In defence of squatting

The following post is by Joe Rake, over on the Transition Network site

Squatting, a proud tradition in the UK which involves individuals taking over empty/abandoned properties is under threat. A new government consultation to criminalise squatting in the UK has just ended and any criminalisation plans are likely to be pushed through in the new year. This isn’t the first time the Tories have tried to criminalise squatting but these current plans couldn’t come at a more crazy time.

If you didn’t know already we are currently in a housing crisis and more and more people are finding themselves homeless. The criminalisation of squatting will only make matters worse as government plans would rule out the last remaining option for many to gain a roof over their heads. Now is also a time of austerity measures. Housing providers and homeless charities are being cut – these proposals are outrageous and essentially criminalise the homeless in the middle of a housing crisis. Where are these people expected to go?

There are many reasons why people squat. As highlighted in a recent report, the main reason is homelessness. But what about the more cultural, social and political squats, such as Transition Heathrow’s ‘Grow Heathrow’, or the squatters who occupied Gaddafi’s house or the Really Free School project. The future for these squats and others around the country also remain uncertain. Grow Heathrow is an essential part of the community down by Heathrow and so how can the government talk about a ‘big society’ when they are trying to prevent places like this from existing?

If everything above isn’t enough to convince you that criminalising squatting is a bad idea then I can tell you that any policies that are decided on could also impact on our rights to protest. These new laws being proposed could impact on student and worker occupations, community occupations and anti-cuts demonstrations. Most students will be able to tell you about a time when their university was occupied. The more recent occupations played a big role in the resistance shown to government plans to raise tuition fees to £9000 a year paving the way for complete privatization and marketization of universities.

So who is calling for this unwanted criminalisation? Mainly London’s Evening Standard newspaper plus a few confused government ministers. In my blog last week I talked about the increasingly political influence the media have these days. The Evening Standard’s reporting of squatting over the last few months is the best example of this. During the 3 month consultation period the newspaper printed lots of misleading, biased and often untrue articles. Furthermore the current squatting laws continue to be misrepresented. Contrary to Evening Standard reports and government minister claims, it is already a criminal offence to squat someone’s home as explained in a letter signed by 160 leading legal figures and published in The Guardian. This is important because the governments main argument for ending squatters rights is that they are protecting homeowners. This, simply is just not true – already adequate legislation (Section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1997) prevents squatters from legally occupying someone’s home or a property that someone intends to move into. This proposed bill only serves to protect property speculators and unscrupolous landlords who are keeping properties empty in order to raise their profits.

What’s the bigger picture? Access to land is key. One per cent of the population own seventy per cent of the land in Britain and land ownership is a powerful thing. If we really want to achieve transition to a low-carbon post-oil future whether for housing or for community spaces we need to claim space by other means. And this doesn’t mean squatting peoples homes. This means occupying the 765,000 estimated abandoned properties and bits of land and bringing them back into use. First you occupy, then you create your alternative vision and then if it all comes under threat which Grow Heathrow is at the moment then you have got to resist.