Article on squatting in the Independant: "My place or yours"

marksimonbrown mark at
Tue Feb 8 18:51:21 GMT 2005

My place or yours?
The Independent
by Simon Busch 
Published : 03 February 2005

Far from being a thing of the past, squatting is flourishing - but it
isn't what it used to be. Simon Busch meets the new generation setting
up stylish homes in empty buildings

Peter and Maureen, a middle-aged, married couple, could be mistaken
for the proud owners of a loft-style live/ work space. Milky, winter
light from a picture window bathes their expansive living area that
strikes a balance between cosiness and efficiency. A big mirror, set
amid a swirl of fairy lights, reflects a patch of bright carpet, an
assortment of sofas and an impressive-looking home-office in the far
corner of the room. But the couple's lounge is the former cocktail bar
of the Eagle and Child, an east-London pub facing demolition. And
Peter and Maureen only got on to the property ladder by climbing
through a window. They are squatters, members of a movement whose time
may have come again.

While many believe that the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act
delivered a fatal blow to squatters travellers, and ravers, this is
not the case. The price of property and rents, a dearth of social
housing and the abundance of empty homes in Britain today have created
fertile ground for squatting. The number of squatters in England and
Wales has risen by 60 per cent since 1995, according to the Advisory
Service for Squatters (ASS), the best source of such estimates, from
9,500 people to around 15,000. The voluntary group, which helps
squatters fight their cases in court, says its phones have not been so
busy since the squatting peak of the late 1970s.

Stefan, 29, a lighting rigger who is frequently described as a "posh
squatter", describes the process by which he finds sound housing
"investments". "You watch a building for at least a couple of weeks to
make sure no one's going there," he says. "You check its bin every
couple of days to see if things are being thrown out. You check its
post: if there's loads of mail, you get the obvious idea. You can
check with the Land Registry who owns it."

Then you spread the word. "You check it out, you get a crew. You tell
people: 'We're doing a building tonight, lads - lads and ladies.' You
get your flasks of tea in, you get pillows - and my electric
screwdriver is in my bag"

"Once you get in the building you can't turn the lights on. You need
to change the locks so that the keys and entry to the property are in
your possession, and you put a 'section six' [a legal warning that
begins: 'Take notice that we live in this property, it is our home and
we intend to stay here'] in the window. As soon as you've secured it
and have a section six in the window, you can turn the lights on. I
can change a lock in about two minutes."

Popular conceptions notwithstanding, the act did not criminalise
squatting. It remains a civil offence, and its provisions are rarely
used against squatters. One of the advisers at the ASS, Jim, calls the
legislation "a damp squib. It did a lot of legislating against things
that never happened except on the pages of scurrilous newspapers, such
as people going around the corner for a packet of fags and finding
their house had been squatted."

But the face of squatting has changed in the past 10 years:
increasingly often, it is European. A fair proportion of the 10,000
squatters in London - itself 80 to 90 per cent of the British total -
have hunkered down at Marlowe House, in Lewisham, in the south-east of
the capital. Around 350 people squat 93 flats in these two
medium-rise, brown, tower blocks, which the council is itching to
demolish. Only a fraction of the squatters who have filled the blocks
over the past year have been British; Spaniards, Italians, French and
Japanese live in these towers, but the great majority are Polish.
There is even a Polish website exhorting people from the new EU
country to come to the blocks.

"Squatting really saved my life in London," says one of the Poles,
Lukas Gargala, 28, a part-time nurse. He was pedalling from Berlin to
Hanover to visit some German relatives late in 2001, when, somewhere
en route, the €600 in savings that represented most of his worldly
riches at the time slipped from his money-belt. He fetched up in his
ultimate destination, London, where, with barely a converted penny to
his name, he enrolled on an IT course.

Squatter friends in the capital put him up for a few days before
pointing him in the direction of some squattable flats on a nearby
estate. He moved into one of them and, rapidly convinced of the
virtues of squatting, barely looked at the rental world. He did board
once, but found himself paying £400 a month for a tiny attic room to
which his landlord would not tolerate visitors.

