Notes From the Margins…

Let squatters squat!

  • October 28, 2011
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It won’t be news to many people that there is a housing and homelessness crisis in the UK, but a few statistics are worth considering to remind ourselves of the dimensions of the problem.

According to the homelessness action group Crisis, 400,000 single people are homeless, and living in B&Bs, squats, or the floors of family and friends.   In 2010, 61,000 people were  listed  by UK local authorities as newly homeless.  In the first quarter of 2011 61,000 homeless people were living in temporary accommodation.

Meanwhile nearly five million people are on the waiting list for social housing, while the sale of council houses continues to be a  lucrative profit-making industry.  This autumn  rents have shot up to the point when the average tenant is paying £713 a month.  By 2025, the  Institute of Policy Research predicts that there will be a housing shortfall of 750,000 in England alone.

Against this background, the Coalition is now proposing to introduce a law criminalising one of the few ways in which people without money for rent – let alone money to get on the ‘housing ladder’ – can keep themselves off the street: squatting.

Under a new amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill announced today by Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, it will be a criminal offence  to squat in any residential building regardless of whether or not the building is occupied or about to be, and offenders will be liable to a year in jail and fines of up to £5,000.

The Ministry of Justice has just published the results of its consultation on Options for dealing with squatting, which declares unequivocally that ‘ law-abiding property owners and  occupiers should be able to enjoy their entitlements to their property without  undue interference from those who have absolutely no right to be there‘.

The paper contains a foreword  by Crispin Blunt, Under-Secretary of State for Justice, who like  many MPs,  has himself made ample use of  these   ‘entitlements’.  In August last year he was told by the parliamentary fees committee to stop claiming expenses on his London second home, because he was living there with his family.

Blunt then asked if he could take out a second mortgage on his constituency home in Surrey and claim that on expenses instead, but when this request  was refused he sold it and bought a bigger house, on which he claimed £16,000 in stamp duty.

Between 2004-2008 he claimed £87, 728 in second home expenses, including £417 to repair a broken water wheel.    This is clearly nice work if you can get it, so we can’t be entirely surprised by his moral indignation towards those who don’t play by these rules:

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‘I have been contacted time and time again by MPs and  constituents about the appalling impact that squatting can have on their  homes, businesses and local communities. This is not media hype. It can and  does really happen; and when it does it can be highly stressful for the owner  or lawful occupier of the property concerned.

It is not only the cost and length of time it takes to evict squatters that angers  property owners; it is also the cost of the cleaning and repair bill which follows  eviction. While the property owner might literally be left picking up the pieces,  the squatters have gone on their way, possibly to squat in somebody else”s  property.’

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Having been a squatter myself in the 70s and 80s for nearly ten years in 4 different cities, including London and Amsterdam, I can’t say I’m particularly sympathetic to property owners on this issue.  The principle that I and many other squatters once operated by, was that if someone has no place to live and a property is empty,  they should be able to occupy it as long as they aren’t depriving someone else of a home.

Most of the time we lived in abandoned or boarded up council properties, that had in some cases been left abandoned for years.   Even then it was a very insecure existence: evictions were frequent and there were times when you were packing your belongings into a van every few months.

In  my case – and in the case of many other squatters I knew at the time –  squatting was chosen rather than forced upon us.    Most of us were young, and didn’t consider ourselves to be homeless.    We liked the freedom, the sense of adventure and living in an ‘underground’ political community.   We thought, like Proudhon, that property was theft and we were especially opposed to the use of private property for speculative purposes.

In Amsterdam we often occupied buildings that we knew were being kept empty by companies and individual landlords for this purpose.  Whatever the reasons, many of us became quite adept at doing up houses rather than wrecking them – contrary to the picture contained in Blunt’s consultation paper.

In Camden for example,  some of the squatters I knew in the 80s renovated their houses and formed housing cooperatives that provided homes to people who would otherwise not have been able to afford to rent or buy.   All this was going on at a time when the Thatcher government was actively  trying to cultivate a new generation of working class Tories by allowing them to sell their council properties.

So squatting is not necessarily the destructive and parasitical activity described in the government consultation paper.  And despite its portrayal of squatters as irresponsible, destructive vandals,  the real basis of its opposition lies clearly in  its ideological commitment to  the principle of private ownership that has done so much to cause the housing crisis of the last three decades.  As Shelter notes

A major reason for the social housing sector shrinking in the past 30 years, is that hundreds of thousands of social tenants bought their homes during this time after they were given the  Right to Buy (council housing tenants) or the  Right to Acquire (housing association tenants). This trend, combined with low levels of social house building, has drastically reduced the availability of social housing in England.’

On the one hand we have a South Sea bubble economy driven by an overheated housing market celebrated in tv programmes like Grand Design, Location:Location and countless others.   At the same time we have the society described in a report produced by the Centre for Regional and Social Economic Research for the homelessness action group Crisis in May this year, where

[stextbox id=”alert”]’Single homeless people resort to desperate measures to put a roof over their head. The study uncovered evidence of people engaging in sexwork to pay for a night in a hotel, committing crimes in the hope of being taken into custody, and forming unwanted sexual partnerships to securea bed for the night.'[/stextbox]

Evidence provided by respondents to the government’s consultation paper makes it clear that many squatters would otherwise be on the street.  This list includes high levels of foreign and particularly Eastern European squatters in London,  young people who cannot afford to pay rent let alone a mortgage,  vulnerable people, some of whom have mental health issues, on benefits, and Gypsies and travellers.

So Squatters Action for Secure Homes (SQUASH) is surely correct in observing that the amendment ‘ will criminalise the homeless in the middle of a housing crisis who use squatting as the last remaining option to keep a roof over their heads.”

And who is Labour backing on this issue?  Who do you think?  According to the Guardian, Sources working for the shadow justice minister said they did not think there was any possibility that the new law would affect sit-ins and occupation protests as previously feared,  and they would support the change to show their support for homeowners.’

So there you have it.   In the midst of a chronic homelessness crisis which will almost certainly intensify over the coming years, the Coalition – with the support of the opposition – proposes to introduce a bill which will criminalise squatters and increase the numbers of homeless people.

Classic joined-up thinking.  But never mind, because the consultation paper proposes ‘a balanced approach: criminalising  squatting in residential property on the one hand whilst helping to ensure that  people found squatting are put in touch with relevant support agencies and  continuing to tackle the root causes of homelessness, providing more  affordable homes and bringing empty homes back into use  on the  other.’

Phew!  And there I was thinking that this bill was just another product of a heartless and inhuman government that really doesn’t give a damn about anybody below a certain postcode/income bracket.  Silly me.

 

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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