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The Trust and its community

The people’s plan

In 1967 when the North Kensington Playspace Group was canvassing local ideas for uses of the motorway land, Adam Ritchie recalls taking a 14 ft map to public meetings. 'We handed out pens and asked people to write down what they wanted, where.' Twenty years on, there is a surprising continuity between those ideas, set out when the road was still being built, and the varied facilities to be found under the motorway today. This was achieved despite the shaky start, the fierce disputes, the improvisation and the opportunism the Trust has had to adopt to get the job done. 

When the Trust was set up in 1971, its 23 desolate acres of rubble created a twilight zone that was dangerous to walk around in. Today, protected from all weathers by the motorway canopy, the mile strip of Trust land provides one of North Kensington's main pedestrian thoroughfares. Alongside the open space with its maturing trees and shrubs, the mix of commercial and community activity carries on unbothered by the six lanes of traffic overhead. 

“Motorways create an opportunity for improving the local environment. It must be remembered that this is only an opportunity. Someone still has to do something – there is still a need for environmental management.” Arthur Styles, Planning Review, 1970. 

Business diversity 

Occupying a fifth of the 23 acres, 96 business tenancies provide the engine for the Trust's charitable activities; heavy uses from waste disposal to the totters' stables under the roundabout at Stable Way; car repairs, greeting cards and a training centre for women in the building trades at Malton Road; solicitors, architects and a government inner-city task force in commercial offices at Portobello Green; bric-a-brac, antiques and exotic food on covered market stalls; goods from theatrical costumes to avant-garde hats in the craft workshops in the arcade off Portobello Green; hairdressing, whole food and take-away shops in Portobello Road and businesses ranging from stage design to stationery at the workshops at Acklam Road. 

Plants and people 

With over 3000 shrubs and 500 trees, the extent of the greenery and the variety of plants and flowers on Trust land makes it difficult to picture the desert wasteland of twenty years ago. Government employment schemes in the 70s and 80s helped with the major landscaping – a generation of employment trainees, school children and helpers on community service orders have created the paths and paviours, planting beds and gardens that today make up a varied ten acres of public open space. Now a professional team of ground staff maintain the land, while the nursery and greenhouse under the Westway roundabout provide the plants needed to keep up with the heavy urban toll. Trust gardening has a personal touch – the advantage of an independent organisation in charge of a manageable estate. Close to the nursery and greenhouse, a scented garden at Blossom Dale provides a little haven for pensioners living nearby with winter flowering jasmine and honeysuckle, magnolias and narcissi in spring and roses and mock orange in summer. A wildlife area provides a resource for local school visits, with its pond life and habitats for kestrels, redwings, nightjars and wagtails alongside the robins and wrens. And with links back to the 60s and 70s, Trust gardens and open spaces continue to host some of the area's biggest annual events. Closely associated with the early days of the Notting Hill Carnival, Portobello Green provides the central stage for its two-day concert of live bands. London's largest Spanish festival takes place under the motorway, and Maxilla Gardens provides the venue for Portuguese fiestas and the borough's biggest Bonfire Night event. 

Sporting chances 

Sport and recreation figured significantly in the early plans but no-one conceived quite how large they would grow. They now take up a third of the land, 24 of the Trust's 44 permanent staff and the largest single chunk of project expenditure. The Westway Sports Centre offers some of the best outdoor sports facilities in Kensington and Chelsea and has pioneered joint-funded school and community programmes with women as well as the borough's ethnic minority communities and with elderly and disabled people. Two acres of pitches and all-weather facilities are used in term-time by a thousand school children each week and, in the evenings, by thirty five local adult teams. Throughout the year, staff organise a series of competitions, leagues, courses and one-day events for a range of abilities. 

The Trust has been at the forefront of sports development in the borough and in setting up sports leadership courses, providing opportunities for young people to get ahead not just as users but as sessional workers and full-timers making their careers in sport. The Portobello Green Fitness and Snooker Centre, which opened in June 1989, has 17 permanent staff to run its mixed provision of weights, gym, exercise studio, squash courts, treatment rooms, snooker halls, restaurant and bar. Now its 3000 members, 80% of whom are local, enjoy first class facilities at prices they can afford. 

Changing fashions continue to shape provision. The giant skateboard ramp has come and gone and the heyday of the Bicycle track may be over. With two decades of sports provision behind it, the Trust is experienced in responding to changing demands. It hopes next to establish the borough's first full-sized football pitch and a cluster of tennis courts. 

"Inner city communities need long term efforts. They need projects like the Amenity Trust. They don't want people who come in and move on. That's why it was so important it was done by local people." Sir Bryan Nicholson, Chairman of the Post Office. 

Support to groups 

Income from commercial lettings provides a 70% rent subsidy to the 23 voluntary organisations accommodated on Trust land. Diverse yet interconnecting, there is a lively network of groups ranging from the Portuguese Community Centre to Victim Support, from Pensioners Link to Club Cultural Antonio Machado and from SHAPE's arts services for disabled people to the Women Prisoners' Resource Centre. 

