| Joe Rake |
Where We’re At
Over the past few months a few of us who live at Grow Heathrow (our squatted community garden in the path of the now cancelled Heathrow 3rd runway) have been busy working with the SQUASH (Squatters Action for Secure Homes) campaign to resist the government’s attempts to criminalise squatting. We knew from the start that the campaign was going to be an uphill battle. But with our way of life under threat, the campaign seemed of immediate importance.
To give a bit of background, SQUASH originally formed in the early 1990s; the last time we had a Tory Government and also the last time the criminalisation of squatting was proposed. SQUASH reformed in the face of the latest crackdown on squatting. This is a crackdown which has come off the back of a campaign of calculated misinformation by the right wing press. Barely a day goes by without another horror story printed in the Evening Standard warning us all to watch out for the squatters lurking in the shadows, waiting for us to go to the shop to grab a pint of milk before they come and “squat your home”. But not to worry – Ken Clarke (the Justice Secretary) has promised to criminalise these evil people as fast as he possibly can.
So what is really going on? Your classic Evening Standard story about people having their homes squatted couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, as 160 leading legal figures pointed out in an open letter published in The Guardian: “it is already a criminal offence for a squatter to occupy someone’s home, or a home that a person intends to occupy, under the Criminal Law Act 1977.” This means most of the stories we see in the newspapers about squatting are either completely untrue – or distort the truth. Often, the issue is actually about tenancy rights, not squatters’ rights! The right wing press knowingly mislead the public by portraying landlords and speculators as “home-owners” to create a climate of fear. By making these incidents sound like they are happening all the time, when actually they are very rare, they have manufactured public demand for the criminalisation of squatting.
Over the summer the government held a three month consultation entitled “Options for dealing with squatting”. One might have expected negative results considering that prior to the consultation, and while the consultation took place, there was sustained right-wing media propaganda attackingsquatters. However the opposite happened. Out of the 2217 people who responded to the consultation, 96% didn’t want to see any action taken to criminalise squatting and even more surprisingly, only 10 people bothered to write in to say they had been a victim of squatting.
Despite the results, the government ignored its own consultation. Three days before the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) bill was to be voted on in the House of Commons, Ken Clarke tacked on an amendment to criminalise squatting in residential properties.
It is because of repeated experiences such as this from our so-called ‘democracy’ that people take direct action. SQUASH knows this and tried our best to organise a last minute protest outside parliament. Because of heavy police action to shut us down this resulted in 12 arrests.
But we haven’t given up yet, all is still to play for. The LASPO bill is currently at committee stage in the House of Lords and SQUASH have been busy persuading any sympathetic Lords we can find to oppose the clause to criminalise squatting. See this blog post if you would like to lend a hand: http://www.squashcampaign.org/2012/01/squash-needs-your-help-lobbying-lords/.
From the Metropolitan Police to the Law Society, unexpected allies have come out against the government’s proposals to criminalise squatting. The Law Society and the Criminal Bar Association are adamant that the existing laws are already more than adequate and the Metropolitan Police have even said themselves that the law is already broadly in the right place. Many organisations, including the Magistrates Association, have expressed concerns about the cost of it all during a time of austerity measures. SQUASH have calculated that over the next five years, the cost of criminalising squatting could come to £1 billion. For more on costs, and how we calculated them, check out: http://www.squashcampaign.org/cost-of-criminalisation/
Other key allies have been homeless charities. Crisis have urged the Government to scrap the proposals and have argued strongly that criminalising squatting will essentially make homeless and vulnerable people criminals for attempting to gain a roof over their heads. Crisis research shows that 40% of homeless people have used squatting as a last resort to prevent sleeping rough, which highlights how draconian the whole thing is. It’s one thing to criminalise squatting, it’s another thing to do it in the middle of a housing crisis when homelessness rates are soaring.
Even Channel 4 went squatting to investigate the situation. George Clarke’s programme ‘The Great British Property Scandal’ highlighted the fundamental problem. There are an estimated 1 million properties lying empty across the UK. This is the real problem, not squatting. Squatting attempts to utilise these empty buildings – criminalisation will only encourage owners who own empty properties to keep them empty.
Squatting for Community Self-Defense
And anyway isn’t squatting good for society? I truly believe it is. Nobody likes empty, abandoned and rotting buildings in their community and a lot of the great work squatters do is bringing these places back into use. Down by Heathrow Airport, with the support of the local community, local council and MP, Grow Heathrow continues to thrive. Set up in opposition to the third runway at Heathrow and to the homes that would have been destroyed in its path, the project has provided a space for the community to come together again. What was before an abandoned wasteland is now a thriving example of an alternative way of living. Although exempt from the proposed new law (as commercial property and not residential) this project was made possible by squatters’ rights, which is an important thing to celebrate.
Now, more than ever before, we need more places like Grow Heathrow to build community self-defence that truly prepares us for any current and future threats. As nearly everyone comes under attack in some way by the government’s severe programme of cuts it is important to reclaim space anywhere we can. Land distribution patterns in this country reveal the true extent of inequality and privilege – 1% of the population own 70% of the land. Squatting is one method for reversing this trend.
The creation of alternative worlds is inextricably linked to confronting this one and squatting does both things. Occupy, create, resist is a notion which resonates strongly at Grow Heathrow. Occupy: take space, often made possible by squatting a piece of land or a building. Create: create the world you want to live in and would one day be willing to defend. And then Resist: once you come under attack for creating something which doesn’t match with the ideals of the state or global capitalism. Both Grow Heathrow and squatters across the country are currently in Resist mode. Grow Heathrow faces court proceedings for a fourth time in two years and squatters’ way of life is under threat. Whatever they say squatting will stay!
Joe Rake is co-founder of grassroots community project Transition Heathrow. He lives at Grow Heathrow – a squatted community space in the path of the now defeated 3rd runway. He has taken direct action for the past few years with Plane Stupid over the issue of airport expansion and was heavily involved in recent student fees protests.