With the exception of a few well-argued articles such as this one by Alex Vasudevan on Comment is Free, the announcement by the Tory Government that a consultation process with a view to outlawing squatting is about to begin has slipped under the radar. The lack of fanfare is unsurprising- as can be shown the history of squatting in Britain leaves neither Conservatives nor Labour, neither markets or government, and neither church nor state, looking particularly good.
There’s long been a history of illusions and lies about squatters, who are, on the whole, a diverse and intangible group of people whose demography is formed by the needs and desires of the moment.
One particular myth is that squatters, by virtue of being squatters, commit offences already illegal under UK/English law, such as criminal damage, breaking and entering and aggravated trespass. That a squatting ban will somehow mitigate these behaviours is ludicrous. Squatting is legal largely due to there being nothing in England and Wales to legislate against it, and laws that protect homes in general from intrusion by the state (The famous ‘Section 6’ of the Criminal law Act); Scotland has a trespass law already in place. If anything the legal status of squatting gives incentive for squatters not to commit such acts as they would incur swifter evictions and a potential jail term/fine.
Another favourite myth is that squatters will somehow sneak into holidaymakers’ houses at high midsummer and hold raves. The more insidious racist kinds of argument about ‘travellers’ and ‘gypsies’ or ‘immigrants’, are even more idiotically bigoted. Both arguments point towards a certain kind of propertied fascism creeping into acceptability in our society. A more recent one has been the ‘liberal concern’ argument- abandoned buildings are dangerous, therefore we shouldn’t let the squatters use them. Instead they should be left to freeze on the streets, rather than suffer building problems (which groups like the Advisory Service For Squatters might show them how to identify, repair or have removed).
In short, many would like us to see all squatters as being somewhat like the Punks in this Australian documentary:
Putting all this aside, there is one, fairly ignorant, but very important assumption behind all of these myths: largely that squatting has never achieved anything good in British society, and moreover, that ‘squatters’, as the name suggests, are some sort of lumpen class, delaying the wheels of progress and simply parasitising what has already been made. The reality is that trespass and squatting have historically been productive and empowering forms of activity. In fact, many of the images of Britain that David Cameron might hold dear could not exist without squatting and trespassing.
A striking example which millions benefit from every weekend is the maintenance of Britain’s public footpaths. The Ramblers’ association makes the following claim:
“In legal theory most paths become rights of way because the owner “dedicates” them to public use. In fact very few paths have been formally dedicated, but the law assumes that if the public uses a path without interference for some period of time – set by statute at 20 years – then the owner had intended to dedicate it as a right of way”
Footpaths, in other words, largely enjoy their existence due to their continued use by countless numbers of people using and re-using them with a healthy disregard for private property. Of course, this is not to say that all footpaths are considerate to needs of agriculture and ecology, but even the richest rely on these pathways from time to time. Without them, the much-touted ‘local tourism industry’ simply would not function. Often direct action has been used to keep these pathways open, the most notable instance being the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932.
The idea that the Tory voter on holiday in Somerset, Derbyshire or Dorset might walk on a pathway won for them by an act of disobedience has a delicious irony to it; for a moment let us imagine this voter taking the country air.
Perhaps our Tory might stop at a village to take in the pretty sights; the village green, the cottages. Yet, as Colin Ward observed in his excellent text, Cotters and Squatters, this image of the village simply could not exist were it not for the erection of temporary and permanent housing by squatters on empty, abandoned and common land; whilst many of these were cold, damp and poorly constructed, others have survived into the 20th century and inform the idealized image of the country village. These cottages, now desirable as second homes by those causing much of the problems of contemporary housing, were once the pain of the local landowner trying to assert his claim to the land. There are countless more examples; but what really matters in this situation is the sheer hypocrisy of the Conservative appeal to tradition, when contrasted with a policy that would outlaw squatting.
A recent project to map Nottingham’s caves has revealed the staggering and labyrinthine nature of what was once a system of makeshift housing and storage carved out by hand, much of it without any permission of Nottingham’s landowners; these came in for many uses including as shelter during the Battle of Britain. “If a man be destitute of a house” says one visitor from the 1630s quoted by Ward;
“it is but to go to Nottingham, and with a Mattock, a Shovell, a Crow of Iron, a Chizell and a Mallet, he may play the Mole, the Cunny, or the Pioner, and worke himselfe a hole, or a Burrow, for him and his family”
This would not be the first or last time that a city has been economically dependent upon illicit housing. But, quite literally beneath the apparent surface of a city that seems to be driven by commerce, trade, and property, was an underworld without which it could not have functioned. The ‘wartime spirit’ that Conservatives summon upon to get us to accept cuts to social housing could have been found in Nottingham’s cave system.
One wonders if the Conservatives see this same ‘wartime spirit’ amongst the families that occupied abandoned barracks after World War two? This was a crisis so substantial that Aneurin Bevan, then responsible for housing, tried to call a halt to it, but was ultimately forced to concede to the popular pressure from those occupying the camps. It is odd that someone we may think of as the great provider of his era was also opposed to a popular movement such as this, yet it happened- squatting is rarely in favour with political institutions. Camps such as those at Chalfont St. Giles (ironically, birthplace of Nick Clegg) were a convenient solution to overcrowding- as fascinating footage from the time shows, these were not crusties or ravers, just families looking for a home.
While, as Vasudevan rightly argues, squatting is a useful tool of protest, in particular to put pressure on the property owners to make use of their holdings, it is also the case that the nature and needs of squats has been a constantly evolving circumstance- while everyone is in need of housing, the actual social and cultural background of that person who needs or sees fit to squat can change drastically and radically; and, more importantly, they will leave behind structures and legacies that profoundly shape the nature of their society. Even the punks left behind a musical legacy. To attempt to remove this is retrograde in the extreme.
If there’s one final thing squatters should be noted for, it is that they nearly always disregard the imperatives of government and business in their work, often choosing to resist. As the A.S.S points out;
“Last time they threatened to criminalise squatting, in 1992, the result in 1995 was a new type of court case.”