Squatters evicted from West Hampstead offices as homes plan submitted
PUBLISHED: 17:56 30 November 2015 | UPDATED: 10:50 01 December 2015
Squatters have left empty former council offices in West Hampstead peacefully on Saturday morning after bailiffs arrived.
Camden Council obtained a possession order for the five storey West End Lane building on Friday, and sent in the enforcers within 24 hours.
The bailiffs forced their way into the property, which had been squatted by a group known as the Camden Mothership for more than two weeks, and led the occupiers one-by-one onto the street.
The group’s leader, a veteran activist known as Phoenix, said the eviction had been swift but peaceful.
He said: “The bailiffs arrived at about 8am.
“There was no trouble, but we had the TV cameras there, which might have helped.
“All we wanted to do was put the building to good use as a community centre, and to draw attention to the 1.5 million empty buildings in the UK.
“There was never any intention to prevent the sale of the building for development.
“We repeatedly asked to negotiate with the council for a meanwhile lease, but they weren’t interested.”
Plans have just been formally submitted by developers A2Dominion to replace the building with a housing development, but it will remain empty for at least another year because builder’s merchant, Travis Perkins, hold a lease on the site.
After the judge’s court order in favour of the council on Friday morning, Phoenix said the result had been a “travesty of justice”.
The group had hoped to transform the building, which has been empty for three years awaiting sale, into “London’s largest self-funded community centre”,
Councillor Theo Blackwell, Camden’s chief of finance, maintained throughout the occupation that the council would not be held to ransom by the group.
Cllr Blackwell said: “We are disappointed that we have had to take legal action and would have preferred to reach an amicable agreement where the squatters left voluntarily, but we are pleased that the judge agreed with us.
“We gave the squatters their final chance to do the right thing, and are saddened that they chose to waste more taxpayers’ money forcing us to take further action this morning.
“If these professional squatters were as genuinely interested in serving the community as they claim – they would have attempted to discuss the use of the building with us, not illegally break into our building, waste taxpayers money and negotiate through the media.
“Instead of this circus, what the people of Camden are crying out for at a time of huge government cuts is more homes and money to invest in services we already have in the area.
“Since this office building was closed, it has saved taxpayers over £300,000, and it will soon become much needed new homes for Londoners plus raising over £20 million for repairs to our schools and much loved community facilities nearby.”
The Mothership group was backed by high-profile supporters, including former MP George Galloway and Piers Corbyn, brother of Labour leader, Jeremy.
Three councillors, Green Party mayoral candidate Sian Berry, Liberal Democrat Flick Rea, and independent Angela Pober, all said they backed the aims of the group.
Cllr Rea said she had suggested the building could be opened up to house refugees, and was aware that the West Hampstead and Fortune Green Neighbourhood Forum had seen requests to make use of the building turned down by the council.
Cllr Rea said: “It’s nonsense the council saying they would have considered this group’s proposals had they approached them before occupying, because other groups had asked about using this space and got nowhere.
“The council left this huge building looking like the Mary Celeste for three years.
“I don’t like to condone squatting, but in this case, I think they make a very good point.”
The planned housing development by A2Dominion is a controversial one, with campaign group, Stop the Blocks, claiming the proposed towers are completely inappropriate for West Hampstead.
Members of Stop the Blocks had expressed support for the aims of Mothership group throughout the occupation.
Joseph Black, a spokesperson for the group, said: “The hundreds of supporters of Stop the Blocks utterly condemn the council for its needless thuggery against community activists that were providing a great service to the community, while also exposing the council’s criminal wastage of public assets for over three years.”
The council have said that it cost “less than £500 a week” to pay for security at the building for the past three years, but it was reported in 2013 that it would cost the council over £5000 a week to leave it empty.
The building is now being protected by security guards, and Mothership has moved into another empty local building, Church Walk House in Barnet.
The former care home in Childs Hill is awaiting redevelopment into 38 apartments and six town houses.
The Central and Cecil Housing Trust obtained the building from the church’s charity with the proviso that they would use it to run a caring facility for vulnerable residents, but they did this for just two years before selling it on to private developer Epsilon.
For further analysis of this story and the planning application by A2Dominion, see this Thursday’s Ham&High.