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The cause of the Runnymede eco-villagers is a righteous one

By criminalising squatting and begging the government is closing all the exits out of a low-wage and rentier economy: we must resist.

Nicholas Sebley
21 September 2015
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A number of families and children lived in the village.Britta Burger/ All rights reserved.A 15 minute drive from the elite environs of Windsor Castle and Eton College are the beautiful woods and water-meadows of Runnymede.

Until last week, if you had visited this historic site, you would have found 30-40 people living in an array of shacks and homes, many beautifully made from recycled materials. They lived sustainably there for three years: heating their homes with coppiced sycamore, using water from a spring and growing or ‘skipping’ their food. Now those people are homeless and all that remains of their lives there is some splintered wood, smashed up wattle and daub, and belongings strewn across the forest floor.

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All the homes were built from recycled materials. Britta Burger/ All rights reserved.The destruction was unleashed by bailiffs on behalf of the Royalton Group- an off-shored luxury property developers- who bought the land for £47 million and intend to build a high-end gated community there called the Magna Carta Park. It’s not news that the wishes of global capital trump all others but we might pause and reflect how, in a Tory heartland, in the fifth biggest economy in the world, such a miniature shanty town came to exist.

Those on the right will no doubt claim this was simply a gathering of the chronically workshy finding a way to avoid their responsibilities as taxpayers. But then I suspect they have never lived in a wood in winter, negotiating freezing rain and knee deep mud, without utilities or sanitation.

The real answer is complicated: for some residents living there was an informed choice. They came from Occupy St Pauls and were offering a direct-action solution to government inaction on housing and climate change: reclaim disused land for low impact sustainable villages. But for others the village was a safety net that caught them in the freefall from an atomised society and self-harming State; a place of sanctuary from the brutality of our current economic system. Take Betty, who with her small child, was evicted with 24 hours notice from her Essex flat and arrived in the village ‘emotionally and physically shattered’. Or Shawn who found himself street homeless in Brighton when the state relinquished responsibility for him at 18, after over a decade spent in foster homes and mental health inpatient wards.

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Residents like Vinny were made homeless by the eviction. Britta Burger/ All rights reserved.If we entertain the notion that there might be deeper forces at work here rather than people’s preferences or moral failings what do we find?

According to Crisis almost three quarters of the increase in statutory homelessness from 2010 to 2014 was attributable to private tenancy terminations. In London the figures are worse, with such cases rising from 925 to 5,960 in the same four years. It is worth remembering  that whilst a month’s notice is the legal minimum for normal tenants, the “reasonable notice” required of resident landlords can be as little as 24 hours.

So why can’t these people just find another flat?

Perhaps the answer lies in the Homelet Rental Index which calculated the average UK rent for new tenancies this summer to be £992pcm. Most landlords require a month in an advance and a month’s deposit, and on top of this the average letting agent fees are now £337 . That totals up to £2321, for the average renter, before they can move in. Many cannot afford this initial outlay, especially in a context where rents rose 10.5% last year, but wages only 3%. With rents outpacing wages for the last 5 years this adds up to a serious squeeze. In addition to this there is simply not enough supply: Matt Hutchinson, director of the house sharing website SpareRoom.co.uk, said in some parts of London 13 tenants were competing for each room advertised. The government knows these realities but has failed to introduce legislation that would relieve the pressure. If a government fails to act on this information, surely it loses its legitimacy?

This is the argument of those living at Runnymede:

The times we live in, they argue, are corrupt; statute law no longer protects or serves the interests of the common man. It no longer guarantees access to affordable shelter or a reasonable wage and has allowed the wants of the rich and comfortable to trump the needs of the poor and destitute. We can see this in the convergence of other statistics: on any one night there are currently around  2700- 6500 people sleeping rough in the UK but 610 000 empty homes;  however, the squatting of these properties- even if they are derelict- has recently been criminalised. No matter if a residential property had been empty for 5, 10 or 15 years, if a homeless person sought shelter there in cold or rain – they would now be committing a criminal offence. 

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Over 40 different dwellings were built in the woods. Britta Burger/All rights reserved.But they shouldn’t need to squat or live in a shack I hear you cry: the government have funded adequate hostel provision for people who have become destitute. Wrong again:  there are only around 36 000 hostel places available for the single homeless, and an estimated 185,000 adults experiencing some degree of homelessness each year in England.

So if there is not room for these people in government funded hostels, and they are forbidden to squat, then surely it is acceptable for them to sleep in parks or doorways?

Sadly not: rough sleeping has risen by 55% since 2010 yet is now being criminalized in many boroughs of London and elsewhere, as is begging. Under Operation Encompass Rough Sleepers are arrested and told if they return to the borough (where their entire social network might be) they will be issued an ASBO, and if they break that they face a fine or prison.

In short, the government is closing all the exits out of the wage-labour rentier economy.It refuses to regulate the hyper-inflation of the housing and rental sectors that are creating homelessness but then does legislate to criminalize the victims of those market forces (the homeless) and those who try to find solutions for themselves (squatters).

This encircling is nearly complete: the residents of Runnymede were told in the High Court last week they had no right to appeal and were evicted on Wednesday. They slept outside a public toilet that night and on Thursday opened a squat in a disused Adult Learning Centre. They have already been served notice to quit. So it goes on. 

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