‘for the first time in 100 years there is no group of people in local or national government committed to providing high-standard, cheap housing for those who do the essential work in London’
Lindsey German ‘A Peoples History of London’
Will Judy lose her home while she pops out to the shops?
Will Richard manage to re-launch his TV career?
Will we get a sober and balanced account of the housing crisis?
…sorry I’m just being silly now
I’ve just finished watching myself and other members of the squatting community feature in an ITV documentary about squatting in which I was interviewed inside a squat. At the time of filming I was living in this derelict commercial property which had been left empty for 7 years by foreign shipping company.
Cut to Bristol. How bizarre…
In the red corner – representing the right to keep a temporary shelter over your head (subject to legal proceedings that will imminently have him evicted)– its the Squatter.
In the blue corner – representing the right to own seven properties and keep them empty – it’s The Land Lord.
Richard starts talking about a group of people who are “experts at exploiting the law and taking over other peoples’ properties”. Is he talking about the Banks? Maybe it’s a property development company? Perhaps it’s a bailiff company (I hear that’s a boom industry right now)?
What, squatters?! That can’t be! But squatters don’t take other people’s homes! I know because I am one. Isn’t it the case that a squatter who moves into someone’s intended home would instantly get an Interim Possession Order (granting emergency powers to have them evicted)? Hasn’t a law just been passed to make squatting in any of Britain’s 300,000 long-term residential properties illegal? Doesn’t every squatter I know live in a derelict commercial building owned by a company?
I must have misheard. Richard is known for his balanced and informed journalism. He is a Daily Mail journalist after all.
But hang on, what!? There’s a Tory MP waging a war of hate against us!
Oh no, false alarm. He’s just claimed that tens of thousands of the housing sectors must vulnerable “arn’t being demonised enough”. Then he said “they’re just anarchists trying to stick it to the system”. That would be false information… and political persecution come to think of it. It must be footage from the 1930’s. Phew!
What, hold on! He’s talking to Richard!
“But surely they’re not all bad are they” Richard exclaims
“Well I’m sorry but they are!” replies the Tory!!
It’s Mike Weatherly, the Tory MP campaigning to have squatting in commercials made illegal! Strange. I have it on good authority that the camera crew took Mr Weatherly into a really nice squat that was making great use of a derelict building. I was told that he said, on cameram that he saw nothing wrong with the place or what they were doing. What a massive media scoop! Where is this footage? Maybe he had some say over the final cut? If he did then that was a privilege not granted to us.
In fairness to Mr Weatherly MP, he did say it was important that property owners of Britain’s 1 million empty buildings should be able to go to sleep at night without worrying that their building will get taken from them. It is a danger, after all, that they will get driven off with, never to be seen again. Business executives across the country are probably lying in bed staring at the ceiling. The housing crisis is a terrible thing. Criminalise all squatters! Throw them out of the empty warehouses and into jail. Bang! Six months.
Thank God they didn’t start babbling all that sensationalist nonsense about 0.4% of the population owning 70% of Britain’s land, or all that guff about record evictions, record street homeless and the debt crisis. No-one needs another story about housing benefit being cut for the under 25’s, or about social housing for homeless families being cut after a year. That would be entertainment dressed up as reportage for the sake of ratings. This is serious
This video was filmed in a derelict commercial property left empty for 12 years by a man who owns several buildings and has registered this one in a tax haven. There is strong support from the neighbours for the 15 people who laboured to make it a habitable and productive space
Please lobby your MP to oppose the criminalisation of squatting in commercial buildings now being discussed
Squatters for Affordable Housing Campaign: http://www.squashcampaign.org/
In September the Government criminalised squatting in residential buildings making it illegal for this country’s 40,000 homeless families to squat any of our 300,000 long-term empty residential premises. The law was opposed by over 90% of people who responded to the Governments consultation as well as hundreds of leading Police and Judiciary who stated that existing fast track eviction laws adequately protected homeowners.
New laws being debated now seeks to do the same in non – residential / commercial buildings. Making temporary shelter in an empty office block will cease to be a civil matter to be resolved by the courts and will become an arrestable offence. Below are just some of the reasons why this will affect all of us.
You Want Lower Rent and Lower House Prices
In Britain 70% of the land is owned by 0.4% of the population. A ban on squatting will further concentrate property ownership leading to higher rent and higher property prices. This will affect middle Britain whilst benefiting a minority of landowners. Private companies often own lots of land and unused buildings which they speculate on for decades at a time. This ‘false scarcity’ keeps property prices high and at the same time leads to market failure and a housing crisis for the majority of British people.
