Social Centres are legal or illegal, temporary or permanent spaces intended to facilitate the exchange, development and praxis of autonomous politics. They are part of a network of ‘autonomous spaces’ including info-shops, resource centres, land squats, housing co-operatives to name a few. These spaces have arisen in an attempt to reclaim space in an era when public space, services and amenities are under attack from the new enclosures. In cities, this has been manifested over the past 30 years by the neoliberalisation of urban space – cities have become increasingly privatised, subject to surveillance, and dominated by the needs of global, footloose multinational corporations.
Social centres are part of this movement against enclosure – a desire to reclaim and create spaces that respond to need not profit. We see them playing three important roles:
Each social centre is different, variously containing a bar, cafe, performance spaces, meeting rooms, radical libraries and workshops. They are normally run through open working groups and on a not-for-profit basis. There are around a dozen such social centres in the UK, some of which started as squats. Many of them have been inspired by movements in other countries such as the Italian Occupied Social Centres Movement, the large northern European squatting movement, and the autonomous communities of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico.
For this case study, we have been looking into the historical development of the UK social centres movement in the UK and we are hoping to produce a number of resources and guides which can be used by the social centre movement.
There is increasing interaction between social centres in the UK – visits, shared events, gigs, talks and resources. There has also been a desire to create a stronger identity amongst these centres, promote more joint events, strengthen solidarity and develop strategies. To these ends, there have been two networking gatherings of social centres organised in recent years. The first was at the Common Place social centre in Leeds in January 2006; the second was held one year later in Bradford at the 1in12 Club. Activists from over a dozen social centres attended these meetings and progress was made towards establishing a website, linking up events, sharing resources, knowledge, tactics and strategies, joint political campaigns (specically against racist immigration controls as part of the No Borders network, and climate change through the Camp for Climate Action), and a social centres book. A website has been set up -“www.socialcentresnetwork.org.uk”:http://www.socialcentresnetwork.org.uk/.
The London social centres scene has been extremely busy lately. A number of occupied social centres have taken place such as the Radical Dairy in Stoke Newington in 2003, Grand Banks in Camden in 2005, the Square in Russell Square Central London in 2006 and now most recently at the old Vortex Jazz Club in Stoke Newington from January 2007 – see London Social Centre website. The Vortex has now been evicted but only after strong local opposition (1000 signature petition) that has seen Starbucks climb down from their interest in the building. Following models from Barcelona and Italy, a group has also established Infousurpa (literally ‘squat information’), which is a weekly digest of all information happening across social centres in London. There hasn’t been one for a while, but the idea is still there.
Focusing down, we are working closely with one social centre collective in Newcastle in the north of England that is in the planning stages of trying to establish a social centre in the city. The idea came from a direct action network in the city called ‘Why don’t you?’ and for the last 6 months the group has been working on a business plan and constitution to present to the city council in order to get a tenancy on a public building in a park. The building they want to use, currently a large ex park keepers house, needs a fair amount of renovation and they are undertaking a feasibility study to prepare the next steps and ideas.
The group aims to establish a volunteer-run, not for profit centre with a strong environmental and community-outreach focus, organised through consensus and horizontality bringing together a number of working collectives such as cafe, events, cinema, bookshop, library. There is not one set view of how the group hopes the centre to develop and they are keen for it to be an open and inclusive place which can act as a platform for the people of Newcastle to engage with radical ideas that challenge the way we live, especially in terms of ecologically unsustainable living practices.
Hodkinson, S. & Chatterton, P. (2006), ‘Autonomy in the City?Initial reflections on the social centres movement in the UK plus pamphlet version
Chatterton & Hodkinson (2007), Why we need social centres in the struggle against capitalism (includes chapter on ‘how to set up a social centre’), in Trapese Collective (2007), ‘Do It Yourself
Various (2008), What’s this place? Stories from Radical Social Centres in UK and Ireland