Open Letter: The Debate

On the 2nd September 2013, Labour politicians, Chuka Umunna, Tessa Jowell and Lib Peck wrote a letter to Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, reprinted in the Evening Standard, asking that squatting in commercial premises be criminalised. The Labour politicians cited three specific examples from the London Borough of Lambeth which demonstrated why criminalisation should be extended, namely:

1] 111 Westminster Bridge Road – claiming costs of £100k+
2] Patmos Lodge – claiming costs of £150k
3] Nettlefold Hall (Library) – claiming costs of £150k

In response SQUASH sent an open letter to the three politicians in question, challenging their position, which was picked up by a number of commentators and journalists, including Owen Jones who wrote an article for the Independent. A more investigative blog was posted by Prolapsarian (“The Violence of Chuka Umunna (on squatting)”)] who looked into the cases cited in more detail, and found the following facts:

1] Patmos Lodge – This was previously a sheltered and residential care home which was decanted in 2010, and planned for demolition in order to make the site attractive for developers. The costs, according to the council, were largely due to security and eviction costs, procuring specialist (and notorious) eviction team UK Evict instead of negotiating directly with the squatters.
2] Nettlefold Hall (Library) – the library was closed because someone stole copper off of the roof; Lambeth council decided to close the library and hand it over to multinational Cineworld Ltd for redevelopment; while the council sat on the asset for a year, the building was squatted and put back into use. The clean-up bill was not due to the actions of the squatters, but from the hazardous asbestos the council had refurbished the building with.

The politicians, under pressure from various sectors of the online and political community, tried to justify their anti-squatting sentiments, with Chuka Ummuna posting the following on his website  and Councillor Lib Peck responded to SQUASH directly with this email-letter:

Cllr Lib Peck wrote to SQUASH on the 13th September 2013:

Thank you for your letter regarding our position on squatting in commercial properties.

Squatting in commercial properties in Lambeth is a serious problem. It is causing distress for our residents and mounting bills for the council. I visited the former library in West Norwood last week which had been trashed by squatters. The damage to the property is so serious the clean-up bill is likely to rise to well over £150,000. The damage also means the opening of a new library, cinema and cafe on the premises has been delayed by months. You say that ‘Squatters have a proud history of taking over abandoned buildings and bringing them back into use to make homes’. This is clearly not the case here. And sadly this is just one of a number of examples of commercial squatting in Lambeth, and I know there are many more across London.

We cannot afford to do nothing about squatting and our residents cannot afford the damage squatting is doing to their lives.

I agree with you that many people squat because the other options open to them are worse. That’s why we need to do far more to increase house building levels so everyone has the chance to rent or own their home. In Lambeth we are working hard to deliver new affordable social housing. Next year we will deliver new social housing in the centre of Brixton, in properties which were formerly squatted. And we are providing support and assistance to thousands of our residents who are in need of housing. However we, like many other councils, are suffering from the failure of the government to invest in new homes. Affordable housing funding has been cut and house building is at its lowest level since the 1920s.

I would like to work with you to pressure the Government and the Mayor of London to pursue a far more ambitious and bold policy on affordable housing which delivers the new homes that are desperately needed in Lambeth and across London.

Councillor Lib Peck
Leader of Lambeth Council
The Leader’s Office
Finance and Resources
Governance and Democracy
Phone: 020 7926 1167
Fax: 020 7926 2049
Email: lpeck@lambeth.gov.uk
Website: http://www.lambeth.gov.uk

Room 122
Lambeth Town Hall
Brixton
SW2 1RW

Lambeth – the cooperative council
http://www.lambeth.gov.uk/Leader

SQUASH replied on the 18th September 2013:

Dear Councillor Lib Peck

Thank you for your reply. However we would like to address some of your points.

We understand your concern at the costs supposedly associated with squatting. However, we would ask you to note the complexities of the matter. Squatters make use of wasted property, thereby reducing Council housing benefits bills as well as the demand for housing in a starkly overpriced market. Moreover, those instances where squatters maintain and improve properties rarely make the news yet constitute a genuine contribution. Damage through vandalism and decay will remain a problem where properties lie empty.

Allow us to draw your attention to just one notable case, similar to the one in hand, where squatting brought value to the community in the short term and saved a most precious library resource at a time of historic cuts: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/boyd-tonkin-squatting-public-property-helped-to-save-my-first-library-dont-make-it-a-crime-8485457.html

Squatters who protect buildings and serve the community are common and systematically overlooked. From an economic and social perspective, their efforts are difficult to value by comparison with the damage noted in your case, and therefore seem absent from discussions on the matter. Nevertheless, this is a complex debate which seems to be coming to the simplistic conclusion of blunt criminalisation. The ugly repercussions of this on housing and homelessness must be recognised and measured alongside the unseen upsides of squatting.

Furthermore, although you claim that Lambeth Council is “working hard to deliver new affordable social housing”, recent events show that this is not the case. The often violent evictions of short-life co-operatives and licensees over the last two years (Clifton Mansions, Carlton Mansions, the Lambeth United Housing Co-ops and Rushcroft Road) show a complete disregard for the long-term residents of Lambeth in favour of high-value asset disposal and attracting well-heeled professionals. The case of Clifton Mansions, where Lambeth spent £440,000 on security and guardian fees on a previously occupied building [http://www.squashcampaign.org/2012/04/council-pays-440000-so-security-firm-can-treat-exploit-tenants/], and the sale of properties on Rushcroft Road and other short-life co-ops to private developers are a case in point that taxpayers’ money is being squandered in favour of private interest groups.

SQUASH believe that there are much more humane, reasonable and cost-effective ways to deal with genuine housing need in Lambeth, such as the implementing of rent caps, using Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMOs) to bring empty properties back into use, promoting housing co-operatives and community asset transfers. We do not believe that blaming the deficiencies of central government is an adequate response to dealing with the housing crisis; we are not a lobby group for private developers or housing associations and therefore will not be assisting with applying pressure on central government or the Mayor to build more housing in London.

Although you would like to demonise all squatters as reckless vandals causing “distress for our residents”, we would like to remind you of the proud history of squatting in Lambeth. Olive Morris, after which Lambeth Council’s Olive Morris House was named, was a key social justice activist in the area, helping found the Brixton Black Women’s Group, promoting squatters rights and the Black Panther Movement (for more information on Olive, visit your own website or http://rememberolivemorris.wordpress.com/tag/squatting/) . Other exemplary squats, which have not only contributed to their local communities, but made Lambeth the vibrant place it is today include: CoolTan Arts (199), Brixton Arts Co-op (2005), the 121 Centre (1981 – 1999), St Agnes Place (1969 – 2007) and Exploding Cinema at the Brixton Lido (1993). [thanks for Urban 75 for their archive] Squats and squatters have been crucial to defending the diverse culture in Lambeth, and resisting the racist and repressive policies of both Labour and Conservative governments since the 1960s. These are just a handful of examples of the contribution squatting has made in Lambeth.

Kind regards,

The SQUASH Campaign (Squatters Action for Secure Homes)

Cllr Lib Peck has not replied to date

SQUASH, and others, wait to see what next steps the Labour Party and Lambeth Council will take in driving forward the criminalisation of squatting commercial premises.