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Saturday, 28 November 2015

Mothership lands in Barnet

Watch the Barnet Mothership video here

At the weekend twenty community campaigners, who had occupied what could have been one of London's largest community centres, were woken up to the building's front door being smashed in. They were swiftly ejected with their few belongings, onto the streets of Camden.

"It was some of the same bailiffs who evicted us from Sweets Way estate in Barnet," says Daniel, a Human Rights activist. "It was kind of funny when we recognised each other, we were both like, "Oh, hi!" The group behind the controversial squatted Camden Mothership were evicted on Saturday morning at 8.30am, despite Jeremy Corbyn's brother, Piers negotiating with the Labour Camden council and denouncing their treatment of the squatters.

The Mothership was an ex-Housing Advice Office which stood empty for three years, costing Camden council approximately £5000 a week in security and building rates. A local estate agent estimated that, had the 25,000 square feet been hired out as office space, it could have generated £1.5 million in revenue for Camden instead. The group behind the project requested a meanwhile lease - which allows the temporary use of a building - and proposed that they be allowed to use the space for community purposes until the building is ready to be redeveloped. This suggestion was popular with local residents and several councillors, but the fact that they occupied the building without asking appears to have got some Labour councillors' backs up.

Camden Finance Chief, Theo Blackwell took to Twitter to condemn the activists as "self-indulgent freeloaders" claiming that the council had been willing to consider a meanwhile lease before learning that the group had already occupied the building. Conversely, the Neighbourhood Development Forum state that they and other local groups have long been trying to obtain access to the building at 156 West End Lane for office and community use, for nearly two years, but have been "repeatedly rejected and stonewalled". Blackwell claims that by occupying the building, the squatters cost Camden residents money to have them taken to court and removed. However, as Piers Corbyn points out, "the occupiers offered to give the keys back and leave on an agreed date - it would have cost Camden nothing to negotiate with us."

According to Community Organiser, Pete Phoenix, who represented the Mothership in court in front of Judge Lightman on Friday, this is only the second time in twenty-three years that he has experienced an eviction the day immediately after the court case, "it just goes to show how desperate the council were to get us out and stop the debate about the use of empty buildings."

The Green party's mayoral candidate, Si├ón Berry, went to the Royal Courts of Justice to support the squatters, saying she thinks "the council were wrong to take this to court in the first place." She went on to point out that "the council should be acting in the interests of the community and not act as if they have been personally offended.”

Phoenix relates that the bailiffs were more reasonable with the group than they had been at previous evictions, noting that "they smashed their way through the front door but gave us two hours to get our stuff out. Sometimes they give you ten minutes." With more efficiency than some councils can muster, the Mothership campaigners then set about finding the next space to continue their community work and by 3pm the same day it was mission accomplished. Their new building, just over the border in Barnet, has also been empty for three years and has fifty rooms and several communal spaces.

Earlier this year Barnet Council suffered reprisals from protesters when they evicted a whole housing estate in order to sell off the houses for £400 each to a private property company; an area known as Sweets Way was occupied by campaigners to highlight this mismanagement in the face of increasing homelessness in the UK. Tom Copley, Chair of the Housing Committee at the London Assembly, recently spoke at the Respacing Conference and observed that when it comes to selling off public assets, "Barnet council are one of the worst offenders". He states that their actions over Sweets Way amounted to "blatantly doing the wrong thing" and said that the council was "extraordinarily bad in terms of value for money for tax payers".

Whilst the Mothership group are well aware of Barnet's questionable stance on matters relating to housing and empty buildings, they are diligently making preparations to put in a proposal to the owners of their latest property. They will again request a meanwhile lease, which would enable them to put the space to good use for the local community and provide themselves with some accommodation for the interim period, prior to the building being developed.

At the Camden Mothership, the group had planned to offer Christmas dinner, across two floors, to those locals who may be vulnerable or alone at Christmas, such as the elderly and homeless people. Camden council declined to comment about these plans and their decision to leave the building empty has so enraged residents that an online petition was created asking for the immediate resignation of both Theo Blackwell and Sarah Hayward, Leader of Camden council. Blackwell insists that the site will shortly be developed into flats, 50% of which will be 'affordable', but he has so far been unavailable for comment as to how long the building will remain empty. Anna Minton, author of Ground Control, commented that 'affordable' is an example of the "increasingly Orwellian language" surrounding the housing debate, it simply means that a property is rented at 80% of the market value - still a far cry from social housing.

Community campaigner, Phoenix remains optimistic about the ongoing project to help relieve homelessness and bring practical community solutions to wasted spaces. He points out, "you stand out in the street shouting about homelessness and a few people will take a leaflet. You occupy a building and talk about the same things and the media circus descends."

Watch the video of Mothership activists settling in to their latest squatted building