The much loved North Kensington Library was the first purpose-built library in Kensington. Built in 1890 it was listed Grade II in 1984. The Library is an important part of the heritage of historic public buildings serving the working class communities of North Kensington. Adjoining it, with its entrance on Lancaster Road, is another Grade II listed building by the same architect and designed to complement the neo-gothic style of the library. Funded by donations to Campden Charities the Campden Technical Institute was built in 1895 as an educational resource for the children of the poor. It was subsequently taken over by the Council and has since been privatised so that it no longer serves the needs of the working class community, but has become instead the Notting Hill Prep School, a private school for the children of the well heeled.
It has been common knowledge for some time that the future of the Library as a public resource has been under threat, and so the Grenfell Action Group submitted, in August 2015, a Freedom of Information request to RBKC seeking clarification of the future intended use of the Library. Our attempts to obtain this information took far longer than the legislation allows and were frustrated by council officers on many occasions. It was only after we had referred this matter to the Information Commissioner that we received a limited partial disclosure of the information we were seeking in our initial FoI request.
We learned from the information provided that the Council has been negotiationg a long term lease with the management of the Notting Hill Prep School which will effectively end the Library’s days as a public resource and surrender control to this private school. Under the terms of the proposed 25 year lease the Council will be responsible for the costs of any necessary external works to the structure of the building, prior to the lease agreement taking effect. Obviously the Prep School will need to do a major refit and refurbishment of the interior of the building, to suit their particular requirements, and they will supposedly be responsible for funding these works. However, they will then qualify for a full year rent free, amounting to an estimated £365,000 saving for them. This will probably pay most, if not all, of the cost of the interior works, so it appears that RBKC will in effect be funding the internal works at taxpayers expense, and is preparing to do a deal with NHPS that will gift them an extremely attractive leasehold agreement. It seems strange that such a decision, involving the loss of a Grade II listed historic public building to the private sector, could progress so far without the details ever becoming public. One might also have expected there to be a competitive tendering process regarding the future of the Library rather than the existing private back room deal, masked as ‘best value’ and involving just the Council and NHPS. It is little wonder that the Council were so reluctant to publicise the details of the deal!
This blatant land grab is apparently not the full extent of NHPS ambitions as they have also attempted to procure space in the replacement Library complex, planned for the site of the Lancaster Road Youth Centre. They had hoped to arrange provision of a gymnasium for their pupils and, having rejected the offer of accommodation in the basement, they proposed instead occupying an upper floor of the new building for this purpose. However, in March last year they announced that they could not agree the rent levels demanded by the Council. They then expressed an interest in the Westway Information Centre, apparently as an alternative location for their gymnasium.
Notwithstanding the NHPS interest in the Information Centre the Council granted planning permission, in October last year, for the creation of retail units and an office suite on that site, which appears to have slammed the door on any possibility of NHPS locating their gymnasium there. Clearly the creation of a gymnasium is an important element of the Prep School’s expansion plans, and having secured a deal for expansion of their main premises into the historic old library building they appear now to be stuck in a stand-off with the Council over rent levels in the new Library/Youth Centre complex. It remains to be seen whether they will agree to the rents demanded by the Council or whether the Council will back down and reduce the rental terms in NHPS favour.
At this stage one other thing is clear about the future of the North Kensington Library. When it is eventually relocated to the new complex planned on the site of the existing Lancaster Youth Centre, it will have to share premises with the Youth Centre, which is scheduled to be rehoused there, and probably with a gymnasium serving the Prep School and a MUGA (Multi Use Games Area ) serving the Youth Centre and the Prep School. It would seem, therefore, that users of the new library can expect very little peace and quiet. It remains to be seen also how much floorspace the new library will have, given that the new complex will have to accomodate at least two other tenancies, both of which will require considerable space to satisfy their own needs.
Regarding the privatisation of the historic listed Library building, one has to wonder if there is a single public building in North Kensington that is not at risk of being plundered by RBKC on behalf of their friends in private education or other private ventures. And remember, it is not only the North Kensington Library that will be lost. We recall the loss of the Sir Issac Newton Centre which was taken out of the community’s hands and sold (or leased) to another private independent school (Chepstow House), the recent loss of the Maxilla Children’s Centre, the change of use of The London Lighthouse to a private museum, the loss of Inn on the Green, the misappropriation of community space on Lancaster West Estate, the regeneration of the Silchester Estate, the continuing threat to West London Stables, etc…….
It might seem ironic, in a borough which is composed mostly of conservation areas housing, or owned by, the privileged and well heeled, that there is little evidence of any real interest in protecting the resources of the working class communities of North Kensington, or the historic public buildings that are a key component of the architectural heritage of these communities. However, the creeping privatisation and gentrification of working class areas of North Kensington, and the public resources that characterize them, is typical of the Tory majority that controls Kensington And Chelsea Council. For the most part these people have the same predatory and venal instincts as the Cameron/Osborne cabal running the country, particularly when it comes to all those who are less privileged than themselves, for whom they appear capable only of the utmost contempt.
The Grenfell Action Group will resist the Council’s plans to transfer the North Kensington Library from ‘public’ to ‘private’ use and we urge our fellow community members to join us. We call upon RBKC to protect this beautiful building and it’s unique heritage by making the modest financial contribution necessary to refurbish the current building so it is fit for public use in the 21st Century. If the Notting Hill Prep School can afford to spend the money to bring this building up to spec as a school then why can’t the Council do the same to protect our public library service?