Shift: the spatial politics of squatting in the UK…

Yesterday, at the NUS Student Activism Conference 2011 at Goldsmiths, Alex Vasudeven joined Reuben Taylor from the SQUASH campaign to give a talk entitled: Trespass! Why squatting matters to students. Here, in a article for Shift magazine, they tell us why squatting is important for everyone:

(below is Alex’s excerpt; you can read the full article here)

On the 13 of July 2011, the UK Ministry of Justice published a consultation document entitled “Options for dealing with squatters.” The document set in motion a period of consultation which came to an end on the 5th of October and which was, in turn, aimed at “anyone who has been the victim of squatting; and anyone who has experience (positive or negative) of using the current law or procedures to get squatters evicted.” As Crispin Blunt (MP), the Parliamentary Undersecretary of State, points out in his foreword to the consultation, “the Government has become increasingly concerned about the distress and misery that squatters can cause.” He goes on to argue that “the Government does not accept the claim that is sometimes made that squatting is a reasonable recourse of the homeless resulting from social deprivation. There are avenues open to those who are genuinely destitute and who need shelter which do not involve occupying somebody else’s property without authority. No matter how compelling or difficult the squatter’s own circumstances, it is wrong that legitimate occupants should be deprived of the use of their property.” “The consultation,” Blunt concludes, “seeks evidence on the scale of the problem caused by squatters and invites views on a range of options for tackling it, including strengthening the criminal law or working within existing legislation to improve enforcement.”

If the recent consultation represents an attempt by the UK state to tighten the law on squatting, it should come as no surprise. Squatting has always had a close relationship to the law. Legally defined as an act of trespass, squatting is a criminal offence in Scotland (as set out in the Trespass Act of 1865) while it has largely remained a civil matter in the rest of the UK. Squatting is therefore unlawful in England and Wales but not illegal. 1 For many squatters, access to certain customary ‘rights’ was also seen as a source of protection from forcible eviction. This was supported by the Forcible Entry Acts of 1381 which proscribed against forcible entry onto any land or property.2

Over the past forty years, this legal position has come under increasing attack. A major wave of squatting in the late 1960s and early 1970s initiated a new era of legal ‘revanchism’ which challenged the limited protection afforded to squatters in the civil courts. In 1972, this was extended to criminal law as the Law Commission began to reconsider the statutes on trespass. The Commission published its preliminary findings in June 1974 and recommended the repeal of the Forcible Entry Acts and the criminalization of all forms of trespass. In the wake of intense criticism, a watered-down Final Report was published in March 1976. The report formed the basis for the Criminal Law Act of 1977 which represented, as David Watkinson has argued, an “extension of the criminal law in the area of trespass.“ 3 While new offences came into force and were punishable through prison sentences, neither squatting nor trespass was, as such, made illegal. Further changes in the law were proposed in 1991 as the Government set out a series of additional clauses to the Criminal Law Act as part of a consultation on squatting. These changes were tantamount to further criminalization and were challenged by a host of housing organizations and charities as well as SQUASH (Squatters Action for Secure Homes). In the end, the Government was forced to climb down and settle for less draconian measures (see clauses 72-76 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994).

The launch of a new consultation on squatting in July represents, in this way, just the latest episode in a complex legal genealogy that shows the law to be unstable and exclusionary. As the anthropologist James Holston reminds us, it is imperative that we reject an essentialist and functionalist view of the law and focus instead on law as a “system of power.”4 A close reading of the consultation document should therefore attend to the very interests that are behind it and the wider net of social relations that inform its construction. By doing so, it becomes clear that the planned legislation is, ultimately, ideologically-driven and, as such, dependent on shoring up a commitment to the untouchable rightfulness of private property. By defending the interests of “hard-working homeowners” against squatters, the consultation mobilizes the law as a ‘tool’ or ‘weapon’ which only serves to perpetuate domination and accentuate inequality.

In June of this year I posted a piece on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site which explored the coalition government’s plans to criminalize squatting in the lead up to the launch of the consultation. The main thrust of my argument then was twofold:

1) That plans to criminalize squatting would simply serve to exacerbate a growing housing crisis in the UK and that, if anything, squatting should be seen as a necessary coping strategy in the face of an highly uneven and exploitative housing market.5

2) That any new law on squatting betrays, in turn, a more sinister logic that seeks to legislate against various struggles for social justice in our cities and that the impact of a ban on the use of ‘occupation’ as a legitimate tactic of protest must be considered.

