Criminalising Squatting - Privatising Empty Space

Tony Gosling tony at
Thu Sep 13 21:24:13 BST 2012

Criminalising Squatting - Privatising Empty Space
by Hannah Wilcox

On the 1st September the act of squatting in a 
residential building became a criminal offence 
under Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing 
and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO). This 
unprecedented piece of legislation was enacted to 
a flurry of government statements claiming 
‘justice’ and ‘protection’ for “hard-working 
homeowners” against the “misery of squatting”. At 
once both mimicking and feeding vitriolic media 
campaigns, Justice Minister Crispin Blunt claimed 
that “by making this change, we can slam shut the 
door on squatters once and for all”. By Monday 
the 3rd September we saw police with battering 
rams in Brighton enforcing the law for the first 
time: forcibly evicting and arresting three 
people for the new crime of squatting. Since then 
the Squatters Legal Network (SLN) and Squatter’s 
Action for Secure Homes (SQUASH) have received 
news of 14 such arrests, whilst countless ‘known 
unknowns’ slip under the radar. The end result of 
a bankrupt parliamentary process and a biased 
media campaign, the criminalisation of squatting 
in residential properties epitomises the 
Coalition government’s privileging of private 
property rights over the needs of some of the most vulnerable in society.

The government’s repeated rhetorical focus on 
‘homeowners’ is disingenuous to the point of 
being total rubbish. It has been a criminal 
offence to displace residential occupiers and 
intending occupiers from their homes through 
squatting since the Criminal Law Act of 1977 
(Section 7). As the Law Society argued: “The 
current law is sufficient to protect homeowners, 
but is not understood by the public, the police, 
nor, it seems, politicians.” Misrepresentations 
of the facts by both ministers and the media 
provoked 160 legal experts to write an open 
letter debunking the myths driving forward the 
push to criminalise squatting, arguing that 
“inaccurate reporting of this issue has created 
fear for homeowners, confusion for the police and 
ill informed debate among both the public and 
politicians on reforming the law.”

This myth-peddling collided with the Coalition’s 
tendency to dismiss the mechanisms of 
representative democracy to create a thoroughly 
bankrupt parliamentary process. The government 
introduced the clause to criminalise squatting 
into the LASPO bill just three days before its 
final reading in the House of Commons, leaving no 
time for parliamentary scrutiny. This followed a 
consultation in which 96 percent of respondents 
were opposed to such action. All hearings in the 
House of Lords happened after 11pm at night. Up 
to 50,000 people were criminalised in a matter of months.

Once again, rather than acting on their professed 
commitment to a small state, the Coalition has 
enlarged the repressive arm of the state to 
protect private property rights. Acting under 
cover of protecting ‘homeowners’, the government 
have bolstered state sanction of one of the most 
anti-social manifestations of  property rights – 
the ‘right’ to keep properties empty. Such is the 
Coalition’s dedication to privatisation that they 
are extending it to empty space and abandoned buildings.

This is no small phenomenon: there are 930,000 
empty properties in the UK. And their owners, 
most of whom do not intend to use these 
properties as their own housing but as a 
profitable investment, now possess what amounts 
to a state subsidy to ensure their buildings 
remain unused. By criminalising those using empty 
properties as shelter in times of need, the new 
law allows property owners to rely on the police 
to evict squatters, rather than bearing the costs 
themselves. Indeed, SQUASH’s research shows that 
the costs to the taxpayer of criminalising 
squatting could reach up to £790 million over the 
next five years, (including an increased housing 
benefit bill, policing and criminal justice 
system costs), wiping out expected savings made 
by all other aspects of the LASPO bill.

To extend this protection, the state has placed 
squatting directly under the police’s remit. By 
transferring squatting from civil to criminal 
law, the government have removed pre-emptive 
judicial scrutiny from the eviction process, 
empowering the police to make complex legal 
judgements beyond their capacity on the doorstep. 
This further exposes vulnerable tenants, people 
with license from owners to occupy a property, 
and those squatting in commercial rather than 
residential properties, to the risks of illegal 
eviction. Not to mention enhancing the toolkit of 
repressive legislation at the disposal of police 
targeting political activists, such as the 
pre-emptive raids during the royal wedding.

So who is affected by this change? Outside of 
government rhetoric, it is difficult to identify 
‘squatters’ as a uniform (anti-)social group 
abstracted from the context of economic crisis. 
Research undertaken by homelessness charity 
Crisis found that 40 percent of single homeless 
people have relied on squatting as an alternative 
to street sleeping. This is not surprising once 
one undertakes even a cursory examination of the 
present housing crisis: private rental costs 
spiralling ever upwards, five million people 
already on social housing waiting lists, a 14 
percent rise in official homelessness rates in 
the last year, and homelessness provision 
diminishing with each cut to local authorities 
and homelessness charities. Squatting is not 
simply a ‘lifestyle choice’, or an issue of 
squatters’ ‘personal morality’. As Crisis 
reported in September 2011: “The evidence 
suggests that the majority of squatters were 
sleeping rough immediately prior to squatting. 
Squatting, then, typically reflects a lack of 
other options, a scarcity of provision, and 
inadequate support and assistance to single 
homeless people.” Criminalising squatting is, 
therefore, nothing short of criminalising homelessness.

