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Sparkbrook Social Centre Occupation Approaches Seventh Week

Jack Writer | 22.08.2006 13:19 | Analysis | Free Spaces | Social Struggles | Birmingham

The Sparkbrook community centre neglected by Birmingham council, known as the "Cottage of Content", is approaching its seventh week of occupation, with encouraging progress and community participation increasing.

The disused building formerly hosted Yemeni community meetings, playgroups, English and adult education lessons and a variety of other community and social events. In April 2005 the occupants of the building were evicted for breach of tenancy agreement, and the community centre - without any public consultation - was closed down.

From May 2005 the social centre sat at the corner of Kyrwicks Lane and Montpellier Street for 14 months, subject to vandalism and neglect.

Yet on the 9th of July 2006 the Cottage of Content was peaceably re-entered and has been occupied by a Birmingham collective ever since, enthusiasticly received by locals. The collective claim they were moved by the fact that Birmingham city council were intending to auction the community resource through Bond-Wolfe Property Auctioneers on the 19th of July.

In May 2006, after a year of neglect, the then Cllr. Hardeman suggested the property should undergo a review of other council uses before being auctioned. Despite this decision the Cottage remained on the list of properties to be sold. [ PAGE 19(?)].

"With the council's intention to sell off the social centre, we decided to move in and stop that, and to reinstate it as a community resource. It is after all, a community centre." says one of the Birmingham collective involved in the occupation.

However Salma Yaqoob, of the Respect party and local MP for Sparkbrook, is said to have intervened to halt the council selling of centre to private developers. The council now seem willing to sell the building to a contingent of Somali community groups within the Sparkbrook area. Essentially this would retain public use of the centre, although the Somali contingent would have priority. The council have said they are still reviewing the property's council uses.

Mr. Mohammed (a community member who expressed interest in the Cottage and contacted the council) explained at the meeting that the proposed sale of the building to a community group wasn't finalised at all - the building is still at risk in terms of being sold off for commercial interests to the highest bidder.

There were fears that one community group having priority over the social centre would fuel gang related violence or resentment in the area. These and a range of other issues were discussed at a public meeting held at the Cottage on the 22ed of August 2006.

Mike Stackhouse of Birmingham Property Services, a division of Birmingham city council which is responsible for the management of “surplus” council property refused to be specific on which organizations had expressed interest in the community centre. “Various national and local groups and organizations have shown their interest in the property, all of which want to use the property for non-profit, community beneficial schemes.”

At the meeting there was dismay from residents that the community centre was to be auctioned, explaining that they were neither informed of the decision or consulted about it. It appeared that many that attended only found out about the council's intentions from the occupation's awareness drive.

Residents from the surrounding neighbourhoods actively participated in a discussion of proposals for the future of the Cottage. Menna, a resident of Kyrwicks Lane suggested using the building as a youth and drop-in centre, and many people attending liked the idea of a Connexions education office being set up in one of the spacious room.

Nick Bryer, local resident and attendee of Tuesdays' meeting said "Members of the community are obviously hugely supportive of the centre serving a real focal point". Wayne Taylor, also a local resident echoed a consensual feeling in the meeting; "Keep it open to all members of the community". While petitions and proposals were discussed it seemed universally agreed that the centre should serve all the community, and that no single segment should have priority over it.

The residents who attended Tuesday expressed a willingness to attend the next public meeting, scheduled for Thursday 24th August, 7pm, after the court case to provide an update to intrigued neighbours. Further proposals and ideas for the community centre as well as how to convince the council to restore it to public ownership will be discussed. In the meantime locals are circulating a petition around their neighbourhoods, calling on Birmingham council to dedicate the Cottage of Content back to community use.

The collective currently occupying the Cottage are continuing in their repairs of the property. Essential downstairs plumbing needs have now been met, and a decoration of the main room on the first floor is under way. Organization has been improved with the creation of sub-groups, each with their assigned role. Community outreach has become a major factor in activities, with focus on publicising the Cottage of Content and the risk of its closure.

Derek Day, a local tradesman and resident who helped with the plumbing repairs through the Local Exchange & Trade scheme expressed his hope for the Cottage and the community involvment he has heard about, saying “It is a good thing that the occupation has taken place; a few more weeks and this building would probably be the victim of arson, if not further vandalism”.

Various letters and calls are being made out to local Sparkbrook community groups, organizations and authorities calling to save the Cottage from developers and to use the space to hold some of their meetings and activities. The community outreach is still ongoing.

All are welcome to attend the next public meeting (Thursday 24th August, 7pm) which is an update of how the court case went as well as the usual discussions. However anyone is welcome to drop by any time to sign the petition.

(details are available on request – please contact the Cottage directly or the author)

147 Kyrwicks Lane,
B11 1SS

Jack Writer
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Display the following 2 comments

  1. Website is:- — Mike D
  2. correction — accuracy