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Nearly 30 Months of Neglect: Sparkbrook Social Centre Remains Abandoned

Jack Writer | 12.09.2007 22:32 | Analysis | Free Spaces | Birmingham | World

The Cottage of Content social house at 147 Kyrwicks Lane, Sparkbrook has had a turbulent past two years. Following an eviction, criminal damage, an occupation and attempted restoration, followed by another eviction, the building continues to rot on the corner of Montpellier Street, with Birmingham City Council seemingly oblivious to its presence or its potential.

The story of the Sparkbrook social house and community space goes back to April 2005, when on the 11th of that month, Birmingham City Council served an eviction notice on the then occupiers, a Yemeni cultural and social group, who used only part of the building for weekly meetings, English lessons and a variety of other beneficial activities serving the Sparkbrook community, specifically the Yemenis. The notice was served, the occupants evicted, and this key social space was subsequently boarded up in May of 2005.

From that point Birmingham Property Services – the in-house property branch of Birmingham City Council – deemed the property surplus and hoped to auction the space off to the highest bidder. The public space was due to be auctioned on the 19th of July 2006, over a year after it was originally declared surplus. However, prior to this intended sale of public land, then-councillor Hardeman suggested a review of the property and its uses before it’s auction. This review came to nothing, and the auction was still to go ahead as planed.

Regarding the threat of this social building being sold to private developers for profit, a group of enthusiastic activists gained entry to the Cottage on July the 9th, 2006. Their intention was to restore the Cottage back to being an asset to the local community, and in the 69 days their occupation lasted, the collective redecorated the interior, tidied the exterior, repaired plumbing, some wiring and arranged for public meetings to debate the future of this community space.

As a first-hand witness, the work the Cottage collective did in changing the building into a disused run-down shack to a viable and enjoyable community space was both productive and inspirational. Several music nights were organized; a barbeque party went ahead and a modest collection of books were collected, free for anyone in the community to borrow, so long as they returned them. More critically, however, was the campaign started by the collective and endorsed by local residents to save the Cottage of Content.

The City Council issued an eviction notice, and the collective were summoned to Birmingham Priory Courts on the 24th of August 2006. Judge Savage noted that the Council’s claim to the land was in fact was too extensive than it should have been, and informed the Council that they only owned a part of the property in question. Judge Savage however took no interest or sympathy in the Cottage of Content’s case, its possible sale to the private sector, nor the will of the community and the collective to restore it to a rightful public community space. The eviction notice was served, and the occupation ended on September the 15th, 2006. The occupiers who had done so much to the building for the community were forcibly evicted. Following this the council again secured the building from entry and left it to stand for a further nine months.

Twenty-seven months will soon have past from when the prime piece of public real-estate was boarded up back in May 2005. So much has happened to 147 Kyrwicks lane, but regarding the Council nothing much seems to have been done at all. Following enquiries regarding the current state of the property, the Council’s plans and if it is for sale, this particular journalist is still awaiting a reply, almost a week after initially filing my Freedom of Information request.

When returning to the Cottage after almost a year since I covered the occupation and eviction, I found the place in a sorry state. Offensive graffiti scrawled across the sides of the building, evidence of various arson attempts by bored youths, broken glass littered everywhere amongst other things, and a severely unkempt garden that lay testament to the neglect this building suffers from people in high places.

In photographing the building in disrepair I came across three Asian youths local to Sparkbrook, sitting on the benches in the overgrown garden of the Cottage. I took the opportunity to ask them if they knew anything about the building.

“Yes, we knew there was an occupation and we attended one of the meetings, but before long the Council threw them out, and boarded the place back up again, so it was short lived” explains Akbar, 22, who has lived in Sparkbrook all his life.

When asked about the potential of the building for his neighbourhood, Akbar enthused: “There is just so much you can do! For instance I know a lot of young mothers who would love the opportunity of day-care for their children, which would give them the time to work more. This building could provide that.”

Akram, Akbar’s friend, commented on its current state: “It’s a disgrace, I mean look at it. The younger kids try to break into the place and smoke weed or do damage to the inside, because there’s nothing else to do here for the younger youth.”

Akbar agreed: “I’ve even seen a prostitute use that place one time, climbed in through one of the open windows with what I’m guessing was a client. But that was rare, that doesn’t happen all the time. The little kids however, they are always trying to break in, to smoke weed and mess about inside. There’s nothing else for them to do.”

Akbar continues: “In its current state it [the Cottage] is just a magnet for undesirables, you understand? People go here to do things in secret because they know no one will bother them”. “Even though the police have been called here a few times” says Akram, “about the noise and damage, local youth still get into trouble in there”.

“I didn’t have a chance to see much of the work the activists did” continues Akram, referring to the occupation in 2006, “but without a doubt the building would have been in a better state than this – at least it was providing something to the community. This is just a run-down relic of neglect, like they [the Council] have forgotten about it completely”.

Akram may not be far off the truth. Almost 30 months ago the Cottage of Content provided a small but useful and appreciated service to the locals of Sparkbrook. For 24 of those 30 months it has been a “magnet for undesirables”. For the remainder, during the occupation, strides were made in re-establishing the building as a free-for-all community resource. If the Council chose to give the community a chance to handle its own property, who knows what services could be offered, and what potential could be fulfilled at the Cottage of Content?

Jack Writer

Notes for editor:

BCC put social space up for auction:

Start of Occupation:

Cottage of Content Events [during occupation]:

Court Case:


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  1. Social centres and coherent politics — class struggle anarchist