The Social Centre Bulletin: The Ups and Downs of the Cwtch

Eight years ago, near enough to the day, a handful of activists and homeless had some plans. The rain was chucking it down as we were stood outside our goal sizing the building up. It had been sitting empty for years, neglected and falling apart, a local icon left to fade. It was a suitable candidate for a pop up social centre, with a dozen large rooms, kitchen space, a welcoming atrium and, like I say, it was bloody pouring it down. Three of the crew would be sleeping on the streets that night, the city centre location was ideal and we were wet. So we jumped the gun. On finding a way in, we left out plans to the wayside and squatted the old Odeon cinema in Manchester and named it the “Cwtch Centre”.

It would be our home for a few hours tho, as after a very exciting urban exploration we discovered that it was asbestos ridden. While we started to gather the crew together, the place echoed with the banging of the police on our fire escape entry. We informed them of our squatters rights, they smashed the huge steel doors out of their frame. I had to kick the doors open to eventually let them in and was greeted with a pistol in my face, several armed men from S019, a couple of TAU vans, dog unit and a night kip in Swindon police station.

We had been armed with twenty minutes reading on squatting law and high spirits for establishing a pop up social centre in Manchester and our naivety was telling. It was an educational experience and one that I aimed to do better with next time.

I’ve spent part of the past week sharing thoughts and advice with the squatters of Hamilton House in Chester, who, like the legends they are, having been turfed out of their makeshift home, moved onto another building. They’ve realised that there is absolutely no reason why anyone needs to be out on the streets in the rain and the cold and are taking action. Our cities are rife with abandoned commercial and industrial units and they are there for the taking. Their crew is held together by the protest campaign which they’ve put together, they want the Local Authority to do better by the Chester’s homeless, provide support and housing. Until then they are going to squat the lot.

You should too.

If you are on the streets, get yourself off them and squat an old unit. Heck, even if you have a house, if you are able to secure a roof for others, Do it. Those of us with the privilege of secure accommodation and resources are in a position where we can establish pop up social spaces with relative ease and let’s be honest, relative security. Most police forces will think very little about chucking a couple of rough sleepers out into the rain again, whether that’s from a tent or an old shop. A group of relatively privileged anarchos who know the law? Sometimes it’s a bit different.

Taking us back to eight years ago, a small band of us did this very thing. The notion was simple a pop up social centre, in the heart of the city (Now Swansea) that would be an open and welcoming refuge for all who would need it. In the end we would establish four squatted social centres over a few months and here is a brief account of the ups and downs, shared with the hope that you will realise you can do it too (and better).

The first thing we were going to need was a crew, so up went a Facebook post, a couple of friends given a nudge and a random time picked to meet in the pub. Over two meetings we put together a crew of near 30, with 5/8 people willing to spend a serious amount of time running the place. We ranged from 16 to 60 and came from across the political spectrum. As the crew came together, the vision developed and by the time we were gearing up to squat we had established that the “Cwtch Community Centre” would be a city central pop up social centre that would be open daily to provide a warm refuge and creative space. We would essentially be a free cafe and a port in the storm with a lean towards arts and rebellion.

The first task would be to find and secure a building. I’m not getting too much into the art of squatting here but least to say, this time around we did our research. If you are planning a hit, do your research, read a squatting guide and scout places out. Over the course of a couple of weeks, we investigated every building in Central Swansea that fit our requirements for size and quality. A few of them required being a bit inventive to get access into, but there were dozens. I hadn’t realised it until I was looking but our cities or littered with such buildings. Once you get that squatters eye, you can’t help noticing the open windows, boards ripped off, doors left ajar etc.

Eventually it came down to a few buildings: an old bingo hall, a Pizza hut and a old hotel. All three had open windows, the crew had a vote and we went for the The Dolphin Hotel; a vast building in the heart of the city. This kind of recon is vital, don’t just jump on the first opportunity. If you are planning to be there for a while, check it out first. If you have the means, look up who owns it, are they liable to be trouble? If it’s owned by some bank or the council (who tend to have lists of their “available” properties on their websites btw, you’re probably golden. Check for asbestos, do the electrics work, is is a shit hole? That kind of thing. Do a tally of what you’ll need to secure it, what kind of locks are on the doors? What’s the best way to remove and replace them?

