Guardian squatting article tomorrow & excellent pix

Tony Gosling tony at
Mon Dec 3 22:42:52 GMT 2012

'Squatters are not home stealers'
The criminalising of squatters in Britain is part 
of a Europe-wide backlash. But with at least 10% 
of the world population squatting, can they really be a menace to society?
Steven Rose - The Guardian, Monday 3 December 2012 20.00 GMT


The 'vertical slum' ... Torre David in Caracas is 
a 45-storey tower block that houses some 2,500 
squatters. Photograph: Iwan Baan/Urban-Think Tank

On 26 September, Alex Haigh became the first 
person to be jailed under section 144 of the 
Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders 
Act. His crime was one of which countless 
thousands of people could now be guilty: 
squatting. A 21-year-old from Plymouth, Haigh was 
arrested for living in a house in Pimlico that 
had been empty for over a year. He had come to 
London seeking work as a bricklayer; now he has a criminal record.
When section 144, which makes it an offence to 
squat in a residential building in England and 
Wales, came into effect at the beginning of 
September, many people agreed with it, including 
52% of Guardian readers in an online poll. But is 
squatting really a menace or a burden to society? 
Might it even be beneficial? And when we talk 
about squatting, what do we really mean anyway? 
Those questions are raised again this week, 
albeit belatedly, by a surprising new 
adjudicator: Richard Madeley. In Madeley Meets 
The Squatters, the former breakfast TV maestro 
turns investigative reporter, visiting squatters 
and anti-squatters alike, and bringing more 
nuance to the subject than the current 
administration did when it drafted section 144.
Grant Shapps, co-chair of the Conservative party, 
has a very clear idea of what squatters are: they 
are people who come and steal your home while you 
are on holiday. Justifying the law change in this 
paper, Shapps cited some well-publicised recent 
incidents of homes stolen by squatters, including 
that of Oliver Cockerell, a Harley Street doctor, 
which was occupied during renovation work while 
his wife was pregnant. Dr Cockerell blamed "gangs 
of anarchists and eastern Europeans". Shapps went 
on to describe squats as "death traps of despair" 
and spoke of squatters' lives as "characterised 
by gloom and anguish". "The gentle and romantic 
image of communal harmony and a counter-cultural 
lifestyle is an illusion," he declared.
These negative stories have dismayed many 
long-term squatters. Take Joe Blake and Reuben 
Taylor, two squatters in their 20s who live in an 
abandoned plant nursery near Heathrow airport. 
Their set-up, Grow Heathrow, is far closer to 
Shapps' illusory harmonious community than a 
death trap of despair. In fact, you could call it 
a squat-topia. Blake and Taylor's group – now 
numbering 17 or so – cleared their site of 30 
tonnes of waste and repaired derelict greenhouses 
to live in. They grow organic vegetables, which 
they sell via the local grocer. They hold bicycle 
workshops, arts and crafts sessions and gardening 
workshops for the local community. They even do 
the gardening for the local constituency office. 
They have displaced no one and the neighbourhood 
wants them there, since they campaign against the proposed third runway.
It's a frugal existence, mind you. The only 
electricity is via a wind turbine and solar 
panels – just enough for music and the internet. 
It gets bitterly cold in winter. The "shower" is 
a Heath Robinson-like contraption consisting of a 
water butt on top of some scaffolding, with pipes 
leading to an old radiator with a fire underneath 
it. "We're building a roof for it so we don't get 
rained on while we're showering," says Blake. It 
would be very difficult to paint these squatters 
as a burden to society. They don't even have a carbon footprint.

Blake and Taylor are also members of Squatters' 
Action for Secure Homes, or Squash, a voluntary 
group that has been leading the campaign against 
section 144. Most of the governments' arguments 
for criminalising squatting they can instantly 
rebut. They say the well-publicised examples of 
squatters stealing people's homes represent an 
insignificant proportion of the estimated 20,000 
to 50,000 people squatting in the UK, most of 
whom live in long-term abandoned properties (the 
government has done no research of its own since 
1986). Last month, 160 experts on housing law 
wrote an open letter complaining that "media and 
politicians are misleading about law on 
squatters" and that the existing law was adequate 
to protect homeowners like Cockerell. In the 
government's own consultation last year, 96% of 
respondents agreed that the law did not need 
changing, including most homeless charities, the 
Metropolitan Police, the Criminal Bar Association and the Law Society.
"They completely overplayed it," says Blake over 
a cup of tea in Grow Heathrow's greenhouse 
kitchen. Shapps and co whipped up a moral panic, 
aided by sections of the media, then section 144 
was "sneaked" through parliament during the 
bill's last three days, he says. "Squatters 
aren't very well represented in the media, so you 
just hear these horror stories in the papers. But 
most squatters want to stay somewhere for a long 
time. They don't want to take someone else's home."
"What you don't get is the story about the 
pregnant squatter who's kicked out on the 
street," adds Taylor. "Many squatters are homeless and vulnerable."
"From our point of view," Blake continues, "the 
only people this law protects are property 
speculators and unscrupulous landlords who are keeping properties empty."

