Community Profile -
The sun is out in Ladbroke Grove. The sound of the tube hovers above, the nearby A40 roars, the not-too-distant Portobello market hums, and two musicians play djembe drums under the bridge. It’s the summer of 2016 and Ed Daffarn is outside the magnificent grade II listed North Kensington Library with a petition in hand. Ed’s smile and energetic presence stops passers-by, mostly locals, in their tracks. People register their discernment; some were sad, some angry, most were shocked. Shocked because of the discovery that the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (RBKC) were leasing the public library to a local private school, Notting Hill Preparatory, without any consultation. Ed, the local residents and community groups rallying around the ‘Save North Kensington Library for Public Use’ campaign were cognisant of what the local council had been doing; the selling off of local community assets to private developers for the sake of profit. As the rest of the country would sadly find out too, this was not an anomalous pattern of behaviour.
Ed Daffarn’s activism is characterised by intuitive knowledge of this reality, and instead of imbuing a sense of weariness, it’s a driving force in combating the unfettered excess of greed-ridden politicians and councillors.
“To document, to record and not to give up are the basic tenets of how I see activism. We didn’t have the choice to give up because the stakes were so high.”
Ed was born and raised in West London. His grandfather was a private secretary to the first Labour Party politician to become Prime Minister, Ramsey MacDonald. Ed believes his social consciousness came from his grandfather's enduring legacy. “He once gave away all his possessions which really annoyed my grandma!” he says. Ed grew up in the 70s in an era where the political machinations ebbed and flowed and oftentimes clashed: “I used to work in a shop on Kings Road on Saturday afternoons. You had bands of punks walking down the road having fights with the Teddy boys. Punk was all about questioning and not accepting stuff. [There was] Thatcher of course, things like the Miners Strike – it was a very political time to be alive.”
After many years out of education, Ed completed an access course at Wornington College, a local community college in North Kensington. It enabled him to study at Brunel University for a three-year degree in Social Work. “My dissertation was on psychosis and cannabis – I found social policy really interesting. Sadly, I used to live in Grenfell Tower and lost all my work in the fire there. I lost all my essays from Wornington and my dissertation.” Ed went on to become a mental health social worker for several years until 2009, when his mother contracted motor neurone disease and he left social work to become her full-time carer.
In 2009 Ed’s friend and fellow local resident, Francis O’Connor, found out about the RBKC’s ‘Latimer Masterplan’ through a Freedom of Information request. The Latimer Masterplan was a development plan for the area which impacted everything from social space to residential amenities. The following year, in 2010, seven years before the fire, the Grenfell Action Group was set up to hold the council to account and oppose the removal of the space around Grenfell Tower. The response from the councillors, though, was resoundingly hostile. “When we stood up to oppose what was going on, it was more the treatment we received from the local councillors, both Labour and Tory – “Who the hell are you to stand up to have the temerity to who oppose us?” If we hadn’t received that kind of treatment [from elected officials], the Grenfell Action Group and all this opposition might have subsided,” Ed explains. “This is meant to be the country where we put our values of free speech and decency so high and I didn’t encounter any of that. I encountered, ‘Who the hell are you?’ or even ‘Who voted for you?’ was a quote put our way. It inspired us to carry on.”
Today, the blog initiated by Ed and Francis holds immense importance, as a living archive documenting the indifference of local government, a local community trust and politicians who were meant to be serving local people in the area. “RBKC, the local council, the TMO, local councillors, The Westway Trust, all the people we were opposing and holding to account, they were so powerful and lacking any scrutiny we never thought the blog would overthrow them or expose them.
At the same time, we wanted to record what was going on. That’s why we blogged, to create a historical document. Of course, now, post-Grenfell, the blogs taken on extra significance.”
The Grenfell Action Group blog serves as an essential part of the wider history of protest against injustice in Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove. For Ed, this goes back to the 1870s, from the historic opposition of a race course, to the 1950s’ and 60s’ mistreatment of the Afro-Caribbean community in the area s and the formation of the Notting Hill Carnival. This history of protest includes the building of ‘The Westway' between 1964 and 1970, a raised concrete dual carriageway,the construction of which was hugely contested by the community and left 23 acres of derelict land underneath. Due to the enormous damage caused to the local community, from ‘noise pollution to poor air quality’, the community fought back. Subsequently, the derelict land underneath was allocated to the newly formed Westway Trust. Since then, however, in both the make up of the Trust and its decision making, the trust has changed irrevocably,colluding with the council to undermine local concerns. Westway23 was formed in response – made up of local residents and activists concerned with how the 23 acres was being managed (see westway23.org).
