Thursday, 3 November 2011

Housing Crisis and the Answer - Criminalising Squatting

Now I did say that I would wright something about Squatting, and of course that bill that went through the House of Commons on Monday, which in effect once it becomes enacted and a live Law; ‘it will criminalise and out-law the act of squatting as we have come to know it. And I am not talking about the very few amongst and at an educated estimation, the many thousands that have no other alternative but to seek shelter and resolve their housing need by occupying an empty or otherwise abandoned property. I have read and even heard it said that this is some sort of a lifestyle, well having been a squatter in the past and granted many years ago now, I can tell you from experience there is nothing at all romantic or bohemian, carefree and alternative about wanting to put a roof over one’s head, not to mention the stress and not knowing just how long you have in any one place before you're moved on, and with councils and the authorities of specialists who now have acquired, and thanks to Thatcher and proceeding governments an arsenal of legislation to prise and dislodge the un-wanted. But this clearly has not been enough for that sacred and hallowed ‘moo-cow’ of private property, the very essential they say for the construction of a prosperous society, but in reality an affront of unfair practices’ for many. The history of squatting has a long and prominent place in our society and in the antiquity of working people.

In the post-war years the word 'squatting' has been used to describe and label the unauthorised, the illegitimate occupation of empty property (almost always publicly-owned) by homeless people. It seems to me that squatting can be seen as ideological, pragmatic and realistic. What I mean is that when Winstanley and the Diggers settled on land at Walton-on-Thames in Surrey in 1649, they were ideologists, dramatising a century of unauthorised encroachments by landlords. But there have also always been pragmatic squatters, relying on distant and absentee property-owners, to allow them the occupation of premises by default. The last thing they desired was publicity and the thing they most desired was a rent-book and security of tenure.In his book ‘the story of squatting in Britain since 1968, Steve Platt articulates the following:

For those people who fell between the twin stools of home ownership and council housing (i.e. those who would traditionally have been housed in the private sector), opportunities were shrinking, rents rocketing and security diminishing. This increasing desperation of people at the bottom end of the housing market together with the growing number of empty houses, led to the growth of squatting both in scale and scope.

So whilst that may be a fair appraisal and assessment up until the Thatcher period of time, still it is worthwhile and important to understand the decades that proceeding wars end in 1945 which revitalised the squatting movement because as always through necessity it was the only way forward when push came to shove.

At the end of the Second World War squatting started with what was known as the 'Vigilante campaign' which spread from Brighton to other seaside towns like Hastings and Southend. Committees of, largely, ex-servicemen, under cover of night, installed homeless families and their furniture in unoccupied houses - usually successfully, since no action could be taken to evict them once they were in, until the usually absentee property-owners could initiate legal proceedings against them.

In the following years the campaign grew because of the anomaly of the emptying-out of hundreds of army and air-force camps during the worst housing shortage the country had known. Impulsive and spontaneous individual actions began in Scunthorpe (which I am very pleased to say is my former home town), spread quickly to two other camps in Lincolnshire, and were followed by the occupation of several camps around Sheffield, where settlers formed a Squatters' Protection Society and linked up with the pioneer squatters at Scunthorpe. These events were rapidly followed by the seizure of hundreds of camps everywhere in Britain. The authorities at first disclaimed any responsibility for the squatters - passing the buck from one department to another – were eventually forced to recognise the occupations, and local authorities were instructed to turn on water and electricity supplies. In those years squatters won significant victories which pushed governments to address the housing shortages with a building program, the series of steps to be carried out by both Troy and Labour administrations.

And a passing thought as I move on is how noteworthy it is especially today that occupations played such a big part in moving government and people more importantly, into mass actions that resolve albeit temporally a housing problem; we would be very much mistaken, to think that social housing provision was to be a permanent fixture in the grand scheme of things – it never was meant to be!”

I myself joined the squatting movement in the back-end of the 1970s by then Thatcher was ripping into council housing which was always on the cards they just needed a leader of her calibre to do it and the successive governments of New Labour to keep the faith which they did and the rest is a housing crisis of such a magnitude now in the making – we haven’t seen anything yet, but it’s on the way.

On Monday evening central government politicians of all the major parties have proven to be unremittingly hostile to the housing needs of people. Once they discovered that squatting was a civil, rather than a criminal offence, governed by legislation dating back to the year 1381, they set about changing the situation, and that’s what they did because their first loyalty is to the system they run and support, their Criminal Law Act of 1977 (under Labour) failed to deter this country's 50,000 or so squatters, and in practice, so has the Criminal Justice Act of 1994 (Conservative). Mondays vote was to try and remedy the situation for the system they serve, in the end I think it will fail and turn and bite them all on the buttocks, we will see time will tell.

What squatters seek, and have always sought, is security of tenure, and indeed personal security. To adopt policies which will have the effect of criminalising them is nothing more than another aspect of the class war.                 
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