Update 13 February:
Met with the occupying group several times last week. It seems that the council went in last weekend and changed the locks on the building doors, so now the occupiers are locked out – as is anyone who hopes to use this community building. The occupiers’ posters have also been taken down. The building is empty and unused. Amazingly, it seems that the council would rather have an empty community building than one utilised by community groups. The occupying group said that there were still several years to run on the council’s lease of the building, so they can’t understand why the council is so keen to empty the building out.
Updated Friday 3 February
A newly-formed group of centre users and Hammersmith trades council members occupied the Hammersmith information and visitor centre in Hammersmith on Tuesday (the centre is in Unit 20, Hammersmith Broadway, W6 9YD).
The council planned to close the information centre down as part of its austerity cuts programme, but protestors denied the council entry when removal staff arrived to clear the building on Tuesday.
The occupiers have a set of keys to the centre and the council does not.
Gwen Cook, a Hammersmith trades council member and occupier told me that the occupiers planned to continue their protest past this week. They expected things to get more difficult next week if the council made a decision about gaining access. “What can they do, though? Are they going to kick the doors in to a building on the Broadway?”
Cook said it was “disgusting” that the council was planning to close the information centre. The information centre had been a vital public space for voluntary and community groups in the middle of Hammersmith for many years. Meeting space and public building options for voluntary groups in the borough were reduced considerably last week when about 20 voluntary groups were forced out of Palingswick House on King’s Street to make way for Toby Young’s freeschool.
“People think the Tories win everything, but they don’t. We don’t want to just hand it [the information centre] to them.”
From the occupiers’ press release and subsequent interviews (they were still there on Friday):
“The Hammersmith information and visitor centre has served the borough for many years. During that time, it has hosted new community organisations and helped them to grow. It has provided a resource for small unfunded local groups to meet. It has provided a gallery space for local artists and photographers to showcase their work. Above all, it has served as an information and visitor centre helping visitors and residents to find their way around the borough, to seek out social and commercial services and has been a friendly face to thousands of people seeking help.
The centre has been staffed entirely by experienced and expert volunteers during its lifetime.
In this 2012 Olympics Year and Royal Jubilee year, many more visitors are expected in the borough. Is it a good idea to close the only place visitors can go to get information and help in this vast city of ours?”
Update Thursday 2 February:
Went down to the information centre this evening after work and spoke to the occupiers.
Chris Tranchell, from the Hammersmith Community Trust, said the trust, which had used the information centre for about nine years for meetings and community activities, had known for months that the centre was likely to be closed. (For several years now, the council has been closing and selling popular public buildings, in the face of major opposition from local people. The council inevitably argues that buildings and services are underutilised. Service and building users always say different. Tranchell shows me artwork, folders, signs, pictures, photos and other material belonging to community groups which use the centre. They’ve left their equipment and stocks in the centre for now, because they have no other buildings or rooms to move things to. The centre is just full of those belongings. That was the material that the removal workers were meant to take away on Tuesday.
Tranchell says the council told the trust that the centre would be “given back” to Hammersmith Broadway’s landlords, so he and other members of the trust went to talk to the landlords to ask if they and other community groups could somehow stay on at the centre. Tranchell says that the landlords were surprised to hear that the building was to be “returned” to their custody – that seemed to be news to them.
He said Labour MP Andrew Slaughter was looking into this for them. Tranchell and his group want to negotiate continued community use of the building with the council and the Broadway’s landlords. He said the council gave the trust a list of about 140 alternative community buildings to use, but that a lot of the organisations in charge of those buildings were charging commercial rates. “They don’t seem to be making these decisions [about closing public buildings] with the community in mind.”