In the north of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) stands what’s left of Grenfell Tower, looming, gloating, cruel. Meanwhile, to the south, at the Olympia end of Kensington High Street, 68 new flats await survivors of the flames. They have attracted a great deal of attention, most of it misleading and much of it mean. Like so much to do with Grenfell, the properties in question and reaction to their allocation to people who didn’t die on 14 June have revealed a lot about London, about housing policy, about the capital’s complex social geography and, perhaps most of all, about how poorly those things are understood.
When it was announced on 21 June that the dwellings in question were to be made available as permanent new places to live for some of those made homeless by the blaze, they were described as being part of a “luxury” development with the glamorous name of Kensington Row. It seemed to some that this meant that the burned out have-nots of Grenfell were to be instantly transported from the most despised extreme of the accommodation spectrum to the most desirable.
A woman who already lived in the “luxury” development popped up on a BBC phone-in show. It wasn’t fair that these people would be able to have a flat as nice as hers without having to pay the very high service charges that go with it, she complained. After all, she and her husband had worked hard to be able to buy their expensive apartment. Others, quoted in print, offered a range of views on the prospect of having some of the dark and dispossessed from the rough end of the borough as neighbours. Some were pleased for them. Others weren’t.
After a while, it emerged that the 68 homes were not, in fact, of the “luxury” variety. Although part of the Kensington Row development, they were – or would be, given that they were still under construction at that time – much more modest (though, I’m assured, good quality) units that had been designed from the start to be affordable. Their provision was part of the terms under which RBKC had given permission to build Kensington Row to developer St Edward, part of the giant Berkeley Group. St Edward is a joint venture between Berkeley and M&G Real Estate, which is Prudential’s property investment wing.
What had changed was that work on the 68 homes would be speeded up following government intervention by way of its Homes and Communities Agency (the affordable homes in mixed tenure developments are often left till last). The earmarking of the homes for Grenfell survivors was to be enabled by Kensington and Chelsea moving those traumatised residents to the top of their very long social housing waiting list.
It was reported at the time that the City of London Corporation, which owns and manages social housing in several parts of London, would be purchasing and managing the 68 homes. That was premature. Although the City was interested, the homes have actually been sold to housing association Peabody. They, the City and other providers of social and other forms of affordable housing had been negotiating to take over the Kensington Row “affordable” homes since before Grenfell, as was entirely normal with the affordable element of such schemes. Post-Grenfell, Peabody, which provides social support services to tenants on a number of London estates it runs, was thought the landlord best equipped to help meet the needs of those who had escaped the fire.
The 68 homes are now complete. They are located within two separate buildings on the Kensington Row site, one of which stands alongside Warwick Road just off Kensington High Street at the edge of the development area and the other further in. Gilbert Scott House is ten storeys high and Kendall House is six. Most of the dwellings have two or three bedrooms, and the rest have one. Several survivor households, nominated by RBKC in what would usually be the usual way, have already viewed the properties. Some have accepted the offer and will move in soon. Some have asked for more time to decide. Some are, “Just not ready to make a decision yet,” I’m told by somebody involved in the letting process. The trauma of their experience has been profound: “You have to go at their pace.”
Kensington Row will be a very different setting for the now ex-Grenfell households from that they knew before, embedded in a cluster of RBKC estates close to the Westway. It forms the second phase of delivery of the still larger Warwick Road redevelopment area. Still a work in progress, Kensington Row is being assembled in a space formerly occupied by a Homebase store and a former telephone exchange building. When finished it will comprise 301 private homes, 120 affordable homes of various types – including the 68 for social rent – and 92 for “extra-care”, a term which means housing that provides specialist facilities for older people.
To walk around the development area in mid-July, when all the photographs accompanying this article were taken, was to observe the ongoing formation of a striking example of how new housing and the financing of affordable homes takes shape in the most expensive parts of the capital. Kensington Row dwellings for sale at full market prices are currently available for between £1,575m for a one-bedroom ground floor apartment within a section of it called The Cityhouse Collection, to £7,2m for a four-bed on the 13th floor of a 16-storey tower called Mowbray House. St Edward is also marketing dwellings in Trinity House at 375 Kensington High Street: one, two and three bedroom flats in what it says, with no obvious grounds for contradiction, is “one of the most prestigious new developments available in London today”.
There is a welcoming sculpture at a walkway entrance (a “glacial boulder” called Glorious Beauty by Simon Hitchens, commissioned by St Edward), and high end property consultants JLL (Jones, Lang, LaSalle) have set up shop on the High Street ground floor. In an access road, an agglomeration of dark and dark-windowed private vehicles were parked, squeaky-clean, in wait, apparently, for hiring passengers. From one box-fresh housing block – and here, I must be mindful of my own prejudices – a man and woman emerged. They had that hard, watchful, power-groomed look that, even from a distance of 100 yards, signals overwhelming quantities of net worth yet makes you wonder if they’re having any fun.
I was standing in a stronghold of super prime London property power. I felt mildly at risk of being perceived as loitering suspiciously. I also felt mildly repelled. And yet, without such developments – without super rich housing investors, whether foreign or native, whether Londoners or based abroad to make them happen – those 120 affordable homes of various types, including those that Grenfell survivors are being offered, would not be being delivered in the Warwick Road regeneration area. Neither would there be a new school on the site, the Kensington Primary Academy.
Indeed, were Mowbray House to be ten storeys higher or the apartments of Trinity House that bit more plush, the “affordable” total might have been greater. Conversely, were there fewer “luxury” homes, there would probably be fewer affordable ones too. Such are the realities – or, if you prefer, the extreme perversities – of how much of London’s lower-cost housing is supplied in its most expensive neighbourhoods.
As for the affronted resident who rang the phone-in show, it is, perhaps, unsurprising that she wrongly assumed that Grenfell survivors were to be gifted properties as posh as hers at lower cost, rather than plainer ones across the way. Developers don’t draw attention to the presence of affordable – especially social rented affordable – homes on sites when marketing their top of the range properties, as that they know this would lower the prices they can get for them. This may feel uncomfortably like screening out the poor, just as the proportion of white potential residents shown in cheesy CGIs is far higher than would be seen in most London neighbourhoods. The blunt truth, however, is that lowered market prices tend to mean lowered numbers of affordable housing too.
Will those Grenfell survivors who move in to the site’s social housing enclaves much notice or much care that neighbours across the way may be fabulously wealthy or maybe often not around? Is the configuration of the development’s different tenure types, each occupying its own niche within the footprint, much of which is still a building site, an example of mix or segregation?
If the mix were fuller and the separation less, with the social rented dwellings “pepper potted” among the opulent market homes and hard to distinguish from them from the outside, would that make the location and likely type of next-door neighbour more attractive to Grenfell survivors – or any potential social housing tenant – or less so?
Tenants will have access to communal gardens and their children to communal play areas. On site security will cover their homes too. But will they mind that not having to pay the sorts of service charges mentioned by the phone-in woman means they won’t enter their blocks through a “statement entrance lobby” or have access to exclusive health, fitness and business facilities?
You’d have to ask them, wouldn’t you? And maybe some day they’ll let us know. For now, we can probably take it as read that they have more pressing matters to consider – matters arising from a trauma whose effects will surely never completely leave them, but which they will surely hope moving to Kensington Row can help them set about consigning to the past.