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The Cottage of Content Occupation: Summary

Jack Writer | 21.09.2006 21:36 | Analysis | Free Spaces | Social Struggles | Birmingham | World

A week has past since the forcible eviction of the occupiers of the so-called Cottage of Content. With no official word from Birmingham City Council, the buildings’ future function looks uncertain.

Background of Events
The Cottage of Content Community Centre located at the corners of Kyrwicks Lane and Montpellier Street in Sparkbrook Birmingham has been a source of interest in recent months. Abandoned, occupied, and then repossessed, it has been a thorn in the side of Birmingham City Council whose intentions were to auction the community building off – on the face of it, as quietly as possible. It was this degenerate intention which evoked a lot of noise made regarding this sale, and which started a campaign to save the Cottage of Content from private developers.

The building in question predates any events of modern times. The Cottage of Content has been known by that name for over a hundred years and can be traced back in Kelly’s Directory as far back as 1868, when it was owned by Mr Thomas Smith. For much of that time it has been used as a public house in the community, however in the last twenty or so years it has been used as a community resource and most recently a meeting place for the Yemeni community, up until their eviction.

On Monday 11th April 2005, Birmingham City Council issued a notice of eviction to the previous tenants; A Yemeni cultural group who according to Council sources failed in the upkeep of rent payments and left the building without any notice in a state of disuse. The Yemenis are said to have used the building for community meetings, cultural and educational programmes and a variety of other community based projects, including free English language lessons. The cultural group only leased a part of the building, and no information was given to local neighbourhoods regarding its closure – despite it being used as a place for local children to play.

In May 2005 the City Council boarded up the centre due to abandonment and neglect, as well as failure to pay rent. Sources at the Council say that the people who leased the building left it without notice. The Cottage of Content stood for 14 months boarded up and derelict, subject to vandalism, neglect and an immoral act of disuse of such a valuable community resource. The building was deliberated upon and the decision was made by Birmingham Property Services to sell it. No public consultation was made, and no effort on the Councils’ part was made to inform members of the community who this decision would directly affect.

There it stood for over a year, until the then Councillor Hardeman suggested that the property should be put up for a review of purposes in May 2006. The lengthy review process started, and was headed by the Qualities & Diversity minister Mashuq Ally. At that point the council claim that the sale proceedings were to be put on hold while the review was in progress, however the information held by auctioneers contracted by Birmingham Council (Bond & Wolfe) showed every sign that the auction was to continue as planned, on the set date of July 19th, 2006.

The Occupation
On the 9th July 2006, a local collective angry at the sale of community spaces across the city stepped in and occupied the Cottage of Content. The boards were taken down, the doors unlocked and repaired and essential maintenance work was carried out speedily across the property. A notice was attached to every entrance of the Cottage explaining that the building has now been occupied.

"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." said one of the Birmingham collective involved in the occupation.

Birmingham City Council issued no official reaction to the occupation of the community centre, but said through Mike Stackhouse of Birmingham Property Services; “It is unfortunate that a group of squatters has recently chosen to occupy the premises. Their presence will both complicate the management issues and distract officers from the review process”.

Mr. Stackhouse continued: “It is Birmingham Property Services responsibility within the Council to manage vacant and surplus Council property and find alternative uses 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'”.

Regardless, the Birmingham based collective pooled their skills and resources in creating an open-use community resource out of the abandoned remains of the building. The building boasts one large main room downstairs, with an adjacent café style kitchen, downstairs male and female toilets, a boiler room and a computer room. Downstairs further leads to a neglected but spacious cellar, and upstairs is a large main room, one kitchen area, a medium sized adjoining room, and upstairs male and female toilets. There is also a very large hall separated from the rest of the building, complete with kitchen, storage rooms, male, female and disabled toilets all attached to the main hall.

Repairs were carried out throughout.
Downstairs, a wall in dire need of attention was re-plastered. Stolen water pipes were replaced and re-connected via the Birmingham LET scheme – running water was restored. The downstairs toilets were repaired. The lower floor rooms were revived by an extensive paint job. People became more and more involved, submitting ideas and offering help with regard to either material or time.

The whole building was cleaned out from top to bottom, with anything of any reusable value being stored or put to that use. The front and back gardens were tidied and rubbish collected, the front fence was repaired.

On the 22ed and 23rd of July 2006, an all-welcome party was held at the Cottage of Content, which included a barbeque serving vegan food, drinks and lively music. The intention was to raise both awareness and funds for the project: to save the Cottage of Content from private developers and to secure it back to public and community use. People from local neighborhoods came along to see what it was all about, and suggestions were made and discussed on how to use the building to show that it can be responsive to the communities needs.

The Cottage of Content Occupied Social Centre
It was consensually agreed that the building while occupied should not only be used for running the campaign of Save the Cottage, but also as a resource to the community. To this end, books were donated; stereos, computers and a variety of other electrical equipment, cooking utensils and foods were all pooled together and distributed. The collective ran weekly meetings with all invited – aimed at discussing how to save the Cottage and how to put it to use while it is being occupied.

