If you did not know Kensington and Fairfield, based in Liverpool, as an area or community very well then don’t believe everything you hear or read. It’s probably a load of bollocks, so please carry on reading anyway.
By Steve Faragher
Photographs by Steve Lamb
Just to set the scene, I’ve lived and worked in this area since the early 1990s so I hope what I write can be considered a reliable and accurate source.
What I think I would like to write about is that everything in the garden is rosy, United Colours of Kensington, MultiCulturalSington, but it isn’t that, well not yet.
A SHORT CATCHUP AND RECENT HISTORY LESSON
After the Labour Government designated the area a ‘New Deal for Communities’ and sunk £62.5 million into the area from 2000 to 2010 you would have thought it might be better, but it isn’t. With all this money sloshing around the area you might be mystified why I feel there hasn’t been any tangible regeneration or real change.
If we go back before the money arrived it’s worth saying that for many years the area had become run down, poor and disadvantaged and had become a dumping ground for some of the city’s problems, consequently there occurred high levels of hard drug addiction, loss of several big industries and a consequent loss of aspirations.
Another thing you need to know is the area was a monoculture, almost exclusively white too, with only 5% BME population. One of the other big factors was that the housing was cheap, it had shifted from an area where the aspirational (younger) people got on the housing ladder, people bought their first home making enough money on this first home to buy a house in a more prosperous suburb. But the cheap houses made it somewhere that private and social landlords could buy cheap houses, rent them out and make a quick buck. Added to this, drug related criminality was on the rise too. People usually ended up here through poverty not choice. With that as the starting point, the New Deal money was supposed to solve these problems. Nice idea on paper.
THE HISTORY LESSON CONTINUES…….
So what happened next came as a shock to a lot of people from the area; the redistribution of migrants and changes in Housing Benefit laws meant that many landlords found it far more profitable to have refugees and asylum seekers as tenants, rather than indigenous people.
In a very short time the BME population rose to 25% and the area began to become more culturally diverse and mixed. One of the first effects of this change was that the area started to look and feel different. I felt it began to feel safer (to me at least).
A part of the New Deal money was ploughed into developing this diversity under the banner “United Colours of Kensington”. It was a typical white middle class response, primarily by people who themselves weren’t from and did not live in the area. I feel this had a big effect on some of the negative response to the new communities in Kensington and Fairfield. I also blame the Labour Government at the time for not communicating about the redistribution of people to places like Kensington. This ‘Information Vacuum’ and the belief that anyone asking questions about influxes of strangers was in some way racist (remember the 2010 overheard Gordon Brown conversation in the General Election).
Some of the negativity generated was the result of keeping people in the dark about the factors affecting the changes. Some of it was down to plain ignorance and some to new thinking that spending money on multicultural events, festivals and the like would turn us all into hugging Guardian reading liberals.
The opposite happened. It created a whole pile of resentment and intolerance, sometimes aimed at migrants, whereas it should have been aimed at the powers that be.
So the money ended in 2010, the New Deal Circus left town and the good people of K&F have been left to their own devices, licking our collective wounds and sorting out the mess left by people who were handsomely paid and who should have known better.
END OF HISTORY LESSON
It should be in a fucking mess, but for some strange reason it isn’t. The main reason it isn’t is going to sound either obvious or too simplistic. The area is getting better due to the resilience of the people who live here, the desire of people to get on with each other and make things better.
I have heard some very scurrilous things said about the migrants in the area (The Great Romanian Crime Wave for example) and I have had many arguments with people with these views, but in fact the majority of this negativity comes via mainstream media and not people’s personal experiences.
All of the new things in the area (the L7 supermarket is a great example) have all been the result of personal commitment and private funding. They are organic things, they are special and they involve everyone. ‘Special’ exclusively multicultural initiatives (Afro Festival, Chinese Festival, etc) were very provocative but ultimately had very little long term positive effects on the people.
The key to any long term success and change has got to be left to the people to sort out amongst themselves. Communities are an organic entity and they need to be encouraged and supported but not led by the nose or bribed to be one thing rather than another.
So to end on a positive note, as a local activist who organises and runs projects for PEOPLE, we managed to build and maintain strong community bonds between everyone. Everyone eats so we have a community cafe, people want cheap bikes so we run a community cycle project, people like listening to radio so we run Liverpool’s only community radio station and (foreign) people need and want to learn English and British/Scouse culture so we have an ESOL group doing precisely this, supported by fantastic local volunteers.
We do all this on less than a shoestring and once Kensington New Deal is a far distant memory “things can and will only get better.” Oh hang on, that’s probably the wrong lyric to quote.
Steve Faragher is a Director of KensingtonVision and several other community initiatives, and has the best job in the world.