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Mill Road Social Centre - the story so far...

IMC Cambridge | 12.07.2008 19:32 | Free Spaces | Cambridge

Update:The Mill Road Social Centre was evicted the night after Tesco were rejected again.

Most of know what happened since, but let’s start in the beginning. On Tuesday night 20 May 2008, the building that formerly housed Wilco's automotive parts, and that had been standing empty for over a year, was squatted. This is the selfsame building where Tesco plans to open a controversial Express store. More about that later.

The aim of the squat was to turn the building into a much needed social centre, a focal point for the local Romsey (and Cambridge) community. It should be pointed out that the social centre is not connected to the No Mill Road Tesco campaign.

Since it opened, the centre has hosted numerous events, from women's roller derby to tango lessons, graffiti workshops, an art exhibition, open mic nights and acoustic gigs.

Mill Road Social Centre website

Mill Road Social Centre
Mill Road Social Centre

On the afternoon of Wednesday 21st May, a neighbour alerted police, who sent an armed response unit that demanded they search the building on suspicion of illegal drug use. After informing the police of their legal rights under Section 6, the cops threatened to take out the door with a battering ram. A compromise was reached so that two officers could search the building. After an hour long search, police left empty handed. The leader of the operation was clearly frustrated, taking exception to an Indymedia photographer taking pictures. claiming that this was an infringement of his civil liberties.

Over the next two days, the space was made fit for purpose. The floor was cleaned, the parking lot cleared, the walls were decorated, the glass frontage was made more attractive, paint was applied to the walls, and tables and chairs moved in. The large open room sprouted a cinema screen, a kids’ corner, a cafe area, and a workshop space.

On Friday 23th May, an Open Meeting saw more than fifty turn out to contribute ideas for the use of the new social centre. Among the plans are film screenings, dance lessons, an art space, various workshops and open mic night with acoustic music and poetry recitals. Anyone was invited to come up with new ideas for the space, as long as they adhere to the community spirit of the centre, and are free or only ask for voluntary donations from those who can afford them.

The next week saw the social centre swing into action, with something happening almost every night. A website was set up to announce news, upcoming events, and to document the use of the space. A Facebook group soon followed, which has attracted over 500 members. There is also a mailing list ( Via these various media, messages of support streamed in from all over the country, and indeed from right across the globe.

The Romsey Rollerbillies, a women’s rollerderby team, adopted the space as their new training venue, meaning that members no longer have to travel to Ely to practice their skills. They have been able to showcase the sport, attracting some new players.

Another regular occurrence were the Tango classes. In the gleam of red lights, strafed by lasers, the dancers take to the floor every weekend, to the atmospheric tunes of Tango classics.

The centre soon sported its own resident boxing maestro, who offers introductory lessons as well as fitness training to all interested.

There are also open mic nights, where anyone can climb onto the virtual stage and show off their talents, be it musical, lyrical, or otherwise.

The bare orange walls were covered by graffiti and paint artists, as well as those eager to pick up these skills during workshops.

With the donation of a projector, cult classics and activists films displayed their images on the walls.

But unfortunately, not all the news was positive. During the night following Strawberry Fair (7 June), local youth destroyed one of the large window panes, as well as the window of a van parked round the back of the building. The damage was barely repaired, when others struck the following weekend. Attacking the windows and the same van with a metal pole, they smashed five more windows, as well as a windscreen. Luckily, no one inside at the time was hurt in the attacks.

Earlier that week (on Thursday 12 June), the social centre was defending itself in court against Tesco, who sought, and after some legal wrangling, were awarded a possession order. The good news to come out of the hearing was the confirmation by Tesco’s lawyer that the supermarket giant were indeed unable to open the store without further planning permission (currently pending), and that they would not seek to impose the possession order until building could commence. This meant that the immediate future of the social centre at Mill Road looks secure.

Facing the destruction wrought by the vandals, the social centre decided not to be cowed by this setback, and over the next few days, the resulting mess was cleared up, and the windows repaired with painted boards. A busy schedule of events kept people coming to the centre, and is attracting ever more users of the space.

Not surprisingly, the social centre has attracted a lot of media attention. It was covered on local television news programmes, as well as in various local publications (just one of the Cambridge News articles; Local Secrets).

IMC Cambridge


Hide the following 2 comments

The other side of the story

28.08.2008 07:41

The Centre's portrayal of its 'contribution' to the community is, of course, biased in its own favour. In the interests of balance, another view is that most people on Mill Road knew that the Centre's shelf-life would be limited, and are relieved to see it go. Thankfully its new 'tenancy' at the Rose and Crown on East Road is less likely to annoy residents because of its location, and because the site itself is not politically charged. No doubt, however, its stay will be as short-lived and futile as anywhere else it chooses to set up shop.

What is true is that the amount of vagrants on Mill Road increased exponentially when the Centre was in occupation. Word on the street was out that it was available, then the dropouts came. The Objector received a distressing personal report from a friend - a middle-aged woman - who found herself groped and propositioned outside the doors of the Centre by a slurry-speeched man who told her that he'd just got out of prison for beating up policemen. She got away quickly, after telling him in no uncertain terms to leave her alone.

And what about the young, blonde, dreadlocked girl witnessed outside the Centre of a weekday morning, can of Special Brew in hand, f-ing and blinding at top volume about some 'b-stard' who'd done something to offend her? Before the Centre she'd never been seen locally. Mill Road residents know the drinking schools in the area.

The Centre's professional-looking website, Indymedia reports and right-on, utopian fluffiness about being a place for the 'whole community' doesn't stand up when exposed to daylight.

It was a squat for the disenfranchised and addicted, attracting people to Mill Road who not only had no genuine emotional or financial investment in being there, but actually made it feel unsafe.

Mill Road residents DO NOT want Tesco at the Wilco site. That's why they've been campaigning professionally and fighting so hard at the planning meetings to get shot of the corporate giant once and for all. The Mill Road Social Centre did nothing to advance the 'No' campaign - as its own editorial states, it has absolutely no connection to it.

The Objector

Addicted? - Over-egging the negatives too

17.01.2009 13:07

While "Objector" may have some valid points, I think the case is over-egged.

For one, what would the situation have been had the building been left empty for that time, or, worst, been squatted by people who were NOT community-minded.

I'd also challenge Objector's comments about "addicted" occupants. I did actually visit the centre, and what I found was not dysfunctional people, but people who are committed to breaking down barriers that exist in our society.

Objector should accept that our society is broken. People do not have access to housing, nor often do they find a supportive community, when they do find housing.

Also, Objector might spare a thought for those "drop-outs" and "addicts". Often when I ask street drinkers and addicts about their past, the tale is one of two:
- they're ex-forces - the people we've put on the link in Afghanistan and Iraq
- they suffered child abuse and left home at an early age

Yes, they have problems and cause problems, but no, I don't support anyone who just thinks they should be "somewhere else". How selfish.

Somewhat Supportive