Squatters take over beloved Brentford arts centre after fire with 'trespassers' warned

Fire damage to Watermans Arts Centre
-Credit: (Image: Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon)

The fortunes of Watermans Art Centre in Brentford have continued to slide since its closure in Spring. Hounslow Arts Trust announced that the centre would shut its doors on April 11 as it was no longer financially viable to keep it open.

The decision sparked a backlash from residents who pushed for the arts centre to reopen with campaigns such as Save Our Watermans. However since its closure, the likelihood of the community hub reopening has become increasingly slim.

Earlier this month part of the building burnt down, causing excessive damage to a section of the centre. Responding to the news on the day of the incident (June 5th) Cllr Tom Bruce, Deputy Leader of Hounslow Council and Cabinet Member for Assets, Regeneration and Development, said: “London Fire Brigade were called to a fire at the Watermans Arts Centre in Brentford. It is now extinguished.

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Outside of Watermans Art Centre
The sad recent history of Watermans Art Centre reads like a modern tragedy -Credit:Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon

"Thankfully no one was hurt, but the building has been damaged." He added: "Once the site is safe and handed back to the council, we will assess the degree of damage to the building. We are also liaising with the Hounslow Arts Trust, who are currently based in the building, to understand the impact on them.”

It was confirmed by the London Fire Brigade that the fire was “believed to have been caused by the unsafe disposal of smoking materials outside the building which then spread inside". Problems have only deepened for the art centre and by extension Hounslow Council in recent weeks with reports of squatters taking over the building.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) visited the site to corroborate the reports and found windows boarded up and notices left announcing squatters' rights warning that 'trespassers' will be fined. There was also significant fire damage to one part of the building nearest the Thames River. The squatters were confirmed to have been occupying the space since June 13.

Cllr Bruce said: “It is with sadness that we note squatters have now occupied the former Watermans Art Centre building, and have refused to vacate.

"The Council is currently working with the Hounslow Arts Trust, which is the current tenant of the building, and we are aiming to remove the occupiers as swiftly as possible. Our priorities are public safety and protecting the integrity of the building." However, as of LDRS's visit on June 17, it was still occupied.

Entrances have been boarded up and signs announcing squatters present in the building have been placed around the site
Entrances have been boarded up and signs announcing squatters present in the building have been placed around the site -Credit:Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon

LDRS did find an email address the squatters used and reached out for comment but has had no response. According to the council: "The squatters have claimed in a statement that they occupied the former Watermans Art Centre building in order to save arts and culture in Brentford."

However, it labels the statement as "false" adding that the occupation is "an obstacle to the valuable work the Hounslow Arts Trust is doing in delivering its programme of much-needed arts and culture across the borough."

"It is only when the squatters vacate the building that we can move forward together with this programme."

Ruby Almeida, from campaign group Save Our Watermans, told the LDRS back in May that she was deeply concerned about the art centre's closure and believed it was a case of 'mismanagement'. As a Brentford resident for 35 years, Ruby says she was a 'patron' for decades.

"I absolutely love it," she said. "I felt like what has happened to it is so so wrong. The land was gifted to the people of Brentford, the art centre was built thanks to the council who are the landlords and the arts trust has mismanaged it abysmally and it's failed."

"It is not that people in the area and the surrounding areas aren't interested in arts it is just that they have not reached out to people and given them what they want. I remember 20-odd years ago the place was heaving."

Watermans Arts Centre
Watermans will remain shut for the foreseeable future -Credit:Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon

Save Or Watermans had submitted an Expression of Interest to the Council for the Meanwhile Use in mid-May which would have seen the arts centre remain open with community-based programs as the main focal point. With the fire and squatters taking over the centre it is extremely unlikely any of these plans will come to fruition.

Cllr Bruce said in his statement about the squatters: "It is also very disappointing that the squatters’ occupation have put on hold the Council’s plans for meanwhile use of the building, an initiative that I know Brentford residents really wanted to see happen."

Save Our Watermans has been contacted for comment.

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