Squatters have moved into the Watermans Arts Centre in Brentford.

The site, which was closed by Hounslow Council because of financial pressures from the Covid pandemic, caught fire earlier this month.

It was caused accidentally by a pedestrian disposing of a lit cigarette which then set fire to their belongings.

The council says the roof of the building is structurally unsafe and is calling those who have moved in illegally, “reckless.”

In an open letter to the squatters, the council says their action is delaying moves to safeguard the building.

It also says the time and money being allocated by Watermans, the Council and the Met Police should not be spent on this action.

Open letter from the council to the people inside the Watermans.

To the squatters,

As a council, we deeply value the arts and are committed to supporting a rich cultural offer for our borough. We recognise the many benefits that arts and culture provide to our diverse communities.

We understand the disappointment many felt about the closure in April. The Hounslow Arts Trust, operating as Watermans, took the decision to close the building because of financial pressures exacerbated by the Covid pandemic, the ongoing cost-of-living crisis and major increases in utility bills.

The Council and Arts Council England are supporting Watermans to continue their important community programmes and the events they curate across the borough, while they complete the ongoing de-rig of the building and prepare to vacate. Watermans’ programmes across Hounslow benefit tens of thousands of residents each year, many of whom have limited access to the arts.

Following the closure, we made it clear publicly that we were appealing for groups to come forward with proposals for meanwhile uses for the building to benefit the local community. We have had several approaches from individuals and organisations, and before the fire earlier this month we were planning a meeting to launch the meanwhile use process.

The reason it is ‘meanwhile use’ is because the plan for many years has been that this ageing building be replaced with a new arts centre for Watermans at the site of the old Brentford Police Station. The Council is still committed to delivering this plan; this has been stated publicly.

Following the fire, which London Fire Brigade say was caused accidentally by a pedestrian disposing of a lit cigarette which set alight their belongings, it was important we be able to assess the damage, secure the property and make it safe for Watermans’ staff to return.

It was at this moment you seized the opportunity to unlawfully occupy the building, barricade yourselves in and disconnect the CCTV cameras. You then made a series of false claims about the condition and upkeep of the building, and the intentions of Watermans and the Council. The building was in the state you found it because of the fire and the Fire Brigade’s successful efforts to extinguish it and stop it from spreading. This would all have been cleared up and made secure had you not unlawfully occupied the site.

Compounding this, Watermans, an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation, have not been able to access the equipment they need for their community arts activity or to effectively run as an organisation. Every day your unauthorised and unlawful occupation costs this well-respected organisation money and means local people are missing out on opportunities to experience the arts.

We have also received reports of antisocial behaviour and property damage during your unauthorised and unlawful occupation.

Our immediate priorities for the Waterman’s building is public safety, protecting its integrity and restarting a fair process for interim uses.

That public safety includes yourselves. Our building control report found the building, and particularly part of the roof, is structurally unsafe. There are other issues which your unauthorised and unlawful occupation has made impossible to check, such as gas and electrics.

You have now actually held an event in the building. This is extremely reckless, and we strongly urge you not to proceed with any further events at this site.

We appreciate that some of you may genuinely hold views that what you’re doing is for the good of the community. However, the fact is your unauthorised and unlawful occupation is a barrier to the Council, those with ‘meanwhile use’ ideas and the wider community working together to see what we can achieve in this building.

You have asked for a meeting. Should you have genuine proposals for a meanwhile use then we may meet you as part of that formal process, in a way which is transparent and equal for all those who want to put forward a proposal subject to you returning possession to the lawful tenant’s Waterman’s Arts Trust.

Each day your unauthorised and unlawful occupation delays the Council’s inspections, is an extra day’s delay in this building being brought back into community use. Furthermore, the time and money being allocated to this matter by Watermans, the Council and the Metropolitan Police could be far better spent in serving the wider community.

We urge you to vacate the building and do what is right for arts and culture in the borough, and the safety of yourselves and others.