This government is currently attempting to criminalise squatting. The move is horrifying for two reasons. First, because of the devastating effects it will have on an increasing number of people who cannot afford to put a roof over their heads. Second, because it displays, at best, total disconnect between Whitehall and the streets, while at worst a genuine contempt for the worst off in society.
Under existing laws, squatting can only be carried out in uninhabited buildings. If your occupation of a house or building involves the eviction of the owners from their home, you have committed a criminal act and can be evicted, arrested and charged accordingly. Squatting an uninhabited property may lead to eviction by police if the property owner has secured a court order requiring squatters to leave by a certain date, after which they still remain. This is still, however, a civil matter, not criminal. Finally, if illegal activity is occurring inside a squat, action can be taken in virtue of the relevant laws, in exactly the same way it would be with a rented or owned property.
So why the need for an additional law? Or, better, ask: why isn’t squatting currently illegal in England (unlike in Scotland)? Is there legal provision for squatting because it can serve a social purpose? Property, though almost always privately held, is still a common resource. We all use buildings that we don’t own on a daily basis (even if we are home owners with a fully paid off mortgage) – and if we rent, then we are clearly benefiting from property we don’t own. So even with a system of private property, society requires – for the benefit of all – that property owners manage their assets well and not egregiously unfairly, to the exclusion of a significant number. This arrangement, while I believe far from ideal, seems to be the most basic state of affairs that could be deemed acceptable.
Squatting can provide a limiting factor on the misuse of property. If property is neglected or left empty, squatting can not only immediately repurpose the resource in a manner socially beneficial, but in itself provides an incentive for landlords to ensure their property is utilised in the first place. It will not in itself produce an equitable situation – the use of the property does not mean equal accessibility – but can, I believe, produce a better situation.
Squatting also provides a vital resource of last resort for those who have been failed by a marketised housing system. Let us not even entertain the thought that anyone deserves to be homeless, or that in any way this could be socially desirable. In the case that somebody can’t access affordable housing – perhaps you live in Wandsworth and a relative of yours was involved in the recent riots – squatting provides sanctuary of some kind from the horrors of exposure and homelessness. Do not underestimate the significance of this: shelter is a basic human need, and within our society the need for a household exists not much further down the heirarchy.
Now for the context in which the government is seeking to criminalise squatting. Unemployment, particularly youth employment, remains high. Housing benefits – alongside others (including legal aid in family disputes) – have been cut significantly. Council housing rates will skyrocket to 80-90% of market rates. The cost of living continues to rise with inflation, increasing energy prices and pay freezes in some sectors. Homelessness, unsurprisingly, has risen by 17% as a lethal cocktail of economic pressures precipitates mortgage defaults, relationship breakdowns, job losses, mental and emotional struggle and a whole host of practical and existential problems that structural hardship brings to a diversity of people. The government does not sit isolated from this context. It is an active part of it.
This is precisely the situation in which squatting can play a valuable role: in homing, even if only temporarily, those who have nowhere else to go in the midst of a housing crisis. Except that we don’t have a housing crisis. Perceived a staple truism of our contemporary society, its validity is belied by the simple fact that 700,000 properties that could be abodes lie empty across the UK. While landlords and companies speculate on housing stock – keeping rents higher as they do – and second homes lie fallow, increasing numbers of people fail or struggle to pay the rent, removing the most basic continuity needed to lead a decent existence. It is not a housing crisis we face, but a tenancy crisis.
Instead of being a potentially powerful tactic in the hands of dispossessed, yet informed, citizens in clawing back private property as a necessary social resource, the government is seeking to transform those who attempt squatting into criminals. That’s the same government that is making it harder to avoid being dispossessed in the first place. Is this move even coherent? Let’s assume that a crime is (philosophically understood) not simply a function of the whims of a ruling class. A crime must bear certain characteristics that it shares with all other crimes, in virtue of which it is a crime. While not always having victims in the straightforward sense (for example the illegal recording of a film off the telly), crimes in general should surely be actions that it is damaging for a community to sustain. We are witnessing the reverse in this case; the legal activity of property ownership and management is helping create the damage, while squatting can offer a solution.
Even if we defend the sanctity of property rights, we do not have to criminalise those who squat. It is not a form of theft, but an unauthorised use of property. Criminalisation (which is, amongst other things, an official form of ostracisation) in our current predicament conveys a particularly sadistic burden, not only removing a last resort for the most desperate, but making outlaws of them at the same time. Absurdly, any new law criminalising squatting will benefit, in particular, landlords who manage their property badly, prefer to keep rents and prices up by leaving some empty, or who make squatters out of existing tenants by raising rents rapidly (imagine becoming a criminal by remaining in your home). Those who purchase and speculate on property with no regard for the social consequences, away with the number-fairies in a make-believe land of magic returns (often foreign companies), also stand to benefit. In short, the unscrupulous, the wealthy, or those who combine the two.
For some, no doubt, squatting is a life-style choice (as Ken Clarke quaffed in a recent BBC interview ‘some of them even have jobs’). I have visited several squats (for example Grow Heathrow and the Factory in Bristol) inhabited by those who could be paying rent, and found creative, interesting and socially purposeful spaces, nourished by the time a rent-free life affords. This will not always be the case, but that fact should in no way damage the vital provision of sanctuary and limitation of property misuse squatting provides.
Criminalising squatting is not simply unnecessary, it is both unjust and socially damaging. It strengthens the hands of the empowered and weakens those of the dispossessed. Just when squatting is needed most, the government wants to punish those who attempt it. When the authors of a policy can be exonerated of naked malice only with a plea of total ignorance, and when those authors happen to be our government, we should fear for our communities.
Please visit http://www.squashcampaign.org/ to oppose the government’s plans and find out more. The consultation on their proposals ends on 5th October.