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Westway Development Trust

The Sunday Times

Notting Hell

The Sunday Times Magazine, June 17 2001



No knives are pulled or guns discharged, but at the Subterania nightclub, up a west London back street, all is not well tonight. The DJ scratches on with Outkast's Ms Jackson, and two bikini-clad go-gos don't skip one wriggle under a light show of video clips. But there's no crush around the bar. Empty space has opened up. The punters are starting to leave.

It's 1.24 on a Sunday morning, and at a time like this the place should be heaving. Annie Lennox. Paul Weller, Ice-T and the Red Hot Chili Peppers are among the club's past attractions. Although the immediate vicinity - Acklam Road, near Ladbroke Grove - is at the heart of one of Britain's most socially-deprived neighbourhoods, it's inside the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, and if you walk half a mile you're in Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts country: Portobello Market, Notting Hill Gate, Holland Park.

But things have looked grim lately, and in 36 minutes the DJ and go-gos will stop. After a string of bitter conflicts with the surrounding community - which in the past 18 months has seen eight police officers injured in a riot, two shootings outside, and what a west London magistrate called "unimagined, very real and human problems caused to the residents" - the 600 capacity venue has had its licence cut from 3 to 2am, and neighbours are pushing for it to close.

It's hardly surprising that the club has opponents. Taking an estimated £1m a year in an otherwise quiet residential neighbourhood, it's bound to attract social problems. What's amazing, however, is that the complainants rarely see their grievance as being with the club's commercial management - Vince Power's Mean Fiddler group - but rather with the premises' landlord and licensee, which is a registered charity, headed by a judge and championed by the Prince of Wales.

Locals are mystified. Can a charity be behind a nightclub? And this is just the start of the problems. For this charity is at the centre of a them-and-us war - ironically, battling with the very community is was set up in the first place to help. Swallowing vast public resources, but yielding little by comparison, it's the hidden, ugly face of the "good cause" industry. Acklam Road is a lesson for us all.


The area around Subterania - the less fashionable part of Notting Hill - has been a flashpoint for trouble for as long as anybody can remember. It first caught attention in 1958 when, as a densely-packed, mostly immigrant community, it erupted with Britain's first race riots. In the 1960s it snatched headlines again when it was stalked by the notorious slumlord Peter Rachman, echoed to the sounds of tenants being evicted and was peppered with "No coloureds" signs.

Violence was common, as Kathleen Kelly, 80, remembered as we sat sipping tea in her council flat before Christmas, less than 10 yards from the problem club. She was lured from Jamaica in 1950 to work in the National Health Service. "There was some very bad landlords up at Talbot Square and the rioting came all the way down," she said.

In those days the district was also a cauldron of social innovation. Hippies, anarchists and every species of idealist joined the immigrants in cheap, insecure housing, and pioneered projects often borrowed from the American counterculture. They started Britain's first neighbourhood law centre, the first drug advice agency, Release, a "free university", and supported black residents in an annual Caribbean street festival - now the world-famous Notting Hill Carnival.

But conflict was never too far from the surface, and at the end of the 1960s came the mother of all battles - this time over the construction of a road. To relieve congestion in leafy Holland Park and to speed traffic from central London towards Oxford and beyond, a 2.5-mile elevated motorway - the A40(M) Westway - was driven through North Kensington, in the face of bitter banner-waving protests. Acklam Road was flattened, with one side replaced by a yellow-brick council estate.

And then, to complete the history, the idealists had an idea to rescue something worthwhile from the jaws of defeat. They said "Let's start a charity" and in February 1971 they launched the North Kensington Amenity Trust [renamed Westway Development Trust after this report]. It was to reclaim something from the moonscape of post-construction wasteland, in an effort to "give something back". Cynics argued that it would prove a distraction - the kind of thing developers promise to buy off opposition. Little did they know that, in the name of charity, it would spawn yet more bitter wars.


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