‘Friendly squatters’ move into empty Maida Vale college site

“Friendly squatters” have moved into a vacant school building in the heart of Maida Vale to act as “caretakers” to look after the site.

The group of about 20 artists and students gained entry to the City of Westminster College’s Maida Vale Centre in Elgin Avenue last Thursday. They used squatting laws to climb in through open windows.

The group’s members say they are not squatters but are “caretakers” who will cause no damage or nuisance.

But the college says a �10million refurbishment of the site is scheduled to start in the next few months and they will be taking “appropriate steps” to have the group removed. The building has been vacant for more than a year.

The squatters have posted notices around the building inviting residents to “have a chat and a nice cup of tea” with them as the “overall wellbeing of the community” is their main priority.

They call themselves “experts” in looking after buildings that have fallen into disrepair.

Group organiser Frank Freeman, 25, said: “There has been no damage done to the building and there won’t be any damage done.

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“We have already done a big clear up and it’s now in a better condition than it was.

“Local people seemed initially concerned about us. But we have reassured them that we are caretakers rather than squatters.

“We are the last people who want to create noise or have parties here. We are not here to do anything bad. The building is safe in our hands.”

He added that the group would leave the site when an appropriate time was agreed with the building’s owners.

A college spokeswoman said that the property was only vacated temporarily and the refurbished Maida Vale Centre should open to students in 2013.

She said: “The college has declined an offer by one of the squatters to ‘take care of the building’ in exchange for being permitted to occupy it rent free. It is now taking appropriate steps to secure vacant possession as quickly as possible.”

Annemarie O’Connell, who lives near the school off Elgin Avenue, said that she did not mind the group being in the building “as long as there’s no criminal element”.

She said: “If they truly are who they say they are, then it’s fine.”

Squatting is currently only a civil offence. But it will become a criminal offence from September 1 and squatters could face a six-month prison sentence.