Leeds, January 2006

What might be the first UK-wide gathering of social centres took place at the Commonplace social centre in Leeds and was a very friendly, informative and constructive experience. It was also a positive step in the creation of a working network of social centres. Some 60 people attended from past centres like ex-Grand Banks, Institute for Autonomy (London), PAD (Cardiff), current spaces like Kebele (Bristol), LARC (London), Matilda (Sheffield), Basement (Manchester), Sumac (Nottingham), Chalkboard (Glasgow), Common Place (leeds), Hanover Squares (leeds), 1-in-12 (Bradford), the Square (London) and future initiatives in Preston, Liverpool and Newcastle.

After enjoying the commonplace café collective’s regular Sunday vegan brunch (which has been packing the place out for the past month), some 60 people watched a montage of clips about social centres and other autonomous spaces from across Europe in the Common Place cinema.

There was then a go round which took about an hour in the end such were the range and depth of presentations by those present. Here is a summary of what was said –

London. Successful temporary squats in Central London have created different effects depending on where they have been located, some being in central commercial locations reaching passers-by, and others in residential areas making a real connection with local communities. WOMBLES have been involved in various attempts to use the tactics of social centres.

In January 2002, The Radical Dairy was occupied and ran for some 14 months in Stoke Newington. Between Jan and March 2004, we occupied an old community centre in Kentish Town on Fortess Rd, which gave birth to the “anti-copyright cinema” (films were “premiered” weeks, sometimes months before being officially released) which proved to be a success in the area.

We then occupied an old wine bar “Grand Banks”, a few blocks down the same road. The Ex-Grand Banks was a big success. It ran regular events, had hundreds of people from the area attend every week, and was used by a mixture of local kids (every lunchtime we have upwards of 50 school children, lunch was organised by donation and some of the older kids started helping behind the counter), parents, some teachers. During the week it was more like an extension of the school and was used like a common room. A recent newspaper article by a youth in Camden New Journal bemoaned the closure of ex-Grand Banks as a place where kids could hang out and feel respected – a kid was recently stabbed nearby.

Between Feb and July 2005, we were involved in the Institute For Autonomy in Gower Street, which was run by a collective made up of Univerisity of London students and other assorted refugees from Grand Banks (!). The IFA, located close to the university/student area became used by a variety of political groups as well as hosting various labs (hacklab, screen printing, photolab, infoshop/bookstall) held a cafe three times a week offering top-quality food attracting workers, students and lecturers from around the area. It also housed upwards of 15 people and provided housing for people who were on their way to attend the anti-G8 actions in Gleneagles.

Other social centres in London include RampART (squatted) since May 2004, and London Action Resource Centre (owned) since 2001. In the last month, in co-operation with a student anarchist group, a new squatted social centre has been launched in Russell Square – called the Square. The university has already won a repossession order but squatters are trying to create alliances with University staff and students to keep the space.

Bristol. The Kebele Social centre has been operating for 10 years and is mainly funded by a housing co-op situated above. Facilities include a library and resource centre, and space for community activities such as circus skills workshops and refugee support.

Nottingham. The Sumac Centre has been in its current building, which it owns, for 5 years. A private members bar and café rent space in the building and rooms are regularly let to a range of different groups from archeology clubs to refugee artists. It also rents out space to ASBO social centre activists who are in the process of setting up another social centre in Nottingham and there are some residential rooms upstairs that are also being let. ASBO social centre has been going for 4 months. It’s in a council owned building and has very strong community involvement, something helped persuade the council to give them the building. Its Situated in a large building containing many different flats, the space is divided between residential flats and space for a free shop, print resources & computers, an art workshop, a bike workshop and kitchen which provides cheap food and has regular user groups such as a Kurdish film club.

Glasgow. The Chalkboard social centre is situated between a yuppified West End, the centre of town and a run down residential area – Mary Hill. The centre’s primary focus is to attract and welcome the involvement of the local community by engaging in campaigns that are immediately relevant to local residents such as supporting tenancy associations and battling corruption and gentrification. They want to produce a citizen’s user manual for people to cope with different aspects of living in struggle.

Liverpool. A group emerging out of Liverpool social forum is looking into the possibility of setting up a social centre in the basement of ‘News from Nowhere’ radical bookshop

Sheffield. Situated in a very central location in Sheffield, Matilda social centre operates an info shop, exhibition space, bookshop, cinema, hack lab, meeting space and café. They’ve managed to be financially sustainable through the money made by selling food at the café and books in the bookshop. The building has been run by a guy from a local record label for a while and was illegally sold by Sheffield Hallam Uni so they are occupying it – they don’t pay rent.

Preston. A group of people in Preston are trying to get together and set up a space. One of their main problems is building support for such a project, since a lot of the potential energy in the area, especially amongst students and young people is being sucked dry by independent parties and their shitty politics.

Bradford. The 1 in 12 has been a collective for 25 years, initially putting on events around different venues in Bradford. They’ve owned their own premises for 18 years which they managed to buy with an inner city regeneration grant. They have a very active gig venue and a football team is run from there. One of the things they are challenged with at the moment is trying to maintain people’s enthusiasm and commitment.

Manchester. The Basement is in central Manchester and it runs an infoshop, exhibition space, bookshop, asylum seeker project and a vegan café used by lots of city workers. The café pays rent on space, but they’ve also received help from the Ethical Property Co. which offered to buy the property for them. They also have a whole load of equipment which belongs to the social centre netwok such as: marquee, kitchen equipment, sound system, solar panels to run it all.

Cardiff. A group in Cardiff have been experimenting with squatted and legal spaces to get a feel of how they want to run their centre and also to get the confidence of organizing events and spaces that they feel they need in order to set up a permanent space.

Leeds. The Commonplace has been going for about a year, renting a disused factory in heart of yuppy corporate quarter called the Calls.

Newcastle. A group in Newcastle that have been working together for a year & a half, are currently negotiating a building in a central park of Newcastle which is between the city centre and the more ‘underdeveloped’ west end. It needs £30 grand worth of repairs and the group are in the process of putting together a business plan and legal constitution and will appreciate any technical help. Plans for the space include a resource centre and meeting space, which are both really needed in Newcastle, and also a cinema, gig and art space.
The presentations gave a lot of us a sense of being part of a broader political movement and were followed by a wide-ranging discussion about what we are trying to achieve, some of the problems and shortfalls involved and in what ways we can work together.

Not everyone agreed on why a network was needed but everyone seemed to think that better communication and sharing of resources was a good start. Three aspects were identified as being the main priorities and reasons for the formation of the network:

(1) The need to share information, advice and support on the legal, operational and practical questions surrounding the setting up & running of political social spaces. There was a clear call for a pool of resources, where advice documents such as the Guide to Licences put together by the Common Place can be downloaded and used by others trying to set up. It was also noted that there is a need to put together a list of contact details of individuals or groups with specific skills that can offer specific advice to any group that needs it.

(2) The desire to share programming information from selection of films for festivals to being able to book local and international speakers from one centre to the others. There was also a suggestion to put together a programme listing what’s happening in all the different social centres across the country, similar to the Infosurpa events list for squats and social centres in London.

(3) The desire to exchange ideas, opinions and political views by reflecting on our different experiences of being involved in these projects. To create a platform from which to exchange not only practical skills, but also angles and political positions on the issues involved in setting up and running social centres. One suggestion was that the debate will assist each project to reach its full political potential.


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