Common Ground Community Garden was created early this year by local residents, squatters and activists on derelict council owned land. For five years the council had left three buildings and the surrounding land in Silver Street as a junkyard, filled with trash and needles. When a cut in council funding meant that the voluntary 'Womens Information Centre' next door also became derelict, squatters moved in, and quickly decided to do something about the site next to them. From January to May, they worked directly-democratically, using recycling and the generosity of neighbours and family to create a community garden.
Two days before the opening day on May 19th, Reading Council began to respond in the same way they planned to carry on: with criminalisation and threats. Of course, the collective also set their tone: resistance! The council secured an injunction banning the open day and up to 200 local residents ignored it, enjoying the garden, live music and a BBQ. The council then secured an injunction banning the daily opening of the garden and the holding of community events. Yet every day for the next five months the garden was open to all, and has been enjoyed by many local residents of all ages and colours. Some even took the initiative to regularly work in the garden, weeding and cutting the grass. Meanwhile more community BBQ's were held throughout the summer. The council then obtained an eviction order to evict the squatters and close down the garden. Twice, in June and August, local residents and activist friends mobilised to defend the garden, and both times the council chickened out. Finally, on October 18th council officials and baillifs, backed up by cops, evicted the squatters and dragged one local resident (also an AFer) from the garden, before boarding the site up.
However, it aint over yet! Since that day, the buildings have been repeatedly re-opened by squatters and re-sealed by builders, pissing the council off no end. Less-positively the garden began to return to the state of disrepair it was in a year ago, as vandalism and theft crept back in. So, this week, people involved in Common Ground decided to re-open the garden - an act which is not illegal. However, since when has the law ever mattered to people in power? Cops in an ummarked car arrested the three gardeners half way through their task. When they phoned the council to ask if they wanted the gardeners arrested, the reply overheard was "yes, so we can get a photo of their faces". The three were nicked for 'attempted burglary and going equipped' before being added to the DNA database and held in the cells for eight hours. Eventually, after explaining to the interviewing cops that they werent breaking into a building, but opening the garden (as they had originally explained to the arresting officers!), the three were released without charge.
The reasons for the councils attacks on this wondeful community initiative are obvious: They want to privatise the site, dumping their responsibility to use land to fulfill social needs and facilitating a developer making huge profits. The company in question is named Unite, and plan to build private student accomodation (renowned for ripping students off), despite the university holding two student halls buildings empty round the corner so they can flog them for development into more unnafordable flats - its all about profit over people. Despite this, Common Ground aim to offer their services to the authorities as 'caretakers' for the site, while planning a campaign against the development and for a directly-democratic process for the community to decide what happens to the site long-term. In addition, they plan to re-open the garden next weekend for a one-day community event.
Meanwhile a little way down the road, similar processes are at work, as profiteering bosses are seeking the eviction of up to 40 squatters. Townsend House is a 53 bedroom building, in the same area as Common Ground which was originally run by a charity as a shelter for vulnerable women. However, in what looks like a seriously dodgy deal, the building was 'internally' sold in 2006 to the charities parent company for less than £100,000 and the women were re-housed by the council! The property then stood empty for a year before being squatted in June this year. Since then it has become home to a diverse community of people, including migrants, families with children, unemployed or retired workers and assorted young people. It is organised through weekly assemblies, and though definitely not perfect, it is an interesting example of a self-managed community.
Of course, now the corporation wants it back, ironically claiming they want to 'house vulnerable people'! A recent court hearing gave the squatters a three week adjournment, but no doubt the law will protect the bosses 'property rights' over the needs of the residents in the end. However, it looks possible that the residents could resist eviction through direct-action if legal means fail, and local activists could lend their support.
For more info or to offer your support and help to either of these projects please contact