Let’s just all SQUASH together
Squatters once fancied themselves as radical. Now they have embraced the low horizons of the political elite.
Pro-squatting group Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes (SQUASH) has published a sleek report called Criminalising the Vulnerable: Why We Can’t Criminalise Our Way Out of a Housing Crisis. It is a response to the UK Ministry of Justice’s announcement earlier this year that it will launch a consultation on proposals to criminalise squatting in Britain. But this is no radical, two-finger response to the establishment. Instead of demanding more and better homes, SQUASH comes across as having low horizons and a regressive view of both space and people.
The report notes: ‘House building was already deemed by government to be “too low” prior to the financial crisis, but since 2006-7, house building completions in England have slumped dramatically to their lowest levels for nearly 90 years.’ Given this dramatic slump, you might think that SQUASH – which refutes the idea that squatters are ‘a group apart from the homeless’ – would see a glaringly obvious direction to campaign in.
Yet SQUASH is not interested in lobbying the government to deal with the housing shortage by building more homes. Instead, in the rest of the report, the group fails even once to comment on the miserable levels of house building. Instead, SQUASH buys wholesale into the idea that we are living in a time of austerity and that the only solution is to make do with what we’ve got now. It calls for what it terms the ‘hidden homeless’ to be instrumental in ‘bringing some of the estimated 651,993 empty properties in the UK back into use, securing housing for themselves, maintaining empty buildings, and running social projects’.
SQUASH’s solution to the twenty-first-century housing crisis is effectively to repeat the old Second World War government propaganda slogan ‘Make Do and Mend’. Bizarrely for a campaigning organisation that says it wants to ‘provide resources towards the achievement of secure housing for all’, SQUASH doesn’t argue for new homes to be created in order to provide a decent, high-quality standard of housing for the ‘hidden homeless’ (or the rest of us, for that matter). It instead explicitly attempts to argue along the lines of the government’s own cost-cutting agenda.
As SQUASH asks, if squatting is criminalised, ‘How will the government re-house the estimated 10,000 squatters in London alone? These plans will pile pressure on to an already creaking housing system, and costs on to the justice system. They are both morally and economically nonsensical.’ Another part of the report declares that ‘the proposed criminalisation of squatting threatens immeasurably increased costs for the public purse’.
Such pragmatic arguments against the criminalisation of squatting manage to make even the coalition government sound radical in its (very limited) plans for solving the housing shortage. What happened to squatting as something radical, as two fingers up to The Man? SQUASH’s document reveals a striking shift among squatters. They used to unabashedly grab needed resources from the well-to-do without politely asking for permission and to demand more and better housing for the non-wealthy. Now, however, squatting is yet another expression of low horizons, of the idea that we should settle for what’s already available. Far from being autonomous and bolshie – opting out of being chained to mortgages and paying rent – squatters are instead cast as being among the hardest hit in society: vulnerable, desperate individuals whose very survival is at stake.
Instead of taking a principled anti-capitalist stance, SQUASH tries to show that possessing properties that you don’t inhabit is unsustainable. In making such arguments about the wastefulness of empty properties, pro-squatters are attacking the idea of prosperity. Rather than fighting for everyone to have more, particularly by increasing the supply and affordability of housing, SQUASH uses the rhetoric of scarcity, reducing the wealth and quality of life of the better off in order to meet the needs of the poor and the homeless.
The old outlook of squatters may not have been much to shout about, but at least it possessed some kind of anti-establishment edge, which is now completely absent. In fact, the SQUASH report attempts to trump UK coalition ministers like George Osborne and Danny Alexander in showing how the government can make cost savings and resolve housing crises. In its wholesale adoption and internalisation of government jargon, it’s far from surprising that SQUASH links favourably to an Independent article that declares ‘squatting is the perfect example of the Big Society’.
Whether they are conscious of it or not, there is more than a whiff of Malthusianism about the outlook of this pro-squatting lobby. Instead of arguing for building more homes, including on our underutilised countryside, it tells us that the way forward is to share out what we already have, echoing the idea that we should not increase further humanity’s ‘footprint’ on the planet. From this point of view, having a second home is not a legitimate aspiration but an unwarranted imposition on nature. Far from being radical, SQUASH echoes, rather than challenges, the mainstream, downbeat outlook of the political class.
Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked.
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