The decision by SQUASH – reformed in May 2011 – to participate in the consultation must be seen in this context. It would admittedly be easy to question their decision to engage with a state whose very use of the law is constitutively coercive and violent. This is, of course, hardly a new problem for an autonomous anti-authoritarian left. And yet, it is important to question whether it is in fact possible to campaign within such a legal framework. Does this simply legitimize the role and status of the state? Do such legal mobilizations perpetuate the misrule of law and the inviolability of property ownership? And is it really possible to work with this contradiction?

It would be easy to critique the inconsistencies and injustices of the law and to document the different ways in which it has been used to defend the parlous state of housing in the UK. In the Global South, residential illegality and squatting has often generated an “insurgence of political and civil rights among the urban poor, who learn to use law to legitimate their land claims and who thereby compete in legal arenas from which they have been excluded.” 6 For such residents, participation and inclusion within the law has become a central means by which new forms of citizenship are enacted and consolidated. Conflicts over the law are thus transformed into political practices that secure social and legal legitimacy. To the extent that these struggles speak to the rights-based arguments of recent urban social movements, they also provide resources for contesting the increasingly iniquitous geographies of contemporary urbanization. In the words of the Holston, “[this] is an insurgence that begins with the struggle for rights to have a daily life in the city worthy of a citizen’s dignity.”7

The recent campaign by SQUASH should, in contrast, be set against a different set of logics. It would be misleading, it seems to me, to situate the campaign within a strict discourse of political recognition, participation, and inclusion. I do not mean to diminish the central role that the experience of precarity and marginality has come to play for many squatters whose conditions of living have been reduced to the bare minimum. Indeed as Judith Butler has recently argued, “[any] different social ontology would have to start from the presumption that there is a shared condition of precarity that situates our political lives.”8 But I also believe that the campaign is perhaps best understood as both a form of resistance and as an act of reclamation. At stake here, following Henri Lefebvre, is a right to the city that reconciles material access to urban space and infrastructure with a “renewed right to urban life.” 9

The radical politics of housing articulated by SQUASH should not, in this way, be seen as an end in itself. As occupations spring up across the UK, it is becoming increasingly clear that a new countergeography of protest is emerging that seeks to reclaim and recast public space for a different politics. This may result, in the first instance, in an uneasy if tactical trade-off with the state, but it also offers a real opportunity for the constitution of a radical urban commons. It would therefore be a mistake to concede full legal agency to a state whose interests are sutured to a politics of dispossession and displacement, order and security. That there may, in the end, be no direct line of flight to the promised land of autonomous politics should not detract from the struggle for more just and equal spaces in our cities. The kind of activism undertaken by the SQUASH campaign is just one reminder of what can be accomplished and what still needs to be done.

Alex Vasudevan is a Lecturer in Cultural and Historical Geography at the University of Nottingham. His research focuses on radical politics in Germany and the wider geographies of neo-liberal globalisation. Alex is currently working on a book project that explores the historical and political geographies of the squatter movement in Berlin.

1. David Watkinson, “The Erosion of Squatters Rights,” in Nick Wates and Christian Wolmar (eds.), Squatting: The Real Story (London: Bay Leaf Books, 1980), pp. 158-163, p. 158.
2. Watkinson, “The Erosion of Squatters Rights,” p. 159; see also Colin Ward, Cotters and Squatters: Housing’s Hidden History (Nottingham: Five Leaves, 202), p. 161.
3. Watkinson, “The Erosion of Squatters Rights,” p. 161.
4. James Holston, Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), p. 206.
5. See Stuart Hodkinson, “Revenge of the Repossessed,” (last accessed October 20, 2011). For a recent exploration of the relationship between squatting and homelessness see Kesia Reeves, “Squatting: A Homelessness Issue,” An Evidence Review for the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, Sheffield Hallam University, (last accessed October 20, 2011).
6. Holston, Insurgent Citizenship, p. 204. See also Arjun Appadurai, “Deep Democracy: Urban Governmentality and the Horizon of Politics,” Public Culture 14, 1 (2002), pp. 21-47; Richard Neuwirth, Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World (London and New York: Routledge, 2005).
7. Holston, Insurgent Citizenship, p. 313.
8. Judith Butler, “Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street,” (last accessed October 24, 2011).
9. Henri Lefebvre, “Right to the City,” in Writing on Cities, ed. and trans. by Elenore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), pp. 61-181, p. 158.