Guardian squatting article tomorrow & excellent pix
tony at cultureshop.org.uk
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.
Patience take the Crown; throw Anger out of dores:
Cast out Hypocrisie and Lust, which follows whores:
Then England sit in rest; Thy sorrows will have end;
Thy Sons will live in peace, and each will be a friend.
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