At six in the morning quite blazon we walked with our ladders down the main shopping street of Swansea, climbed up to the window and gained access. Bosh.

For the crack we had broken ourselves to three teams.

The cracking team were to go into the building armed with the gear to secure it and lock the building down. The very first task they had was to secure the front door, then move onto the fire escapes, roof access and, as the hotel sat above a bank of shops and a markets, they made sure to close any access. This team was composed of fit and healthy people who were steady and calm in their manner and experienced with a bit of DIY. They were also responsible for sticking up the Section 6 “squatting notices” on the window and mapping out the building.

The second team, composed of warm and welcoming faces, set up a table out the front, prepared to offer a brew to anyone passing by and announce our presence. Being slap bang in the middle of the main shopping artery of Swansea we were never going to be clandestine – tho that’s well worth exploring depending on your location – so we decided to confront that by centring our most fierce volunteers. Three grans armed with a kettle and some cake.

It was actually quite a few hours before the police even took note. We had deliberately chosen 6am on a Friday morning because we knew the police would be in a quiet lull after a busy night. In reality they hadn’t even noticed. Eventually however the councils rangers came along to see what the hell was happening outside the market and on seeing the situation called the police.

This is where the third team came in. Erudite and educated in the law, the final crew were to be the legal face of the Cwtch crew. See, here’s the thing, the police do not know the laws around squatting, so you must. In Manchester, we were not only unsure in ourselves but we did not engage the police in a dialogue they could work with, and the results were telling. In Swansea, the moment they turned up two of us, plus someone with a camera approached them and politely informed them that the building was now being occupied by “The Cwtch Community”. We told them our size (inflated) and composition (so they didn’t think it was simply a bunch of young lads they could get away with smacking up) and informed them of the law. We handed them a section six notice as well as a print out of the government regulations themselves. We walked them around to the window we had used for entry, told them the time we entered, showed them video of our entry and informed them which CCTV cameras we had waved at as we entered.

They requested entry “for safety purposes” which we kindly declined. If we gave them entry, and they then refused to leave, we would be scuppered. Instead, we told them to come back tomorrow when we open to the public. Left with the optics of barging past some folk handing out free tea to smash down a door and violently eject some peaceful, legally savvy occupiers and coming back the next day having had time to assess the situation they chose to declare it a civil matter and go home.

Meanwhile, the first team had taken to making sure the fuse box was safe and getting the electrics running. They also gave a business-like call to the water company and informed them that there were now families in residence. They were out by the end of the day to switch us back on.

The cards were now in our hands.

(I’m sure many of our Squatting comrades are pretty horrified at that methodology and such blazon tactics are HIGHLY subject to the kind of crew you have. A city over in Cardiff, The Red and Black Umbrella was taken some time before, and they made no such allowances and were very successful at providing a community hub. They however were composed of healthy young renegades with a lot of experience is causing trouble, their situation was different and the folks in that position today around the country don’t need so vague guide on a website to tell them how to get on it.)

We opened up the next morning at 9am, a free cafe in the heart of town. When to police rocked up expecting resistance we handed them a cup of tea and invited them inside. This was a massive gambit and only possible due to out perceived privilege set and passive manner. We chose to present them with a timeline and tick their boxes. As their inspection finished, the conveniently timed journalists began arriving. They said they would be back and left us too it. Over the next few days, they would return with various support, first it was the fire brigade who told us they would shut us down the next day if the building wasn’t fire safe, so we drew an evacuation plan, fix the smoke detectors and had a friendly spark connect up the fire alarm system. Then it was the council, concerned about the water system. So we organised the delivery of barrels of drinking water from a nearby small holding each day. Then they gave up.

