Reading’s Caribbean groups ‘demand their birthright’ with the Central Club

The ‘Black History’ mural

Reading’s Caribbean Associations Group (CAG) vowed to fight Reading Borough Council (RBC) at a packed meeting at RISC on Friday 4 August. The Aspire Community Interest Company (CIC), founded by CAG, had bid for London Street’s Central Club and its famous ‘Black History’ mural, but the council had decided to put the site on the open market instead.

CAG was founded in 2015 so that the town’s Afro-Caribbean groups could pool resources and act as one unified community, explained chair of Reading’s Barbados and Friends Association (BAFA) Jeff Jones. CAG founded the Aspire CIC as the legal entity to manage their bid for the Central Club.

Since the Central Club had been raided by the police over ten years ago it “has remained closed and has fallen into dereliction and the [Afro-Caribbean] diaspora has had nowhere to go,” said Keith Kerr, Aspire CIC chair.

He added that he had been disgusted at media reports suggesting that the Reading’s Afro-Caribbean community had been unable to raise the money to take over the Central Club site. “We have raised £10 million to invest in that site. I don’t want RBC to say that we, the disapora, are incapable of taking responsibility for ourselves.”

The old Central Club

Aspire’s plan for the Central Club site, which is within the Market Place and London Street conservation area, includes a new landmark building to act as a community hub.

“The investor has said to us that our plan is outstanding and they would lend us up to £10 million to achieve what we want,” he said.

RBC had said that it had decided not to proceed with bids from the voluntary, non-profit and charity sector (which included the Aspire bid), and put the Central Club on the open market instead, so it could pursue ‘best value’ for council tax payers.

“But best value doesn’t just mean money,” said Keith Kerr. “It also means the provision of services that meet the needs of the community. Our bid is for the whole of Reading and for the benefit of RBC.”

Katesgrove councillor Sophia James responded that she was bound by confidentiality rules not to divulge details of any bid, but asked where their £10 million was coming from and what conditions were placed on it. She also asked what clientèle and turnover Aspire were expecting if their bid succeeded, and why Aspire wouldn’t waive their bid confidentiality so she could adequately respond.

Keith Kerr said that it was inappropriate to make the details of their bid public whilst the bidding process was still going on. He added, in response to probing by Reading deputy mayor Councillor Glenn Dennis, that their bid had included a grant from the Black Heritage Fund to allow them to re-open the Central Club as soon as they had possession of it.

The council issued a written statement that Aspire “has not offered the council any money to acquire the property and that to suggest otherwise would be wholly inaccurate and misleading.”

One attendee at the meeting commented that they thought there was a better use for £10 million than attempting to preserve an unfit building. One young person asked how they thought they would get youngsters interested in a redundant building which seemed more like a memorial. Several people said how important the Central Club was to Reading’s Afro-Caribbean community and what an important cultural landmark the mural had become, and there were calls for a public demonstration or the occupation of parts of the town centre.

“We believe we have a right to that land by occupancy, and the council are asking us to buy an asset that we already own,” said Keith Kerr. “We have the community behind us and we demand our birthright.”

Aspire and CAG have set up a petition calling for the council to not sell the Central Club to private developers and they plan to present the petition to RBC at the policy meeting on 25 September. They say they are also investigating if they can pursue legal action against the council.