Squatting & Criminalisation in the Netherlands

On the 11th June 2016, ETC Dee gave a presentation at the DeCentre space in Whitechapel, entitled “Squatting in the Netherlands”. The talk looked at well-known squats & social centres, the 2010 law criminalising squatting and its impact, and finally a history of squatting in the Netherlands. SQUASH was there to see what parallels could be drawn between the Dutch and British experiences, especially since the criminalisation of squatting has been a recent phenomena in both countries. The following combines notes from the talk, figures from SQUASH’s most recent report Squatting Statistics 2015 (May 2016) and Dutch government statistics, translated and analysed by ETC Dee in their article: The vacancy crunch: The current housing crisis in the Netherlands and the repression of squatting [CNS Journal, 14 May 2016]

The Law Change and its Impact

In the Netherlands, the Squatting and Vacancy Act of October 2010, criminalised all squatting, with sentences of imprisonment for up to a year (two years if threatening violence or acting in a group) and fines of up to €18,500. The right-wing Dutch government claimed that the anti-squatting law would combat the vacancy problem by putting empty buildings back into use faster. The law was also spurred on by moral panic, cultivated by press and politicians, about illegal immigrants invading the country, alleged growing violence of the squatting movement at evictions, and the nostalgic view that the squatters movement was no longer principled

At first there were a lot of evictions and arrests for squatting after the law came into effect in 2010, but this has been tempered over time by a return to the court process:

  • Dutch Law: three top judges agreed that squatters could not be evicted without a court case. This was based on the traditional Dutch right of “Domestic Peace”, which means that the police cannot just burst into someone’s home without a warrant. Another courtcase in Groningen in 2012, a judge ruled that it was not enough for an owner to evict squatters so they could demolish the building; there had to be a plan in place for future use.
  • Human Rights Cases: squatters appealed to the EU Court of Human Rights, which found that permission from the owner must be sought to repossess the building, thereby giving the judge a reason to evict.

The law is not being used against squatters as much as it is being used to harass homeless people, and to charge those resisting large-scale evictions. However the law is having an impact on the squatting scene. Squatting in the Netherlands used to make sense because it was relatively easy, and it was generally accepted as a viable housing solution. But with the law change, not so many people are squatting, because 1) an older generation is settling down, 2) a younger generation does not consider squatting an option anymore. Squats which have not been legalised are always in danger of being evicted using the new law, and as more long-term squats are being evicted, these are not being replaced, leading to a net loss. The rise of anti-squat (ie property guardian companies) in the Netherlands is reducing potential buildings for squatting and offering an easier, legal option for a younger generation. Property guardianships are being countered by “anti-squat prevention” squats.

Dutch squatting culture has a number of quirks and tensions, which make it different. Firstly, there are legalised and “illegal” squats; legalised squats have permission from the authorities, or the landlord if private, to remain, while “illegal” squats are occupations without the owner’s consent. Many legalised squats have been going 10+ years, a remnant of the strong squatting movement in the 1970’s & 1980’s. Some legalised squats have become restrictive and anti-radical, feeling the need to act in a certain way to be  “accepted”, which has polarised the squatting scene. Similarly the community is split between the more militant and mainstream approaches to squatting, with the new law widening divisions – see the Snake House story in the “Dutch Squats” section.

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There is a big difference in the squatting scene in Amsterdam and the rest of the country, eg Rotterdam. In Amsterdam, eviction resistances are spectacular events, “part ritual, part theater”; resistances include hoisting metal containers onto the roof of the building, lock-ons, and paint-bombs thrown everywhere, but always eventually overwhelmed by the police response. In the rest of the country, squatting is more low-key, with fewer resistances. There is more tolerance for squats in Amsterdam, while other councils simply ignore squatting and focus on gentrification; for example Rotterdam council’s city stated regeneration strategy is to “build on the shoulders of the rich”.

Comparison with England & Wales

Both the Netherlands and England&Wales have a long squatting history, and both recently had squatting criminalised by their respective right-wing governments. However, there are key differences too: all squatting was criminalised in Holland, and only residential in England&Wales; Holland criminalised squatting two years before England&Wales, and the Dutch government appears more inclined to imprison squatters. The resulting crackdown on squatting by the two authorities is outlined below.

Squatting and Vacancy Act of October 2010 (the Netherlands)

In 2015, the Dutch government released a report to assess the effectiveness of the new law, with statistics on arrests and convictions between October 2010 and December 2014. The report stated that 529 people had been arrested for the act of occupying derelict buildings in 213 reported incidents (where the owner made a complaint to the police). Of these 529 people arrested, 210 received convictions. Of those charged and subsequently convicted, 39 people were imprisoned for the new offence. The average fine for squatting, over the period, was €1,000.

