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The Cottage Occupied Social Centre

IMC Birmingham | 13.08.2006 16:31 | Free Spaces | Social Struggles | Birmingham

A community and youth centre in Sparkbrook, closed by Birmingham City Council last year, has been occupied by a group of activists, who, along with local people, aim to put the building back into community use. The Cottage of Content had been boarded up in May 2005 and scheduled for auction, allegedly for the old occupiers' failure to pay the rent and bills, 22 years after the Council stopped its funding.

Contrary to popular stereotypes about squatters and squats, the occupation was enthusiastically received by local people. A lot of 'neighbours', especially the youth, have been dropping in and attending meetings and workshops.

Whilst building up a campaign to compel the Council to re-instate the community's youth and community centre, the space is being used, as a social centre, for a wide range of activities, from DIY and educational workshops, screenings and socials, to a meeting place for various grassroots groups. Regular, open meetings are held every Monday at 7:30pm.

Read more: The Cottage of Content reclaimed | What lead to the closure of The Cottage | Disused buildings have no shortage of occupants | Social Centre occupation seeks to bring abandoned building back to community use | The Nursery Social Centre | Indymedia UK's Freespaces topic page

Boards off!
Boards off!

Save The Cottage

Prior to its abandonment, the Cottage of Content, as it has come to be called, was used as a local youth and community centre and a Yemeni cultural centre, as well as offering adult education, English lessons and various other things. In May 2005, however, without any public consultation, Birmingham City Council boarded up the building and declared it "surplus".

The building was originally managed by the Council's Local Services Department. Just before the building was re-occupied, a member of the collective, posing as a property developer, contacted auction company Bond and Wolfe, who were scheduled to auction the building on 19 July, 2006. Bond and Wolfe stated that the Council had withdrawn the property from auction a week before the occupation but were likely to re-auction it in September. The Council’s Planning Department, who, according to the auctioneers, are now responsible for the building, were then contacted. According to Mike Stackhouse, they are now the ones responsible for the building. He also disclosed that a senior cabinet member from the Council's Regeneration Department, Conservative Councillor Ken Hardeman, had intervened to stop the sale of the Cottage. When asked if the building will be auctioned off again in September, Stackhouse responded quickly that the future of the building was "pending an evaluation". When pressed for details about the nature of this "evaluation"; who was responsible for it; when and how long would it take and would the Cottage be re-auctioned in September, Stackhouse responded with the mantra: "it's pending an evaluation".

Birmingham Property Services said it was "unfortunate" that "a group 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. Mike Stackhouse explained that "it is Birmingham Property Services' responsibility within the Council to manage vacant and surplus Council properties and find an alternative use for them. 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." However, Stackhouse 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 of this document]

There are currently over 300,000 empty buildings across England alone. This is more than the number of homeless families, and homelessness applications to Birmingham City Council are twice the national average. Around 20 percent of these properties are within the public sector and many have been empty for more than six months, often with no good reason as to why they are left empty. Many are then handed over to the Birmingham Property Services, a private company contracted by Birmingham City Council to look after empty properties and eventually sell them. Yet, we often hear officials and mainstream media moaning about the need to build new homes as a sole solutions for these problems: "Birmingham needs an estimated 15,000 new homes in 5 years' time to cope with population growth".

In any case, the Cottage of Content had its boards taken off on 9 July, 2006, and was occupied by a local collective working to deliver the asset from the auctioneers' hammer and back into community hands. The first public meeting took place on 10 July, where the occupiers and members of the neighbourhood expressed their common desire for the place to be returned to public social use. A petition to "save our community centre from property developers" was drawn up and circulated in the neighbourhood.

The building had been broken into and vandalised, so the new occupiers had to do a lot of cleaning and repairs in order to be able to use it properly. Various essential repairs have been carried out, including making good the roof; plastering; the doors have been fitted with locks and secured; the main downstairs room has been repainted and tidied; the front and back gardens have been tidied of rubbish, grass and hedges trimmed, needles picked up and disposed off, and a perimeter fence has been repaired provisionally until wood panels can be brought in.

A Social Centre

In its fifth week now, the Cottage has hosted several meetings, with enthusiastic locals attending, regarding the function of this dwindling community dwelling; to discuss and organise further repairs, improvements, plan events and community involvement. Many activities have also been organised: a media lab and Internet café; a community library and garden; political film screenings; refugee support and various regular workshops (graffiti art, graphic design, dancing, language lessons, advice on rights in the workplace etc.). In addition, the Centre provides a space for alternative, grassroots groups to meet up and hold their various activities. These currently include Birmingham Food Not Bombs, Birmingham NoBorders, Indymedia Birmingham, Women Fight Back, Birmingham Solidarity Federation and the West Midlands Anarchists. A local playgroup is also using the building to meet regularly every Thursday morning, and a local dominoes team is going to meet there soon.

On the night of 22-23 July, an all-welcome party was held, with a barbecue serving vegan food, drinks and a lively variety of music. The intention was to raise both funds for and awareness of the Social Centre. Many people from surrounding neighbourhoods turned up to see what it was all about.

It is worth mentioning that several members of the Social Centre Collective were involved in the Nursery Social Centre in Selly Oak, which was Birmingham's first autonomous social centre. It was occupied for 8 months in 2004-05. The Nursery Social Centre Collective directly resisted Birmingham City Council on on all levels and won. After several failed attempts to evict them, the Council agreed to return the building to community use with the Rite Project running it now, although they are facing eviction again in May 2007.

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The Cottage vs The Council: First Round

25.08.2006 23:51

Save the Cottage
Save the Cottage

Don't sell us out
Don't sell us out

August 24th saw the first court hearing in the case brought by Birmingham City Council against the occupiers of the Cottage of Content, as a first step in the Council's relentless (and hopefully hopeless) efforts to get a possession order of the 'property' and evict the activists and locals who have been occupying and running it for 7 weeks now [see the press release]. With an unsympathetic judge and a poorly prepared legal representation for the Council, the case was adjourned to September 7th, pending further evidence in regard to the title and previous tenancy agreement(s).

A small, brief protest was held outside the court to highlight the political issues behind the 'affair', which usually have no place in court rooms. The Council's representative did try to tell 'his honour' that he "knew" us from a previous occupation, and that we were just "in the habit of occupying empty Council buildings to make political statements for [our] own purposes," but the highly professional judge wasn't really interested in this 'crap'.

See this report Cottage Collective Defend Building Occupation at Court Hearing for some details.



Display the following 3 comments

  1. yes — klarkin
  2. Solidarity from Bristol — boyd
  3. awesome work;) — WhisperingSlim