Of course squatters are up in arms against the passing of a law that would criminalize squatting in residential properties. But will parliament also ignore opposition from legal experts, homelessness charities and the police?
Today the House of Lords will debate plans to criminalise squatting. Clause 136 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (LASPO), which seeks to criminalise squatting in residential properties, will be scrutinised late in the evening as Baroness Sue Miller (Lib Dem) and Baroness Lister (Labour) have tabled a number of amendments to mitigate some of its worst impacts on homeless and vulnerable people. Additional concerns have also been raised in the last week, with the release of a report in The Guardian which suggests this clause could cost the taxpayer as much as £790million over the next five years, outweighing the entire savings that the rest of the Bill intends to make.
I’m a squatter myself, so it’s not surprising that I’m urging peers today to vote against criminalization. But the squatter community’s unlikely allies in this fight tell a different story, one of widespread opposition from many quarters.
Last summer the government held a three month consultation entitled “Options for dealing with squatting”. One might have expected negative results given the sustained right-wing media coverage attacking squatters both before and during the consultation period. However, out of the 2217 people who responded to the consultation, 96% didn't want to see any action taken to criminalise squatting. Even more surprisingly, only 10 people bothered to write in to say they had been a victim of squatting. But the government ignored its own consultation, and three days before the LASPO bill was to be voted on in the House of Commons, Ken Clarke tacked on an amendment to criminalise squatting in residential properties – this despite the fact that there is no direct link between squatting and legal aid.
From the Metropolitan Police to the Law Society, unexpected bodies have come out against the government's proposals to criminalise squatting. The Law Society and the Criminal Bar Association are adamant that the existing laws are already more than adequate and the Metropolitan Police have even said that the law is already “broadly in the right place”. 160 leading legal experts wrote a letter to the government which explained the misleading information being put out around the already existing laws. Many organisations, including the Magistrates Association, have also expressed concerns about the cost of it all during a time of austerity measures.
The homeless charity Crisis have urged the Government to scrap the proposals and have argued strongly against essentially making homeless and vulnerable people criminals for attempting to gain a roof over their heads. Crisis research shows that 40% of homeless people have used squatting as a last resort to prevent sleeping rough. It’s one thing to criminalise squatting, it’s another thing to do it in the middle of a housing crisis when homelessness rates are soaring.
Even Channel 4 went squatting to investigate the situation. George Clarke's programme 'The Great British Property Scandal' highlighted the fundamental problem. There are an estimated 1 million properties lying empty across the UK. Squatting attempts to utilise these empty buildings – criminalisation will only encourage owners who own empty properties to keep them empty.
Squatting for community self-defence
I live at Grow Heathrow, a squatted community garden in the path of the now cancelled Heathrow 3rd runway. Set up in March 2010 in opposition to the runway and the destruction of the homes in its path, the community market garden project continues to thrive with the support of the local community, local council and MP. After 30 tonnes of rubbish were cleared from the site, what was an abandoned wasteland now hosts numerous community events and gatherings. Although exempt from the proposed new law (as commercial property and not residential), many more similar projects around the UK will be threatened if the LAPSO bill passes.
Now, more than ever before, we need places like Grow Heathrow to build community self-defence. As the majority in this country struggle under the government’s harsh austerity programme, it will be more important to reclaim space anywhere we can. Land distribution patterns in this country reveal the true extent of inequality and privilege – 1% of the population own 70% of the land. Squatting is one method for reversing this trend.
The creation of alternative worlds is inextricably linked to confronting this one and from my experience squatting does both things. 'Occupy, create, resist' is a notion that resonates strongly at Grow Heathrow. Occupy: take space, often made possible by squatting a piece of land or a building. Create: create the world you want to live in and would one day be willing to defend. And then Resist: once you come under attack for creating something which doesn't match with the ideals of the state or global capitalism.
Today, squatters across the country are in ‘Resist’ mode, standing together with all those who recognise that criminalisation is unnecessary, unjust and unaffordable. We can't allow the government to bypass democracy just in order to send out a message.