Radical political analysis, commentary and discussion in Wales
Dadansoddiad a thrafodaeth radicalaidd o wleidyddiaeth yng Nghymru
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Community squatting comes to Swansea

In the space of a month, Swansea saw three subsequent squats taken by a community squatting group. With a generally supportive public, surprised authorities and an angry local press, the project has now stopped to rest and refresh. In a short but busy time it hosted a free shop, open-mic nights, constant music sessions, art, crochet, hitchhiking and squatting workshops, film nights, a library, exhibitions and countless cups of tea – all free of charge. Its aim was to be community space for the people of Swansea. Attended by Swansea’s workers, unemployed, homeless, refugees, ex-drug addicts, young people and pensioners, all enjoying a free cuppa, I believe it served it's purpose.

Like so many of Wales’ post-industrial towns, Swansea’s city centre is full of empty and unused buildings, whilst areas for community projects are lacking. After several open meetings in a local pub following the Christmas period, the ad-hoc 'Cwtch' group (Cwtch being Welsh both for cuddle and a safe-place) challenged this. In the early hours of Monday 30th January, CCTV would have seen several individuals enter via a ladder and some awkward scrambling through an open window and into the disused Dolphin Hotel. With this comic Mission Impossible act, some new locks and Section 6 notices, Swansea had its first open squat for a decade. The documented open window meant we had not broken an entry, and had legitimate squatters’ rights. Some peeved city rangers arrived with the morning and later on some police officers and officials from the fire brigade. Group members went around informing the local shops as they opened, who were on the whole positive - and warn them about the police’s response time for the street.

The 66 room Dolphin Hotel with its prime city-centre location had been vacant for two years, its grand conference and ball rooms left to waste. Margret Thatcher herself had even spoken there in its heyday. On 31st January however it was opened as a free cafe, not for Conservative politicians, but for Swansea’s masses. As the week went on press publicity brought incredible numbers of visitors, but also a large number of donations (ranging from innumerable loaves of bread to sofas), ideas, workshop requests and eager volunteers.

We did not have the skills nor numbers to put up the homeless at night (though many of the initial group were homeless, and those we did get to know were told they could). It did however serve as a place they felt welcomed at in the day, able to take what they needed and sharing their own hours, skills and stories. We attempted to work with other homeless support groups, including the local Krishna monks who held their brilliant soup kitchen there on one occasion. I felt especially happy when some of the local refugee population whom I volunteer with came along and enjoyed. This, along with the constant presence of noisy children, I think proves that it was a place people felt safe and secure, living up to the name “Cwtch”.

The Cwtch group was run completely openly and consensus based. Despite the press attempting to single out an individual leader, anybody attending a meeting was a member of Cwtch’s leaderless decision process. I think a good measure of our openness and wider success was the fact that our later meetings were made up of new faces and were a great deal bigger.

The squat was not a political message – it was not done under the Occupy banner, and its demographic came to reflect that. This, alongside the strict no-drink and no-drugs policy, helped challenge the perception of squats as either hardcore anarcho-punk scenes or as a lawless place for drug abuse. Despite these facts, in our alienating and profit-driven society, to make a community in an empty building is controversial and political act in itself. This is particularly true when the empty building's lease holder is Swiss bank UBS, as was the case at the Dolphin. Before long the local press turned against us, fabricating a lie about us causing “flooding” and “chaos” in the city centre*. Little more should be expected from the less than reliable Evening Post, a paper owned by the Daily Mail.

The owner of the Dolphin’s sub-lease, who refused to speak with us despite our polite letters and request for an agreement – perhaps a stay of three weeks - was adamant about taking us to court. The judge praised our “meritorious work” after seeing the hundreds of signatures and personal stories we had collected, but said the case was without discretion and the court evictions order was issued on the 14th February.

Not to be put down, the community centre was not closed for a day, and the authorities were shocked to see we had squatted a new building – the old JT Morgans Department store, directly opposite the Police Station. The Dolphin was peacefully evicted and the items moved straight into the new building. Without electricity nor much warmth, few of the things held at the Dolphin could be provided, and it was far less busy. The quiet, large, three storey building did serve wonderfully as an art exhibition open for any to display their work – mostly adorned with the products of students from the Swansea Metropolitan University. Not worth fighting the eviction – again a fast-track interim possession order due to it being a commercial band building, the Cwtch moved on.

By the 24th February it’s gear had been moved to Earlsmoor (renamed “Serfsmoor”), a council owned ex-respite home which was to be demolished, located by Singleton Park. Out of the way, despite local Brynmill residents’ support, there were very few visitors. The location would have been perfect for more formal workshops in the longer term, but with a possession order already on the horizon it became almost a respite home for the Cwtch, until it was evicted on the 1st March.

By then we were the Evening Posts’ “serial squatters”, a title we hold proudly, but it was agreed that a rest was needed. Swansea’s authorities, who had called in additional police from Port-Talbot and Bridgend because of our antics, probably needed one as well. Still holding regular meetings, Cwtch hopes to reawaken later this year, hopefully with a more permanent space.

* Contrary to the Evening Post’s article, the Crepe Vine did not receive any leak nor “flooding” as claimed. It, and the employee featured in the picture, remained strong supporters of the Cwtch project, allowing us to use their water. A card shop down the road did have a small leak when the water supply was turned on to the building, when Welsh water who we had already consulted for advice immediately cut of the water supply at our request. Indeed, the false article meant that Crepe Vine had to have health inspectors and close temporarily, so it could be claimed that the Evening Post and not Cwtch were harming local business in the area.