Labour chiefs ignore pleas to work with squatters in council offices as they press ahead with legal action
Councillors Flick Rea and Angela Pober meet the Camden Mothership squatters in West Hampstead
Published: 26 November, 2015 By ELLA JESSEL
COUNCILLORS have criticised the Town Hall for the “criminal waste” of a public building after visiting squatters at a West Hampstead office block that has been left abandoned for almost three years.
The councillors – Liberal Democrat Flick Rea, Independent Angela Pober and Labour councillor Lorna Russell – took the Camden Mothership group up on their invitation to come aboard at 156 West End Lane on Monday.
Despite facing mounting pressure to negotiate with the squatters – a petition calling on the council to let the group stay has reached 170 signatures – a court date beginning the repossession process has been set for tomorrow (Friday).
Cllr Rea, who was led on a comprehensive tour of the building by occupiers dressed in high-vis jackets, said: “The first thing that strikes me is what a criminal waste this has been of a building over the past three years.” And urging the council to meet the group, Cllr Rea added: “It’s the old Churchill thing, to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war. They should negotiate, if they still can’t come to an agreement after doing that then fair enough, everybody has tried. This is a group of well-organised people with ideas and goodwill.”
West Hampstead Cllr Pober, who quit the Labour group in September following a row over how the party campaigned locally, gave the squatters home-made snacks. She said leaving 156 West End Lane empty was a “shocking waste of space”.
“I would like those that are the decision-makers in the cabinet and council officers to put some time aside and to meet with the group who have the ideas,” said Cllr Pober.
An invitation to see inside has been sent to all councillors but the only Labour member to visit the site so far is Cllr Russell. She said: “I have visited the site and am impressed by Mothership’s vision for the space and ambition to help the local community. It is indeed incredibly frustrating that the building hasn’t been sold as quickly as planned and, in principle, I support opening up empty council buildings for community use while they are vacant.”
Cllr Russell added that she wanted to ensure that Mothership follows proper procedures and that she was “disappointed” that the group did not contact local councillors before occupying the space.
Her visit marks a more conciliatory tone, however, from the Labour leadership, which describes the Mothership’s use of the building as “an illegal occupation” and has turned down repeated requests for meetings.
Finance chief Theo Blackwell said the occupation is “unacceptable” and that the group was standing in the way of development proposals on the site.
West Hampstead councillor James Yarde said that, while he had “broad sympathy” with the Mothership’s aims, the group had lost councillors’ trust and they should be removed.
He added: “Dialogue is always the best option but that should have come before Camden Mothership entered the building. In my view it’s unacceptable.”
Echoing his fellow ward councillor, Phil Rosenberg said he too was broadly sympathetic but that “bullies” should not be able to “burst in and impose facts on the ground.” He added that he had previously asked the council if the building could be brought back into use but was told it would be “too much of a drain on the Camden taxpayer”.
Finance chief won't say how much empty building has cost tax-payer
CAMDEN Council has refused to say how much it has cost to leave its former offices on West End Lane empty for almost three years.
The Town Hall said in order to protect the building, currently being occupied by squatters, it has employed security patrols at a cost of under £500 per week.
But when asked how much it has spent on security and running costs since it was vacated, the Town Hall said it would not comment until after the court case tomorrow (Friday).
In a statement, finance chief Theo Blackwell said: “Now that we are on the cusp of selling, squatting at this late stage potentially jeopardises our ability to provide new homes and will incur much higher costs to the taxpayer paying for court fees and extra security."
Asked why the council could not provide the figures on West End Lane, Cllr Blackwell said: “We’re really in the middle of quite sensitive court proceedings.”