This article originally appeared on LondonLovesBusiness.com on 27/10/2011
Should squatting be a criminal offence or can it have a positive impact?
A semi-demolished, graffiti covered department store sits square and proud off Oxford Street. Derelict and empty until the early 1990s, its 6,000 square metres share a turbulent history. And now Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are embroiled in a passionate struggle to keep it… squatted.
Parallel universe? Not quite, a Berlin one.
The Tacheles building in central Berlin (pictured above) has been occupied by artists for 20 years. Originally built to be a department store, it became a Nazi prison before being squatted in 1990.
Now it’s a celebrated institution, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. It is credited with playing a key part in Berlin’s rebirth as a cultural capital and has regenerated the local area whose businesses reap rewards from the tourism it brings.
For these reasons, the mayor of Berlin and the state secretary for culture have been determined to prevent the insolvent owner’s creditors, HSH Nordbank, from repossessing it – despite the building’s obvious commercial potential, worth millions of euros.
Back to London, where this week the Ministry of Justice announced its intention to make it a criminal offence to squat a residential building.
A quick recap of squatting law
Under Section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, squatters can’t be evicted from an unoccupied building until a possession order is issued, and the offence is civil.
Moving into somebody’s home while they’re on holiday, or occupying an in-use commercial property, however, is illegal under Section 7 of the Act.
Likewise, it is illegal to occupy a building that is about to be occupied.
So by definition, squatters occupy otherwise unoccupied buildings – and the act of squatting is a civil not legal offence. If, however, someone starts living in an occupied property (or a property about to be occupied) that they do not rent or own, they are a criminal.
Unfortunately, somewhere between the pages of the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail, this key distinction has been lost, say pro-squatting campaigners. Criminals and squatters have become interchangeable, they allege, and the tradition of squatting unoccupied buildings (a tradition that goes back centuries) has become perverted by the media.
The Ministry of Justice’s proposed changes to the law this week come off the back of its consultation, Options for dealing with squatting, which closed three weeks ago. It has since had 2,217 responses (evidently they read quickly in Whitehall).
The consultation was somewhat biased. Take this line: “For too long it has been the squatters, not the law-abiding homeowners, who seem to have had the upper hand.”
Nobody knows how many squatters live in London, but the figure is thought to be in the region of 10,000 to 15,000. A combination of London’s rising property prices and its 82,327 empty houses are likely factors that have led to the huge number of people who decide to squat.
While the majority of Londoners consider squatting to be a scourge on local businesses and communities, there is another side to the squatting story. This is not just a tale peddled by squatters themselves – although their accounts are eye-opening and should for once be heard – but also by local businesses and even property associations.
It’s time to hear from the people who are directly involved with the squatting scene, rather than those who relish slating it from a distance, and who have perhaps not done all their homework.
Because while it would of course be naive to say that every squat in London has a positive influence on its surrounding area, it is also naive to suggest that every London squat is unwelcome, or necessarily detrimental to its local economy and neighbouring house prices.
How squats gentrify run-down areas
There’s a history to how squatting can sow the seeds of cultural success. Boy George, Mario Testino and Jamie Hince are all ex-squatters. The Sex Pistols’ Jonny Rotten, in fact the entire punk movement, arguably, has its roots in squatting.
The tradition goes back even further; from the Levellers to Thomas de Quincy to the Blitz, historical accounts of squatting abound.
Catherine Garrity, a squatter with the Well Furnished group, claims that “gentrification begins with squatting”. Garrity believes that squatting is an extension of the old maxim that “artists move to an area because it’s affordable, make it cool, and then the affluent arrive”.
She cites the recent transformations of Shoreditch, London Fields, Dalston and Peckham Rye.
All once no-go areas, each district became home to artists and musicians who moved into the abandoned warehouses and large, empty properties that were abundant.
The squatting communities contributed to local areas by opening up the spaces they squatted. Open-house art shows, theatre productions and music events in squats made the localities fashionably desirable, drawing in new crowds to help regenerate flat micro-economies.
And, as if you didn’t know, property prices in Shoreditch, London Fields, Dalston and Peckham Rye have all crept up rather nicely in the years since the more creative of the squat communities brought their artistic and fashionable influences to the areas.
Garrity’s own experience of squatting went like this: she and others moved into three empty, disused furniture shops on Well Street in Hackney in April this year.
The properties had been empty for a number of years. They are owned by St John Hackney Joint Estates Charity Trust, which has come under fire for increasing rents – a factor purported to have driven out businesses from the already rundown area.
“Well Street hasn’t been prioritised in the same way that other streets have, and half of the street is owned by the St John Trust. Every other shop is empty and this is having a detrimental impact on the business community,” says Garrity – a factor corroborated in a report by the Financial Times.
The answer? The Well Furnished collective (who took their name from the properties they occupied) moved in and went about opening up the buildings and turning into them a community space that could be shared. They put on language classes, art classes and poetry readings. They even had a reflexologist to provide elderly residents with treatment, says Garrity.