Its assets now enable the Trust to assist community groups beyond its own boundaries. Out of the financial surplus for 1990, the Trust gave grants to over 50 local organisations in Kensington and Chelsea. Grant giving was started on a small scale in 1985 with an annual budget of £2,500 that had risen by 1991 to £65,000. The Trust gives help to small groups through the Small Grants scheme, to young people with Education and Sports Training Grants and to voluntary groups with innovative schemes through the larger New Initiative Grants. A new area of work may need a feasibility study; a group may need funding while establishing its credentials. Involved with the local networks, the Trust can see where innovative schemes need backing. By putting a significant sum towards the target, the Trust improves groups' chances of getting matching money elsewhere. And through its community development work, it puts time and practical resources into helping new projects get off the ground. 

With its staff team of 44, the Trust is now one of North Kensington's largest voluntary organisations and smaller groups find it increasingly useful. They draw on its experience in recruitment and personnel issues, finance and property matters, computer technology, sports leadership and community work. They also borrow equipment and use its database, mailing lists, photocopying and franking facilities – useful resources for the hard pressed voluntary sector of the 90s. 

Mixed press 

With such a diverse range of users as its constituents, the Trust inevitably gets a mixed press. Many who use a single facility do not associate it with the Trust. To a tenant, the Trust is just a landlord; to a football team, the hirer of the pitch. To a dog-walker, the Trust is the groundskeeper; to a grant applicant, a charitable trust. For others the relationship is more complex. 60 local voluntary groups are member organisations of the Trust. Many of these are users of Trust resources – tenants of charity offices, users of sports facilities and meeting halls, and grant recipients. As part of the local network they keep the Trust up-to-date on the issues and the criticisms. They also nominate and elect the seven community representatives on the Trust's committee each year. 

"We feel it's important that the community has a voice on the committee. One worry is that as the Trust gets larger it becomes unresponsive. Consistently nominating representatives onto the committee is a way of ensuring community participation." Cynthia Jueguen, Chair of Notting Hill Social Council. 

Who likes a landlord? 

As a landlord, the Trust's profile is perhaps inevitably a contentious one. For commercial and charity tenants alike, no-one likes a rent rise, nor being chased up for arrears. 'Traders hit out at rent rise' ran a 1991 headline in the Kensington News, highlighting the currently sensitive area of rent reviews carried out by the Trust. The policy of keeping rents in line with rates on the open market sometimes means large rent increases. In periods of recession this can hit small businesses hard. Differences of opinion over rent reviews often go hand in hand with misunderstandings about the Trust's role as a local charity. The Trust is an unusual developer with an unusual portfolio, obliged by charity law to ensure its commercial activity brings a commercial return. Businesses cannot be shielded from the going market rate and for some tenants this can be a tough realisation. 

Charities, despite rents set at 30% of the commercial rate, sometimes expect leniency from the Trust when hard pressed by funding cuts. Though prepared to be sympathetic to the short-term funding difficulties of its charity tenants, the Trust takes a firm line where a project's funding has run out or where it judges that charitable activities have ceased. With over 120 tenancy agreements, the Trust argues it cannot afford, nor is it fair, to make exceptions. It is a delicate balance to keep – the price paid for self-sufficiency and the Trust's obligation as a land-holding charity. 

Affording priorities 

Achieving its forecast income is the basis for the Trust's ability to make choices on where its subsidies and grants will go. Trust community representative, Herbert Bukari, says 'Some of those who once protested against development schemes in the early days, because they didn't think it was the job of a charity, have now applied to the Trust and received grants themselves'. How the Trust exercises its choices is the subject of continuing debate. Some think the Trust should do more to assist small local businesses, others that community facilities should get bigger subsidies. 

The Management Committee has become familiar with the need to balance community and commercial considerations. Plain-speaking chairing by Peter Scott, QC, in the 80s brought clarity and openness to debate. Standards were set for decision-making that finally shifted the unyielding positions taken by committee members in the early years. Over time, the balance of Council nominees and community representatives has proved robust and works well today. Council nominees bring their experience as councillors to policy-making in the areas of land-development, property management and finance. Community representatives, unrestricted by institutional concerns, bring an additional range of skills and flag up the implications of decisions for the local area. Differing views on priorities are nowadays debated within broad policies agreed by all parties. 

Better than we feared 

Perceived as a resource holder with land, premises and funding at its disposal, the debate outside the Trust continues on the Trust's local accountability and the issue of who is in control. North Kensington is still coming to grips with its new-style development trust with its mixed profile of commercial landlord, charity and community resource. In the early days the issue seemed simple – community versus Council control. For some of the original activists, the Trust has continued to 'live too much in the pocket of the Town Hall'. Others, like Ritchie, take a more open line, 'It's not been anything like as dynamic as we wanted. We had a much more community-based idea with more involvement. But that's easy to say when you're not running it. The Trust has had to form a bureaucracy because you can't run things without one. I've no regrets and I'm proud of the way it has turned out'. 