You are struggling to meet Rent or Mortgage Payments
Do you have a low income? Was the price of your education a lifetime of debt? Is your rent increasing along with the money you owe? Are you part of the 1.7 million people
waiting on a housing list? Maybe you are, or have at some time been part of “the hidden homeless” that has to rely on friends and family for accommodation? Keeping a roof over your head is not just a concern for squatters but for most ordinary people today. We are already seeing record levels of unemployment evictions and homelessness. At the same time the Government is selling off low cost social housing and cutting housing benefit for the under 25’s. And it doesn’t stop there. Commentators are predicting a boom in evictions in homelessness as the Government announces that it is to kick homeless families out of social housing after 1 year. More on that here.
It would make the defence by local communities of their urban heritage a crime
Occupying space to protect it as an act of protest against unwanted developments – a long held tactic used by civil society to defend sites of heritage and natural beauty - could see you banged up. More on that here.
You Don’t Want to Experience Rising Homelessness
Homelessness in many areas of the UK is rising sharply with 50,000 families and individuals in need of emergency accommodation in 2012 (a 25 percent rise since 2009).
Research from homeless charity Crisis in 2011 shows that
- 40% of single homeless people have squatted at some time
- 6% of the current homeless population are currently squatting
- 41% of homeless squatters report mental health needs
- 34% have been in care
- 42% have physical ill health or a disability
- 47% have experienced drug dependency
- 21% are self- harming
- 15% have learning disability
- 90% are sleeping rough
[Reeve, Kesia. (2011). Squatting: A Homelessness Issue - An Evidence Review. Available: http://www.crisis.org.uk/data/files/publications/Crisis_SquattingReport_SEPT2011.pdf. Last accessed 9th September 2012.]
These are the people whom the Government seeks to further marginalise, fine, and brutalise with the prison system.
You are Worried about Tenants Rights
The new squatting laws do not extend to ‘a person holding over after the end of a lease or license’. That means someone who has not left after their notice period cant be arrested by the police as ‘squatters’. On the ground however this is not secure. Casualised tenancies such as those given by Camelot and other ‘property guardians’ which only give a 2 wk notice period tenancy termination may well be able to label their tenants as ‘squatters’ because the licences the hold is classed as ‘an excluded license’. Property guardianship is a growth industry that has been lobbying hard for the criminalisation of squatting. Why would they do this when they market themselves as protecting homes against squatters. Could it be that they intend to profit from an increasingly liberalised landscape of housing regulation in which tenants have no right and can be evicted easily? More on this here.
People who decide to deal directly with a private landlord in an effort to avoid massive agency costs may end up on cash in hand agreements with Landlords who seek to avoid legal obligations. As unlicensed tenants they could end up in jail if things turn sour. Given the lack of understanding over the new laws (even by the Police who I know from first hand accounts have been misusing existing squat laws to arrest people in commercial buildings) many tenants are probably being forced out of homes under the threat along that they will be arrested as squatters.
Under the 2012 Act, cash-in-hand rental agreements would allow landlords to threaten tenants with arrest by reporting them as squatters given that there would be no proof that they are tenants engage in unlawful eviction, harass the tenant and would require ‘notice to quit’ (eviction notice) uphold legal obligations on the condition of the building.
[p.7. ‘Law of the Land; An Idiots Guide to Section 144 Criminalising Squatting in Residential Premises & How to Fight Back Against the Unjust Attack on the Vulnerable’ (Matthew Varnham, Aug. 2012)]
You Are an Activist, Campaigner or Member of Civil Society
The commercial property where I live belongs to a tax dodger who owns many
buildings. He left it empty for 12 years. Much to the delight of the local residents we opened the space up to make it a home for 15 people to live and many more to use for open days, workshop, film screening and events.
If the use of empty non-residential buildings is made illegal it will spell and end to countless community hubs as well as social centres and even convergence centres where activists to reside during international summits. Cuts Cafes have recently been popping up across the country in response to austerity. These too will be a thing of the past. Temporary autonomous spaces like these are a key part of civil society and a healthy democracy because they give activists a place to meet, hold talks and workshops, make banners and plan actions and demonstrations. The Government knows this very well and does not want people to organise against things like the G8 summit happening on London next year.
Outrageously, Mike Weatherly, Conservative MP for Brighton was recently quoted as saying:
“It’s a good law, and those who says it’s not are just anarchists”
“These are anti-capitalist people and they shouldn’t be able to get away with it”
Such statements imply that being anti-capitalist or subscribing to the political philosophy of anarchism is a crime in itself. Most squatters are ordinary people on low income. Some are anarchists and are peaceful community minded people. If you don’t believe me go to The Anarchist Book Fair and share a cup of tea with some of them. The campaign to vilify squatters is also one of political persecution that leads to increased police powers, surveillance and arrest. More broadly it is a campaign against organised civil society in the face of increasing inequality.
