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Social Centre Occupation Seeks to Bring Abandoned Building Back to Community Use

Jack Writer | 05.08.2006 17:41 | Free Spaces | Birmingham | London

A community and social centre in Sparkbrook, closed and designated for auction by Birmingham city council has been taken over by a local collective, with plans to put it back to community use.

Prior to its abandonment the “Cottage of Content”, as it has come to be called, was used as a local youth group, offered English lessons, adult education and served as a Yemeni cultural centre. However in May 2005, after no public consultation, the city council boarded up the property and declared the building “surplus”.

Mike Stackhouse, of Birmingham Property Services explains; “It is Birmingham Property Services’ responsibility within the council to manage vacant and surplus council property and find an alternative use for it. If no council use can be identified then the most likely alternative is that the property will be sold.”

“In this sale process the council may instruct estate agents and auctioneers to act on its behalf, as was the case with the “Cottage of Content.” Mike continues; “No alternative council use was immediately identified, and it was decided to offer the building for sale by auction.”

( [a copy of the property for sale can be found on page 19])

Yet as of the ninth of July the community centre has had its boards taken off and has been occupied by a local collective working to deliver the asset from the auctioneers’ hammer and back into community hands. Now in its fourth week, the progress has been substantial.

Various essential repairs have been carried out including the plastering of part of a downstairs wall, the doors have been fitted with locks and secured and the main downstairs room has been repainted and tidied.

The Social Centre holds one large entrance room with a small kitchen complete with swinging hatch, male and female downstairs toilets, and a disused boiler and storage room. A flight of stairs lead either up to the first floor or down to the spacious yet neglected cellar, containing at least six modest sized spaces which could be used for a variety of activities and community projects.

Upstairs boasts one large wooden-floored room, with two large rooms adjacent. A corridor leads to the upstairs male and female toilets and a large storage room. The huge hall situated separate and detached from the main building is large enough to hold any kind of event, and the hall itself is complimented by a small kitchen (again with swinging hatch), storage room, male, female and disabled toilets.

As well as the boards being taken down, the whole building has undergone a general clean and sweep, the front and back gardens have been tidied of rubbish, grass and hedges trimmed, and a perimeter fence has been repaired provisionally until wood panels can be brought in.

Within a month, apart from the abovementioned repairs and maintenance, the Cottage of Content has also hosted several meetings with enthusiastic locals regarding the function of this dwindling community dwelling. Meetings have also been held to discuss and organize further repairs, improvements, planning of events and community involvement, as well as the sustainability of the Social Centre as a neighbourhood resource as a whole.

On the 22ed and 23rd of July, an all-welcome party was held, with a barbeque serving vegan food, drinks and a lively variety of music. The intention was to raise both funds and awareness of the Social Centre. Many people from neighbourhoods surrounding the Cottage of Content turned out to see what it was all about, and a great deal of suggestions were put forward and discussed regarding community uses for the building.

Some suggested using one room as a media lab, similar to an internet café, yet free of charge, and so people are currently working to source equipment to make this a reality.
Turntable workshops, glass painting, web design classes, horticulture (by means of the spacious garden area) and a variety of workshops and possibilities were put forward and all are being considered and planned for.

It is bewildering how Birmingham council were unable to find any community-beneficial use for the then closed community centre, the result being the building left to rot under plywood boards for months, dilapidated and disused. With so many ideas, inspirations and with so much feedback and potential it is a wonder that locals of Sparkbrook don’t sit down to their new jobs at the Council – perhaps they would be more imaginative then our current administration.

Birmingham Property Services expressed that it was “unfortunate” that groups of “squatters” have chosen to occupy the Cottage of Content, and that a review of the property for council and community use is currently in progress.

The Cottage of Content can be found in Sparkbrook, Birmingham. A meeting is held every Monday at 7:30pm, all are welcome to attend.

The Cottage of Content Occupied Social Centre,
147 Kyrwicks Lane,
B11 1SS

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Jack Writer
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  1. classic council spin... — White Lunar