Cameron’s Big Society took a battering from Hackney’s Labour run council this week when council sub-contractors vandalised and boarded up a block of community toilets that a group of residents had lovingly restored after they had been left abandoned for two decades.
The Clapton Improvement society started cleaning and renovating the toilets on Brookby’s Walk in Hackney on April 24th. A team of volunteers managed to salvage the original features including the woodwork, tiling, vintage signs and a foot operated hand-dryer that was featured in the Modernist classic film Metropolis.
Jonathan Aldenton, one of the founding members of the society explained, “Lots of poeople wanted the toilets working, especially for the Sunday market. A local councillor said he’d been preesing for eight years for them to be open. We decided not to wait for permission, but ask forgiveness. It’s easier.”
They then started holding a series of pop-up events to raise money to fund the project as well as to pay for electricity, water and a toilet attendant to allow the toilets to be used by the public. The first event was a speakeasy party with cocktails and a DJ to tie in with the toilet’s heritage. However the next day, the Council turned up to try to change the locks and four days later lodged a planning application to knock down the site and build two flats and two shops.
The ensuing fall-out led to over 700 people and counting signing a petition to save the toilets and keep the events. Even MPs got involved to pledge their support including Diane Abbot, who tweeted her support for the project. Local traders pointed out that when the toilets were closed people would regularly urinate and defecate in the street and that the facilities were needed to rejuvenate the market and surrounding area.
However this wasn’t enough to sway the Council, who proceeded to send sub-contractors in who damaged the work of the community and put up steel security gates to keep the society out.
For the people involved in the project, this move has been heartbreaking. There couldn’t be a clearer example of ‘Big Society in Action’ as Cameron likes to talk about. But as soon as a community has clubbed together to do something inspiring and useful to the area, then a council has shot them down. If the government won’t pay for necessary facilities in local communities then they should be supporting projects like this, which encourage people to take responsibility for their own environment, not shutting them down to build private property.
*Update* Since writing this article, the Council has bowed to pressure to let the society keep the toilets and has given them a 99 year lease. Yay!!