Squatters inside the former council offices in West Hampstead this afternoon (Friday)
Published: 13 November, 2015 EXCLUSIVE by ELLA JESSEL
A GROUP of squatters has occupied the former council offices in West Hampstead.
Around 10 people moved into the four-floor building at 156 West End Lane on Saturday. The building has been lying empty for almost three years and is at the centre of a redevelopment row.
The group, called Camden Mothership, has approached senior figures in the Town Hall with proposals to set up as a co-operative and apply for a lease to stay in the building.
Phoenix, an environmental and community networker, said: “This is a community resource. They have this building sat around for another year and a bit. We have skills, energy and a massive network of plumbers, electricians and people. Just give us the space. Let us get on with helping the community."
The Camden Mothership hope lectures and seminars can be hosted in the building
The 'Imaginarium' floor, where Camden Mothership want a multimedia centre, recording studio and internet cafe to operate
He added: “We can't replace council services. We are opposed to austerity- we think it is a robbery programme. Community facilities are being closed down. We want to provide art exhibitions, a community cafe, a parent and child space. We also want to offer housing advice, compile a housing list for people who are looking for somewhere to live.”
“There is a big local campaign which does not want the development. All we want is temporary use. We run places like this completely self-funded.”
Some of the building looks like it is beginning to rot
The group wants to turn the building into an Arts Community Environment hub until work begins. The redevlopment of the site has been a point of controversy locally with neighbours concerned about the scale of a new block of retail units and flats. The campaign group Stop The Blocks has been among the opponents to the council's plans.
One of the rooms being used as a bedroom
Phoenix told the New Journal: “It's about recycling empty space and buildings, there is something like 1.5 million empty buildings in the UK. We don't need to have any housing crisis. You can create jobs and employment by getting people trained up in building, plumbing and roofing.
He added he was “very optimistic” that Camden will get on board: “Co-operation and communication is our message to Camden Council- we want to work together in a time of austerity. We are Camden residents. We want to work with you to provide a self-funded community centre."
Labour finance chief Councillor Theo Blackwell said tonight (Friday) that the occupation was being investigated by the council's legal team.
He said: "We are aware that the council owned property at 156 West End Lane is currently being occupied without the council’s consent. We are currently working to remove the offenders as soon as possible, and if they do not leave voluntarily we will take enforcement action. More and more squatters target council properties subject to sale or planning applications, usually because they've read about them in the press. In this case the site is earmarked for 50% affordable homes so squatting is harmful to dealing with Camden's number one priority. In the end this only costs the taxpayer money which could be used on policing and public services."
On the suggestion that the building should be used as a community centre, Cllr Blackwell added: "We were actually considering a request for meanwhile use of vacant council properties for arts from 'Mothership' until we realised this evening that the same people had already gained entry to these premises. As we don't consider things under threat the chances of this happening are now zilch."
But Green Party councillor Sian Berry says the Town Hall should talk to the occupiers. She said: "This is a disappointing and dismissive reaction from Cllr Blackwell. The council should talk to the group, who have a great record of creative community work at a similar building they have turned into the Hive in Dalston, and should consider carefully what they are proposing. This site is also potentially ideal as a much-needed winter shelter for the growing number of homeless people in Camden. It's a huge empty space at the moment and we do need a positive temporary use for it while planning wrangles take place."