‘Bank of Ideas’ to open in Hackney as Occupy London seizes abandoned UBS office complex

occupiers hold an impromptu press conference

Pic: Will Coldwell

Economic justice campaigners have seized an abandoned office block in Hackney belonging to investment giant UBS.

Occupy London activists entered the complex around 2:33am on Friday morning and secured the buildings in what the group described as a “public repossession”.

The vast 1m square foot complex between Sun Street and Earl Street lies at the border between Hackney and the City of London and is reportedly in varying states of repair.

Occupy supporter Jack Holburn said in a statement: “Whilst over 9,000 families were kicked out of their homes in the last three months for failing to keep up with mortgage payments – mostly due to the recession caused by the banks – UBS and other financial giants are sitting on massive abandoned properties.

“As banks repossess families’ homes, empty bank property needs to be repossessed by the public.”

UBS was subject to a £37.8bn bailout from the Swiss government in 2008. Since then, it has cut thousands of jobs.

Police stood by last night while 12 people moved in with no altercations. The squatters will need two weeks’ notice of any eviction, as police are unable to act unless there is evidence of breaking and entry. UBS says it is taking “appropriate action”.

This is the third space taken over by Occupy London, which currently has camps at St Paul’s Courtyard and Finsbury Square. Unlike St Paul’s, the Bank is a non-residential occupation, so visitors have been advised not to bring sleeping bags.

The space will reopen on Saturday morning as a ‘Bank of Ideas’, hosting events and talks as well as opening meeting rooms and offices to community groups forced to close because of cuts.

banners draped from the windows of the UBS campus

Pic: Aaron Lee

Pete Phoenix, an activist and environmental consultant, told the Guardian: “This winter there are people freezing on the streets, and look at all of this wasted space.”

As evictions continue across the borough and community resources are pushed to the brink of closure, the Bank will also highlight the government’s plan to criminalise squatting.

Technically squatters themselves, Occupy London can only open the building to friends and guests. But at a press conference, Phoenix said: “We have a lot of friends.”

Another occupier quipped: “And we want to make some more.”

Skills workshops and teaching days will be held to help people into employment, with one activist quoting the proverb: “Give a man a fish, and he’ll be fed for a day; give a man a net, and he’ll feed himself for a lifetime.”

Sarah Layler, of Occupy London, said: “The Bank of Ideas will host a full events programme where people will be able to trade in creativity rather than cash. We will also make space available for those that have lost their nurseries, community centres and youth clubs to savage Government spending cuts.”

Events will include comedy from Josie Long, talks from Palestinian activists and a session by trader Alessio Rastani, whose provocative interview on the Eurozone crisis became an internet sensation. Phoenix, a squatting rights activist, will also hold an exhibition on the subject.

Local reaction has been mixed. Workers in the building opposite closed their blinds, while a passer-by shouted “go on, jump!” at Occupy members leaning out of windows.

Armed police arrived just before noon and left as swiftly amidst confusion over whether the case falls to the City of London Police or to the Metropolitan Police.

The press outside number almost as many as the occupiers, and far more than police. Occupiers are not yet permitting entry to the building.

Occupiers, who have been describing themselves as ‘the 99%’, admitted the public is not fully represented at St Paul’s, but said they want to make the Bank fully open to all kinds of people. The movement, which now spans three boroughs, intends to expand over the coming months.

Asked whether the Bank of Ideas would fulfil the government’s hope for a Big Society, Occupy spokesperson Naomi Colvin said: “Cameron talks the talk, but when he sees it in front of him, he doesn’t like it at all. If he was to come down here, we’d welcome him.”

Cameron, she said, could attend workshops on “modes of protest – horizontal and vertical” and community activism, adding he would also be welcome to discussions about the standard of public debate and “the importance of pre-existing inherited social links in society and employment opportunities”.

She also said they would be happy for him to attend a knitting workshop.

By Will Coldwell, Hannah Osborne, and Laurence Dodds


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