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Waterloo Action Centre
Photograph: Waterloo Action Centre

One of London’s oldest community centres is under threat

Waterloo Action Centre faces a huge rent hike from Lambeth Council that could spell its closure

By
Chris Waywell
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A community-run institution that opened nearly 40 years ago may be forced to close after its landlords – Lambeth Council – announced its annual rent could rise from next to nothing to £45,000 within four years. Since 1973, Waterloo Action Centre (WAC) has been a vital local resource helping some of Lambeth’s most isolated and vulnerable residents, especially the elderly.  

WAC offers Lambeth locals everything from free legal advice to a space for pensioners to hold a birthday bash. Pre-Covid, low-income families could use its children’s play groups, it offered keep-fit classes and spaces for community groups to use, and even an art gallery. You could go to WAC for a drawing or dance class, or just for a chat.

Waterloo Action Centre has occupied a disused former library (where George Orwell wrote ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’) since it opened in 1973. Under that original arrangement, WAC paid Lambeth Council a ‘peppercorn rent’ to maintain and occupy the building. It was a great example of a council-community collaboration. But it seems those days and attitudes are a thing of the past. WAC could be the latest victim of London’s feral property values, as its council landlord is undertaking a consultation under which its rent could rise to £45,000 a year, effectively spelling its closure. The consultation is due to end on April 25, and WAC fears that its timing will mean that many of the people who rely on WAC’s services will not have been able to take part because of their lack of access to the internet and social media. 

Now WAC is campaigning to prevent the rent hike and has been inviting community testimonials to demonstrate its value to Lambeth residents. A glance through the page makes for touching reading: ‘It’s a place where one can find community and also forget the stresses of the day. Would be tragic to hear it shut down.’ ‘As a young person living in London it can be quite isolating. The life drawing classes at WAC gave me a sense of community and relaxation at an affordable price.’ ‘My time at WAC during lockdown was a real beacon moment – please don’t erode any more of the real London by pricing it out of existence.’

Asked by us for comment, a spokesperson for Lambeth Council said: ‘Under the proposals, all Voluntary and Community Sector tenants will be granted consistent lease terms of up to ten years, on a low and subsidised rent, allowing them to focus on delivering social value to residents. The council proposes that Waterloo Action Centre will, after a period of transition, pay a rent that reflects an 80 percent rental subsidy from the Council. […] Voluntary sector organisations currently occupy a wide range of council-owned buildings with different groups paying a large variation in fees and charges. We are looking to standardise rates paid to ensure a fair and transparent system. We also need to invest in our buildings to bring them up to standard and ensure their lasting use in the community.’ 

In a press statement, WAC said: ‘WAC’s activities all focus on heath, wellbeing and inclusion and it is essential that these be available at prices people can afford. If WAC had to pay the proposed rent to the council then either it could not provide the subsidised support to advice and older or else costs would need to rise, squeezing other people out of its use.’  

Jenny Stiles, vice chair of WAC, described why such places are so invaluable: ‘Londoners need community spaces. We can’t unleash the great capacity that people contain if they don’t have somewhere to do it, somewhere they can get involved. People light up when they can contribute. Among the beneficiaries are older people. On retiring you don’t lose your skills, you lose places to go and use them. Now we have such a longer old age it is essential to have places to make new friends. And of course, once people know each other, they look out for each other.’ 

Get more info on the campaign on WAC’s website and sign a petition here. Read testimonials about WAC’s work and history here.

Also in Lambeth, this street design competition.

It’s not all gloom: Kew Gardens is going full Technicolor.

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