Making creative use of empty buildings

At this week’s full council meeting I spoke up for the group occupying a former housing office in Camden and called for the council to talk to the activists and agree a lease for them to use the amazing space inside as a community hub.

I visited them this week alongside campaigners from the local Save West Hampstead group and spoke with the Evening Standard about the issues too – watch here:

At the Camden Council meeting on Monday I said that the creative use of empty public buildings for the community was something I wanted to see more of across the borough.

I’ve put in recent representations about spaces that could be used by the Streets Kitchen organisation and for winter shelters for our growing homelessness crisis, and we now have a group taking direct action and occupying the 5-storey former housing office at 156 West End Lane in West Hampstead – asking to use the building as a temporary community space until any redevelopment takes place.

I support this group and these kinds of temporary uses wholeheartedly. I was at the Hive in Dalston a couple of weeks ago for a housing conference, and there Hackney councillors were singing the praises of the great use that has been made of the space, at no cost to the owners, for art, education, community events and many other things.

And, by coincidence, this weekend I was in Bristol in my last day of work at Campaign for Better Transport helping to run a conference at Hamilton House, where local business people were similarly enthusiastic about an old office building turned over to a community cafe and events space that has breathed new life into the Stokes Croft area of the city.

I brought a copy of their autumn events booklet to the council meeting, and a glance at it shows that the space is packed with valuable things – not just transport campaign meetings, but also many classes and educational events, a community canteen and a wide range of small businesses and culture.

The group at 156 West End Lane call themselves the Camden Mothership project, and are some of the same people who run the Hive, who helped set up community space on the site now used by JW3, and helped reopen Friern Barnet library for the community, and they will do a good job at West End Lane too.

I know that by occupying they have not followed correct procedures and have got the backs of some Camden cabinet members up. But their proposals should still be considered, and I urged the council to talk to them seriously. They will save Camden money in security and maintenance in the period while the building will lie empty waiting for planning permission and redevelopment to be agreed (something that is very controversial and will take at least a year before the building is needed back).

The Mothership would provide much needed space for community activities. Nearby community centres are packed out already and the Hive is already booked up for December, so there are many classes and events ready to move in as soon as they can.

In Manchester, former footballer Gary Neville faced a similar quandary when people occupied the building he is planning to turn into a hotel to use as a homeless shelter. But he saw past the occupation and talked to them and let them stay for the winter. I say if Gary Neville can do it so should we in Camden.

We should talk to the people in 156 West End Lane, agree a meanwhile use and help them do something fantastic for the community in West Hampstead!

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