Five months later they were evicted. You can read both theirs and the Sherriff’s Office accounts of the eviction on their blog.
“The property owner may not have wanted us there but everyone else did,” says Garrity matter-of-factly. “We had support from local businesses and lots of people came to Well Street to see what we were doing, which benefited business in the area.”
I tried to contact the property agents Lambert’s to find out their side of the story, but they were unable to find a spokesperson to comment for this article.
For Dan Simon, squatting is a “great British tradition”. He squatted for seven years, during which time he transformed empty buildings into gallery spaces and theatres through The Oubliette movement. (Evening Standard journalists would attend, he says, which makes the newspaper’s recent anti-squatter coverage particularly painful to swallow.)
He also cites Hannah Barry of the Hannah Barry Gallery as a particularly notable example of the artistic – and ultimately commercial – productivity of the scene. Hannah Barry was a 21-year-old girl working in PR, he tells me. “Then she came to the house we were squatting in Peckham and said she wanted to use it as a gallery space”.
Her squat exhibitions were the start of something rather special. Five years later, Barry is the poster girl for Peckham’s renaissance, running one highly successful commercial gallery there and another on Bond Street.
Simon, originally from New Zealand, arrived in London in his early twenties via a kibbutz in Israel. “I was wandering, looking for a life. I had a great job and great prospects but I didn’t know what I wanted out of life,” he explains.
After becoming disillusioned with his career in IT, Simon decided to quit his job and apartment – “I was looking for a community.” What Simon did next is unthinkable for 99 per cent of us: he turned to squatting. But what about job seeker’s allowance? Housing support?
“I didn’t want to claim council housing. I think that’s a right I should be able to claim,” he says defiantly.
Simon’s seemingly anarchist statements become virtuoso right-wing polemic when he elaborates.
“There’s an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 squatters in London alone. If we were to presume that there were only 10,000 and that these numbers were all eligible for social welfare and housing at, say, £67 Job Seekers’ Allowance and £120 housing allowance per week, the total yearly cost to the taxpayer would be almost £100m.
“By empowering ourselves, we are saving the state vast amounts of money and resources. The ‘Big Society’? Squatters are the Big Society.”
Of course, the economics of squatting are open to debate, but it’s an interesting argument.
The idea of moving into a disused commercial building and opening it up to the local community by putting on workshops actually sounds pretty close to Cameron’s, as yet, largely unsuccessful Big Society ideal.
But then, just as most Britons don’t understand the Big Society principle, nor do they, it seems, understand squatters.
For Simon, squatters have become easy scapegoats. They are, he says, “essentially a disparate group of vulnerable people with very little means of recourse to the intense amount of bias in the press.”
He accuses ministers of political point scoring: “They have been knowingly and willingly peddling misinformation about squatters; they have been corroborating absolute crap.”
Like many squatters I speak to, Simon deplores the recent cases where homes were occupied while the tenants were on holiday. This, he argues, is not squatting, but is an illegal activity under Section 7. He does not identify himself with these people.
Simon’s not the only person to accuse the media and politians of misleading the general public. Just one month ago, 160 lawyers and academics wrote an open letter to the Guardian condemning misleading reports.
Utilising unused space at a time of economic need
For Well Furnished’s Garrity, leaving a building unoccupied is inexcusable, particularly in densely populated areas. There are lots of inventive things that landlords can do if they don’t want to rent a property for the next 10 years – pop up shops and short term leases are possibilities, she argues.
“In an area like Hackney [the home of her aforementioned squat], that is so densely populated, people shouldn’t leave buildings empty,” she says.
The question of why landlords leave buildings empty is one I put to the National Landlords Association. “It is irresponsible to leave buildings empty,” says the Association’s policy advisor, David Cox.
Interestingly, the Association is opposed to a change in the law. “We don’t think that squatting should be a criminal offence, we don’t think it’s necessary. We think that the right should go back to the property owner,” says Cox.
By “right” Cox means allowing police to get involved in order to speed up the eviction process. Presently, police can only get involved if there are signs of breaking and entering. Provided squatters clear up any evidence that they’ve broken in, they can remain in the building until a possession order is issued – hence the infamous Section 6 so often seen taped to the front of dilapidated buildings.
The Justice Secretary’s proposed changes will change this – although for residential buildings only. Regardless of how long a property sits empty for, and whether or not it is soon to be occupied, the owner will be able to forcibly remove the unwanted tenants without issuing a possession order.
Homeless charities are horrified. We are in the midst of a housing crisis, and this will only make matter worse, they say. The Ministry of Justice alludes to this: “Of course, we must also tackle problems affecting the wider housing market and bring more empty homes back into productive use,” says Crispin Blunt, in the consultation paper’s foreword.
Meanwhile, Blunt admits there is no data held by the government about the number of people who squat, or reasons for which they do. Instead, the consultation paper repeatedly points to recent newspaper reports as its source.
What impact the new legislation will have remains to be seen.
But just remember, next time you stroll through Shoreditch, or watch the new must-see play, or admire an underground artist, or listen to rock: without squatting it might all have been very different.