Moral panic over squatting is not difficult to 
engineer, says Dr Hans Pruijt of the Erasmus 
University, Rotterdam, who has studied squatting 
across Europe. In the Netherlands, a country with 
a formerly enlightened squatting tradition, it 
was outlawed in October 2010, by a very similar 
process to the UK. In Spain, in the mid-1990s, 
squatting was tenuously linked to terrorism 
before being outlawed. It is invariably rightwing 
governments that push through the laws, Dr Pruijt 
observes, often on the basis of spurious 
arguments. "I think it's part of a revanchist 
mood in politics," he says. "Everything that 
people hate is blamed on soft, leftwing politics 
from the 1960s and 70s – migration, squatting, 
Muslims. So it's revenge against what happened in the past."
Pruijt has identified five basic reasons why 
people squat: out of deprivation and an immediate 
need for shelter; as a strategy for pursuing an 
alternative lifestyle (often by the middle 
classes); for entrepreneurial reasons, such as 
setting up a community centre or small business; 
for conservation reasons; and what he calls 
"political squatting" – as an arena for 
confrontation with the state. The categories 
often overlap, as with Grow Heathrow, but none of 
them are intrinsically harmful to society, Pruijt says.
Some forms of squatting are demonstrably 
beneficial. In Dutch there is a word krakers – 
literally "crackers" – to describe the type of 
constructive squatter who fixes up damaged 
buildings. "Squatters quietly restore house" is a 
story that rarely makes the papers, although in 
the 70s in Amsterdam, hundreds of squatters moved 
into and repaired dilapidated buildings in the 
historic Nieuwmarkt area, and fought to save the 
neighbourhood from large-scale demolition and 
redevelopment. It was the beginning of a 
successful conservation movement in the city. 
Furthermore, squatters are often involved in 
activities that bring little financial reward but 
are often beneficial, Pruijt points out, such as 
music or art or community projects. In the UK 
that category now includes teaching, nursing and studying at university.
Some would say all squatting was political, 
though. Property equals power, and squatting has 
been historically linked with the struggle of the 
dispossessed, anti-establishment movements, and 
the control of space. The practice is as old as 
the notion of property itself. The origins of 
"squatters' rights" lie in the ancient, unwritten 
law that if you could erect a dwelling overnight 
on a piece of land, it had the right to stay 
there – similar laws can be found around the 
world. As such, squatting was one of the 
processes by which European and even American 
cities grew, as makeshift settlements became 
permanent communities, which were often then 
appropriated by landowners and replaced with 
something more profitable. Particularly 
talismanic in the political context was Gerrard 
Winstanley and his Diggers, who provoked a wave 
of shortlived Christian communes in the 1640s. 
Winstanley questioned the very foundations of 
property ownership, and the class structure that resulted from it.
Those sentiments run through the major postwar 
squatting movements: communist, anarchist, 
hippie, environmental. As a student, I squatted 
for three years in the early 1990s in the 
Leytonstone area of east London. Even in the 
halcyon days of student grants, London was 
expensive and squatting was a cheap option – with 
countercultural credentials to compensate for the 
lack of glamour, or hygiene. But there was also a 
political slant: this was along the route of the 
proposed M11 link road, which became a flashpoint 
in the movement against the conservative 
government's road-building agenda – as 
personified by celebrity crusty Swampy. We were 
getting a free place to live, but we were also 
fighting against the destruction of the 
community. Events came to a head on my former 
street, Claremont Road, which became the last, 
stubborn stronghold against eviction. In December 
1994 (when I no longer lived there), it took 
several hundred police officers several days to 
remove the non-violent squatter-protesters. The 
appropriation of space is still a protest tactic, 
as shown by the Occupy movement today, but their 
gestures are largely symbolic forms of squatting 
rather than a long-term strategy.

