I don’t squat personally, but I do frequently socialise in various squats and have many friends whose personal circumstances offer them no alternative but to squat.
I can only speak for those I personally know; but without exception, they are responsible people who seek to retain good relations with neighbours, keep the buildings they occupy in good order (and frequently improve or install the arrangements surrounding security and facilities in their dwellings) and, where possible, try to both use their space for the good of the community (for instance, providing space for art exhibitions or running cookery, bicycle repair or self-defence classes – all of these and more have been done within the last year at squats I have visited) and to establish and maintain good relations with the legal owners of the buildings. This last one can, for obvious reasons, be tricky; but it does happen more often than you might imagine.
All this notwithstanding, the authorities have, over the last few years, tightened the rules relating to squatting and are now beginning to actively and regularly forcibly remove squatters from their homes more quickly and with less warning than ever before. Remember, in England and Wales squatting is not a crime; indeed, after the Second World War more protection had to be put into place for people in this position as a result of the housing shortage brought about by bombing.
This position is now beginning to be reversed. St Agnes Place, the last squatted street in London near Oval station, was suddenly and forcibly evicted in 2005, marking the start of what is clearly becoming a concerted campaign. St Agnes Place was a small but vibrant community – brightly-painted 5 or 6 storey Victorian terraces housed a surprisingly high number of diverse and frequently very active people, many of whom were particularly experienced squatters ideally placed to offer assistance to others around the city – divide and conquer clearly being the authorities intention. Some had offers of rehousing from Lambeth Copuncil, many didn’t and were pushed onto the streets. One particularly sad story entailed a couple with two young children and another shortly to arrive who still had an appeal to be heard; as the eviction took place in the presence of over 100 police officers and a full demolition team, they were simply forcibly removed from their home irrespective of the fact that they had a legal right to remain; given that they thought they had extra time, most of their possessions were lost a matter of minutes later when the demolition crew moved in to immediately destroy the buildings. The buildings, former council houses were subsequently replaced with luxury housing built for the private market and for vast profits. No surprise there, then.
In the years since then, the overwhelming majority of the established squats in London have been targeted and evicted, thanks to a change in the law which enables landlords to more easily utilise a document called an Interim Possession Order. IPO’s can now be issued extremely quickly, and the courts have streamlined their procedures to ensure any possible appeals against these are heard, and typically rejected, as quickly as possible. Several squats I have been personally in touch with over the last few months have been evicted through IPO’s, and have had all their defences rejected without consideration, despite there having been, in each case, numerous problems (ranging from inaccuracies to inconsistencies to outright lies) with the paperwork which has been served. One of the requirements of an IPO is that the owner must require immediate possession of their property, for instance if they wish to redevelop it – we have checked and discovered that not one thing has subsequently been done to any of the premises from which any of my friends have been evicted this year; ironically, in several cases buildings have subsequently been re-squatted (this is OK as long as it is not done by the previous occupants, which has led to some of the squatting crews playing musical houses.)
For those working, rent-paying taxpayers among you reading this and asking why you should be concerned about the plight of a few pikeys and hippies, I say this. Each time a squat is evicted, there is a cost to the public purse due to the activities of the court and the police in relation to these actions. The displaced people, if they cannot find a place in another squat, inevitably then fall into one of two categories – either they become homeless and add to the numbers of rough sleepers, which also diminishes the resources available to homeless people in general, as these are required to stretch around ever-increasing number of people, or they are rehoused by the council, adding to the burden on taxpayers as they have to claim housing benefit. So, if you can’t see that there is an argument for allowing people who are by and large self-sufficient to live in buildings which are kept empty on purpose (frequently for years by landlords hoping to ride out the economic downturn before redeveloping their property) and who typically make significant contributions to the local, artistic and squatting communities for the sake of their humanity and right to freedom of choice and lifestyle, you should at least be able to see that preventing them from doing so has a very real impact on your own pay packet. It’s time to wake up and start causing a fuss about this very-pointedly-ignored problem (by the mainstream media at least), whether for your conscience or your pocket.
Some resources used in the construction of this column: