“Put property to productive use”

We welcome a guest post from Joy Vick whose recent encounter with a Camden squat got her thinking.

My history teacher taught me that the way the British establishment escaped revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries was through conceding just enough power, usually in the nick of time. She also said cultural change always starts on the edges and precedes political change.

Perhaps that’s why a few weeks ago I attended a ‘Shift’ event about poverty and jobs at Camden Town Hall. I guess I was hoping to find out what was happening at the fringe.

“Pressure for those sitting on empty properties not to be protected by the law but to act responsibly, to occupy and put them to productive use or lose the privilege of ownership.”

There were some interesting speakers from Occupy, Move your Money and the Crossroads Women’s Centre. At the Camden Transition Towns workshop I met someone who was running a veg bag scheme in Kentish Town and sourcing food from within a 20 mile radius.

Another participant asked why a small portion of Hampstead Heath couldn’t be turned into allotments. This reminded me of a large abandoned nursery in Camden I’d come across many years ago with several huge green houses. I wondered what had happened to it.

The next day I set out to find it and just as I rode up on my bike someone was locking the gate. She told me it was being squatted and I asked if I could look around. She kindly agreed and when I walked into the living area I saw a man in a distinctive hat cooking pasta. I recognised him as the poet who had performed at the ‘Shift’ event the day before.

They told me they were going to be evicted in January, even though the neighbours are really happy they are looking after the place. Indeed the kitchen and living area has been furnished from donations from the neighbours and skips.

What they’ve set up is the epitome of eco-living. I work in the re-use, eco sector and millions of pounds is being spent on trying to get more people to live like this! The waste water from the washing machine and washing up is used to either flush the loo or water the veg being grown in the garden. There’s a bike workshop and a clothes swap rail.

There’s lots of intelligence and creativity in the décor and humour: as I was given a tour lots of thing made me smile or even laugh out loud but it was cold then and the temperature must have dropped about 8 degrees since that visit.

According to Pete, the landlord has a lot of property. He lives in Hertfordshire and the property is registered in Liberia. They wrote to him to ask for permission to look after the place until he finds a use for it. His response was to call in the bailiffs.

It’s not surprising the neighbours want them to stay; when the squatters arrived they cleared the place out including lots of needles, alcohol and other debris. Now doesn’t this seem wrong to any right-minded person? Where are these people going to live after they’ve been evicted in January? Surely they are doing more good than harm, right?

We’re being told that the economic situation is similar to that of a war and demands strong, radical action. Well, at the start of the second world war my grandfather had his family home and business, including all his horses (he was a racehorse trainer) taken over for the war effort. He was given four days to pack up and leave.

Currently we have distant landlords leaving commercial property empty and unproductive. They have made fortunes from the property boom over the last few decades and now they are just leaving it unoccupied.

At the same time, businesses struggle to pay ‘market’ rent which must be artificially inflated – there’s so much empty commercial property in London it should be dirt cheap. All the while, we suffer a shortage of affordable homes, overcrowding and astronomical rents. We also have record numbers of homeless on London’s streets as we head for sub-zero temperatures. This is not really a free market at all and it’s surely wrong.

Just as we’ve had a mass call for companies avoiding paying taxes to pay their fair share, we need popular pressure for those individuals and companies who are sitting on empty commercial properties not to be protected by the law by making squatting them illegal, but for them to act responsibly and to occupy these properties and put them to productive use or lose the privilege of ownership.

My grandfather had to pack and leave in four days. I suggest we give these companies and individuals three months to act responsibly. Who gets the requisitioned property? Where there’s a will there’s a way. Government quango Big Society Capital has just requisitioned heaps of money from dormant bank accounts for ‘social projects’. There is a precedent for this.

This hoarding of property and wealth by the minority who had the opportunity to accumulate during the boom years is iniquitous. We need a radical redistribution of wealth from the privileged hoarders to the strivers. If my history teacher was right, it’s the only way to have a civilised transition to a more equal Britain. The alternative is social breakdown and it’s just round the corner so this is a matter of urgency.

The government has to be made to act and fast. We need to let them know this is what we want. The alternative is chaos because people are just not going to stand for this level of injustice and protection of the privileged minority for much longer.