"It has been a very successful partnership between the council and a community organisation. It's been a slow grind and the Trust hasn't finished developing. But the alternative is to start on day one and discover seven years later that you've built something the community doesn't want." Roy Webber, Chief Executive at RBKC, 1979 to 1990. 

A child of its times 

Looking back to the optimistic 60s from the colder shores of the 90s, it seems the Trust has been a child of its times. Born of community action in the 60s, by the time the Trust was carrying out its developments in the 70s costs had risen and government grants to local groups were being cut. Having to shoulder the weight of development, the Trust has inevitably been shaped by its remit to develop and allocate the land. 'We're in a society that doesn't allow inefficient management of assets like land and buildings', comments Malcolm Allen, who advises the DTI's Inner Cities Initiative. 'The Trust has to operate in a commercial fashion otherwise its property would deteriorate rapidly”. “Through the 80s there has been a mixed reaction as the Trust has asserted its right to manage, to set its own policies and to defend and regulate the use of its land”. “No community group can entirely represent a community”, says Allen.  “I think it is a strength that there is not total satisfaction with the Trust. If there were, it could become moribund'. 

Beyond dependence on councils 

Persevering with its relationship with the Council has contributed to the Trust's mixed press in North Kensington. Yet despite the bumpy start, partnership with the Council has been essential- for planning consents, joint developments, grants and loans. Through them the Trust's financial independence has been achieved – and just in time. Cut-backs from the mid 80s to the role and funding capacity of local authorities provide a sharp reminder of the importance of the Trust's ability to generate its own income and to hold assets not vulnerable to being privatised or sold off. 'When you have gone beyond dependence on councils or government, then the local community is much more in the driving seat. They own funds which they can make choices about', says Sir Bryan Nicholson, commenting as the Chairman of the judges for BBC1's 'It's My City' competition in 1989, when the Trust got the top award. 

Big enough to make an impact and small enough for people in the community to have an influence, there is growing national interest in the contribution locally-run development trusts can make to their neighbourhoods. One of the first development trusts in the country and one of the very few to have reached self-sufficiency, North Kensington Amenity Trust has had a pioneering role. It is now helping to establish a National Association of Development Trusts and looking to swap lessons with the growing number of trusts more recently set up. 

The Trust – 2000 onwards  

How well equipped is the Trust for survival? It is not hide-bound like a public authority nor as sharply entrepreneurial as the private sector but, unusually for a voluntary organisation, expects to stand on its own financial feet. The Trust needs to continue to be competent and effective and to defend its interests. Up for review in 1993 by the Department of Transport, the successive freeholder to the GLC, the Trust is considering its case against a potentially destructive ground rent whose basis was conceived in the late 60s and bears no relationship to how the land has been developed. The Trust also needs to stay strategic. In the current recession it has to keep up commercial lettings. In the contract culture fashionable with Government it needs to keep its sports projects funded. It still has to develop its remaining three acres of derelict motorway land. And while pursuing its own initiatives it must be able to help other projects conceived and run by new generations of community activists. As statutory funds dry up, established projects will be looking for replacement grants; the Trust will be challenged to ensure most of its surplus continues to fund new initiatives. Better placed than most, the Trust needs to find ways of helping voluntary organisations keep their innovative role as they are now threatened by new statutory policies of replacing their grant-aid with service contracts. 

“We had to try to get the Council to accept the idea of setting up a trust - they were the only agency big enough to take it on we thought they would make a disaster of it. What has happened has been very good compared with what we feared.” Adam Ritchie, Chair of Kensington Playspace Association, which campaigned for setting Trust. 

Nobody rules – OK 

Imagination, flair and sometimes plain bloody-mindedness are the legacy, history and culture of the Trust. Its flexibility has broadened on the back of its growing financial strength, allowing it to meet changing community needs. New roles and a larger vision can grow from its established base. 

The ability to accommodate a wide range of constituencies in its community has meant no single interest group controls the Trust. The early rows produced no winners and the balance of power has moved over the years from conflict to a productive tension. To stay open and imaginative to the future, the Trust needs to hold to its position of 'Nobody rules - OK'. 

Commenting today, Eddie Adams, a long-standing local resident and one of the community representatives on the committee in 1974 to whose election Sir Malby Crofton took such exception says, 'There were no models. People basically knew they wanted the land developed but they were not sure how it would work out. Without the Trust it could have ended up as car-parks or warehouses. I don't endorse all they have done, but I am glad the Trust is there. The best outcome is a strong independent Amenity Trust not beholden to the local authority, with an income and a future of its own”.