Source: “The vacancy crunch: The current housing crisis in the Netherlands and the repression of squatting” (ETC Dee, 14 May 2016)

Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing, and Punishment of Offenders Act 2011 (England & Wales)

Section 144 LASPOA (for short) was introduced in 2011, and came into effect September 2012. The new law criminalised squatting in residential properties, changing what had been a civil matter into a criminal offence. For the period September 2012 to December 2015, there have been 736 confirmed arrests under section 144, predominantly in London (75%). The percentage of those charged with the offence is believed to be around 60% of those arrested, based on 2015 findings. The Crown Prosecution Service state that they have brought a total of 326 prosecutions against squatters, that resulted in a first hearing at a Magistrates court. According to the Ministry of Justice, 69 prosecutions resulted in a conviction in 2015 (80% of prosecutions), sentences ranging from fines to imprisonment; based on this, it is estimated that around 260 people have been convicted for section 144 since 2012.

Source: “Squatting Statistics 2015” (SQUASH & Streets Kitchen, May 2016)

Table 1: A Comparison of Squatting Arrest and Convictions in Holland and England&Wales (2010-2015)

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Source: Dutch Statistics: ETC Dee; England & Wales: SQUASH

Italics in Tableestimated figures using the convictions data from the Ministry of Justice wrt 2015 convictions, applied to the total number of Crown Prosecution Service prosecutions since 2012, an estimated comparative figure has been calculated for 2012-2015 for England & Wales.

Note 1: Dutch Convictions is different to Sentences, because a single conviction may carry multiple sentences (eg Fine & Community Service). England&Wales convictions is less absolute discharges.  

Dutch arrests started in 2010, and were around 100 people a year between 2011-2013, more than doubling in 2014, for which no explanation has been given (no stats for 2015). In England & Wales, arrests have averaged around 160 people a year since 2012.

Graph 1: Dutch and England&Wales Arrests for Squatting (2010-2015)

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Source: Dutch Statistics: ETC Dee; England & Wales: SQUASH

Comparing Squatting Histories

For a history of squatting in Amsterdam in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the documentary film “The City Was Ours” presents an honest look at the squatting scene through the eyes of its participants – then young and homeless. It is an enthralling story of new radical approaches, urban warfare, and the dangers of hierarchy & hyper-militancy in the squatting movement. The result was the establishment of many of the long-term squats in the Netherlands, some which remain to this day – see “Dutch Squats” below.

Die Stadt Was Ons – The City Was Ours [1996, Length: 70 mins, Film-maker: Joost Seelen, English subtitles]

At the same time in Britain, squatting was also a solution, not just for the young and homeless, but homeless families too. With swathes of empty residential houses at the time, squatting became a means to house yourself and your family. Single houses were avoided because squatters could be picked-off one by one, evicted more easily, and these squats didn’t last much more than 3 months. So the best situation was for a whole street to be squatted, with safety in numbers, and over time to legalise the situation. This is what happened at Bonnington Square, Vauxhall, London, as the following documentary shows:

Bonnington Square [Length: 30 mins, Film-maker: Acacia Films, English]

Dutch Squats

“Illegal” Squats

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ADM (Amsterdam)– based in the Port of Amsterdam, on a large site/ building that was previously military barracks. The site was recently sold to a new owner and the squat is involved in six different court cases to keep it, including: issues around planning permissions, conservation (rare species of frog found on the site) and the illicit dealings of the owner. Lots of time is spent on the fundraising and legal side to defend the squat, which is one of the last of its kind and a type of “alternative institution”. The building houses many people, including families, but there is not much central community life. Weaknesses: tendencies to hierarchies and lack of participation. Strengths: can hold massive workshops (like building huge sculptures), accommodate hundreds of visitors, hosts gigs attended by the Amsterdam squatters, and hosts festivals on the site, like the Squatters Olympics.

Refugee/ Immigrant Squats – a number of buildings have been cracked and occupied to house 40 – 100 undocumented workers. These have been evicted and the protest has evolved into a camp in the street.

Joe’s Garage: has been going for 10 years, and hosts Squatting Advice Sessions, solidarity cafes and lots of events.

Other non-legalised squats which are still functioning, but under threat: Bajesdorp (Amsterdam), Pino (Groningen), Bicycle Repair Workshop (Rotterdam), Autonomous Centre (The Hague), Loch (Enschede), Huize Spoorloos (Emmen), to name a few.

Legalised Squats:

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Snake House (Amsterdam) – Big painting on the building front, done by resident artists living in the squat. However, since the squat became mainstream, self-absorbed and distanced itself from the squatting scene, when it came to their eviction, the squatting scene said: “We don’t care if you’re evicted”.

Vrankrijk based in central Amsterdam, legalised and got a mortgage from Triodos Bank to buy the building. This decisions has created a lot of controversy. The venue still firmly embedded in the squat scene, hosting benefit cafe plus hardcore and queer nights.

Het Poortgebouw (Rotterdam) – legalised squat in the heart of the city which has been going for 30 years, with around 30 people living there, paying rent, and currently going through a court battle since the building was also recently sold to a property developer.

Other Legalised Squats Still Embedded with the Squat Scene: RKZ (Groningen), ACU (Utrecht), Landbouwbelang (Maastricht), Grote broek (Nijmegen) and Molli / Occii / Ot301 / Budapest (Amsterdam).

Additional Resources