s not about to stop SPID, though.
A prototype for modern living
The 68 flats of Kensal House were designed by architect Maxwell Fry in the 1930s to improve the quality of life of local working-class people who otherwise would be vulnerable to North Kensington’s notorious private rental market of chancers and slumlords (not like now, obviously). Built around a garden space, this ‘prototype for modern living’ also included a host of shared amenities. SPID’s space, with its dramatic curved concrete bracing, was a community room, used for social events. A photo of it from the 1940s shows a group of residents, from old women to babies, bathed in light from the floor-to-ceiling windows (long since partially bricked up). ‘There were also cobbling shops, woodworking shops, metalworking shops, sewing circles and knitting circles,’ says Flint. ‘There was a dining club twice a day, so if you came home from work and didn’t want to cook, you could just come down to dinner. But it all sort of fell apart after the war.’ Like many other examples of the utopian socialist 1930s, Kensal House suffered in the austerity of the postwar years, gradually becoming more and more run down. After the basement space became a youth club that symbolically wasn’t even open to residents, the community of Kensal House looked for a new custodian, which is where SPID comes in.
You wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of Helena Thompson. Angular, animated and eloquent, she has a real intensity when talking about the uninterest shown towards the people of North Kensington’s estates. ‘Nobody was surprised by Grenfell,’ she says, grimly. ‘Here, we said, “We don’t have fires but we have leaks.” Other estates have had collapses; all the estates have been neglected, all in different ways. You’re destroying something priceless: and that’s true of community and young people too. I really think that the very concept of community has been run down and criminalised.’ She sees these social-housing estates as embodying this struggle against disempowerment: once-famous names, made infamous through under-resourcing, poor management and tabloid-y horror stories. ‘The demonising of estates is part of divide and rule,’ says Thompson. ‘Trellick Tower is very famous, and estates like Silchester and Dalgarno: they’re all very special places.’
I really think that the very concept of community has been criminalised
That love for the original ideal of the council estate – a community bonded and equalised by its environment rather than set at each other’s throats by it – has seen Thompson raise £2.6 million from 12 different funders to refurbish SPID’s space, including £200,000 to install a lift so that it will be properly accessible to the whole community. ‘I believe in investing in people,’ she says. ‘I do think that that means investing in caring, so you have to invest in buildings. You have to make them places where people can afford to live and you do have to invest in young people.’
It’s a sentiment echoed by Redmond, whose charity Full of Life helps young disabled people and occupies Kensal House’s original nursery. ‘There’s that assumption that if you’re in social housing you’re not going to know your neighbours,’ she says, ‘and yet they’re the strongest communities you’ll come across. This estate was built on community, so the roots of it are right, but over the years it’s been whittled away and not valued.’
Flint sees that lack of perceived value as a direct result of a housing market run rampant, especially in the capital. If you’re not on the ladder, or striving to get on the ladder, you become a kind of non-person in the eyes of the authorities. ‘Social housing is seen as having no intrinsic value,’ he says. ‘It’s just a dumping ground. There’s been a successive lack of investment and poor policies by government. I think it’s been very hard for local authorities to manage their housing stock in the last 20 years.’
Dramatising the unthinkable
As many observers said at the time, Grenfell Tower was an accident in waiting, a moment when the socially invisible became visible in the most horrific way imaginable. Thompson calls it a ‘tragedy of disempowerment’. ‘It affects us all,’ she says. ‘We’re all trapped and we’re all under pressure and helpless.’ Her 2019 play, ‘The Burning Tower’ is an impassioned dramatisation of the nightmare of Grenfell and the history of social housing in London that descends into frightening chaos. It has been performed on council estates around the country. As one character in it says, ‘It wasn’t the cladding or fridge that killed my friends, it was being ignored.’
‘The [authorities] haven’t done shit,’ says Naomi Israel, SPID’s youth ambassador. ‘They’re incapable of change.’ Just four years after Grenfell, another council estate in RBKC is raising its own money to improve its surroundings. The situation might have an almost Kafkaesque ridiculousness to it, but to Israel it’s anything but a joke. ‘This building is listed. It’s a piece of architectural and social-housing history,’ she says. ‘Yet it’s treated with such contempt. I knew people who lived [in Grenfell]. I went to school with people who lived there and I was unfortunate enough to witness it. It’s the single most harrowing thing I’ve ever had the misfortune of seeing. I think about it every day.’
