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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My gift to the universe is performance poetry. We all have one, this is mine. In order to give this fully it is necessary for me to be able to teach it. If I inspire people with my work I have planted a seed. If I teach people my art form I will water these seeds. I will help to cultivate a healthy garden of talents that will strengthen the ecology of poetry with growth, diversity and resilience. By entering this greenhouse I aim, in turn, to become a better poet.
Now more than ever there is a need to re-engage people with the ancient fireside tradition of spoken word. In this digitally mediated, televised world children are consuming 3 hours of advertising and 4 hours of television daily. Minds are becoming bleached and voices muted. Homes become gastro sheek chain bars. Loud music – less talking – more drinking. Conversation becomes eclipsed by the one eyed man in the corner of the room. A generation loses its voice, its stories, its poetry.
The teaching of spoken word is a profoundly political act. A healthy democracy requires engaged and informed citizens who are able to hold their political masters to account. Dialogue, debate and freedom of expression have mischievously conceived the social movements, acts of liberation and popular victories that have grown into the children of social justice and democratic freedom. As media ownership concentrates into fewer and fewer hands, as our visual landscape gets eaten up by those who can afford to advertise, as online surveillance and censorship increases, would it be an exaggeration to say that spoken word creates one of the last bastions of genuine free speech?
Beyond the generation of effective communication, poetry makes you emotionally literate. In a rational,
technocratic world we have lost nothing less than a way of seeing. Folklore gets silenced by signage, legends give way to advertising slogans, metaphor gives way to workplace jargon. Poetry dissects the heart and unpacks the chambers of its mystery in a way the surgeon’s knife never can. How can we give our students a ‘personal and social education’ without enabling spaces to reflect, interpret and write?
When I stand in front of a class of students I know that each one has a unique set of abilities, skills, experiences and passions. Each has a gift to the universe that, if wasted, will never be recreated in any other medium. Some will go on to become performing artists, most will not, but all of them will be spoken word artists. Weather it’s a town hall, a family dinner or a manipulative lover, they will need to speak out and make their voices heard. Samuel Coleridge once said that poetry is ‘the best words in the best order’. Who in the world cannot benefit from using words well and delivering them elegantly? Whatever you say – say it with poetry. Let’s create a generation of well rounded, confident and articulate young people by giving them the chance to write their insides out.
An ex – student of Peter Kahn
Earlier this month I bussed for 4 days to get to Latvia and back for some work with the British Council. I refused to fly after a polar bear appeared in a dream showing me a bar chart of carbon emmissions. This is what happened…
The 44 hour, Euroline E3792 Riga – London bus journey makes us remember what we value in life.
The solitude submerges you from the muffled hum of Bablylon, leaving us alone with ex-lovers, estranged family members and that time in year 10 when Dennis Gow accidentally groped our biology teacher’s breasts whilst blindfolded.
But after four and a half hours of lonely silence a strange Stockholm kinship grows. A lack of talking makes appealing the prospect of an awkward conversation with a Pole who shares no other language other than that of his humanity. It was brief but it was meaningful and left me embering in a warm glow of roadish comraderie. After a further 5 hours (and arrival in a Slavic town that contains frankly more consonants than is healthy) it became necessary for me to talk to a random Lithuanian. Again, it was brief, functional (mostly consisting of the words “toilet” and “over there”) but deeply, deeply significant
It had been a long day.
The journey through Northern Poland was noteworthy for its lack of anything of note, with two notable exceptions:
1) A sign outside a bus station ticket office that read ‘Busses for sale’
2) A sign on a service station doorway that read ‘
Night draws in. Euroline service E3792 leaks night time buslings onto service station forecourts in a state of elderly confusion. No one wanting to stray too far from the Mother Ship for fear that it leaves us, nor feeling too attracted to the British Petroleum’s spaceship food. It’s a curious stich that weaves a fleshly garment into these plastic inorganic seats. All different ages, shapes, colours, races – a temporal convention leads to circumstance to meeting, “is it worth us befriending?” say half smiles and abandoned glances. That moment when our courtyard circuits met and we both thought it – “shall I?”, “does she?”, “will they understand me?” Then the bus driver returns and we line back to our agreement of:
- Don’t talk beyond a cirtain decibelage,
- Don’t radiate each other with overhead lighting after 11pm
- Don’t leave the toilet door open
- Don’t rustle plastic bags too loudly
- Recline your seat with a sense of necessary and concerned foreboding
- Have others recline unto you as you would recline unto others and forgive them their trespasses.
There is a symphony of transcultural complexity to this succeeding and it does in my experience which is pretty fucking amazing. You see people are like words, it doesn’t matter where they came from. It just matters what they’re saying, what they do and how they help us.
