The Occupy Movement may have taken the world by surprise, but if there is one city that is accustomed to having space occupied its London. The fact that squatting is so widespread in the United Kingdom should come as a surprise to no one considering the excessive number of empty buildings this onetime empire has to boast of, along with the oppressively high costs of renting a home.
Only last year the Guardian newspaper reported 450,000 flats to be empty throughout England for a time period of 6 months or more, while the BBC claimed the figure to be more around 650,000. This is the situation in a country in which 1.8million people wait on government lists to gain access to state subsidized council flats.
Renting a house, I can tell you from experience, is an extremely difficult process that can take months to sort out. In order to rent a home you generally need proof of employment, a salary of almost three times the monthly price of rent and the ability to pay the first month’s rent, plus a deposit equivalent to one month’s rent up front. Basically, if you don’t have 4,000lb lolling around in your bank account with nowhere to go you might as well kiss your house goodbye. In certain occasions you may be able to circumvent these obstacles depending on how dodgy of an estate agent you choose to go through, but then you have the added difficulty of not receiving a proper housing contract or possibly getting broken into and robbed by the very same person who rented you the house in the first place (Yes, this happened to me!). All this makes it extremely difficult for those on benefits, students and generally low-income families to gain access to decent and affordable housing.
Taking all this into account it is no wonder that this city has such a long history of squatting. In fact, some say that squatting in the U.K dates all the way back to the Peasant Revolts of 1381. Today the estimated number of squatters in England is around 20,000. As the global economic recession has worsened and housing foreclosures have increased the number of squats has proliferated, and the plethora of occupied buildings you can find around the city of London are quite varied. While some people use abandoned council flats and empty residential homes as their own place of residence, still other have taken abandoned shop fronts and warehouses and transformed them into Free Schools or Social Centres. These occupied building offer classes in bicycle repair, yoga, urban gardening and a free space for reading groups and movie screenings. Many of these Free Schools also offer free legal advice for squatters, demonstrating a cohesion and solidarity among the pro-squatting movement that is difficult to rival.
While many squats are an expression of economic necessity, providing a diverse range of people (many of whom would otherwise be homeless and rough sleeping) with virtually free housing, still others are formed as a type of political statement. By offering people across the city of London an opportunity to access important cultural resources such as mini-libraries, poetry events, guerrilla theatre and free art and photography exhibitions that would otherwise be impossible to afford, the individuals who help run these projects are demonstrating to the general public and the world exactly how much can be accomplished outside of the system. By showing society that people can learn, create and play free of charge, and that culture will not be dictated by cash, these squatters are doing a great service to society.
These cultural provisions alone should be taken into consideration, not to mention the fact that squatters are putting to good use all of those 450,000…or was it 650,000??… empty buildings that the government doesn’t seem to know what to do with.
It is in this light that our much loved Conservative M.P for Hove, Mike Weatherly, proposed an Early Day Motion back in March of last year to criminalize squatting in the United Kingdom. Following the Early Day Motion the government decided to open a public consultation entitled Options for Dealing with Squatters, and in an extraordinarily democratic vein requested the public to express its opinion on the possible criminalization of squatting The language used in this consultation is itself questionable, however, putting the bias of the government consultation aside, the answer to the consultation was overwhelmingly positive in favour of Squatting.
Over the next few weeks, 2,217 people, myself included, answered the government consultation, and over 90% of those who answered were against the idea of making squatting a criminal offense. In an overwhelmingly democratic response (please not sarcasm here*) to this public consultation, Secretary of Justice Kenneth Clarke reacted immediately by deciding to push through an amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill that would criminalise squatting in residential buildings. Some have called it the most publicly disapproved bill in England’s history.
Last November the House of Commons pushed through the amendment despite a large presence of pro-squatting protesters at parliament. The undemocratic nature of these votes became apparent to me when I arrived at parliament the day of the vote and was denied entry to Parliament along with more than 20 other people that had arrived with the intention of lobbying our M.Ps. However, it has become quite apparent throughout this process that some M.Ps in Westminster are quite determined to push through this amendment despite the wishes of their constituents.
According to some, the rationale behind the criminalization of squatting is quite simple; Breaking and Entering is illegal so why should occupation of someone else’s property not be? Breaking and entering is illegal, but why should occupation of a building that is abandoned and can be entered by members of the public without forcing entry be a problem? In reality, there is no nuance to this Bill. It is just ANOTHER law protecting private property-as if the world didn’t haven enough of these! In fact, a law protecting property owners whose homes have been occupied by squatters already exists in the form of the 1977 Criminal Law Act. This law protects displaced residential occupiers and protected intending occupiers by making it a criminal offence to squat someone´s home. This in itself proves that this new attempt at criminalization is unnecessary and based purely on propaganda and discrimination.
The government seems to be more focused on passing laws and amendments to laws that protect private property, albeit abandoned private property, than they do about creating laws that protect the right to shelter and basic living standards. If a building is in disuse for a certain amount of time and one can enter without breaking and entering, residing in this building, common sense says this should not be a criminal act. It is interesting to note that the house of commons was debating this very fact when they considered adding an amendment that would make squatting illegal only if the building were residential and empty for less than 6 months. This amendment, however, was later tossed aside.
While I personally do not agree with squatters occupying residential buildings that are currently in use, I believe 90% of squatters would agree with me on this point. In fact, it is unheard of (the sensationalist and tabloidesque articles in the London Evening Standard that are most likely fabricated and are most definitely exaggerated do not count, at least in my opinion, as proper news) that squatters occupy a building that is currently being resided in. Most residential buildings that are squatted are abandoned council flats or homes which have been empty for more than 6 months, most of which are in such a state of disarray before the squatters show up that most people wouldn’t consider living in them. In many cases the squatters enter homes that have in disuse so long that have their electricity and water supplies have been cut off. The new occupiers are then in charge of fixing these amenities and also paying for them. In these cases the squatters are essentially fixing up the building and making it liveable.
Considering the fact that 25% of the people on waiting lists for council flats could be given housing were all the empty residents in England occupied, squatters are doing a service to society by using these buildings as opposed to a disservice as certain M.Ps and media venues would have us believe. Taking all of these facts into account I am more prone to ask my M.P who they are classifying as a criminal, a homeless person who squats a building or the local council that is letting those buildings go to waste? Or maybe the unscrupulous landlords that charges exorbitant fees for flats that are in complete disarray and make people pay to live in substandard conditions? Maybe the MPs should start asking themselves what are the social conditions on the ground that have lead squatting to become such a widespread phenomenon in their districts.
This week England sits and waits as the House of Lords to decides on the proposed amendment. The grassroots campaign Squash has been most vocal and proactive in lobbying the government against the criminalization of squatting, highlighting a report by the Guardian which claims that criminalizing squatting will cost tax payers 790m pounds in the first 5 years.
This, together with the rise in the number of homeless, the increase in human suffering and the destruction of many free spaces for artistic expression is something we the constituents should take into consideration when considering the legitimacy we give to these so-called democratic politicians.