So SPID is a lot more than a kind of quasi-’60s lefty arts company sticking it to the man. The conflicts it addresses and dramatises are very real and very raw. Its rôle in the community of North Kensington is not some nice liberal cultural bolt-on, it’s a genuinely practical and essential service. It raises actual hard cash to do things for its community. It offers parents a chance to get their kids off their hands for a couple of vital hours. It gives those kids self-confidence, and better language and social skills. It acts as a model and an inspiration.
Bringing out the suppressed
‘At the end of the first session they had to create a little play. My son doesn’t do reading aloud, or reading in front of people. But he had to read to the parents. They were saying, “Who’s going to do this?” And he went, “I’ll do it.” And I didn’t think it was my child.’
Sophia’s son Taevian was nine when they had to leave Grenfell. They weren’t in the tower itself, but in one of the ‘finger blocks’. ‘We were living in the Walkways, in Testerton Walk,’ she says. ‘Our gas and hot water pipes ran underneath [the tower], so we had smoke coming in. Me and my son were the last ones to leave that block. We came out of the front door and you could feel the heat.’ A week later, Sophia tried to return to their flat with Taevian; ‘The council had sent a key worker because my son’s got learning difficulties,’ she says. ‘She said: “You can’t stay here, because it smells of dead people.” I just thought everything was a bit dusty but she said, “No, Sophia: that’s soot.”’
What has happened is bad, but we’re going to find beauty from it
After a year and a half of living in Waterloo, and commuting every day to Taevian’s school just off Ladbroke Grove, they moved back to the area and discovered SPID. Sophia was more trepidatious than her son was about the first session: ‘It was one of the first times after the fire that he was going to something without me sitting to the side, watching him. I had to explain to him on the short bus ride that “you’re not going to know anyone there, there won’t be anyone from school there and I’m not going to be there: how are you going to feel about that?” So I dropped him off there, and he hasn’t looked back.’ Sophia acknowledges that the act of dramatising events is of huge importance to traumatised young people. ‘They’ve brought out something in my son that had been suppressed,’ she says. ‘What has happened is bad, but we’re going to find beauty from it. We adults can do the negative part, but you children are going find beauty from it. You won’t have to talk about it, but don’t dismiss it.’
Ghosts of Grenfell Tower and ghosts of Kensal House
Apart from the massive hole in its ceiling, SPID is a story of overcoming and growth. With its new investment, the hole will soon be gone, but the giant rift in the community in the wake of decades of neglect and the tragedy of Grenfell still needs a huge amount of work to mend it. ‘There’s some repairing to be done,’ says Thompson, dryly. ‘We fell in love with this space. It has history and it has young people. And that’s a real privilege. You don’t get that in [newbuild] flats, that sense of shared space. There are ghosts.’ Those ghosts are not just of the many generations of everyday working people who have lived and died in Kensal House, they are the ghosts of a whole way of life that has come perilously close to obliteration. ‘A lot of us lost our friends [at Grenfell],’ says Israel. ‘We don’t want their deaths to be in vain. It’s keeping them alive through action.’ SPID is an ongoing act of performative remembrance, not just in works like ‘The Burning Tower’, but in the chance it offers the young people of North Kensington to create and forge their own paths. ‘The most positive thing that’s come out of [Grenfell] is that the community that I thought was gone, or fractured, isn’t,’ says Israel. ‘The community that was there when I was a child is still there. I first witnessed it when I was about nine: there was a toyshop called Barnett’s. It was very popular – I got my first bike there. And there was a fire there, and the community rallied round to save as much as they could of the shop. So when I saw people helping [after the Grenfell fire] I was like: Oh, it’s still there.’
For more info on the work of SPID, visit www.spidtheatre.com. Helena Thompson’s sequel to ‘The Burning Tower’, ‘Smile!’, will be published by Methuen and produced by SPID in August.