Sunday, 26 June 2011

Fighting to keep the door open for squatters

On Wednesday, David Cameron confirmed housing minister Grant Shapps' announcement in March that squatting is to be made a criminal offence. The offence will be confirmed in the legal aid, sentencing and punishment bill and, in Shapps' words, they will "shut the door to squatters once and for all." This needs to be fiercely resisted.

The arguments that Shapps and Cameron use, backed up by the Daily Telegraph's "stop the squatters" campaign, are so familiar as to be wearisome. The squatters are juxtaposed with "law-abiding homeowners," who live in a "quiet and peaceful neighbourhood" until it is "ruined by squatters making excessive noise, fly tipping and committing other anti-social behaviour." Talk of "the distress and misery they cause, and the damage and destruction they can often leave behind" is comparable to the language used when discussing gypsies and travellers. After all they, too, threaten the hallowed sanctity of property ownership.

Away from this rhetoric, property rights under capitalism leave us with a harsh reality: whilst there are around 61,000 households homeless, there are 651,000 empty homes, and this is just England. With cuts in housing benefit, rising costs matched with stagnant wages, and increasing numbers of repossessions, amongst other factors, this disparity will only become greater. Not least as people continue to be forced from their homes by compulsory purchase orders in the name of "community regeneration."

Such things will only leave more people with little other option than squatting. As Katharine Sacks-Jones, head of policy at Crisis, told the Guardian;
A lot of the debate is coloured by media headlines about people squatting from a lifestyle choice in these large mansions. What we really want to make sure ministers are aware of is that there's a large proportion of squatters who are very vulnerable people who are squatting because they simply don't have another choice. This law would be criminalising very, very vulnerable people, and I don't think anyone wants to see that. It's counter-productive. It's not going to address the underlying problems that these people face: that there's a lack of housing.
As well as the fact that "people who are at the raw end of a lot of other social policy end up squatting as it's the one form of self help open to them," the "law-abiding homeowners" Shapps refers to are already protected under a 1977 law for "displaced residential occupiers."

As Paul Reynolds from Squatters Action for Secure Homes (Squash) says, "if someone squats your home, you're legally entitled to break back in and remove them using reasonable force." Meanwhile, "this new law is designed, as far as we can tell, to protect property speculators, people who own long-term empty commercial properties which they're often quite happy to let fall into disrepair." In other words, the propertied class whom the capitalist system entitles to own what they neither occupy nor use whilst so many others are left with nothing.

Already, people are organising to resist the changes in the law. The Squash campaign is just one example. An "awareness raising" campaign, but nevertheless it provides some valuable resources - including the parliamentary briefing Criminalising the vulnerable (PDF), which lays out most of the arguments against the change in the law.

Connected to Squash, Squattastic is a loose network of squatters and squat-supporters which provides a monthly space for networking and planning actions as well as allowing for coordination for the campaign's various working groups.

The attack on squatting is as much an attack on the working class as the cuts, privatisation, and other moves by the ruling class. Squattastic and the people involved in it deserve all the support that they can get, not least from those groups whose direct actions would become more precarious with a change in the law. If we don't, then the consequences for the class struggle could be devastating.