Sisters Uncut, Black Lives Matter UK and London Renters Union staged a joint protest in support of Sistah Space outside Hackney Town Hall last month. Photograph: Sisters Uncut

A domestic violence charity in a stand-off with the council over its premises has been served with an eviction notice and asked to move back to its former home, which it claims is unsafe.

Sistah Space, the only specialist organisation in London serving survivors of African and Caribbean heritage, has condemned the council’s move as an “act of aggression”.

The charity has been temporarily housed on Mare Street since last year to allow its old home in Lower Clapton to undergo refurbishments, paid for by the council at what it says was Sistah Space’s request.

Sistah Space, however, has accused the Town Hall of “not listening” after making clear that, having conducted its own risk assessment, the refurbished site is still unsuitable for its specific needs.

It had wanted a longer, flexible lease at the Mare Street space, and has been supported in that effort by the local Women’s Equality, Liberal Democrat and Green parties, but yesterday the council announced on its website that it had served the charity with an eviction notice.

The Town Hall statement reads: “The council has asked Sistah Space to return to its registered premises in Clapton, following requested refurbishment of the building, and served notice on the shared commercial workspace in Mare Street being used on a rent-free, temporary basis by the organisation.

“Sistah Space had been using the commercial workspace since December 2019, with 24/7 security and other costs covered by the council, while the council refurbished its Clapton premises to a specification agreed with, and at the request of the charity – including improved security and emergency escape routes.

“The council has always planned to let the shared commercial workspace on Mare Street to a single workspace provider to manage, and was open and frank about this with Sistah Space when it agreed the temporary arrangements last year.”

Sistah Space released a statement in response to the news, which it says it was “shocked and saddened” to find out about through media sources.

It said: “This act of aggression by Hackney Council has disrupted operations and rendered Sistah Space unable to focus solely on the needs of the community it serves.

“As an agency with limited resources, that it now has to place focus on finding alternative suitable accommodation, has now placed a vulnerable population at further risk.”

The charity says the council’s decision is all the more “regrettable” given the current Covid pandemic, “where research clearly proves that there is a marked increase in the incidents of domestic and sexual abuse”.

The serving of the notice came shortly after Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville received a joint letter from the Women’s Equality, Liberal Democrat and Green parties asking the council to grant Sistah Space a “flexible lease from between nine months and two years” at the Mare Street property.

The parties also called on the Town Hall to issue a formal public apology to the charity.

Their letter states: “The responsibility for deciding what location is or isn’t suitable is up to the domestic violence service, not to the council. As a result of this ongoing conflict, the charity’s services have been disrupted and they have been forced to pause services in a time when domestic abuse is on the rise.”

It goes on: “As Mayor, your responsibility is to provide essential services for Hackney residents. Sistah Space is an essential service and we expect fair and equitable treatment for a domestic abuse charity whose aims are to help Black women, one of the most marginalized and disadvantaged demographics in the borough.”

Following the announcement that Sistah Space had been served notice, the three parties told the Citizen: “We are currently in close discussions with Sistah Space exploring how we can best support them during this difficult time and going forward.”

The council, which describes the eviction notice as a “last resort”, says it has repeatedly made clear that the arrangement with Sistah Space was temporary.

Its statement adds: “Sistah Space signed up to the arrangement lasting until 31 March at the latest, after the council identified the temporary space to allow continuity of the charity’s services while it completed the requested refurbishment work at the Clapton office.

“The council understands Sistah Space’s concerns about moving during the coronavirus pandemic, which is why since March it has allowed the charity to continue to stay rent-free in its current temporary premises and offered to work with staff to support a safe return. It has made it repeatedly clear that this was a temporary arrangement.

“Asking Sistah Space to now return to its refurbished premises in Clapton, that it has used since 2016 at a subsidised rent of £1,600 per year, is a last resort, but follows six months of offers to make further security improvements to its Clapton building, help it move safely with the support of the council’s public health team or better understand its concerns. 

“The council has offered to make further improvements to this building, such as installing roller shutters that can be closed electronically from inside the premises, intruder and panic alarms, and CCTV, or discuss specific concerns about the premises, but has not received any further details or engagement from Sistah Space to take forward those concerns. This offer remains open, including help to ensure Sistah Space’s work meets coronavirus guidelines.”

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