Sophia Akram investigates how one West London Caribbean community’s cultural identity has been eroded
Portobello’s Acklam Village is known for its bustling weekend market, one of the few remaining market spaces left in London where local traders are holding on to their stalls.
It’s a weekday however, and the Village’s Bay 56 community hub has opened up for a very different reason.
Londoners and others who came to the area after the news of the Grenfell Tower fire, just over a year ago, may remember Bay 56 as one of several groups co-ordinating support when it became apparent that an official response was not forthcoming.
However, in early June, one week before the fire’s anniversary, music artist Niles Hailstones has opened the hub’s shutters to deliver a message of intending resonance. “Don’t trust the trust”, referring to the Westway Trust, a charity that was set up to act for the community’s interests. What follows is a story spanning nearly 50 years about how the cultural identity of this part of London is slowly being eroded.
Evolution of trust
The Westway was one of several ringway projects envisioned by the then Greater London Council. Unlike the Westway, many of them did not get off the ground, but in 1964, despite heavy opposition from the local population, construction on the elevated stretch of road – a 3.5-mile section of the A40 running from Paddington to North Kensington – began.
By 1970 the road had been built against the will of protesting residents and ripped through the community. According to Hailstones, “They weren’t able to prevent it from happening but what they did get eventually was an agreement that all the land under the motorway, 23 acres, would be left to the local community to develop. That happened in 1971 and the North Kensington Amenity Trust was found.”
The North Kensington Amenity Trust (NKAT) then became the Westway Development Trust, which eventually became the Westway Trust.
The original constitution of NKAT, shared with Media Diversified by the Westway Trust, showed a decision-making arrangement with heavy involvement from the local council. A Westway Trust spokesperson told Media Diversified that “under our new leadership, we have refocused the organisation to together work with local people to manage and improve the 23-acres of land. This will be further demonstrated with a soon to start 6-month in-depth conversation with local people about what they want from the estate.”
Members of the community note that from an 80/20 split of community/commercial use in its original inception, the split has now gone to 20/80.
Hailstones recalled specific examples including an intergenerational story of Wilf Walker and his son Huey Walker who had both lost their businesses. Businesses intended to invigorate the African Caribbean culture of the area and its tradition of live music.
Hailstones said that Huey Walker had been running a venue called The Flyover and his father opened one of the first halls built on the 23 acres called Acklam Hall. “They closed Acklam in the case of Wilf Walker, he lost the venue to Vince Power who took over the lease for £1.” (Media Diversified has not been able to verify the fee attached to the lease but journalist Brian Deer, from a 2001 article he re-published on his website, wrote that Power said “You could say they gave it to me for nothing”).
Vince Power, founder of public limited company the Mean Fiddler Group, of which he sold his stake in a £38mn sale of the company in 2005, turned the venue into nightclub Subterania, which opened in 1988.
Hailstones says the same thing happened to Huey Walker.
“[Walker] was a young black man in the local area trying to reinstate the culture of the area through cultural events at The Flyover. A lot of us in the community were working there. A lot of us in the community put our own resources in it. This wasn’t a funded thing. This was something we were doing by ourselves… Before it got into three years of operation it was sabotaged at the end of 2014. That’s where I came into this direct battle with the Westway Trust.”
Hailstones says that the terms of Walker’s lease was changed, leaving him with a three-month agreement, “that made it difficult for him to run a business.” The venue changed into The Westbank Gallery.
Who built this land?
Joanna Edwards, a local resident who moved to North Kensington in the 1970s, agrees with Hailstones that the identity of the area and its cultural roots were being chipped away.
However, she told Media Diversified that there was a very important question that needed to be addressed:
“If we want to continue to have a space, we have to give a reason why. Why would we want a space? Why would Caribbean people in particular want a space?
Because Caribbean people built it.”
Before the Westway flyover was built, the land underneath it was for a while empty. According to Edwards, a group was then formed, of mainly Caribbean people, who decided that there should be community activities there. As well as building these Edwards said that everything was also turned into apprenticeships.
“They have a tradition within the Caribbean just like in England that if you know something you pass it on to your children…. So they didn’t just build, they formed apprenticeships”, she says.
The tradition of training also ran through whatever they built. The apprenticeships which were taught in the completed units included car mechanics, carpentry and building skills.
They also built a community centre and a restaurant, where training included sewing and catering. The committee the Caribbean people formed was called Unity Association and local people sat on and ran the committee, which included the original builders, mechanics and carpenters involved in the project.
Both Edwards and Hailstones suggest that the composition of the board of the Westway Trust isn’t so community-centric.
According to the Westway Trust’s website: three trustees can be elected by Member Organisations (the list comprises of more than 60 member organisations), three are nominated by The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (RBKC) and up to six trustees are “openly-recruited for the skills and expertise they can offer, such as community insight, finance, property development and law”.
Edwards says the community side of the Westway has all been wiped out now, including prominent child care groups such as the Community Nurseries that helped mothers to get on. And the tradition of passing on higher skills has been lost somewhat too.
Hailstones notes that the community liaisons that were appointed who did do a good job of understanding the community needs, found their positions ultimately untenable. He points to an email (seen by Media Diversified) to trustees, calling out behaviour that demonstrated bias against the African Caribbean community. Several extracts illustrate this:
“… you have stated to me and other directors that you will not support a proposition for an african-caribbean [sic] cultural space (wherever that might be) because you ‘want it to be wider’. Your justification of this has included: ‘they only represent 7% of the community’, ‘we should represent the whole community’ and ‘there are lots of other groups that need space too’…
“When I queried you about how we might move beyond ‘wanting it to be wider’, you said ‘there should be consensus from the whole community that this is wanted, before we take forward any form of african-caribbean cultural space’. This certainly seems a requirement and impediment not placed on other prospective tenants representing specific communities of interest.”
