The wrongs of the squatters’ rights brigade
Too many of today’s new breed of spoilt squatters are driven less by desperation than by a sense of entitlement.
Last week, a 21-year-old man originally from Plymouth, Alex Haigh, became the first person to be given a prison sentence for squatting. He was given a 12-week sentence after pleading guilty to occupying a residential flat in a housing-association property in London. Squatting became a criminal offence on 1 September, when section 114 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishing of Offenders Act came into force. Squatters have always faced the threat of legal action from homeowners through the civil courts, but this is the first time that squatting in residential premises has become a criminal offence.
Criminalising squatting is ludicrous. In fact, it’s worse than ludicrous. It appears to have been introduced simply to speed up the process of booting squatters out. Rather than owners having to wait three months and spend in the region of £3,000 to have squatters removed, homeowners can now simply call the police and the freeloaders can be arrested and carted out. The use of the criminal law to speed up civil procedure is highly draconian.
But that’s not the only problem. The criminalisation of squatting also conflates the roles of the criminal and civil law. The fact that squatting was not a criminal offence recognised that shacking up in someone else’s empty house was a dispute over private property and not an offence against society at large. This made it the jurisdiction of the civil courts, which exist to regulate private disputes between persons.
The criminal law, however, regulates the relationship between the individual and the state. Because the state, through the criminal law, has the power to deprive individuals of their liberty, it is the most powerful mechanism of state intervention. The casual introduction of new criminal offences in order to make civil procedure more efficient represents a worrying extension of this power to intervene.
But the defence of squatting mounted by modern campaigners says a lot about what is driving people to squat today. In the days following the introduction of the new law, squatting campaigners have cynically tried to ally themselves with the homeless, in an attempt to win support for their own right to live for free. Joseph Blake, a Squatters Action for Secure Homes (Squash) representative, called the legislation a ‘really disgusting new law mainly because it is going to criminalise thousands of homeless people in the middle of a housing crisis’. A representative of Crisis, a homelessness campaigning group, said: ‘[U]ltimately the government needs to tackle why homeless people squat in the first place by helping, not punishing them.’ Those contributing to the discussion around squatting today make it sound like an act of middle-class altruism, as if the desperate homeless should thank these so-called radical house invaders for providing a vital alternative to sleeping on the streets.
Of course, it is true that the new law will drag many of society’s more desperate individuals through the courts. But the squatters’ rights mob seemed to have ignored the fact that swathes of affluent, middle-class young people are today choosing to squat. It is not desperation that drives most people to squat in empty pubs on Oxford Street or in high-value residential real estate, but a sense of entitlement to free housing and a nihilistic wish to withdraw from a society in which feel they have no stake.
Evidence on squatting and its relationship to homelessness is, for obvious reasons, difficult to collate. However, the available data suggests that the majority of people who squat on a given night are not homeless. A 2011 report by Crisis, anticipating the criminalisation of squatting, cited research by Reeve and Batty from 2011. This research indicated that 40 per cent of the homeless people surveyed had squatted at some stage and that six per cent of these were squatting at any one time. The government’s best estimate and oft-quoted figure for the number of squatters in England between 2010 and 2011 was 20,000, based on the number of interim possession orders made in the English High Court. This did not take account of similar orders made in the lower courts, so the actual number of people squatting could be much higher. In the 2010–2011 period, there were 48,510 successful applications by households for statutory homelessness in England. Given that the average household is made up of 2.3 people, and if we take the Reeve and Batty figure of six per cent as representative, the available data would suggest that around one third of the 20,000 squatters in the UK during 2011 were homeless.
Of course any figures will be imperfect when large numbers of homeless people live outside any proper record system. Further, many people may apply for statutory homelessness and be refused. But the data does strongly suggest that there are significant numbers of people squatting who do not need to. Indeed, the best available data suggests that this represents a strong majority of squatters. While squatters’ rights campaigners have been focused on those forced to squat, a large question remains unanswered about those who choose to.
Even looking beyond the figures, most people who live in a major city will be able to say anecdotally that they know someone who chose to squat as an alternative to paying rent. Stories abound of those squatting because they feel that the financial crisis has left them with no other options. They may even have higher aspirations. Take the network of toff squatters known as the ‘Really Free School’, which takes over posh London homes for the purpose of turning them into radical new centres of education. Or Clifton House, a grade-2 listed building in Bristol, which has been occupied by graduates since February. These are hardly the desperate homeless being cynically paraded about by the squatters’ rights groups; these are a new generation of young middle-class squatters who have little to do with society’s most desperate. Is this platoon of middle-class freeloaders really worth defending?
No doubt many squatters today see themselves as descendants of the agrarian communists who became known as ‘the Diggers’ during the English Civil War. In the seventeenth century, the Diggers protested against the steady advance of capitalist land reforms by establishing communal production on waste and common land. By the middle of the seventeenth century, sweeping legal reform in favour of private land ownership meant their ideal of achieving freedom through common land-ownership was roundly defeated.
While in hindsight there was little hope of the Diggers standing in the way of burgeoning capitalist development, they certainly contributed to radical arguments in favour of freedom. They were the more radical wing of the Levellers, whose pamphlets in favour of expanded suffrage and freedom of religion arguably laid the foundations for two centuries of revolutions across the world.
There have also been periods in history when squatting en masse has been a vital mechanism to deal with mass homelessness. Squatting experienced a resurgence following the Second World War, when thousands of those left homeless by the fighting squatted in order to survive. In a movement which became known as the ‘vigilante campaign’, groups of ex-serviceman would move families into abandoned properties and assist in providing utilities and furniture. Of course, this was not a trendy lifestyle choice, but a necessity in the face of abject poverty.
Squatters today have little of the drive to transform society that their radical predecessors had. Nor are they inhabiting a period in history when squatting is necessary. That’s what makes the arguments made in favour of squatting today so odious. In order to make squatting seem more important than it is, contemporary squatters’ rights groups choose to exploit the status of those who have to squat to make arguments in favour of their own right to live for free. Posh squatters are so driven by a sense of entitlement that they have no qualms about co-opting the suffering of those forced into squatting in order to defend their own access to free housing. Rather than arguing in favour of mass housing expansion, or defending the right of people to build their own houses wherever they want, today’s squatters rely on the suffering of those they purport to defend to justify their nihilistic and essentially pointless withdrawal from society.
That’s why today, squatters have more in common with last summer’s rioters than they do with the radicals of the past. They don’t shack up and paint trendy graffiti in posh Pimlico flats as a gesture towards a more free society; they just don’t think they should have to work in jobs they don’t want to do. They see themselves as victims of an economic climate that is completely out of their control, put upon by their elders, which justifies them taking what everyone else has to work for. This is anything but radical. In fact, it flies in the face of the transformative arguments made by their radical predecessors.
The criminalisation of squatting is madness. But the discussion that has emerged over the past week shows that squatting today is radically different to what it was like in those periods when squatting was either idealistic or pragmatically necessary. Today, it is little more than a middle-class riot, fuelled by middle-class entitlement, and justified at the expense of society’s most vulnerable. There is only one way to solve our current housing problems and that is by building more houses. The quicker we do that, rather than defending the right for middle-class upstarts to live wherever they want for free, the quicker we will really see a movement in UK housing worth defending.
Luke Gittos is a paralegal working in criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.