Squash Picnic Attendees facing SOCPA charges

**The following piece has been written by Ashleigh Marsh who is currently being prosecuted under SOCPA legislation for her role is taking part at a picnic and sleep-out on the Xxth October 2011, in order to visually show the effect that the criminalisation of squatting would have on between 20-50,000 people in England and Wales, ie having to sleep rough. Ashleigh is active in her community, for example working to get a new skateboard park built for local people in Woolwich, one of most deprived areas in London. SQUASH fully support Ashleigh and her two co-defendants as they face charges, from this Monday 23rd April, under the draconian and anti-democratic SOCPA law, for having a picnic in front of Parliament. This is Ashleigh’s story:**

“Protest or Picnic?”

Squatting is an unpopular cause. I was evicted from my squat by Lewisham council 16 years ago, during their publicity campaign that accused squatters of ‘taking homes from homeless families.’ It wasn’t difficult for Tory minister Crispin Blunt to slip in an amendment to the Legal Aid and Sentencing bill last year that will see squatters of residential property facing prison terms. This was prefaced by a seemingly stage managed series of high profile press articles about squatters moving into people’s homes while they were on holiday. Typical? Hardly.

It was already hard enough to squat – though trespass as such is not illegal, there have been a series of measures over the last couple of decades that meant property owners could already go to court to get summary possession orders without having to inform the occupiers, who could then be arrested if they didn’t vacate the premises within 28 days. Costs awarded against squatters who do go to court to challenge possession orders are a heavy deterrent. This happened to me – meaning I couldn’t apply for rehousing and had to rent privately in a different borough to keep my new address secret to avoid bankruptcy. I tried to re-occupy my old house a couple of times, but with a teenage daughter who could then be liable to arrest too this proved impossible. My house is still empty, and becoming derelict again, despite the council’s promises – on oath – that it would be properly looked after.

Why the rush to criminalise squatting? Well homelessness and mortgage repossessions are on the up. Public housing has been reduced to a parody, with ‘affordable’ rents set at 80% of the market rate, short term social lets imminent and parents threatened with losing their council homes if their children are convicted of ‘anti-social’ behaviour. Squatting is again starting to look like a fair alternative for homeless families, as well as single people who can’t get on the housing ‘ladder’. I have no doubt that the new law is a pre-emptive strike to try to make sure we don’t take things into our own hands when things start to get really tough. I’ve been very lucky. My landlord is a decent man, happy for me to do my own repairs to keep the rent reasonable, and to sublet so I can still afford to live here since I lost my regular job and need to rely on housing benefit. Though I don’t live in a squat any more I haven’t forgotton what it’s like, and want to tell some stories that show the positive side of squatting for a change. I don’t want to make out squatters are all heros. There are some negative aspects of the culture around squatting. One is that it is some kind of crusading lifestyle outside the normal bounds of society. The right to rave doesn’t appeal to me, if it stops me from getting enough sleep, and I don’t like having to clear up after other people’s parties or having their dogs given more respect than my child. The politics of squatting goes deeper than a fashion statement.

I left home aged 16, when staying with my mum became intolerable. I found a room living with some fellow musicians, who had been squatting a big house in Shepherd’s Bush and converted it into a housing co-op rather than being evicted. That was in the days when housing co-ops were able to take over ‘short-life’ places that the council couldn’t afford to renovate. After a couple of years I fell pregnant. I don’t regret this – though it messed up my immediate plans for university, in those days you could get an education at any time of life without getting into debt, and the birth of my daughter is the very best thing that ever happened to me. Her dad is a fine man, but our relationship was strained by youth and poverty. My housing co-op room, though ok for a single person, was not really the ideal place for an expectant mum. Here I must mention that it is a myth that teenage mothers automatically get housed by the council. We were told we wouldn’t be considered as a homeless family until our child was born unless we got married. My mum, though she wasn’t living in our old flat in Greenwich at the time, said we couldn’t stay there either while having an ‘immoral’ relationship. We got married. Then the council said they wouldn’t rehouse us as we could stay at my mum’s place. We broke up after two years, lived under the same roof for another year, and then things just got too strained. I stayed with friends, sleeping on floors in spare rooms, for about six months, and all the council would offer me was bed and breakfast miles away in Paddington. My ex-husband and I were determined to share parenting despite having split up so this was not any kind of an option.