He says he will probably continue squatting while he takes a medical
degree. For him, and for most of his compatriots in the flats, he
says, squatting is "a necessity. Who arrives here with a great house,
a great job? Nobody."

Nadia, 26, is a teaching assistant who shares a cosy, pin-neat flat
with a fine view of the Thames with her brother, a few doors down from
Lukas. She could afford to rent, she says, even on a salary of less
than £15,000 - her colleagues do - but it would leave her unable to
save any money. An academic interest led her to squatting - she made a
film about it as part of her anthropology degree - but it's pragmatism
that has kept her there. Born in Iraq and raised in Scotland, she is
now putting money aside to move to Syria. One drawback of squatting is
having to move every six months or so, but even that "keeps things

The most obvious solution to accommodating people on low incomes is to
provide them with affordable social housing. But local-authority flats
and houses continue to decline in quantity and quality. The latest
figures show the shortage to be so pressing that Tony Blair, to avoid
further diminishing the stock, has just been forced to abandon his
plan to let housing association tenants buy up their homes. John
Prescott has pledged to step up social-housing construction by 50 per
cent (providing 10,000 new homes a year) but, even if he delivers,
there would still be at least 100,000 households - the latest
homelessness count - queuing up for them.

Housing inflation in Britain has become so astronomical that a report
by the charity Shelter recently described the inequality of wealth as
Victorian. Given the circumstances, one might think that houses would
not be left vacant. Yet there are 750,000 empty dwellings around the
country, 3.4 per cent of the housing stock. Even in London, with its
ferocious market, 3.2 per cent of houses are vacant - many due to
property speculation.

The opportunity to squat endures, along with the need, but the style
of squatting has changed. Mass squats, such as the condemned tower
blocks Lukas and Nadia inhabit, are now the exception. David
Watkinson, a barrister who has acted in squatting cases for 30 years,
says that, in the 1970s and 1980s, squatters would typically occupy
"whole streets of houses or parts of estates left empty because of
stalled development programmes. Now they mainly occupy individual
houses or flats, large-scale redevelopment having become a thing of
the past."

Squatting is also becoming more entrenched beyond London, according to
the ASS. In the past few years, the agency has seen a pronounced
increase in requests for help from squatters outside the capital.
Simon, Jon and Val - a computer technician, a website designer and a
counsellor, all in their mid-30s - squat a former nursery, opposite
Birmingham University, which lay unused for several years. They say
that they enjoy the spacious rooms and generous garden - they could
never afford to rent such a large house - but that there is a
political purpose to the squat, as well. They want to set an example
of "DIY housing" to the homeless people of Birmingham - whose numbers,
in line with a national trend, have doubled in the past year - and
have enlisted the mainly sympathetic local media to this end.

Squatters and the Government agree that, given mounting homelessness
and an ever-more-exclusive property market, empty homes are, as a
select committee report puts it, "at best a waste of resources, and at
worst a blight on the lives of individuals and whole communities".
Unfortunately, at this point the two sides' views diverge. A
communiqué from John Prescott's office dismisses squatters - along
with the "fly-tipping, graffiti, vandalism, drug-dealing [and] arson"
that vacant homes attract - as part of the problem.

But squatters believe that they are part of the solution. They say
they have lessons to teach the masses hauling themselves up the
property ladder. With their typically numerous households, they argue,
they set an example of communal living in a world of increasingly
scarce resources. They recycle not only property but also most of what
they furnish it with: skips are the Ikea of the squatting fraternity.
Instead of exorbitant rents and mortgages, they propose "sweat
equity": maintenance and renovation.

"People think squatting's an easy lifestyle," says Peter, in the
sprawling former saloon bar of the Eagle and Child. "Well, it isn't -
because you don't move into a place where someone's just gone on
holiday for a couple of weeks. They are places that people have
abandoned or that are up for demolition in six months or a year.
You've got to fix plumbing, wiring, the floors; sometimes there are
holes in the roof. If you're going to live there you've got to be able
to put it right. It's exciting: driving somewhere, getting in, setting
up - and then it's just like normal life." 

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