“I’m just proud, if I consider myself to be part of that long, history and tradition,” Ed says. “We are not the first people and, sadly, we won’t be the last to have to get active and fight for what we believe in.” The tradition of uniting through a collective cause and forging solidarities is a mantra in which Ed is rooted. One of his proudest moments is a demonstration displaying that community unity. “For years, we were trying to lead a protest from Ladbroke Grove to the Holland Park Opera, protesting that the council were funding the Holland Park Opera whilst cutting services in North Kensington. But it was sort of, ‘you and whose army?’ That all changed for two reasons: one, through the formation of Westway23, who existed before but who I got in touch with. Secondly, I got in touch with the Radical Housing Network and different housing organisations across London. That gave us confidence that we can do the march. So our first march was, ‘Mock the Opera’, in June 2013, with drums at the front, protest in the middle, and horses in the back. We followed the 52 bus route up Notting Hill Gate. A year later, we organised 'Public Not Private', which related to the North Kensington Library campaign.
"In the first demo we had 40 to 50 people, but by now, we had around, 150 people. Those two marches, are among the things I’m most proud of in terms of galvanising people.
Ed’s ability to galvanise those around him in the community extends to the other campaigns he’s been involved in. The campaign to ‘Save the North Kensington Library For Public Use’ revealed an extensive abuse of power from the authorities. “All our public buildings, libraries, colleges, information centres, community buildings, children’s homes were being passed from public ownership into the hands of either property developers or private education,” Ed recounts. “Our library fell victim to that scheme by the council. Which was basically run by a few councillors and certain senior officers from corporate property planning and housing. They were the main drivers behind it.” Ed and other local activists had discovered that the North Kensington Library had been leased to Notting Hill Prep School for 25 years without any community consultation. The councillor who oversaw the lease, Rock Fielding Mellen, had his children on the waiting list for the school.
A campaign was set up in response whereby Ed and other activists spent time collecting signatures outside the 125-year-old library. “We’d be out there campaigning and getting signatures for the petition and people would literally cross the road to sign the petition and spend 10-15 minutes telling you how much they loved the building and valued the building. How it’d impacted their lives or their parents’ lives or their grandparents’ lives.” Wornington College, the community college Ed attended to gain access to university, was more recently resigned to a similar fate. The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea purchased the freehold of the college and handed it to property developers who were planning to demolish the site to make way for unaffordable housing. “Wornington had the same sort of impact as the library did, generation after generation had got an education there, it’d given a lifeline to people who came to England and didn’t have English as their first language, then went on to train as hairdressers or teachers or social workers, or a lot of mums coming back to education after having a couple of children.”
North Kensington & Healing by artist Toby Laurent Belson explores the way a community recovers after countless traumas. The piece was commissioned as part of the Shifaa’ issue of the Khidr Collective Zine.
Ed’s work in the campaigns to Save Wornington College, the Campaign to Save North Kensington Library for Public Use and the Grenfell Action Blog belie the legacy of someone committed to selfless activism. So fittingly, when we spoke, Ed is quick to tell me, “None of this happens on its own. I didn’t start the blog on my own, I did it with Francis. None of what’s happened has been a single action. It’s all been done as a community. The strength comes from community.”
As for the campaigns, the fight is ongoing. “We’re still searching to get a written commitment to safeguard the library from RBKC, we’re fighting with the help of government ministers to secure the future of Wornington College, and the battle with the Westway Trust and Westway23 is still ongoing.”
Ed adds, “What we need to understand very clearly, none of the victories we’ve had so far – and by these victories, I mean, they’ve stopped the lease of the library to Notting Hill prep school, they are telling us they aren’t merging Wornington with another college – none of these things would have happened without the events on 14th June 2017 at Grenfell Tower. In fact, all these battles would have been lost. It’s almost with great sadness, that if it hadn’t been of happened at Grenfell, the council would have turned Wornington College into flats, the library would have been leased to the prep school, and all these community assets would be sweated away from public ownership forever.”
Our conception of activism today is writ large with a combination of those seeking Twitter fame,individualised success and the pervasive politics of guilt. Ed Daffarn’s unwavering commitment to supporting his community, tells a different, more accurate story. It’s an activism which is oft-invisible, rooted in community, is by and large thankless, but most importantly, it’s driven forward by dogged determination. When I ask Ed finally, what advice he’d give to others who want to see change in their communities, he tells me:
“What’s important is, knowing what’s right in your heart, believing in it despite how few people join you. There were times when we wrote the blog, when we thought, we aren’t gonna win this battle, no one’s reading it, it’s taking up a lot of time, what the hell are we doing? But we didn’t stop and we carried on. There was a drive somewhere inside that made it feel really important. Quite where that drive came from, I can’t quite identify. "If you’re experiencing injustice, you can do something about it. You might not be able to change it, but you can record it.”
Grenfell Action Group
North Kensington Library