Café Britannia: the Norwich café run by prisoners now under threat from the government

Cafe Britannia. Image: Anoosh Chakelian.

Early on a sunny Friday morning in Norwich, customers headed as usual to Café Britannia, a café run by prisoners and ex-offenders on the grand redbrick premises of HMP Norwich. But there wasn’t even any milk left for a cup of tea.

After wrangling with the social enterprise running the café, the Ministry of Justice had ordered its closure. Norwich residents heard the news on Thursday, and the café affectionately nicknamed by some as “The Prison” ceased trading the following day.

Café Britannia opened five years ago, staffed mainly by ex-offenders and prisoners serving the end of their sentences in the “resettlement” part of the prison called Britannia House, hence the café’s name.

Run by a business called Britannia Enterprises, which owns establishments in other parts of the East Anglian city, the café was much-loved by locals. Two petitions with nearly 10,000 signatories combined are doing the rounds, and a Facebook page to “Save Café Britannia” has over a thousand members.

“I’d come for lunches at the weekends, late evenings, I’m a coffee addict so I’d usually come here to grab a coffee after a run or walk on the heath – it’s so convenient, and the view is amazing,” says Gemma Johnston, a 34-year-old business analyst for a data company in Norwich who was born and brought up in the city.

“And I once had the biggest salad I’ve ever had here,” she laughs. “I think there was a whole block of feta on it… The food was hearty, what you’d get in any good quality café.”

As a regular, she is behind one of the petitions to save it from closure. We meet on the heath with a view of Norwich Cathedral’s spire in front of the closed café, speckled with empty garden chairs leaning against tables on the terrace.

“It’s a big loss to the community as a place to socialise and meet – it was such a mix of people, all different ages and backgrounds; I’d just as much expect a Jaguar to pull up in the carpark as a beat-up van driving over after work,” she says.

“But it’s also a big loss to the prison, the inmates, the ex-inmates – for the jobs, the security, the network it provides.It’s a lifeline, the opportunity to stand on your own two feet.”

Disappointed customers come and go, and the prison staff linger on the premises.

“For any normal kind of person, this is a normal kind of job, but for us it’s a big bridge to connect with society,” says a 30-year-old ex-offender who has worked at the café for over three and a half years, and would rather not be named.


“It doesn’t require a lot of skill but for prisoners who struggle to read, struggle to communicate, they get their confidence back.”

For 18 months, he worked at the café as an inmate, and was released in 2017 after a three-year sentence. “After that I had a pay rise, I was promoted, I learned how to run my own business,” he tells me with pride. “It’s not just serving in a caf, for us it’s probably the only option to get back into society – it’s the first contact with society.”

Without the café, he believes “people will struggle to find a job, and people will reoffend” – what he describes as “going over the walls”.

Indeed, according to Ministry of Justice research, time spent working in the community before release significantly reduces the chance a prisoner will reoffend. So set-ups like Café Britannia, the Clink restaurant in Brixton, the Jailhouse Café in Dorset and Redemption Roasters coffee houses across various sites, can help cut the £15bn yearly cost of reoffending.

So why is it closing? The answer is far from simply the government’s whim to take back a valuable building. Britannia Enterprises appears to have been struggling, owing £384,000 to creditors in 2017 and facing a fraud investigation at the café dating back to 2018 (unrelated to the current closure).

One of its other cafés, Park Britannia, which isn’t run on prison premises, was also due to close on Friday but was saved last-minute by a deal with Norwich City Council.

I contacted the company but haven’t heard back. Its head, Davina Tanner, has however told the local Eastern Daily Press that she invested more than £100,000 of her own money into the business, hasn’t drawn a salary from it in two years and intends to pay back debts. She also claims the MoJ’s request to leave the site meant she had to reject another investor who wanted to come on board.

As a community interest company (a CIC), Britannia Enterprises is expected to reinvest money for the prison and community’s benefit, but it appears this has not been satisfactory.

“I’m as disappointed as anyone that Café Britannia is having to close, I know how popular it has been in recent years,” commented Declan Moore, governor of HMP Norwich.

“Unfortunately the building requires significant investment and, as the Prison Service receives no money from the café, it would leave taxpayers having to pick up the considerable bill – which we simply cannot justify. Prisoners at HMP Norwich will continue working at Britannia Enterprises’ other establishments in Norwich.”

The question remains as to how the MoJ can invest in the building, and in turn use it to give back to the prison, without public money. The speculation locally is that Britannia Enterprise’s stricken finances are being used as an “opportunity” to find a buyer for the premises, which are spectacular architecturally and also in terms of the city view. I understand no sale is currently in process, however.

“I think the people who have served notice should be aware of how important this venue is to the community,” says Trish Seymour, a Norwich resident since 2003 who is in her late forties, and started the Facebook group to save the café – she favours the smothered chicken dish there. “I love the ethics of the café. It’s nice talking to the prisoners and you can have a laugh – you get to know their sense of humour, I’ve been wound up several times!”

This case highlights the pitfalls of business involvement in such vital prison schemes. The prison population in England and Wales has also almost doubled in the past 25 years, with stretched budgets making rehabilitation efforts even more precarious.

As a Justice Select Committee report warned in April, “we are now in the depths of an enduring crisis in prison safety and decency that has lasted five years and is taking significant additional investment to rectify, further diverting funds from essential rehabilitative initiatives that could stem or reverse the predicted growth”.

Eleven prisoners were employed at Café Britannia when it closed. Two so far have been transferred to other Britannia Enterprises establishments. The rest are now seeking work placements.

A shop attached to the café selling repurposed, recycled and reupholstered furniture by prisoners is also due to close in October.

“It’s a loss to the prison system, to rehabilitation,” says one inmate who has been inside since 2003, and started working here six months ago.

“I’ve been in a long time and it’s a great way of getting back into society – interacting with the customers. There’s so much scrutiny in the prison environment. Here, you’re not judged, no one’s asking: ‘Is he in for armed robbery?’”

He would rather not be named for this article, although he grins that he is known to one customer as “the man with the rough voice” and sang happy birthday to her upon her request.

“I’ve done the pot wash, cleaning tables, woodwork shop, cleaning rooms, interacting with customers, it’s been really good for me,” he says. “I was a little bit shy, a bit withdrawn, at first, I didn’t know how to take things, but within a month I’d calmed down.”

He’ll be out of prison soon, and knows now how to “move forward”, but if he hadn’t had this work “they would’ve opened the door and said ‘bye’”.

In a dusty workshop beside the café, with reupholstered black stools perching on the work surface, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody blasts out of a radio on a shelf. One inmate, who has been in prison since 1984, is sanding down a dining chair. He’s been working at the shop for seven weeks, and will have to find new work come October.

“The jail environment is all guys, bravado, and so working here gets some of the rough edges off you, you learn to speak differently, it’s softening,” he tells me, preferring to remain anonymous. “It will be sorely missed, and they probably don’t have enough outside jobs for us guys.”

This article first appeared on our sister site the New Statesman.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.