As we drive through space and time in this mutating human genome, we babble incoherently from one mum to the next mum. The womb of our lexicon can be fertilised by anyone. Eggs imbibing millions of swimming commas punctuating journeys to life sentences of poetry in motion. Trace the page of our history and we all have common ancestry, neighbour hieroglyphics on some tapestry in Persia.
As we roll in static movement through the planes of Northern Poland, is this a marriage of mere convenience or an opportunity of some significance? What are you saying Service E3792? What does this human soup of past and future really tell us? Are we only brought together through shared departure and destination and a desire for better hot chocolate in motorway service stations? Or is there more than this? Can we not reach out and burst the bubble of this isolation?
It’s not about the destination, it’s the journey that’s important! So let’s overcome the differences between Riga and Berlin, between Warsaw and Dusseldorf, between Cologn and London. Let’s prove that two world wars can’t leave a continent divided, that we are all words of equal importance to understanding this page that we inhabit. Let’s put down our crosswords and unplug our I Phones. I’ll even stop reading my 500 page people’s history of the English Civil Was and stop writing poetry and let’s join in solidarity around a collective understanding. Let us hold hands around this bus in the petrol forecourt chanting,
“We are all one mono-monkey, we are all one monkey, we are all on mono-macro, proto-turbo monkey. We are all one body”
In several different languages.
“It’s time to slam the door on squatters for good” declares Minister Crispin. It’s a slow news day on a bank holiday Saturday and most news journalists are out of work in the post coital spafflax of Olympic saturation. The story that squatting empty residential properties has shifted from a civil to criminal matter is all over the TV. At 5am ITV Day Break arrive to an empty pub in an estate of bricked up and boarded flats in East London for a live interview with myself and another squatter. From the window of the room where we film we can see over twenty homes with nobody in them. They have been kept like that for years.
“Do you not feel bad about being here? I mean you’re not supposed to be here are you?”
My friend says that he doesn’t feel half as bad as the bankers who have rigged up the housing market and carried out record amounts of evictions for profit. We cut to the comfort of the studio to a woman who had her house squatted by Romanians whilst she was on holiday – yes, the same poor lady who appeared all over the press last year during the campaign of vilification against squatters in the right wing press. It’s the same lady who had these idiots evicted within days under existing legislation which protects residencies from being squatted. Why was she invited on when she does not stand to benefit from the new law? Is the media having difficulty finding people?
Later that morning I had a telephone interview with BBC London. I tell them that no squatters I know would ever squat abuilding where someone lives or has a for sale sign. I tell them that all squatters I know look for long term empty buildings to do up and turn into productive space. I tell them that we immediately try to make dialogue with the owner and offer to be caretakers of the building or agree a date to hand it back for when they want to use it rather than going through court. I explain that the last two properties I have lived in have been owned by landlords and companies outside of London that own multiple properties and have kept the buildings empty for upto 20 years. I explain that both the properties were registered in tax havens. This is a common story in squatland.
On the other line is a lady who tell me that what she has heard is “disgusting”. I don’t think she knows any squatter or has ever been in a squat. She is having difficulty evicting her tenants who are refusing to leave. She complains that they are covered by squatter rights and that if she was to go down there and tell them to get out she would probably get charged with harassment. I wonder if she is reading straight from the Daily Express. As the conversation progresses it becomes apparent that the people in her house are not actually squatters and so she too is protected by existing legislation. What is going on?
Later that day a radio phone-in asks people to buzz through if they have been victims of squatters. But does anyone know what a squatter is? The host doesn’t ask if anyone is themselves a squatter. Maybe he assumes that we are lying on the floor with hyperdermic needles hanging from our arms – unable to reach a radio or phone. Nor does he ask to hear from neighbours who may have had positive experiences of squatters.
I have been squatting for almost a year. Most of the people I live with are hard working young people on low incomes, often providing essential services in health and social care, who cannot afford city rent. They believe that empty buildings should not be left to rot for the sake of profit and are committed to doing up spaces to provide housing for the less fortunate and open up public space. They are the most engaged citizens and community minded people I have ever had the privilege of having worked with and they always go out of their way to reach out to their neighbours.
I would never claim that all squatters are model humans, but lets just for a moment cut through the media sensationalism and recognise that the handful of “squatters broke into my house whilst I popped out to the shop” stories represent a fraction of squatting. Open days, skill share days, free shops, free libraries, workshops spaces and open-mics are less mediagenic and don’t get covered in the press. Lets maintain a healthy scepticism about what we read. Kicking people out of building and potentially landing them with a hefty fine or a jail sentence will benefit the big businesses and landlords – not middle England property owners. Ordinary people will experience a rise in house prices as more buildings get left unused and derelict to rot in the heart of their communities.
