SQUATTED SOCIAL CENTRES IN LONDON 2007 - 2017
WITH DISSIDENT ISLAND RADIO
A mainstay of political and artistic culture in London for many decades has been its squat scene. Across generations and continual processes of change across the city, squatting has provided a voice for the marginalised in society as well as opening minds and demonstrating what is possible when communities pull together. Areas which are now among the most affluent such as Notting Hill or Camden Town were at one time full of squatted residences. Despite the foreboding nature of the struggle against a state machine which largely considers these ways of life as something which should be eradicated, London’s squat scene continues to thrive to this day.
One particular concept within this form of alternative culture not just in London but across many cities has been the notion of a ‘social centre’. Although it may only be possible to give a loose definition of this term as it is somewhat open to interpretation, one attribute which distinguishes a social centre from say a residential squat is the presence of an open-door policy, meaning that the space is essentially inclusive rather than exclusive. Typically social centres may be able to host public gatherings such as benefit gigs, films or talks in solidarity with politically active groups of the radical left.
A group who were very prolific in the establishment of a number of social centre spaces around London in the 1990s and early 2000s were ‘The Wombles’. A collective comprised of people with a variety of skill sets, spaces which had been previously been sitting empty were turned around and put to community use, importantly without the profiteering nature of a prevailingly capitalist ethos which exists across much of London. The term ‘social centre’ is not specific to squatted spaces in the context of the UK. At the time of writing in 2019 there are now networks of social centres in existence in London and across the island which are entirely comprised of either owned or rented spaces but with a strong assimilation with the squat scene.
Below is a brief tour through some spaces which existed in London between the years 2007-2017 told through the voices of those involved with each of the projects via excerpts taken from Dissident Island Radio (dissidentisland.org) :
195 MARE STREET (2008-10 + 2013)
Having had an illustrious history as both a women’s refuge and a working men’s club at various points, this detached Georgian house in the middle of Hackney had been left to ruin at the time it opened as a squatted social centre in 2008. This is despite the building being ‘listed’ by the state, meaning that legally it could not be demolished. Attached to the residential part of the building is a large ballroom with an impressive stage and a bar which housed many events while the building was open as a social centre. As part of the gentrification process that went on in Hackney in the lead up to the Olympic games in 2012 London, the building changed hands a number of times and the squatters were violently evicted with much of their work in fixing the place up undone in the process. The space was later re-opened as a social centre a few years later:
AUTONOMOUS NATION OF ANARCHIST LIBERTARIANS (ANAL) (2016-17)
Following a time when state repression of squatters had been particularly acute in London due to factors such as 2012’s legal amendment which saw squatting in residential properties become outlawed as well as the combined effect of a Conservative government and London mayor simultaneously, this project did a great deal to highlight the real issue in relation to squatting – that of housing. In touring a number of high profile addresses in Central London and gathering a lot of media attention along the way, this collective provided shelter for some of London’s homeless through the depths of winter. The homelessness crisis is still ongoing with numbers of rough sleepers in the city higher than at any other time for the last 30 years due to austerity.
CAMELOT HQ OCCUPATION (CAMESQUAT) (2016)
A business model which put a huge dent in the way of life of squatters was that of the ‘protection by occupation’ companies such as ‘Camelot’. A concept that is said to have originated in Netherlands which ultimately paved the way for squatting to be banned there, these companies would be taking money from both landlords and tenants on the premise of looking after empty properties whilst at the same time providing housing for more affordable rent prices. However, these forms of housing provided little rights for tenants who were often given 24 hours to move out. All of this during a time of economic decline following the financial crash of 2008 meaning that more and more empty properties were emerging in London. When Camelot’s offices fell vacant in 2015, activists had the bright idea to give the company their just deserts and open it as a social centre:
THE EX-FOUNDRY (FURY) (2010)
Formerly a pub which played an important role in the life of East London, particularly among bike couriers and squatters, in 2010 The Foundry was forced to close. This was against the will of those who had been running the pub, particularly after it had survived the gentrification process which took place around Shoreditch in the 1990s and early 2000s. Supposedly it closed to make way for an ‘Art Hotel’ which was to be constructed in time for the Olympics in 2012. As a statement against the displacement of this community and in an effort to maintain the role of the building in the social life of many, the building was squatted and opened as a social centre a short time after closing as a pub. The Hotel was ultimately not constructed.
