The early days of the Highgate Newtown Community Centre and the present developments.
As the demolition of the old HNCC has been completed and we look forward to a modern building replacing it, it’s interesting to look back to its early days and see how it came into existence.
The redevelopment of the Highgate Newtown area was part of a drive during the 1970s to get rid of substandard, run-down housing and replace it with modern social housing. Most of the first phase of the scheme involved replacing the small, badly-built Edwardian terraces, unlike the more substantial Victorian terraces further south such as Chester Road, Doynton, Winscombe and Balmore Streets, which were extensively rehabilitated.
The Early History
The area was under great stress, with people being rehoused from their substandard homes, squatting of empty properties, closing of local shops, demolition, dirt and noise.
Demolition and rehabilitation disturbed the rats and local resident Moya Denny persuaded the council to open a record in Highgate Library for sightings of rats so that they could be dealt with speedily.
Any unoccupied house that was due for demolition or rehabilitation would almost instantly be taken over by squatters, who came into conflict with the local residents. This had been a tightly-knit community, and they did not care to see their way of life disturbed. The squatters tended to have noisy parties late at night, and the failure to put out dustbins for collection was a source of much aggravation with refuse piling up on the pavements and in basement areas.
During the redevelopment, a staff member of one of Camden’s voluntary organisations was given an office in the space now occupied by the shops and doctor’s surgery almost opposite the library. From this base, Jane Cooper acted as a voluntary adviser to members of the local community requiring access to services, housing advice and other Concerns.
She persuaded me, in my role as one of the three local councillors for Highgate Ward, to support the Women’s Aid and Refuge service in Camden.
It became obvious that there was a need for a community centre which could coordinate services and provide space for meetings, clubs and other activities.
One rainy afternoon in April 1978, my fellow councillor John Crouch and I were shown the derelict building at the end of Bertram Street. We were amazed at its size, the enormous hall that had been a tank repair workshop, the offices, kitchen and other rooms being used as workshops for Pentonville Prison. We agreed that John Crouch should immediately get on his bike and go off to Pentonville to find out more about the use of the building. He did so and discovered that the prison authorities no longer intended to use it for workshops.
We suggested to Camden officers that it would make a good community centre, and after discussions, it was agreed that the council would repair the roof, make the building weatherproof and appoint a coordinator to set it up. With council support, we were fortunate to be able to appoint Berrell Jensen, who had considerable experience in similar enterprises.
This patient, dynamic and practical woman worked with a committee of local people and councillors to prepare activity programmes for the centre, covering sports, advice sessions, craftwork, entertainment and sessions for pensioners, mothers, and babies. Professional circus acrobats rented the hall as a practice venue. The hall was perfect for sport – football at first, with weekly training sessions for different age groups; and later for Judo. As a newly qualified class 3 football referee, I was pleased to be able to run the five-aside football sessions on Friday evenings. Parents picking up their children from nearby Brookfield School began to get involved in the centre, and other activities were developed.
Later, Berrell Jensen moved to the Hampstead Community Centre, and Nick Roxan was appointed to take her place. I served two terms as a councillor and decided not to stand for a third term. I also stood down as chair of the HNCC, leaving it in the competent hands of Nick and the local committee. Under his leadership, it went from strength to strength, developing many new activities. The building was always a source of concern as it was expensive to maintain and heat, but no decisions were made about refurbishment, and it served the neighbourhood for more than forty years.
The recent decision to demolish and rebuild the centre was taken after a review of the costs and sustainability of a refurbished building. This was found not to be a viable option, and it was decided to replace the old building with a purpose-built community centre and some Camden-sponsored housing.
There were lengthy discussions over architectural plans for the new building over several months. The Highgate Newtown Regeneration Project Construction Working Group has been set up, chaired by senior council officer Ms Cornwall-Jones, with the demolition and building contractors attending.
The group meets regularly with representatives of the local community, who are able to ask questions of those responsible for the demolition and rebuilding, and make suggestions. These include concerns about traffic management, as well as local environmental issues, such as noise, dirt, damage to local roads by heavy vehicles and dangers to pedestrians – particularly children and parents at Brookfield School and users of the Highgate Library and local shops.
These issues have been raised at meetings, and answers have been provided by the representatives of the companies involved, who have acted upon immediate concerns that could not be left to be discussed at the next meeting. Updates on progress have been
published and are available in the library. I have represented the trustees at these meetings and report back to them.
In the last few months, the architects have been working on the internal layout of the new building, so suitable spaces can be provided for the various activities and services planned for the centre. Attention to detail in this part of the project is intended to improve the quality of life of local residents and other users, along with providing a common meeting place to enhance the sense of community for all who use the centre’s services, including volunteers and professional staff.
There are still hurdles to overcome in the next eighteen months or so, but with the support of the local community, local Camden councillors and officers and the professionalism of the architects and builders, as well as the support of the trustees and Andrew’s strong leadership, we look forward to the successful completion of a much-needed facility based on a spirit of partnership and cooperation.
17th August, 2021