HUCK found a colourful world hidden within the squatters.
Society foresees squatters with a monochromatic filter of misconceptions, but HUCK found a unique tone of colours in their living mode.
You know it’s no ordinary Thursday when, at 7am, your home is stormed by forty police officers. Of the seven people who live at Grow Heathrow – a squatted market garden that has become the hub for environmental action group Transition Heathrow – only one was up and preparing for work. At the sight of the police, he ran to wake the others.
“Twenty of them came in through the back and the other twenty through the front, breaking the lock,” explains Joe, an activist who has been with the campaign since it began. “They said they were looking for items to be used for criminal damage. We were held, surrounded by police. Usually, when places are searched you’re allowed to have one person walking around with the police, watching what they’re doing, but this time that wasn’t allowed.”
In light of such heavy-handed tactics, one may be forgiven for assuming that this squatted site in suburban London was, in fact, some kind of criminal den. The reality, however, is somewhat less dramatic. Grow Heathrow began life in March 2010 as a campaign hub for opposition to the nearby airport’s expansion plans. When those plans were shelved, the campaigners joined forces with local residents and turned the site into a community garden – a place where people gather to grow plants or host meetings about the impending peak oil crisis, in the hope of becoming “a beacon of community strength and a great example of how to live sustainably on this planet”. Dangerous stuff, right?
And yet, on the morning of the swoop, the officers turned the site over. But as Joe explains, it was never clear what they were searching for: “They didn’t leave stuff as they found it, they left it upturned. Like the spaces where people sleep – there were clothes scattered everywhere. It was complete intimidation tactics. They were fascinated by these spray cans they found in the corner of one room, I think because paint has been used in a recent protest. It was pretty comical, that aspect actually, because items to be used for criminal damage could be anything. We’ve got all kinds of gardening tools, for example.” A couple of hours later, with no arrests and nothing seized, the officers left.
Of course, this was no ordinary Thursday. It was the Thursday preceding the Royal Wedding. Though the connection was denied by the Met’s press office, few believed the timing was mere coincidence. As Joe later discovered, Grow Heathrow were not the only ones visited by the cops that day. Across London, several other sites were raided. Their only link was their mode of land tenure. Rather than being owned or rented by their occupiers, these spaces were squatted. “It was political policing,” says Joe. With a wider clampdown on squatting underway, it seemed like they’d been targeted.
Squatting is the occupation of a building or plot of land that the squatter doesn’t own or have permission to use. It’s a diverse phenomenon that exists across the globe, from the miles of shantytowns surrounding megacities like Mumbai, to autonomous communities like Christiania in Copenhagen. For some, squatting is a way to get a roof over your head; for others, a squat can be the base for social, cultural or political activities. In European cities like Athens and Paris, squatted buildings, which would otherwise be left vacant, are hubs of alternative arts and music communities while the Berlin scene is now so renowned it’s mentioned in most guidebooks. In the UK, cultural figures like filmmaker Derek Jarman and Joe Strummer were squatting when they produced some of their best work. Hell, even Richard Branson has squatted in his time. One could argue, then, that socially and culturally we owe squatting a great deal. Yet today, it’s something of a dirty word – a phenomenon that, generally speaking, is frowned upon by society. But why?
For starters, squatting runs counter to the idea of private property, which over time has become pretty hard-wired – an Englishman’s home is his castle, and all that. Our obsession with private property might, bizarrely, be the result of escalating sheep prices in the 1400s. As livestock values rose, many farmers turned previously common land into private fields to protect their animals. Land – once a resource shared by everyone – became a commodity. With that, land ownership became synonymous with wealth, and remains so to this day. But squatting, one could argue, didn’t become the real bad guy until the press waded in. If you believe everything the tabloids say, squatters are antisocial vandals whose sole aim is to sponge off the state and wreck the homes of hardworking families. Of course, it’d be naïve to insist that all squatters are angels, but one-sided stories never give the full picture.
Though breaking and entering is a criminal offence, squatting itself, in England at least, is not. But that may well soon change. In March, Conservative MP Mike Weatherley called for a debate on squatting in the House of Commons by tabling an Early Day Motion (EDM) stating, “This house believes that squatting should be criminalised.” The movement gathered pace when Prime Minister David Cameron announced a consultation into squatting’s criminalisation, which began in July.
But from the outset, the issues have been muddy. While Weatherley was tabling his EDM, the Arab Spring was gaining pace. Under NATO, the UK was formulating plans to intervene in the Libyan struggle against Gaddafi. Just seven days after being tabled, an amendment was made to Weatherley’s motion that read, “At end add, ‘With the exception of the squat in the house of Saif al-Gaddafi in North London.’” In a high-profile move, campaigners had taken over a house belonging to the Libyan leader’s son, in a symbolic attempt to seize the assets of the despotic regime. For the first time, the aims of policy makers and squatters seemed to tally. But instead of recognising this, the criminalisation movement pressed on.
