Haringey council admits neglecting the West Indian centre in north London but is locked in a dispute over who should improve it
A report by Dalya Alberge for London’s Guardian.
A row has broken out over the future of an important Caribbean community centre in north London which has fallen into serious disrepair after years of neglect by its landlord, the local council.
Stewart Wellington, whose parents arrived in the UK from Jamaica in the 1950s as part of the Windrush generation, has drawn up multimillion-pound plans to demolish it and start again, giving it a bigger home within an ambitious scheme that will not cost the taxpayer a penny, while instilling pride in local people.
A Haringey councillor admitted its failure to maintain the building but insisted that the council itself plans to bring it back to life instead.
The West Indian Cultural Centre (WICC) in Wood Green was constructed in the 1980s, becoming a vibrant hub for cultural events and debates on subjects such as the struggle for racial equality. It drew huge numbers of visitors who came to hear speakers including the Nobel prize-winning poet Derek Walcott, the American civil rights activist Al Sharpton and the MP Bernie Grant. Decades on, though, people have stopped coming because the two-storey building has fallen into a serious state of disrepair and its landlord, Haringey Council, will need to spend more than £250,000 on structural problems, Wellington said.
Drawing on advice from the community’s elders, he wants to revive the centre as a hub for black, Asian and minority-ethnic voices of all ages.
It is part of his mission to rejuvenate his native Haringey, one of London’s most deprived communities, where he grew up. He and his partners have acquired the adjacent site, and their development plan includes a 14-storey building, with 30 new affordable homes. It will also change its name to the African Caribbean Cultural Centre to reflect a postcolonial emphasis.
Wellington said the current building has “acute subsidence”. “In some parts, you can put your whole hand in the wall. The responsibility to maintain the building falls primarily on the landlord – the local authority. Over time, the council has done little to no maintenance on the building. There was also a lack of appreciation from the trustees as to what the council’s liability was.”
A spokesman for the council acknowledged “the shortcomings in the current building” but said it planned to lead the site’s redevelopment itself. “We want to bring forward the overall scheme as quickly as possible while developing appropriate plans in partnership with community leaders and making best use of public assets to serve our local community.”
In response, Wellington said: “The council may say it’s committed to redeveloping the centre with the WICC. But the WICC is already committed to partnering with our venture. We own a contiguous site, which the council doesn’t own, which forms part of our proposals.
“In the world of reality, the trustees don’t want to work with you [the council]. You haven’t fixed the building. You haven’t laid a finger on the building in the last 20 years. So where’s the confidence? We want to deliver it ourselves. You don’t own the interest at the end to create a comprehensive development. There’s quite a few boxes left unchecked to the deficit of the council’s deluded aspirations.”
He added: “I have a particular vision and mentality, ‘we can do this, let me take this on’. The Windrushers had a different mentality. They were far more fearful. They thought I was crazy. ‘It’s too big a task.’ They couldn’t envisage someone within their community actually doing this. To me, it was important that, within our community, we dispelled that presumption of mendicants or indigents. It’s become an existential matter. We need to demonstrate we can do it for ourselves.”
He and his business partners, the developers Paul Simon and Magic Homes, have already spent £1m in planning and architects’ fees, and the whole scheme will cost tens of millions, he said. “It’s an ambitious scheme. What is important is for young people – I’m 51 and I’ve got four children under 25 – to see that people who look like them can be as ambitious as they get. What I believe we need to do is brave things.”