Jeremy Corbyn’s brother supports West Hampstead squatters

Squatters at West End Lane

Squatters at West End Lane - Credit: Archant

A group of squatters have occupied a disused council office block earmarked for a controversial housing development on the eve of plans being submitted.

Squatters at West End Lane

Squatters at West End Lane - Credit: Archant

The group of activists call themselves the Camden Mothership and say they want to use the expansive, five storey block at 156 West End Lane for community benefit while it remains empty.

Camden Council now face having to evict the squatters from the building, which has lain dormant for three years, as they say the sale can only go through with vacant possession.

The council’s favoured developer, A2 Dominion, are due to submit their plans imminently, in the face of stiff opposition from campaign group, “Stop the Blocks”.

Mothership’s spokesperson, veteran activist Phoenix, said the group only wants to do good, and has already begun to transform the building for community groups and for individuals in urgent need of housing.

Squatters at West End Lane

Squatters at West End Lane - Credit: Archant

He told the Ham&High: “What we want to do is set up a multi-level, multi-use community and arts space for all the people of Camden, and wider London.

“We’ve been campaigning since 1992 for environment and community centres, and we’ve had deals over the years, like with the JW3. We occupied it, and got a deal to carry on living there for another nine months after negotiations.

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“We call ourselves free caretakers, and it’s much cheaper for councils to allow us to maintain and look after empty properties like this one than it is to pay private security guards.”

He added that it was a “shocking” waste of a resource that the 25,000 square foot building would be left to languish for another year before redevelopment can begin because the builder’s merchant, Travis Perkins, has a lease in a separate part of the building.

Squatters at West End Lane

Squatters at West End Lane - Credit: Archant

Their plans for the centre include green spaces, meeting and conference rooms as well as cultural, sporting and holistic activities.

The group is attempting to negotiate with the council to allow them to remain in the building for the interim period before development begins, and have been in email contact with several councillors.

But Cllr Theo Blackwell, Camden’s head of finance, said that the council will not be held to ransom by squatters.

Cllr Blackwell said: “They will only end up costing the police and council money which could be used for front-line services.

“After public consultation with local residents, the site is on the cusp of a planning decision with needed receipts used to reinvest in public infrastructure and guarantee fifty per cent affordable homes for Camden’s housing crisis.

“We can consider requests for meanwhile use from legitimate organisations, but not from squatters who’ve chosen to occupy first, and ask questions later.”

But Cllr Sian Berry, the Green Party Mayoral candidate, urged the council to talk to the group.

At Monday’s council meeting, she said: “I support this group and these kinds of temporary projects wholeheartedly.

“I know that by occupying the site, they have not followed procedures, and that they have got the backs of some cabinet members up, but their proposals should still be considered seriously.

“They will save the council money in security in the period when the building would lie empty, and provide much needed space for community activities.”

She said the group comprised many of the same people who had helped set up The Hive in Dalston, which she cited as an example of very effective use of public space for community and arts based activities.

One of those negotiating on behalf of the group is Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s brother, Piers, who was an activist for housing and squatters’ rights in the 1970s, and who now owns a business producing weather forecasts based on solar activity.

Mr Corbyn was himself a squatter for three full years in the early 1970s, and then intermittently for the following decade.

He said: “I’ve been involved in housing campaigns for a long time and this is a really superb project. It’s in fact a really good opportunity for the council to do something really effective, along with community groups.”

He said it is not correct to say that the building cannot be sold with occupiers,

“In terms of selling the property while there are occupiers, that is perfectly possible and it has been done before. It is just not true to say it cannot be done. It can be done, providing the occupiers have some sort of defined status.”

Mr Corbyn, who - like his brother - is a former councillor, said the council have questions to answer about how much it has cost for the building to be left derelict for the past two years.

“I don’t know if they’ll provide the figures for the cost of the security over the past three years, but it will have been huge.

“I think the council also have questions to answer over why the building has been stood empty for so long, when it could have been used for public services.”

Mr Corbyn, who now lives in Southwark, was involved with a famous occupation in Camden in the 1970s, reported in the Ham&High at the time, of 220 Camden High Street.

He said: “The squatters then were involved in a campaign to stop Joe Levy buying up a section of the Camden High Street. He had evicted a furniture shop owner in order to knock it all down and get the whole area for redevelopment, so we had a big campaign to occupy the shop and stop it.”

Mr Corbyn said the Camden community at the time was fully supportive of the squatters, and the council eventually made a compulsory purchase of the premises.

“It took a while, but the council eventually did the right thing. Camden has got a history of respect for community rights.”

Mr Corbyn said that the Mothership group are an example of “perfectly respectable occupiers”.

He said: “I prefer the term ‘occupiers’ to squatters in this instance, and I hope the council can see that these occupiers are offering a tremendous opportunity for both the community and for the council, and the council will work with them and save money for themselves too.”