Back in the forties, however, squatting garnered wide support. As Andrew Marr explains in his History of Modern Britain, World War II air raids had seen half a million of Britain’s 12.5 million homes completely destroyed, with a further 3 million badly damaged. Servicemen arrived home to find they had nowhere to live, yet some buildings lay empty. A movement originating in Scunthorpe looked set to challenge that when, in July 1946, forty-eight families descended on an empty army encampment and set up home. Their actions were repeated across the country until, come autumn, there were an estimated 45,000 squatters across the UK. Yet it wasn’t until September that they hit the headlines. In a move coordinated by the London Communist Party, families who converged with their possessions on London’s Kensington High Street were helped into empty mansions and apartment buildings owned but unused by the city’s wealthiest. Banners summed up the mood: ‘Homes for Everybody Before Luxury for the Rich’. The establishment, though sympathetic at the outset, soon hardened. Within days, police who had been passing food parcels into squatted buildings were charging at supporters on horseback. The movement paved the way for a similar family housing campaign in the sixties and seventies fronted by activists like Ron Bailey of the London Squatters Campaign.
In the seventies, squatting began to take on a vibrant countercultural edge. Neoliberal ideologies at the heart of capitalism were taking hold. While many people opted for humdrum jobs and the illusion of future wealth, others came to see squatting as a way out. Richard, now living in a housing cooperative in North London that he co-founded with friends in buildings they’d previously squatted, recalls his experiences: “We lived around the park at Crystal Palace in these big 1840s houses. They were huge, ten or fifteen-bedroom buildings and the local authority couldn’t afford to convert them into flats. We had three originally. We had licences from the Greater London Council, which meant we could stay without being hassled until they needed the places back. As time went on, we squatted virtually every house surrounding the park. They were seriously good partying houses. And people did so much. People from Croydon College of Art got involved. A whole group of animators lived there. There was this guy called Graham Jackson, an amazing animator who worked with Pink Floyd doing the animation for The Wall. Houses had different themes: there was a house of jazz musicians, a house of artists. I suppose it could be seen as a load of hippies sitting around getting stoned all day, but a lot of really creative things happened there. We were people who didn’t want to get squeezed into the mould that was available to us at the time.”
Though hardly commonplace, the squatting scene in the seventies was pretty big. Consequently, it set two major precedents that still stand today. The first is outlined in The Squatters, a dramatic account of the London Squatters Campaign written by Ron Bailey. He discusses a particularly violent eviction by Redbridge council bailiffs, which the Campaign later questioned in court. As well as condemning the bailiffs’ actions, the case set a vital legal milestone. Squatting was recognised as a form of building occupation and squatters couldn’t just be thrown out by force. Due legal process would have to be followed and a court order needed for any eviction to take place. By comparison the Squatters’ Handbook, the second development of the seventies, seems less significant. But as Richard explains, it certainly wasn’t: “In the first house I lived in, there was this guy called Andrew Ingham. He wrote and illustrated this whole book about how to look after the systems and services in a building and called it the Squatters’ Handbook. It doesn’t sound like a big thing now, because today we can read all that information on the internet, but back then it was all closed-shop unionised stuff. Nobody would tell you how to wire a house, make the gas work. It was secret information held by people who’d done apprenticeships in the trades. The Squatters’ Handbook was a crucial little key in the whole thing. It was really big news.” Updated, and distributed by the Advisory Service for Squatters, it remains essential reading today.
So what is the process of setting up a squat really like? Lucy, who’s involved in the green movement and squats with friends in a London pub, talks of her experiences: “We spent a long time searching for places, cycling around areas we thought we might like to base ourselves, looking for empty buildings. We found one place that we were really keen on. We watched it for quite a while, so we knew it was empty. We did some research, found out who owned it, what the situation was.” In the end, that didn’t work out, but soon after another place fell into their laps. To keep within the law, Lucy notes, squatters can’t break into a building. Instead, unsecured windows and doors are the way to get in. Once inside, the next step is to change the locks and stick a Section 6 notice – which outlines their legal right to squat – onto the main access point of the building. Once occupied a squat can never be left empty, because if there’s no one in, the owner can retake possession.
Pressed on the tabloid narrative that squatters take family homes, Lucy is sceptical: “For me and my friends, if a building is in frequent use, we don’t want to squat that. It’s when buildings are sitting empty, neglected, that’s what we’re looking for.” It’s a pragmatic approach. Opening a squat is hard work, and moving somewhere that you’re likely to be kicked out of doesn’t make sense. In fact, the process is often more transparent than one may think. “The place we’re in now is going through a planning application,” adds Lucy. “Realistically, they’re not going to be able to do anything for another six months, so we would argue that us having it as our home in the meantime is better than it sitting empty.” In situations like that, many squatters contact the building’s owners. Rather than skulking around attempting to avoid detection, in Lucy’s experience it’s often better to get a dialogue going. Just as squatters like Richard got licences from the council back in the seventies, many property owners today can be persuaded to come to an agreement.