You Support the Arts and Countercultural Activities
I squat in London because I am a self-employed performer and a part time Masters student. If they criminalise squatting I don’t know how I can continue living here. Many of the performers you see in theatres, performing in pubs and clubs or named on your CD collection will have at some time squatted. Would the punk movement and all that came out of it have happened without squats? Annie Lenox and her keyboardist were able to save for the keyboard that they wrote ‘Sweet Dreams’ on because they were squatting. There are countless other examples like this.
A friend of mine Dave Wybrow is the Director of the Cockpit Theatre, Westminster. He has worked for many years in with comedians, actors, theatre companies, dancers and musicians. He also used to squat for 10 years in the 70’s. Last year he visited the squat where I lived and told me this:
“The reason that London is the cultural capital of the world is an inheritance from past decades when there were places where young people could have some breathing space to be creative. Squatting was much easier then. I don’t think our place as the cultural capital can continue the way things are going.”
I think the new laws on squatting are part of the processes of gentrification that are bleaching our towns and cities.
A Ban on Squatting Commercial Properties Will Benefit You If…
You are a business or landlord that has a non –residential building you have left empty and wish to speculate on. Most squatters will seek to negotiate and agreed leave time, nominal rent or terms of occupation. But you won’t have to bother with this. The circumstances of the squatters and the scheduling of a notified eviction date will not be necessary. You can save money spent on evicting them with legal means. Instead the tax payer can pay for the police to arrest them, provide them housing benefit or even possibly imprison them. You may never have to see the face of the person sat in jail for the crime of making a temporary shelter in your empty building. You can continue to leave it (plus any other properties you own) out of use for decades to come.
If you think that occupying long-term residential or commercial building is wrong lobby your MP, distribute this article encouraging others to campaign around it and be proactive in protecting the vulnerable.
Today 70% of Britain is owned by 0.4% of the population
This Monday I went to Parliament (home to the House of Land Lords) to help represent squatting at a seminar about Community Land Trusts. The last time I was there I saw Kenneth Clarke, (who was at the time rushing through a piece of legislation to criminalise squatting in residential properties) stand in front of a sparsely populated House and say that that he saw “no difference between stealing somebodies home and stealing somebodies car”.
I’ve never seen any property get driven away under cover of darkness. I have never seen people live in a car. I have never seen a car registered in a tax haven and left un-driven for decades waiting for the right price. I don’t remember reading the paper and finding out that the sell- off of affordable cars by local government was to blame for the housing crisis. Nor have I, and excuse me for being sarcastic, seen any squatter steal somebody’s home.
The squatted site where I live was left empty for 20 years. It is owned by an absentee land lord who holds several properties across the country. This one (classed as non-residential) is registered in a tax haven. The Council have been unable to stump up enough money to buy it and the local residents have been unable to turn it into communal land. This type of thing is no rare occurrence. The last empty building which we occupied was a five story London property registered in the haven of Liberia. It had been left empty for 5 years.
In late September I was interviewed on the BBC evening news about Alex Haigh – the first person to be imprisoned for squatting under the new legislation on ‘residential’ buildings. This twenty two year old trainee bricklayer will come out of Wormwood Scrubs having rubbed shoulders with hardened criminals. He will have a criminal track record and may never be able to work with children. His only crime was to move into an empty building – a property owned by a housing association. The Police came across him by accident and now he is in jail.
The BBC reporter was shocked when he interviewed the neighbours who were overwhelmingly opposed to the sentence – two of the three he interviewed were ex-squatters themselves!
Housing is a human right. Owning property is a human right too. Why have the Tories so aggressively asserted the right for people to own lots of properties and keep them empty against people’s right to a temporary shelter?
Perhaps the answer could be distilled by the phrase “false scarcity”. The housing activists, squatters, campaigners and academics at Monday’s seminar (hosted by Michael Meacher MP and Martin Large of the National Community Land Trust Network were all concerned about this. The way we buy and sell the roofs under which we live is based on the false market concept of scarce housing resources. Keeping properties empty (and therefore their availability scarce) translates as higher property prices for the minority of rich landlords. For everyone else it means forced exodus from office blocks and luxury flats, a housing crisis, record, evictions and record homelessness.
One land activist from Grow Heathrow told how they made use of a piece of land that had been misused and then abandoned by the owner:
“Just because land is privately owned it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t effect other people…as we move towards a global food crisis there is only so far we can go in asking people nicely when they have a vested interest in keeping it the same”
In the rubble of this market failure is the well hidden reality of abundance. There are nearly a million empty buildings in the UK (80,000 in London alone). But if we treat houses like cars, instead of essential things that we all need and must find a way of managing fairly, we give people the incentive to steal them.
Squatting in non-residential properties is still a civil matter
Occupy – create – resist
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