Secretary of Justice Ken Clarke’s recent moves to criminalise squatting have ensured that, once again, the subject of squatting is back in the news. After a government consultation that ended in October, campaigners have been furious to see their views ignored. Now it seems as if amendments are to go ahead and, according to critics, these reforms will threaten the homeless, citizens’ right to protest, and the most vulnerable members of our society.
But what do we know about squatting? The government document states that even the ones changing the laws know very little, as no official statistics exist, while the public are only offered cursory and reactionary stories, like those reported in the Evening Standard, where laws are misconstrued and the people involved are falsely labelled as “squatters”.
I’m stood inside the grounds of a building with one of the few squatters I have found willing to talk to me. To the side is a high wall that divides us from another vacant mansion on Mare Street. Peter, a squatter for six years in his mid-twenties, roughly bearded and with evasive eyes, squints at the neighbouring dereliction: “That building’s been sitting empty for years,” he says. “A terrible waste, really.”
The boarded-up city manor, like Peter’s current shared home, was one of London’s many unoccupied commercial buildings before it was rescued by a now evicted group of squatters. It is presently guarded by a watchman, day and night, a man who furtively nods to the next door along when I enquire about the current status of the building he’s employed to ‘protect’.
Critics say anonymous private owners and speculators hold empty property from offshore tax havens as they gain rights to demolish buildings, or plan redevelopments, like the current situation in Dalston Lane. So investors and landlords commonly prop up a security guard by the door to insure against any potential legal ramifications.
What isn’t common, though, is the watchman’s attitude; he calls the squatters next door his ‘friends’, and gestures that I should talk to them, before returning to his makeshift office, worried about saying any more. This is how I meet Peter, and immediately I recognise his caution.
“It’s just how I choose to lead my life,” he says when asked why he lives where he does. During our brief encounter, Peter speaks in vague terms, distrustful of me and unwilling to really say anything. He looks down at his paint-spattered trainers. His hands go from the pouch of his Nike hoodie to his pockets and back again, as he anxiously awaits the end of our unplanned meeting.
But his feelings are understandable, even sensible. Frequently demonised and misrepresented as thieves and burglars during the three month consultation period, many squatters consider journalists out of bounds. “There’s a lot of this type of story coming out and there’s obviously a level of intrigue about it. Certain papers have chosen to campaign against us, and perpetuate the stereotype.” Peter is speaking of the kind of reporting which lead to a letter published in the Guardiansigned by 160 concerned property lawyers, which points out these inaccuracies and explains the current laws.
Peter is reticent and considers his words carefully. He is aware of what has been reported of late. Talking of the recent government consultation and Ken Clarke’s proposed amendments to criminalise squatting, all he says is: “There seems to be a few options, a few ways it can go. It seems like something’s going to happen but we’re not sure what. I don’t know what they’re trying to do. I’m not them. I wouldn’t try to speak for them. And I wouldn’t try to speak for all squatters, either.” Who can? I ask.
“All this media attention is bad for those of us living out here. It threatens our continued existence. All those people trying to publicise it, even the ones defending it, they’re drawing unwanted attention. They’re looking for celebrity status, squatting in places like Mayfair and in Central [London]. But I can only speak for myself. That’s wrong of them to think they can speak for all of us.”There have been a handful of groups like this in the past few years, courting the press’ attention by occupying properties in high-profile locations and occasionally posing for photos; the Da! Collective near Berkeley Square, Mayfair; the Really Free School in Fitzrovia House, owned by Guy Ritchie; and the Belgravia Squatters, squatting Margaret Thatcher’s house, and David Blunkett’s, for example.
As the talk winds down to blurts of interest, and as I ask him to unlock the gate, Peter surprisingly puts out his hand and asks my name. He seems happiest when I leave, and I do not even request a photograph as he points me on to a couple of addresses: the London Action Resource Centre (empty) and the Advisory Service for Squatters (also empty). I ask about an address I have, in South London. He cannot confirm it.
Reaching south of the river, a Section 6 notice taped to the front door, I manage to find one of these numerous buildings that have been reinvigorated by the determined yet elusive presence of squatters; the type of squatters targeted by new government laws.
The place I enter is, to my eyes, a hyperactive student house. These are the lucky ones, I am told. Everything that you expect in the normal places has been replaced by something worthwhile. In here there are less video games, less televisions. Instead, plastic and LCD has been replaced by paper, books, a mishmash of discovered furniture and musical instruments with endless mini-projects scattered around on salvaged coffee tables, in corners, behind doors, and hanging from the ceiling.
I remember what author, journalist, and former squatter, Charlie Hill, told me: “The organised squatters I knew were a bit like smack heads. They had a superiority complex, as though they were seeing the world in a way that those who didn’t squat ‘professionally’/take smack could never hope to do. They had disdain for anyone who lived ‘within’ ‘the system’. Gave me the right hump.”
But throughout this particular property, art is a staple. All over every inch, there are signs of creation rather than consumption. And if there is consumption, it is inconspicuous or a novelty; I am shown a Mickey Mouse doll that has been perverted up its own backside.
Understandably this tight-knit community wants little to do with destructive outsiders. Though neighbours describe this particular household as ‘very private, very discreet’, these hostile forces do exist elsewhere, as Jeremy Swain, Chief Executive of the homelessness charity Thames Reach, tells me: “People are living amongst piles of rubbish and rotting food in buildings with broken floors and staircases, creating huge risks for those occupying these spaces.”
Out of circumstance and design, no two squats are the same. Yet these, that Swain speaks of, are in an entirely different category; a grade of housing utterly unliveable, desperately squalid, filled by society’s excluded. He says: “In some buildings we have found up to 30 people living in miserable conditions. We believe these buildings should be closed down, sealed up and the occupants given help with finding more settled accommodation, as well as with other issues such as drug and alcohol misuse and immigration problems. This remains a largely hidden scandal.”
Back near Bethnal Green, while I walk her corridors of renovation, Amy Warner, an artist and manager of Netil House, informs me that until two years ago her building, a former-council office now functioning as space for artists and small businesses, was also a squat. She smiles and, in good humour, tells me they were the ‘bad kind’ of squatters: “They partied every night, and trashed the place.” The photos she shows me; a floor covered in popped balloons and cans of Special Brew.
Charlie recalls, “There wasn’t even much in the way of the camaraderie you might expect. The three of us living there got on ok but didn’t really mix; this was mainly because we only used the place to sleep. The place was pretty much a roofed shell. No carpets, no wallpaper, one cold tap, two power points, no gas. It was grim.”
There seems a widening chasm between those squatters active in the community, those who wish to stay apart from it, and those who are squatting solely out of necessity, and not a life choice. This is a contrast not easily explained and therefore a more difficult question, bringing complications that are ignored in the papers which opt for ‘Squatters Stole My Home’-style misinformation.
“I dislike the way in which the media fails to engage with – what is for me – the central moral question,” Charlie says. “Why are people forced to live on the streets or in hostels when there are properties that are standing empty and have been out of use for years on end?”
In Britain, with over 700,000 homes left vacant and unused, squatting appears to be a worthwhile, if not crucial solution to the homeless and housing crisis. Yet the government has chosen to ignore the consultation’s response. 90% of respondents argued against any change to squatting laws. Yet an amended bill with these new outlines is now being debated in Parliament.
The question for the government remains the same as it did before their token gesture of a consultation. And the question seems less and less to be about squatting, or criminalising it, but about the rising numbers of homeless, the people exiled from society and forgotten.