Park Street Occupation, Southwark

park street

Housing activists have occupied a property (21 & 23 Park Street), near Borough market in London which was previously owned by Southwark council until it was auctioned off for £2.96 million to a private developer, making it the most expensive council house sold. It’s speculative market-value is due mainly to its location around the ultra-gentrified neighbourhoods which surround it, like Bermondsey Street  and  Borough Market. The occupation is also a challenge to section 114 of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) introduced last September which criminalised squatting in residential properties, and meant that homeless people seeking shelter in empty buildings can find themselves with a 6-month prison sentence/ large fine (£5,000); this residential property has been occupied as a political protest. Sarah Morris, a local housing campaigner involved in the occupation summed up the aims of the occupiers:

“We have occupied this building to stop yet more council housing being sold off to private developers. Southwark council has a waiting list with 25,000 people in need of quality, secure, and truly affordable housing that this building once was. [...] The attempted sale of this building is a part of the social cleansing that is happening across London where local working class residents are being forced out so that wealthier people can buy it up. We hope that by taking direct action, we can stop the sale of these homes so that they remain a public good rather than another empty building owned by a property speculator.”

Up-to-date information on the campaign can be found on Housing Action Southwark & Lambeth’s blog.

Southwark Council justified the sell-off by claiming the upkeep of the buildings was prohibitively expensive and the sale of the building would pay for 20 new council homes. Southwark Councillor Richard Livingstone, cabinet member for finance and resources, said: “These buildings have been empty for some time and need a substantial amount of work, the new owner will be able to bring them up to a good standard. [...] It’s a shame that it appears that some people wish to stop the building of 20 new council homes, part of our ambitious programme to build 11,000 new homes in the borough.” Of course this guff is standard London council protocol, in which recent evictions, sell-offs, privatisations and demolitions have been justified, but without a shred of evidence or follow-up action; most of the money from sell-offs seems to be disappearing into the black-hole of councillor and council officer pockets or used to subsidise property developers aimed at the high-end market. Southwark Council is notorious for these manoeuvres, as the underhand dealings around the Heygate Estate, Elephant and Castle have demonstrated; a good source of information on the Heygate debacle can be found at the excellent Southwark Notes website.

SQUASH support this political occupation and strongly encourage people to get behind them in the face of growing political and media anti-squatting propaganda. Some ways to help out include:

1] Research and Investigation: there are still lots of open questions around the building: Who bought it and why? Who is co-ordinating the action against the squatters, eg handling the case against them? Where’s the money from the auction sale going, who is personally benefitting at Southwark Council?

2] Challenge Mainstream Media propaganda and spread the story of the occupation far and wide. No doubt this story is already a platform for anti-squat hate-mongering, and may be used as evidence to extend the criminalisation of squatting to commercial, while ignoring the massive housing problem and number of residential empties in London. Blog it, network it, spread it, expose it.

3] Do a political occupation in support of homelessness, housing and squatting. The Advisory Service for Squatters (ASS) recently produced a new legal warning, specifically designed to be used in such protest situations. It’s not on their website yet, but you may be able to get a copy by emailing ASS direct. Also, worth getting in touch with the Squatter’s Legal Network (SLN) for up-to-date legal advice before going ahead. Details on contacting ASS and SLN can be found on the Squat Groups on the Resources section of the SQUASH website.

Our Media

Reasonable media sources have been putting the story out, with interviews with the campaigners involved, highlighting much of the background information/ context behind the protest, and presenting the argument in favour of the occupation using the facts of the case rather than more bigoted/ rabid commentary coming out of the MSM.

“Residential occupation in protest of council housing sell-off and Section 144” [Squat.net, 29 October 2013]

Reposted on IMC UK: [IMC UK, 29 Oct 2013]

Piece written by Housing Action Southwark & Lambeth in the Guardian on-line comments page: “Why we are occupying a £3m council house” [Guardian Comment Is Free, 29 October 2013]

Mainstream Messaging

It seems the Mainstream Media (MSM) are taking a shared messaging approach on this one (along with a lot of churnalism), namely: “Most expensive council house auctioned to date has been squatted! Squatters are getting in the way of 20 new “homes” (read luxury apartments) and inconveniencing the property developer! This is unjust!”. The Evening Standard even had its crime editor Justin Davenport doing the story, thus equating the occupation to a “crime” rather than a social or housing issue, and used quotes from “anonymous” residents to essentially get out the old divisive message: “How dare these squatters live rent free/ this is someone’s private property”. Two examples provided here from squatting’s biggest fans, the Russian Evening Standard and the pro-fascist Daily Mail; their articles and bias is being picked up by all the major press outlets, including the Independent (shame on you!):

“Squatters take over Britain’s most expensive council house on same day Southwark sold it for £3m” [Evening Standard, 29 October 2013]

“Britain’s most expensive council house is sold at auction for £3MILLION… and the buyer’s first job is to evict these squatters” [Daily Mail, 30 October 2013]