During this time we set about doing the good work of a social centre. Through the day, we provided a safe refugee for anyone and everyone equally. Whether you were a sex worker looking for a break or just out grabbing your bits, homeless and looking for warmth or a busker after a break, we had a free cup of tea and some grub waiting for you. In the evenings we hosted small classes, open mic nights and general spent the time winding down.

This wind down time is vital. Running a social centre is hard work and a squatted one even more so. The pressure tends to mount on a hand full of people and it can boil over. Personality conflicts can happen and peoples energy waxes and wanes. The best fix for this is a mixture of casual meetings to share responsibilities and crew stepping away and taking down time. We took a bit to long working out the rhythm of “day time rules” and “night time rules” and had the odd bit of drama but that’s all part of life, nothing is perfect and you shouldn’t expect your political actions to be either. Just approach it with an attitude of mutual aid and compromise and you’ll be alright. Try to make every discussion and tiff a progressive one, always looking for the way forward. Can’t say we always managed this, but it’s still the best protocol to have.

You have to ask yourself “What is the aim of this space?”. Our initial place was to simply have a free cafe and a community arts space more than anything. What we actually became was a safe refuge for the cities forgotten. This went from people trapped in substance misuse to lonely older people, “feral youth”, to those isolated by mental health issue. We decided to do our best to adapt of provide the space the city required rather than arrogantly pursue our somewhat whimsical intentions.

Instead of arts space, we forced of soft furnishings and day time events. Instead of stirring up an some rebellion, we provided support and advice. We began a safe space for people who had never heard the concept and a conduit between themselves and services they did not know exist. This isn’t to say we were a success on all grounds. Our internal politics were torn between those who were dedicating vast portions of their time and those who only turned up for the odd meeting. Their was informal authorities building up and difficulties in keeping collective unity. This ranged from silly things like policing decisions not to smoke or drink in the building as per the collectives decision up to quite serious failings such as having a vast hotel available and not letting people outside the collective use it. This being a compromise between the council’s concerns over “fire safety” and the wider collective who felt keeping the communal space not worth risking. The result being that we only ever used a very small portion of the space.

As the legal challenge to our stay, we attempted to turn the issue to forcing the local council to provide a community hub. We invited them to a meeting, which they refused to attend. We sent in several requests and even a formal application at one point, to no response. This was a Labour council which promotes itself on being “progressive” and very modern. Like the rest, they are in the hands of the corporations and their political parties. If I learnt anything during that time it’s that you cannot trust the council. No matter the platitudes, they are not going to help you or support you in any way. Their support only comes when they can politically profit from you and it is locked behind red tape and bureaucracy that will never be accessible to most. Our communities can only rely on ourselves.

We eventually had our day in court and were given an eviction order.
Very shortly after we had squatted other two buildings.

The first was a local Pizza Hut, which we did on request of an individual member who wanted to branch out. The second one was JP Morgan which sat opposite the Magistrates’ Court and the Central Police station. Splitting like this was a massive error. The former very quickly became a residential squat and tho it stuck around for few months, it was quickly put into tension with the latter which remained “Cwtch” due to the fact that it was a much better suited building and free of the collective manner and social justice motive was, frankly, more fun. JP Morgan was a vast and empty shell of a building which we did not recon enough.

The owners of JP Morgan said they were about to make a deal with the building, so we agreed a three week time line with them and made it a holding space and, for a spell, an art gallery. With escalating personal drama and tension, we needed a fix. The core group took an executive decision to take a fourth building.

An abandoned care home on the edge of the central area named Earlsmore.

We squatted this with the support of more practised comrades and did so very efficiently. When the private security turned up, all irate, they were met with two reasonable capable lads who knew their law. The police told the security that they were not even going to bother coming as we had a proven track record of keeping it above board.

The place was, quite frankly, perfect.
We renamed it Serfsmore.

If I have an ideal building for a social space it is this.