Hailstones went to confront the trustees at an AGM after The Flyover became under threat. He eventually got an agreement in 2017, just before the fire at Grenfell Tower, for an African Caribbean led arts space to be set up somewhere on the 23 acres.
Unfortunately events on the 14 June hurt the community on multifarious levels and in terms of organising, other things became the focus.
Hailstones attained the keys to Bay 56 from a member of staff from the Trust on the same day of the fire. Using the space to coordinate donations, it was only one month after the Grenfell tragedy that joint CEOs Mark Lockhart and Alex Russell visited him telling him about the difficulties of providing him with a licence, claiming it was a “pop up space”. Hailstones said that “every licence stipulates that when that licence ends we have to leave the building and take everything that’s in here out of it. I’m not going to sign that.”
Hailstones says that Acklam Village had been left in a state of arrested development as the intention was to demolish it to make way for a project with the council they have named ‘Destination Westway’. Thus the trustees are positioning themselves as property developers, more so than anything else, he says.
The Westway Trust’s response
Media Diversified asked the Westway Trust to respond to these sentiments and about the specific examples stated. On the change in balance of commercial versus community use of the land, a spokesperson said the split between tenancy types was more nuanced:
“Some tenants that pay a commercial rent and deliver social impact and benefit to the local area. Some tenants are small local businesses who pay a commercial rent but are from the area and get opportunities to trade. Today the estate is home to more than 20 charities receiving subsidised rent, three acres of public green space, two sports and fitness centres offering concessionary rates, an arcade of small independent shops, light-industrial businesses owned by, employing and servicing local people and much more. In addition, the Maxilla Social Club provides affordable social space; the Bay Sixty6 skatepark reaches many children locally and offers concessionary rates; the Bramley’s kids play centre is a local institution; and local charity ACAVA use the former nursery to provide affordable studio space for artists. In the near future a newly built community centre will open soon; steel pan activity will return to the estate with Ebony Steelband; and pop-up units for start-up local businesses and charities will open on Thorpe Close; and the community riding stables will be rebuilt and opened. Finally, we have plans to build a community-led African and Caribbean Cultural space and a new arts and cultural centre.
The estate continues to provide income that supports our charitable programmes, including free adult education and a network of supplementary schools which support children from marginalised groups including Moroccan, Eritrean, and Somali communities, crèches and a nursery that provide subsidised childcare for local parents, and a grants programme aimed at small local organisations. We spend nearly £500,000 per year providing support services to people for whom English is not their first language; financial support to 15 local festivals a year; 30 plus small grants for local projects that deliver pregnancy care, mental health services, intergenerational social programmes, and many other services reaching tens of thousands of people a year.”
In relation to Huey Walker’s licence for The Flyover, the spokesperson said:
“Huey had a licence to use part of the space above our fitness club on Thorpe Close for part of the week to run The Flyover. We made the decision to combine the various spaces and lease them on a full-time basis to one operator so Huey was offered a short-term extension for his usage to align the end dates of all of the various licences that existed on all the parts of the space.”
They admitted that closures of community nurseries had unfortunately occurred:
“The nursery was a significant loss to the Maxilla area. Unfortunately, the space was leased to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea who ran the nursery and it was their decision alone to terminate their lease and close the nursery.
“As with all communities, there are many different needs and priorities locally. Being part of the community, we work alongside a wide variety of groups and individuals to make decisions about how the resources of the estate are used. Inevitably, there will be those who disagree with some decisions but we involve as many people as possible in the process.”
With regards to the licence available for Bay 56 they said:
“Mark, Alex and many others within the organisation are in regular contact with the current occupant of Bay 56. He has been offered a licence for the space but he has declined to take it and has not provided any evidence of the scope or impact of his community work there.”
Media Diversified asked the Westway Trust to respond to claims that Acklam Village had been neglected to which the response was:
“We have not neglected the area and have instead put significant effort into plans for improvements in the area. The three motorway bays that make up Acklam Village have never been properly developed and remain basic shells without proper weather or soundproofing and poor facilities. We have plans to renovate the whole of the area formalising what already goes on there to include a new arts and cultural centre, a community bar, public toilets and adding a small block of 100% social and affordable housing.”
On the accusations of cultural bias, the Westway Trust responded:
“A complaint was made in respect of cultural bias and the Trust carried out an investigation assisted by external parties. The investigation did not find any evidence of any deliberate bias.
We are passionate about inclusion and we are not complacent about the need for active ongoing vigilance. To that end in 2017 we implemented a new equality and diversity policy and action plan. It is supported by an active and diverse staff working group driving forward an ongoing programme of training, monitoring and reporting.”
“The only way we have been able to make any ground is to take it”
Since the Grenfell Tower tragedy over one year ago, tensions between the community and RBKC have come to light. However, tensions can now be seen to exist between residents and the Westway Trust, a body whose purpose is to enfranchise the community. Its public image is one that seems to do so.
However, a significant segment of the community still feels disenfranchised. As Hailstones put it:
“This is Ladbroke Grove, you have to ask yourself when there’s been this land that’s been left for the community for so long, why is there no evidence of the culture that made this area famous.”
There has been an agenda that’s been ongoing for 50 years to make sure that does not happen. And the only way we have been able to make any ground is to take it.
That’s why we are in Bay 56 right now.”
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Sophia Akram is a freelance journalist, researcher and writer focusing on migration, conflict, identity and inequality. While studying, she did an undergrad in Law and postgrad in International Politics and Human Rights. Her words have since appeared in Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye, The New Arab and The Huffington Post among other publications.
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