But if squatting is on the retreat in Europe, it 
has exploded in the rest of the world. According 
to a recent UN estimate, some 800 to 900 million 
people around the world are technically squatters 
– over 10% of the world's population. The 
socio-economic conditions are different: these 
are overwhelmingly rural migrants settling on the 
outskirts of cities. But these are still people 
occupying land they do not own, without 
permission. Questions of whether or not squatting 
benefits society are redundant here; squatting is 
society. In Mumbai, India, for example, 
slum-dwellers represent roughly 60% of the 
population. In Turkish cities, it is roughly 50%, Brazilian cities, 20%.
These squat neighbourhoods are often referred to 
as slums, shanty towns, favelas or bidonvilles. 
They are often characterised as grim places, with 
poor sanitation, high crime rates, drug gangs, 
and other problems. But it's often a 
misconception, says Robert Neuwirth, author of 
Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters. He spent two 
years living in slums in four of the world's 
largest cities: Mumbai, Nairobi, Istanbul and Rio 
de Janeiro. "They're not criminal enterprises. 
They're not mafias," he says. "These are people, 
law-abiding citizens, workers. People who wait on 
the tables and clean the rooms in the tourist 
hotels. People help each other and take care of 
each other. These were wonderful places to live, 
once you step beyond the fact that they don't have a sewer system."
In many cases, slum squatters are literally 
second-class citizens, with no power to improve 
their neighbourhood, and vulnerable to 
exploitation. In Rio de Janeiro for example, 
favelas are being razed in preparation for the 
2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. But in 
other cases temporary dwellings have evolved into 
more permanent neighbourhoods, just as they did 
in pre-industrial Europe. Rio's Rocinha district, 
for example, is technically a favela but is no 
longer recognisable as such; it has multi-storey 
concrete dwellings, plumbing and electricity. 
"Where they can, you find people rebuilding their 
homes over 20 or 30 years, one wall at a time," 
says Neuwirth. "From mud to cardboard, to wood, 
to brick, to reinforced concrete, as they save."
Is this entirely different to the European 
understanding of squatting? For one thing, the 
two are beginning to overlap. In the centre of 
Caracas, for example, stands the Torre David, a 
45-storey bank tower that was abandoned halfway 
through construction. It is now home to some 
2,500 squatters, who moved in, completed the 
building and divided its spaces using found 
materials. It has been called a "vertical slum" – 
with its own shops, amenities, water and 
electricity (there are still no lifts).
In the broader sense, what ties together these 
disparate instances of squatting is human beings' 
capacity to organise and provide for themselves. 
"Wherever you go in the developing world, and, I 
would argue with most of the squatters in the UK 
and the US, you're talking about a notable act of 
self reliance by people facing a system that does 
not provide housing they can afford," says 
Neuwirth. "This is something we should be 
saluting, rather than looking at it as some kind 
of horrific, criminal approach."
"It's the basic paradigm of our time: we 
shouldn't trust so much in the state. We 
shouldn't trust so much in big companies, we 
should take responsibility ourselves," says 
Pruijt. "Squatters have pioneered this."
It is difficult to see how outlawing squatting 
will benefit the British taxpayer. Squash 
predicts section 144 will cost the public purse 
an extra £790m in the first five years, due to 
greater demands on homeless rehabilitation, 
housing benefit and other government services. 
Plus police resources diverted to protecting 
properties and evicting squatters, and judicial 
resources diverted to processing and convicting 
them. "The legal aid bill was supposed to be a 
cost-cutting bill, but this one clause will wipe 
out the entire expected saving," says Blake.
One phenomenon that has taken hold in Holland 
that's likely to come our way is anti-squatting – 
in which a handful of occupants are officially 
permitted to occupy an empty property, thereby 
preventing real squatters moving in. 
Anti-squatters usually pay a nominal rent, but 
forfeit basic property rights: prospective buyers 
can visit at any time and they can be evicted at 
a moment's notice. So technically, anti-squatters 
are second-class citizens, not far removed from 
developing-world slum-dwellers. Still, that's a 
better option than the alternative housing 
strategy the coalition is offering Alex Haigh: prison.

What the squatting dispute boils down to is a 
split between those who consider private property 
to be sacred, and those who would prioritise the 
right to shelter. Few people would happily 
forfeit a second home to squatters, but nor does 
it feel morally justifiable for a nation to have 
an estimated 930,000 empty homes while people sleep on the streets.
"We're facing one of the worst housing crises 
we've ever faced," says Blake. "They're cutting 
housing benefits, cutting provision to homeless 
charities, there's massive youth unemployment and 
property prices are unaffordable." Those 
conditions are not likely to change any time 
soon. Nor do continual promises of new, 
affordable homes look likely to bear fruit in the near future.
Grow Heathrow is safe for the time being, since 
section 144 only applies to residential 
properties, but they are in no doubt the law will 
be extended to include commercial properties, 
including their community. Like all long-term 
squatters, they are now wondering how long they 
have got before they are thrown out and 
reclassified as criminals. Shapps' proclamation 
that squatters' lives were "characterised by 
gloom and anguish" now looks more like a self-fulfilling prophesy.
"People are really scared at the moment," says 
Reuben Taylor. "There's a lot of fear and 
anxiety. Some people will end up on the streets, 
some will end up on housing benefits, some will 
find other places to stay, and some might go to jail. It's a big unknown." 
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"Capitalism is institutionalised bribery."

"The maintenance of secrets acts like a psychic poison which 
alienates the possessor from the community" Carl Jung

Fear not therefore: for there is nothing covered that shall not be 
revealed; and nothing hid that shall not be made known. What I tell 
you in darkness, that speak ye in the light and what ye hear in the 
ear, that preach ye upon the housetops. Matthew 10:26-27

Die Pride and Envie; Flesh, take the poor's advice.
Covetousnesse be gon: Come, Truth and Love arise.
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