Three points of entry, one into a secluded back yard, the other heavily secured and the third we used as it had a “air lock” between two lockable doors. The building had a dozen separate rooms, a kitchen space, multiple bathrooms, two large rooms, and multiple storage space. It was in great condition and the corporation that owned it had just stepped back from re-development because they local community didn’t want it changing into a block of flats. It had roof access, it’s own off-road parking and, notable, was small enough to manage efficiently. If I can suggest any venue for a social centre it would be abandoned care homes, seconded by things like doctors offices and older style pubs, both of which I’ve seen done with great success.

Sadly success wasn’t in our cards. One third of the initial crew was now hanging around the Pizza Hut just getting on with life, another third had been burnt out by the high pace of activity and the reality of Winter concluding meant there was less “social imperative” to provide such a space. Half dozen of us had the ideal space and nowhere to take it. We held it for a couple of weeks, one night we had to leave it empty due to duties elsewhere and low numbers and the next day we had found that someone else had gotten in. We could have stayed but after a few months, we needed a bit of kip.

If I was in a position to do it again, it would have been Serfsmore in the first place, while the energy was high. We discounted it because we felt it lacked footfall and would anyone come? The answer it YES!, provided you ain’t out up in the sticks, people will wander a bit for events and the like at their local social centre. You don’t need to be slap bang in the thick of it where the local plod and busy bods in the council a going to have conniptions.

So anyways, that’s the ups and downs of a pop up social centre. We made plenty of mistakes sure, however, I still bump into people at demos who tell me it is the first place they encounters notions like Anarchism, where they realised they CAN take action and do things. I know on the back off it there were three residential squats in the city and at least four people managed to use the time to get themselves together and off the streets, one of whom told me “It was the first time in months anyone cared about what happened to me”, which, heck, isn’t that the entire point of these things? We live in a society with thousands of people stuck in a most horrific cycle. It can happen so quickly and take so much of who you are away over just a few nights. It’s October, The rain has already been coming down hard and we’re looking to have a cruel and brutal winter. If you have the politics, passion and capacity, now is the time to start thinking about what you can do in solidarity.

I would spend a long time looking to groups like Streets Kitchen who have done some blinding actions in London and maintain several hubs for support and grub at the moment. Setting up a space, whether it’s to be a social centre, bunkhouse of hub for rebellion is one of the most difficult and rewarding tasks an Anarchist can take on. Don’t wait until the snow is two foot thick to plot and plan, and heck, don’t wait for the snow at all. The abuses of the city are not seasonal and whether your focus is on providing respite for the downtrodden or provided a hub for your community, anytime is a good time.

You are going to fuck up at times but keep cracking on.
These spaces are vital for our communities and those who operate them, whether temporary or permanent show some of the best praxis you’ll find. The Cwtch Community were at the end of the day, a pretty naive bunch of folk with Anarchistic tendencies but what we did shook up the conversation in Swansea for quite some time and it set quite a few people off on journeys that would forever change them, friendships were built and ideas exchanges and quite frankly every city should have such places.

Only you can make it happen.

Looking for a bit of inspiration tho?

The Social Centres Network is having a gathering in Liverpool next month on the 2nd and 3rd at Next to Nowhere. The SCN provide a conduit which Social Centres use to liaise and develop the wider community, pooling resources and having a shared voice.

If you have interest in getting you and yours together and setting up such a space whether short lived or eternal it is well worth giving them a nudge and perhaps heading along to Liverpool to share your thoughts and get some advice.

Finally, we have The 1 in 12 in Bradford, who has been kicking ass and chewing bubblegum since 1981 has a few days left of their Fundraiser which is currently falling somewhat short of the mark. Their gaff is in need of extensive work to repair, maintain & upgrade the facilities in order to keep their doors open. It’s looking like a £12,000 bill and so far it’s just under £3.400. Given that they host so many fundraisers, benefit events and heck even the recent radical bookfair it would be nice to see some solidarity back! So do them a solid and share it around with your networks and social media pages etc. If a thousand people slipped then a cheeky tenner they’d be laughing.

Here is a link to their fundraiser on chuffed.

I recon we’re looking at a Bulletin every couple of months at the moment so expect the next one in December heavy seasonal cheer powered by home-brew mulled wine.

Peter Ó Máille