FREESHOP - NON COMMERCIAL HOUSE (2009-10)
An important model in the life of social centre spaces in London around this period was that of the ‘Freeshop’. An initiative aimed addressing the abundantly wasteful nature of life in a city like London, through taking part in a freeshop participants could enjoy the experience of a moneyless shop as well as a social space not driven by the need to make profit. Items not needed by one person would be donated and others which were desired would be free to take. All of this in a time when more and more shopfront spaces in the UK were becoming empty due to factors such as consumerism moving online.
THE LIBRARY HOUSE (2008-09)
The Library House was open for an extended period during 2008-09 and served as a hub within what was a thriving squat scene in this part of South London around this time. Although the nature of the building meant that is was not able to host benefits gigs and events in the way that other spaces in the area such ‘Ratstar’ or ‘303’ were doing, services were provided for the community such as a drop in bike mechanic and café nights. A council owned building with extensive grounds within which the squatters were able to grow an abundance of vegetables, this occupation also highlighted the dysfunctional nature of the relationship between local authorities and property in London.
MADE POSSIBLE BY SQUATTING EXHIBITION (2013)
Following the UK government’s 2012 amendment which technically made squatting in residential properties illegal, this pop up art exhibition was aimed at celebrating the culture of squatting in London. Held one year after the law change, the curators gathered documentation of housing struggles and campaigns from around the city. Part of the motivation behind the exhibition was an attempt to create a more positive view of squatters among the general public than that which had been portrayed by the mainstream media in the lead up to the government amendment. There were also a series of events consisting of talks and music throughout the week-long occupation.
MP'S EXPENSES OCCUPATION (2009)
In reaction to a series of scandals published in the media during 2009 which highlighted the extent to which many politicians were managing to manipulate their finances to be in receipt of innumerate undeclared benefits including properties, this project was aimed at tackling some of these injustices. Squatters moved into the West London residences of two MPs who had been caught up in the scandal. Admittedly, whether this occupation can be considered a social centre is somewhat debatable as it could be more accurately described a direct political action, however during the time it was open as a squat, the door was open to all.
A very significant project in the recent history of London Social Centres is Rampart. The building housed a huge amount of activities and brought together activists from across the radical left. Regular benefit events were held for related struggles and Dissident Island Radio was even born there! Consisting of an entire block of terraced houses and a community centre attached on a side street off Commercial Road, the 6 years of occupation were very colourful. During the G20 protest in London, Rampart was locked down by police with tazers with those inside being violently evicted only for the building to be re-squatted a short time later.
RAMPART 2.0 (2008)
Following the success of the social centre space on Rampart Street, during the spring of 2008 the collective took on a second building which would be open simultaneously and give greater organisational capacity. Situated right on the edge of the central business district, the City of London, the building was in a state of serious disrepair when the occupation began. Stairs needed to be built as well as plumbing and electricity installed but in no time the place was up and running. The building was eventually evicted in a sucker-punch move by the authorities whilst most of the crew were away at a climate camp protest.
RAVEN'S AIT ISLAND (2009)
In an attempt at creating a utopia within London, this somewhat unique project involved the squatting of an island in the middle of the river Thames in West London. Following the momentum gathered during the two climate camps in London in 2007 and 2008, activists opened the island in order to bring to focus issues around climate change where the site had been set for redevelopment by the local authority. The campaign received a lot of media attention and provided continuity to the eco-activist movement at this time.
SOCIAL CENTRE PLUS (2011)
Following the election of the conservative government in the UK in 2010, many people in society were threatened with the prospect of life becoming more difficult as result of government cuts to public services. Under the guise of reducing the level of debt in the country, many people were cut off welfare programs as well as having their housing put into question. In Deptford in South East London the ‘Job Centre Plus’ itself closed down and became empty before being re-opened as ‘Social Centre Plus’. Situated in the middle of the High Street, the shop front provided a much needed hub for the community whilst making a strong political statement. As part of an ongoing gentrification process in the area, the same property is today open as a bar called ‘The Job Centre’.