Computers were set up as was wireless internet and a phone line in order to offer a free-to-use internet café for those who wished to use it. The building hosted apart from the meetings several events, notably acoustic nights where people could come along to learn and share skills of various acoustic and stringed instruments from guitars to sitars.

A donation-based café project was initiated with food and drinks available to all who wanted any and several film showings went on throughout the occupation, open to all who wanted to attend.

By now the collective were visited by members of Sparkbrook Forum representing the community who showed enthusiasm to the project and offered support. Further open days and public meetings were planned, the most notable of which took place on Monday 22ed August 2006 at 7pm. Local residents, representatives and members of the collective convened in the main room to discuss the Cottages function in Sparkbrook. Many residents reacted badly to the news that the Council intended to auction off the building, as none of those who attended that meeting were consulted about any sale plans.

The occupation was actively received, and petitions calling on the Council to save the Cottage of Content were circulated amongst the neighbors and in the community. The MP candidate for the Respect party Salma Yaqoob is said to have intervened in the sale process of the Cottage, but this claim is unsubstantiated and Ms Yaqoob has been unavailable for comment on this matter.

The collective, with the support of local people wrote to Sparkbrook community projects and other agencies asking for support in turning the Cottage around from a disused abandonment to a thriving community resource. Press releases were drawn up to highlight this issue to the media, and flyers were printed to boost awareness.

The Court Summons
On the 24th August 2006, members of the Cottage of Content collective were summoned to Birmingham Priory Courts to defend their occupation of the disused Sparkbrook community centre at risk from developers. In a hearing which lasted over the twenty minute allotted timeframe, Judge Savage reviewed the defendants and claimants evidence and submissions. The claimants case – Birmingham City Council – was that as they own all of the land which is 147 Kyrwicks Lane, the occupation was therefore illegal and on these ground a possession order was sought.

The defense - the formally entered as ‘persons unknown’ – stated that the purpose of the occupation was to stop the building being sold to private developers, and to retain the property in the public domain and for inclusive public use. Judge Savage seemed unsympathetic and indifferent to the defendants’ cause, saying “If you were to enter my house and demand some other use for it, this would obviously be unacceptable. The same applies for the building in question.”

“Unless the occupiers have a tenancy agreement with the owners, then they have no right to occupy the building”.

There seemed to be no observation that Sparkbrook is one of the top thirty most deprived wards in the country and so is in desperate need of such a community resource. Nor was it considered that a community centre could help quell recent gang violence in the area due to social exclusion and a lack of integration. The fact that the building was proposed for auction without any public consultation was also left out of the court hearing.

Yet before the intentions and legal positions of the defendants and claimants could be set in place, there was some uncertainty on a variety of points. The judge noticed that the map on which the Council highlighted what area they owned did not conform to the Land Registry map submitted by the collective. The discrepancy lies with the Birmingham council’s title to the land: the claimants do indeed own the land and property in question, but not in its entirety. The copy of an ordinance survey map submitted by Birmingham council claimed that the claimants were in ownership of the whole building, the rear hall, the gardens and part of a path adjacent to the property – a path which was thought to be public.

However according to the Land Registry submitted by the defense, Birmingham council own only a part of the building, a small portion of the rear hall and part of the garden. It is thought at the time that after 1996 – the year the submitted Land Registry is dated – Birmingham council expanded the hall but failed to acquire or register the rest of the land as theirs.

On these grounds the court case was adjourned until the 7th September 2006, on which date Birmingham City Council won the possession order for the Cottage of Content.

The Eviction
On Friday 15th September 2006 the occupation of the Cottage of Content social centre in Sparkbrook came to a close. At about 7:45am high court bailiffs and a Council official who initially refused to identify himself forcibly evicted the occupiers of 147 Kyrwicks Lane, Sparkbrook, Birmingham.

Bailiffs encountered barricades and passive resistance which halted the eviction for one hour. Local people gathered together opposite the neglected community centre to offer verbal support and witness the forceful eviction. Local communities supported the occupation – and were dismayed to view the aggressive eviction. A Mrs D. was known to have said: "There was no need for the force used to evict these people, do they do this kind of thing to families? What if that poor guy had been a pregnant women, would they have done the same? Shame on them!”

The property has since been reboarded and undoutably left to rot for more months to come. The review process is apparently still ongoing, but on speaking with local residents, no one has claimed to have been contacted by the Council regarding the community space. The occupation lasted 69 days. The campaign to secure the building to community use and to avert the sale of the Cottage to private developers is said to be still underway.

It is important to note that across the country there still exists more empty buildings than there do homesless people. Homeless applications are twice the national average in the city of Birmingham, with the nine inner city wards of Birmingham – including Sparkbrook – ranking within the top thirty most deprived wards in England. In this social decline, it should also be noted that the creation of new community spaces and buildings by the Birmingham City Council has slowed to an embarresing zero.

Jack Writer
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