Reclaiming our land: the Barbican Community Centre

For one week in June 2021, a derelict plot – which once housed a public swimming pool but was sold off to developers in 2004 – was reclaimed by York residents, and a boat called Sue. Patrick Thelwell and Ginevra House tell the story of that brief occupation, its violent end, and the new community born from it.

Patrick Thelwell standing in front of his boat, Sue
Patrick Thelwell and Ginevra House
Patrick and Lucy’s story

How can we create a community that uses our different skills and talents to improve the lives of local people, reclaim land, and do so in a democratic way that truly builds back better? How can we act in a way that’s intentional, rather than our energies being sapped through bureaucratic structures aimed at maintaining a status quo that quashes freedom, creativity and community in favour of private profit?

These are the questions we found ourselves pondering in June 2021 after taking over a derelict site in York, a former local swimming pool that had lain abandoned for 14 years after being sold to Persimmon. The occupation started with less lofty aims – needed a space to store my boat, Sue, and found the site with its gates hanging open. So, I just towed the boat in and started living in it. Thus, the Barbican Community Centre was born!

After we hung up a banner, people started coming down almost immediately. They’d say things like, ‘I’ve lived next door for 20 years, I used to take my children swimming here – it breaks my heart to see it abandoned.’ People were so happy to take it back and wanted to get involved. We planned to grow food, run public events, and provide housing.

By the end of the week, we had three vans, with five people living there. We set up a fire pit, built sheds and began designing permanent structures.

And then, the next day, we were woken at 6.30 am by goons dressed in black, smashing the door off the boat and screaming at us to get off the land, without identifying themselves or presenting any legal documents for eviction. They grabbed me by the neck and tried to smash my phone, which I was using to film them, and threw us off the boat – all supervised by the police.

So it all came to an untimely end. But the people we met in that short space of time, and the movement that we created together, can’t be destroyed by that kind of violence – that’s what’s beautiful about community. The next day people were back – 50 or 100 showed up to listen to live music, to stand up to Persimmon and protest their violent actions. And within a week we had cracked a new squat – legendary local nightclub, Fibbers, scheduled to be demolished for luxury offices – that we went on to hold for six weeks.

We see squatting as a political statement. Changes to the law in the last decades have decimated squatters’ rights, and this will get even worse with the upcoming Police Bill, which directly threatens the right to a lifestyle outside of owning or renting. It will criminalize living in a van – a direct and blatant attack on the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller way of life. To my mind, it represents a way of controlling people – you’ve got to keep your head down and work all the time to make ends meet, so you don’t realise how horrifically corrupt and fascistic the system really is.

Meanwhile, the Barbican Community Centre lives on. We’re working with the council and OpHouse to take stewardship of an empty care home in York to turn into social housing.

Beyond that, we want to pioneer peoples’ assemblies that can provide grassroots solutions to the dizzying array of problems we face, from a lack of community space to tackling the climate crisis and providing people with dignified work. We know we can achieve anything when we work together, using mutual aid and collective decision-making to create the city that we want to live in.

Housing in York

York faces a desperate housing shortage, with high rents and spiralling house prices making it one of the least affordable places to live in the North.

Covid has made this worse, as people juggling a number of part-time jobs lost all or most of them, or just tipped over into debt. The council’s temporary accommodation is currently almost full to capacity, despite a brand new temporary accommodation hostel, and there are many ‘unrecorded’ instances of homelessness, such as those resorting to couch surfing or returning to live with parents.

York’s Green Executive Member for Housing, Denise Craghill, has been working hard to ensure the city’s commitment to reach zero-carbon by 2030 converges with the need for affordable homes. Plans are in place to build 600 zero-carbon Passivhaus homes (at least 40 per cent affordable), and the council has secured £2.5m of funding to help local residents make their homes more energy-efficient and is developing a city-wide retrofit strategy.

The Council is also working closely with local grassroots organizations such as Ophouse and YorSpace, which are creating financially and environmentally sustainable community homes.

Meanwhile, the Barbican site continues to stand derelict as the value of the land increases, and ordinary people struggle to find an affordable place to live.

A spokesperson for Persimmon Homes Yorkshire said: “We are working on our plans for the redevelopment of the site off Barbican Road and Paragon Street in York and will make an announcement in due course."