West Hampstead squatters in court as council seeks eviction

Piers Corbyn, right, with the squatters in West Hampstead and Cllr Lorna Russell

Piers Corbyn, right, with the squatters in West Hampstead and Cllr Lorna Russell - Credit: Archant

Squatters who have occupied empty former council offices in West Hampstead will appear in court today.

Camden Council has begun legal proceedings against the group, known as the Camden Mothership.

The occupiers moved into the five-storey building in West End Lane two weeks ago, and have attempted to negotiate with the council since then, with a view to creating a self-funded community centre in the building whilst it remains empty awaiting sale for a housing redevelopment.

The group’s leader, who gave his name as Phoenix, said that the group was keen to avoid “the E word” – eviction.

He said: “We’ve offered to meet the council to discuss handing back keys on an agreeable date, so there is no need for this legal action.

“We would just like access to the building over the Christmas period to cook Christmas dinner for those in need, and to talk about a ‘meanwhile’ lease. This building will be empty for at least another year, as things stand.”

Cllr Theo Blackwell, head of finance for Camden, said that he cannot negotiate with the group.

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He said: “These squatters seized the premises without our permission and are standing in the way of our plans for affordable homes being built at this site.”

However, Labour councillor Lorna Russell met the group on Monday, and said she was impressed with the group’s vision for the space.

Cllr Russell said: “It is indeed incredibly frustrating that the building hasn’t been sold as quickly as planned, and in principle, I support opening up empty council buildings for community use while they are vacant.”

But she added: “It is important that proper processes are followed, and I’m disappointed that Mothership did not contact local councillors before occupying.”

Those advocating for Mothership include Piers Corbyn, brother of Labour leader, Jeremy, who has been involved with housing and squatters’ rights for decades.

At a meeting on Monday night, Piers Corbyn introduced himself by joking: “I am my brother’s brother. He used to be my brother, but now I am his brother.”

Mr Corbyn, who makes a living forecasting weather based on solar activity, said the council could save lives by allowing homeless people to use the building.

“There is a cold snap coming, with snow on the way. The council needs to explain what would happen if this building was left empty tomorrow. I thought Camden was meant to be a progressive council, but their refusal to even engage in dialogue is far from progressive.”

Liberal Democrat councillor Flick Rea also visited the group.

Cllr Rea said she was aware of unsuccessful approaches made to the council for ‘meanwhile’ use of the building by the Fortune Green Neighbourhood Forum.

“The waste of space is criminal, not to mention the loss of revenue. I don’t wish to condone squatting, but in this instance, I think they make a very good point.”

The council say it has spent “less than £500 a week” securing the building, but campaign groups have estimated the building could have generated up to £5,000 a week in revenue at market rates.