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Squatting in the path of the housing crisis: global capitalism coming home

As homelessness soars in South East England, a vast warehouse sits empty in central Oxford - until local tenants squat it, to organise a conference on the UK's housing crisis...

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
6 October 2014
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At 2:15am, my alarm beeped. Worried it would disturb my housemates, I turned it off immediately, and realised I was surprisingly awake. I showered, snuck downstairs, removed three slugs from our kitchen counter, heated up and gulped down some moussaka I'd cooked a few hours earlier, and headed off into the dark.

Earlier that day, it had been raining. This is bad news in our house, because the roof bears some resemblance to a collander. The letting agency, Chancellors, hasn't got round to fixing it for three months, so we have to dance around buckets. But by the time I was stepping outside, the clouds had passed and the stars were out and it was crisp – and utterly beautiful.

A roof which keeps the rain out isn't the only thing our letting agency has failed to deliver. When we moved into the house, it didn't have enough beds or enough keys. My housemates had to sleep on a mattress on the floor for a month – paying almost £500 each for the privilege. There is a long list of basic repairs required for our new home to qualify for the relatively low legal minimums set by the Housing Act 2004. Three months after we moved in, Chancellors still haven't done most of them.

Here's why I was up in the middle of a freezing night: we're a reasonably well off household – five twenty-something graduates with full time jobs. We pay a huge chunk of our salaries each month for a nice house in Oxford, with one of the best letting agencies our friends knew about. For many renters, perhaps most, the situation is much, much worse.

After a five minute brisk walk, I was at a friend's house. Around fifteen of us were gathered, cheerfully drinking coffee and noting that summer is certainly over. Was it below freezing? After a few moments of munching and sipping and catching up and procrastinating, we were off: me in the van, most on bikes.

Earlier that day, I'd been told the plan. The building we were headed to was one that a few of us had looked at over the river as we sat in a bar on Osney Island that summer, noting the industrial beauty of its huge arched windows set into high yellow brick walls. It had been Oxford's first ever power station, and then, under the ownership of the university, a vast workshop for countless experiments. It includes a wind tunnel that, our briefer had told us, had been used to test missiles. But it had been empty for a few years, apart from a little storage and an annual student art show. And even that was cancelled this summer.

Space in the South East of England is political. The fact that the university has left an enormous building a three minute walk from the train station empty would normally be seen as a waste. But as homelessness rates in the region soar, as winter creeps up on us once more, warehouse sized inefficiencies become questions of injustice: too often, questions of life and death. These are, literally, rooms so big you could fail to spot an elephant in them, and we need to start noticing.

The plan was simple. Scouts a few weeks earlier had found one of the windows to the Edwardian warehouse on the latch. They would climb through it, and open a door from the inside. Outside, one crew would keep watch, whilst everyone else would rush in, split up into teams, and check that every other door was firmly secure. A squat would be established, and the work would begin.

The work itself, carefully curated by a team of Oxford residents in the twenties and thirties, is a three day conference on the housing crisis in the UK: “the house of the commons”. Doreen Massey, Danny Dorling and Dawn Foster have all agreed to speak, happy not to know what the venue was going to be. The event, open to whoever fancies it, will highlight creative solutions to the housing crisis.

On the night, everything pretty much went to plan. We got there around four. After pacing around outside the building and trying not to look conspicuous, one of the doors sprung open. We rushed in, and spent the next few hours exploring this vast maze in the beams of torch lights. We found the CCTV monitor, allowing someone to watch each entrance. We ensured that the police or university couldn't couldn't break into any of the numerous back and side entrances, and took photos of each other in the wind tunnel.

Sneaking around the warehouse space, with metal hooks hanging from bulky chains perhaps forty feet overhead and with steel staircases leading up to a metal mezzanine floor I was surprised that such a vast space could go unused in the centre of Oxford for so long – and noted it would make a good site for a horror film.

In the middle of mulling on the emptiness, a friend surprised me even more. Turning his torch behind us, he said, suddenly, “dinosaur”. Following the beam, he was right. There, staring back at us through the dark, was a life size Deinonychus – the carnivorous species with terrifying claws they mistakenly called Velociraptors in Jurassic Park. It turns out a small corner of the space is used to store property of the Oxford Museum of Natural History – including this plastic monster.

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House of the Commons will be a fascinating event, and if you're not too far away, I do recommend swinging by. But what's more interesting, perhaps, is this: the group included people I marched with in 2005 against the Gleneagles G8 and set up tents with at climate camp. For a decade, they have been at the forefront of many of the UK's most exciting campaigns for global justice. But in recent years, they've started to turn at least part of their gaze onto issues closer to home.

This isn't the first time Britain's young radicals have put housing in their sights. And, until I – and everyone else - can trust that the houses we move into have functioning roofs, sufficient beds and don't suffer from infestations of slugs; until no one is forced to be homeless in one of the richest countries in the history of humanity; until we end this rapid descent back to the slums of the past: until we have a government which listens to some of the creative solutions to the housing crisis being discussed in a warehouse in Oxford this weekend, we can be sure that it won't be the last.

For these activists, talking about Britain's housing market isn't a distraction from discussing the iniquities of global capitalism. Making homes more expensive is one of the main activities propping up the global firms based in the City of London. If you live in the South East of England, the chain of injustice choking the world likely starts with your home. It's time to start working out what we can do about that.

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