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Free Space?

Squatters on Mill Rd present their view

Tim Lord Friday, 27 Jun 2008
  • In late May 2008 squatters moved into the former Wilco store on Cambridge's Mill Road and set up the 'Mill Road Social Centre'. Controversially, this site is set to become a new Tesco Express store.The squatters have lost a court order to stay in the site -- which they continue to occupy for the present. Here, Tom Lord of the Mill Road Social Centre explains the squatters' aims.

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    Let's do a thought experiment. Imagine we live in a fantasy world, where democracy means that people who are affected by decisions get to have a say in them, rather than whatever fits the logic of the market goes. In this crazy world, people who live and work in a particular area have a big say in how one of that area's most valuable resources - space - is used.

    Former Wilco site on Mill RoadIf communities rather than financial investments ended up deciding how local spaces were used, what do you think we would decide to fill our high streets with? Betting shops? Shops selling socially harmful drugs, in the form of cheap, strong alcohol and cigarettes? Shops run by national or international chains, where any profit put in by the locals immediately leaves the community to line shareholders pockets, returning only the least money for wages that it can get away with? All of these things are controversial, and we'd probably have some interesting discussions while we worked it out.

    That is of course, if we lived in a fantasy world where we had this kind of say in decisions like this, rather than assuming that it's ok for wealthy people and institutions to claim ownership of most of the limited space in the country, and buy it and sell it for whatever purpose as they see fit, with a nod toward blanket local planning regulations that cannot differentiate between a local independent business, or a workers' cooperative, or a supermarket outlet.

    Anyway, we're in danger of getting away from the focus of this article, which is the Mill Road Social Centre, a space that we've opened up in the old Wilco's building, previously famous for being at the centre of a battle between multinational retailer Tesco, which wants to open a store there, and a number of local residents and businesses who don't want their company, and have organised a vociferous campaign against them.

    The Mill Road Social Centre is a non-profit space for people to get together and to put on events, run democratically by and for local people. It represents our vision made reality of a different way of doing things, where people rather than profits are the motivating factor behind what we do with our lives. It is an experiment in sharing and using a precious communal resource - space - according to how the people involved want it to be used, rather than according to who has the biggest chequebook.

    Over the course of the last month, the centre has developed a wide range of regular events such as roller skating, tango lessons, boxing, film nights, art exhibitions and workshops; and has sprouted furniture and useful items such as computers, internet access, games, toys, and a projector for films and video games. Tea and coffee making facilities are available and there are toilet facilities and a jacuzzi (ok we made that up, but it's pretty nice, ok?). The space runs on donations, and no-one is ever charged for anything. There are a range of regular jobs to do, from cleaning to publicity to managing bookings, and anyone is welcomed to get involved and put on events or participate in running the centre.

    In order to subvert the normal order of doing things, we've squatted the building. This means that we've occupied it and are living there, in order to temporarily get control over it from Tesco, the leaseholder. This freaks some people out, however we hope that as people come down, join in, and get used to us being there, whatever fears they have will be allayed and we'll become just as much an accepted part of the area as the independent stores and the 'No Mill Road Tesco' petitions.

    The responses and comments we've had while running the centre, and our experiences of the energy, time, skills and resources that people have been inspired to donate have been overwhelmingly positive. To go back to the original thought experiment, we're pretty sure that if people had the choice, they would choose to allocate some public space in the heart of their community to being a place where people can get together, sit down, drink tea, put on and attend events, entertain themselves, bring their kids, bring their parents, and generally get on with being human without having to worry about being asked to pay for the privilege.

    If you'd like to join in or find out more then we can be contacted on, our website is and have a public meeting every week to organise the running of the centre - see website for details.

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