Squatting my old house was one of the best things I ever did. For over a year we managed with no mains electricity. Calor gas, candles and batteries were enough, along with an open fire. I learned to be self-reliant – fixing the roof and windows, rewiring to professional standards, plumbing and plastering. And I had a lot of help from my friends. There were a few squatters and a lot of ex-squatters in the community. Quite a few had got council tenancies after living in 1930’s council blocks and keeping them habitable. There were ways for people on the economic margins to work creatively within the system – pretty effective safety valves, keeping social unrest at bay in the 60’s and 70’s when working class radicalism was quite a threat to the status quo. People could still remember the squatting movement after the war – a practical as well as principled stand to stop the stagnation of empty government properties existing side by side with hundreds of thousands of homeless families.

After nine and a half years I was starting to hope I would be able to stay there forever. My house was the last remaining of a Georgian terrace, left standing through the Deptford ‘slum clearance’ to be the caretakers house for a Victorian school building. My grandma’s brothers went to this school I later discovered – I still have a book inherited from my mum that was her uncle’s fourth form prize. I was working at a local school and a music project – the famous Lewisham Academy of Music that itself had evolved from the occupation of the nearby empty Coroner’s Court and mortuary. The Academy eventually folded under financial pressure after signing an expensive coucil lease to get Lottery funding for building development. This would not have happened without intervention from careerists who thought it politic to jump through the funding hoops rather than stick with a peppercorn rent and a mere license. The housing co-op movement decayed under similar pressures. This is one of the reasons why I feel unable to trust well-meaning liberals, who follow the path into state co-option rather than stick to independent methods of organising.

I had read the legal documents surrounding the disbanding of the Inner London Education Authority – though my building was an unregistered property it had been managed by the ILEA, and I was reassured that it looked clear that such premises would devolve to the London Residuary Body, a transitional arrangement for ex GLC and ILEA assets, and remain in limbo rather than go to Lewisham Council. Lewisham were already getting heavily against squatting, despite the local history of the family squatting movement, and sadly a lot of ex-squatters, now with comfortable tenancies, didn’t seem to mind. (A fair few of them took advantage of the ‘right to buy’ – my contempt for these people is almost palpable. If anyone is stealing from the public treasury it is not squatters, it is the promoters and profiteers of this dishonest scheme.) Then there was a ‘statutory instrument’ – written by officials without parliamentary scrutiny – that changed the terms of the ILEA property handover and I found myself at the mercy of Lewisham after all. There were no short-life co-ops willing or able to take my house on. It took the council’s lawyers years to do the digging to establish title, evict me through the courts and have their ownership recognised by the Land Registry. I had two choices – try and share a council flat with an ex-partner or move away. By this time it was not a good proposition to squat again with a child to think of, and fortunately I had the resources to rent somewhere, though I had to move a few miles away from the commuter belt.

My next experience of squatting was at ‘Use Your Loaf’ – the old Hurst’s bakery at the North end of Deptford High Street. This was a grade II listed building owned by a speculator waiting for it to become a dangerous structure so he could knock it down and develop the site along with three neighbouring shops. I wasn’t one of the people who opened it up, but soon got involved with running it as a social centre with a cafe, radical resource base and educational classes and workshops. It survived like this for two and a half years, and got much good feeling from the community as well as local press coverage. Two and a half years is a pretty good run these days. And now it’s being done up properly rather than demolished or left to rot.

So when Crispin Blunt’s amendment was being rushed through I didn’t hesitate to raise my voice, not only against the criminalisation of squatting, but also against the press angle to present us as nasty intruders preying on nice families and stealing their homes. I was happy to demonstrate outside the Evening Standard’s building in Kensington and we got our point across. They published a piece on squatting that was much more balanced a few days later. Then I was pretty knackered after traipsing to Crispin Blunt’s address in Fulham only to find he had moved away after separating from his wife and family. I sat down on my way home to talk about the good old days with old friends and new. I happened to sit down on the only piece of grass near my bus stop on Westminster Bridge that is not fenced off from the public – Tot Hill mound by the statue opposite the House of Lords. I had some good conversation, some food and drink and a cigarette, and wondered what the future would hold for us. Then, without warning, I was grabbed from behind by two officers of the Territorial Support Group, and bundled off to the nick.”

– Ashleigh Marsh, charged with unauthorised demonstration under the Serious and Organised Crime and Policing Act 2004, now repealed.