When I got back to London in 1966 after 4 years working in New York, I found the Greater London Council (GLC) had just demolished 700 houses across North Kensington to build the longest elevated motorway in Europe. Some friends from the London Free School had got permission to open an adventure playground by Acklam Road (out of the rubble from the demolished houses). The kids had built some amazing structures there, so I bought a saw, hammer, and a kilo of big nails and left them hidden under the rubble. I went again a few days later and the structures the kids had built were gone and other bigger, even more imaginative structures were there.
It felt like a good space. There was a brick wall all round so people wouldn’t fall into the basement level where the demolished houses had been, so mothers could yell at their kids to come home, “Tea’s ready,” or “Don’t get your clothes dirty,” but the space was hard for adults to get into. You had to climb over the wall and balance precariously down a wooden beam, so the kids felt safe from adult supervision, but not isolated. It felt like the perfect place for a playground.
The motorway was such a vast undertaking that making claim for a playground would have to be done immediately — before other plans were finalised.
At the last meeting of the London Free School, I suggested a campaign group to get the adventure playground included when the motorway was built. Eight people joined, including John O’Malley, a local community worker. We called ourselves the North Kensington Playspace Group. I was chair and John secretary. We met weekly for the next four years.
North Kensington had some of the worst, most-overcrowded housing in Britain, in the second richest borough in the country. A child in South Kensington had 10 times more public open space than a child in North Kensington. 64% of houses in the motorway area were overcrowded and most families lived in one or two rooms with the sink and cooker on the landing and one toilet in the backyard for the whole house. Most houses suffered from dampness and very poor maintenance.
When we saw the plans for the space under the motorway, an eight-acre car park behind a wall of 16-foot concrete planks, we realised our playground was not enough in this area of acute open space deprivation, appalling housing conditions, and poverty. We went to all the local groups and asked them what they needed most. We held public meetings with a 15-foot-long map of the whole motorway, and provided sticky notes and pens: we said, write what facilities are needed and stick them on the plan where they should be.
We changed our name to the Motorway Development Trust and campaigned for the entire 23-acre, mile-long site to be used for community facilities. We had many stories in local newspapers. On the day of a big meeting with the heads of Transport, Planning, and Parks at the GLC, we had half a page in the Guardian and a leader in the Times both advocating our scheme. We took Peggy Jay, the former head of Parks, Sir Hugh Casson, the architect and planning consultant for six cities, the clerk to the largest London charity, and Ilys Booker, a sociologist of international repute. We took a well-designed pamphlet and a full description of what was proposed and why the area desperately needed public facilities — and didn’t need an eight-acre car park.
The GLC leased the site to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea which set up a trust to run the scheme. They set it up in such a way that, 50 years later, it was found guilty of “institutional racism” by the Tutu Foundation. The directors and trustees all resigned.
Now, the Westway Trust is at last in the control of the local community.
“It felt like an important place which shouldn’t be cleared away and covered in concrete.”
Constantine Gras produced this short documentary about the Westway Development Trust in 2021.