Hundreds of lawyers and police have publicly signed a declaration stating that the new law is unnecessary, costly and unworkable. It is estimated that it will cost a billion pounds to enforce and thousands will be pushed onto housing benefit as a result.
I don’t think squatters are the cause of the housing crisis. It seems to me that concentration of land ownership by big private landlords and the lack of social housing is the big story here. This misinformed and politically opportunistic crusade against squatting will affects all ordinary people: the millions who are homeless, street homeless or in a vulnerable housing situation as well as everyone else who would like for themselves or their family to be able to visit a squat, an activist convergence centre (during an international summit), a squatted community garden on derelict land, a workplace occupation, a student sit in, a climate camp, a peace camp or an occupy site.
Why, in a time of record evictions and homelessness, when more and more people are unable to cover rent in the city, is the Government stamping on some of the most vulnerable? At the height of the housing crisis the Tory party received big financial donations from private landlords who have much to gain from a housing market full of empty homes (aka “false scarcity”). Squatting non-residential properties is still a civil (not criminal) matter. People will continue to find their own solutions to the housing crisis which puts people ahead of profit.
Occupy – create – resist.
A fascinating interview i did at Edinburgh last week with a unique artist doing new things with spoken word
This is the worst double booking of my career: an appearance of my stage show ‘Pete the Temp vs Climate Change’ at the Wise Words festival in Canterbury and an invitation from the British Council to go to Latvia and do workshops and performances for four days with a load of young poets.
There is a way to do both of these awesome bookings – flying back from Latvia on the day of my climate change show.
Aaargh! What do I do?
My reputation and the integrity of the this show’s tour rely on me getting this right. A couple of years ago I gave up flying within Europe. Carbon foot printers Best Foot Forward have calculated that the average top level consumer of carbon in the global north is responsible for 10 climate change related deaths (most of which will happen in the global south) over his/her lifetime. The worst contributors are short-haul flights.
Hours of agonising conversations and telephone calls later and I come up with a plan. Ill fly back, do the show and donate the sizable fee I receive to Cultivate’s agro-forestry project in Oxford… and go veggie for a year!.
This would be local offsetting – better than a faceless agency that may or may not plant trees on the other side of the world. Ill also get a great opportunity to finally go vegetarian. Surely these trees and a year of no meat will offset one short flight. Besides my outward bound journey would be overland. People will understand.
Or will they, and will I?
Many of my fiends – including environmentalists – were supportive of this plan. They sometimes fly when its really inconvenient not to. Besides, this would be a big opportunity. After all, I never fly anyway and I could integrate this story into the show – showing my own humble complexities and contradictions which might make the show more accessible. If I don’tfly back I will miss the opportunity to relate my tales of climate change direct action to a large audience of people. These people might then have been inspired to do some action themselves!
But hang on, what makes my excuse to fly any better than the next person. Is there any difference between this and David Cameron planting trees at a photoshoot – explaining that he has to fly with his work so this is something he can do to offset his emissions. Whats changing about my habits of consumption here? I am encouraging anyone else to change theirs? If I take - lets be honest – this unnecessary flight, Ill be giving money to an industry that is one of the biggest single contributors to climate genocide in the world.
Worst of all, how can I perform on this issue with any degree of sincerity having just stepped off a plane? How could I be such a dick head!? I finally came back down to the ground and landed at the conclusion that to fly would undermine everything I am doing.
Ah bollocks! Im gonna’ have to go overland to the Baltic sea and back.
Fuck it! it will be an adventure, I’ll see more landscapes, meet more people and will be meeting my words with my deeds. The Wise Word organisers were awesome – encouraging me to do what I feel is right. As soon as I cancelled the show I felt a light, happy, wholesome and true. My inner reptile of regret and self loathing slithered back into his cave.
Thousands of people are choosing not to fly because the consequences of petrol belching – mass extinction, biospheric collapse and mass death.* As we go through life we are all trying to find ways to balance our temptations with our ethics.
I don’t have all the answers for the people I perform in front of. Far from it. Im still trying to work them out for myself. As I sail forth on my quest to defeat the leviathan of climate change, I clutch at my bent sward and tattered flag. Increasingly I am coming to find that the biggest enemy I will face is not the dark heart of supermarkets, oil companies or governments – but the one lodged between my own breast plate. Climate change has always been about lifestyle and values as much as science.
Will I manage to swerve this ship from the sinking iceberg on the horizon? I reckon Ill have a better chance if I sail with wind power and not petrol.
* Climate change is responsible for 300,000 deaths this year, and will be responsible for 500,000 by the year 2030, according to the Global Humanitarian Forum