Speaking to a BBC journalist in July, Ken Clarke, the Secretary of State for Justice, outlined his opinions on squatters: “They’re all being portrayed by the lobbyists as if they’re all starving, last-resort homeless people. I don’t know, you might know better than me, how fashionable it is nowadays to go into a squat for a bit if you’re young.” Incredulous, he added: “Some of them have jobs!” As neat a sound bite as this may be, can the line between so-called lifestyle squatters and the homeless be so clear? For many, squatting is simply a means to an end. “I’m involved in voluntary community projects,” explains Lucy. “If I had to work full-time just to pay rent, I wouldn’t be able to do that.”
But the fact remains that many squatters are homeless. As a recent report from the charity Crisis points out, these people tend to slip below the radar; they are the ‘hidden homeless’. Crisis estimates that while there may be only around seven hundred rough sleepers on the streets at any one time, around 800,000 people across the country are homeless or vulnerably housed, of which around 10,000 squat regularly. In fact, thirty-nine per cent of homeless people have squatted at one time or another. It’s an astonishing stat, especially given that, according to figures from the charity Empty Homes, in 2009 there were over 725,000 houses lying unused in the UK, of which nearly 325,000 lay empty in the long term. As Leslie Morphy, Chief Executive of Crisis, said in a press statement in July: “Criminalising squatting does nothing to tackle the underlying issues faced by homeless people, and that is their homelessness. If the Government really wants to end the misery of squatting – for those who have no other option – it must provide better housing and support, not criminalise some very vulnerable people.”
Squatting isn’t just about housing. For most political movements, a physical base is their most important asset. The location can be symbolic – Climate Camp often pitches up next to dramatic sources of pollution, for example – or it can be a matter of logistics. Like Grow Heathrow, the Really Free School has followed this course.
The Really Free School, as the name suggests, emerged as a reaction to the Conservative government’s education reforms, which will see a significant rise in University fees and the advent of new schools funded by religious organisations and businesses. Occupying a building in Bloomsbury, central London, they used the space to run classes and lectures, ranging from everyday subjects like French to seminars on radical history, as a comment on the way in which education has become commodified.
And this is where things start looking fishy. A change in the law surrounding squatting may well stifle such political activity and could even, as geographer Alexander Vasudevan recently argued in the Guardian, be used to criminalise demonstrations more generally. Recalling UK Uncut’s occupation of upmarket food store Fortnum and Mason in March in protest of alleged tax avoidance, he suggests that “[a] criminal ban on squatting could very easily be ‘retrofitted’ in order to police and proscribe the fundamental right to protest”. This is a very real concern because, apart from appeasing property speculators, there’s little else new squatting laws could actually achieve. As NL, who blogs for the widely respected site nearlylegal, writes: “Much of the public rationale for changing the law […] has been based upon calls to protect homeowners from squatters. As I’ve previously discussed, this is simply wrong. Whether the error arises from lazy ignorance or a deliberate obfuscation is another matter.” NL continues: “It is a criminal offence under Section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 to occupy a property where there is a ‘displaced residential occupier’ (where the property is someone’s home) or a ‘Protected Intended Occupier’ (someone about to move in to live there).” In most cases, the only buildings which sit empty for long periods are ones owned by speculators, for whom bricks and mortar are just assets to be kept until the price is right to sell.
And as Paul from Squatters Action for Secure Homes (SQUASH) points out, using the risk to homeowners to justify the criminalisation of squatting is not only morally ambiguous, it’s wrong: “The real issue is not that squatters are some big social problem, the real issue is the housing crisis. People make money on property speculation while others are homeless, and house building isn’t happening right now just because it doesn’t suit the market. We can’t criminalise our way out of a housing crisis.” SQUASH first rose to prominence in the 1990s in response to an earlier consultation by a Tory government on the criminalisation of squatting, and their resolve to defeat a change in the law is just as strong this time around. Alongside the formal SQUASH campaign, supported by Labour MP John McDonnell, less formal organisations have also taken root as Barry, another Londoner, explains: “We formed Squattastic, myself and some other friends, because we thought squatters should start networking. After two or three meetings we realised that Squattastic wasn’t going to be the vehicle for any political campaigns, but it would be a space for squatters to come together, to network, to start projects. In fact, the Really Free School came out of the first Squattastic meeting.”
Back at Grow Heathrow, the tomatoes are ripening, and the campaign is still in full swing. The future for this squat and others around the country is uncertain. There are powerful voices calling for criminalisation while the public is at best indifferent. But whose interests are being prioritised? According to Joe, the answer is clear: “The problem has always been access to land. One per cent of the population own ninety per cent of the land in Britain and land ownership is a powerful thing. Whether for housing or for community spaces, we need to claim space by other means. Very strong laws already exist to protect homeowners from squatters, this latest proposed criminalisation only serves to protect property speculators and unscrupulous landlords.”