For example, the 14 people arrested under the new 
law so far include 5 young people, one aged 16, 
arrested for squatting a residential property in 
Somerset. These teenagers turned to squatting 
following the refusal of planning permission for 
a new YMCA providing beds for homeless youth in 
their town. Local residents had complained the 
YMCA would bring ‘anti-social behaviour’. In the 
early stages of this new law being enacted, these 
arrests represent exactly how blame is displaced 
onto the young homeless and away from the 
governments and communities who have abandoned them.

The government has criminalised these young 
people for attempting to house themselves in an 
abandoned building, whilst at the same time 
systematically dismantling the welfare and other 
safety nets, for example housing benefit for the 
under-25s, which might prevent them from living 
on the streets. The criminalisation of squatting 
in residential properties thus sits neatly within 
the Coalition’s broader attack on the survival 
mechanisms which attempt to guarantee some 
standard of living in a society shaped by rapidly 
narrowing access to the private accumulation of wealth.

This survival mechanism extends to those engaging 
in directly political activity, in arts and 
culture, in social work. Squatting provides a 
low-cost way to house oneself whilst undertaking 
non-profit making, and thus often not 
remunerated, activities fundamentally important 
for the rest of society. This is especially the 
case now, when economic crisis and youth 
unemployment has rendered those in their 20s the 
‘lost generation’. Liberation from rent can open 
the way for liberation from having to sell one’s 
labour to capital - reclaiming control over one’s 
time and the ability to deploy it for good. 
Furthermore, trespass and occupation - the 
seizing of both physical and discursive space - 
are foundational tactics within political action. 
In occupying an empty building, overtly 
politicised squatters are often taking decisive 
action to oppose an unwanted development: from 
the demolition of council housing to the building 
of luxury accommodation that prices out a local 
community. The criminalisation of squatting in 
residential buildings thus threatens those 
undertaking political resistance in both these 
senses: as a means of taking action and as a means of reproducing our lives.

Further to this, squatting as an abstract idea 
contributes something incredibly important to 
wider society. Squatting keeps alive the idea 
that space and property is not simply the reserve 
of the wealthy, but preconditions of a dignified 
human life which we all deserve access to. When 
squatters occupy, look after and improve 
dilapidated properties in their local community 
they challenge the ideology that market forces 
will best direct the use of resources for the 
good of all. Squatting reveals that all too 
often, we are better are doing it ourselves. With 
criminalisation, the government have undertaken 
an ideological attempt to silence this contribution.

However, squatters will not be so easily silenced 
and many are already resisting. One line of 
defence is being taken by Irene Gardiner, mother 
of four who has squatted with her children in an 
abandoned cottage in Wales for 11 years. Gardiner 
is taking legal action to challenge the new 
legislation. Facing homelessness and 
criminalisation, Gardiner and her lawyers are 
arguing that by enacting the new law the police 
and CPS would breach Article 8 of the Human 
Rights Act, right to a personal and family life. 
Rosa Curling, part of Ms Gardiner’s legal team at 
Leigh Day & Co commented: “Many thousands of 
people choose to squat in unoccupied residential 
properties, they pay council tax and are members 
of their communities. They should not have to 
face the choice of criminal prosecution or losing their home.”

Owen from the Squatter’s Legal Network argues 
that resistance to the new law is playing itself 
out in multiple arenas: “There will be resistance 
through the courts, and we are organising to 
ensure that those evicted and arrested have good 
legal defences. But squatters aren’t going to 
take this lying down. We foresee that there will 
be an increase in people resisting eviction or 
defending themselves from raids by the police 
because for many their only choice is defending 
their homes or ending up on the streets.” Indeed, 
when most of those who squat are without an 
alternative but to continue squatting, and when 
the UK has almost 1 million empty properties, 
this is not the ‘end of squatting’. This is not 
merely because squatting in commercial properties 
is not yet a criminal offence. Far from having 
‘slammed shut the door on squatting’, the 
government have opened up the potential for a 
resistance which will play itself out on the 
doorsteps of squatted properties up and down the 
country. Whilst the right to keep properties 
empty has been asserted as legislation, and as 
the eviction wave begins, we will see how far it 
becomes a reality on the streets.

Hannah Wilcox is a member of SQUASH and Squatter’s Legal Network.
+44 (0)7786 952037
"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.  

More information about the Diggers350 mailing list