Guest post: But I’m not a squatter…

This is a guest post by Rueben Taylor, a campaigner with SQUASH (Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes). You can follow them on Twitter @Squash_campaign.

The Coalition government has announced its intention to criminalise squatting. This will be deeply detrimental to social justice, culture and civil liberties, especially in the context of the cuts. We are currently in the process of a consultation exercise, in which they solicit opinions and then try to bury the results in the bottom drawer of a civil servant’s desk and proceed to behave exactly as they had planned in the first place. We need to make sure this does not happen, and to do so we need you to respond to the consultation and send us a copy of your response. We also call on groups opposing the cuts – whether at your local library or on the high street – to use occupation as a tactic: to take and defend space against the violence of the cuts, and resist the creeping privatisation of everything.

Criminalising squatting may at first glance seem not to hold pressing relevance for the majority of the population. However, the attack on squatting needs to be viewed as part of the larger assault by the rich and privileged on the rest of society. Already there are around 5 million people stewing on council house waiting lists. As the housing benefit cuts bite, a leaked letter from Eric Pickles to the PM revealed that the government expects another 40,000 families to be forced into homelessness. At the same time, the budgets of homelessness providers are being slashed, with night shelters losing around 30% of their government funding. Job losses, combined with the overinflated mortgage lending of the boom years, means that more and more people simply cannot afford their mortgage repayments, and the Central Bank has warned of a “tsunami” of repossessions. Already 2 million people can only keep up with their rent or their mortgage payments with credit cards.

Such is the nature of the housing crisis that we are in. Particularly in inner-city areas, keeping a roof over your head is becoming simply unaffordable for many people. And now on top of this, the government seeks to criminalise one means of dealing with this crisis. For many, squatting is a last resort, state processes being unable to provide them with an adequate home. Furthermore, like housing benefit, squatting gives people a little more freedom to choose where they live, counteracting the ghettoization tendencies of our housing market. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Tories have made it quite clear that they do not find such ghettoization problematic at all, and the criminalisation of squatting taken together with cuts to housing benefit and the end of secure tenancies may be seen as part of a policy of “suburbanisation of the poor” – leaving the city centre to those who can afford it. The law is supposed to protect the weak from the strong: the criminalisation of squatting will do precisely the opposite.

As well as being an emergency housing option for many, squatting makes an important contribution to arts and culture. Making enough money to survive as an artist is a formidable task, especially while maintaining independence of creative expression. Squatting can give artists time and space in which to work, exhibit, and perform. As arts bodies are having their budgets slashed and are increasingly unable to support creative innovation, this time and space is essential to the vibrancy – perhaps even the survival – of arts and culture in the UK.

Even in terms of the government’s own cost-cutting agenda, the criminalisation of squatting makes no sense. Adjudication of disputes would be left in the hands of an already overstretched police force, who would be required to intervene in situations which are currently civil disputes. And as the cases brought would now be criminal rather than civil, the squatters would become eligible for legal aid, despite recent government attempts to secure the reverse. The state will also be required to pay the costs of prosecution, where previously these fell to the property-owner. In effect, it is the nationalisation of the risks of property-ownership: just as the banking bailout was a nationalisation of the risks of wild gambling. It turns the state into a protection racket for property speculators, without any consideration of the attendant responsibilities that come with ownership.

One of the scariest aspects of these proposals, is their devastating impact on our civil liberties. Occupation is, as UKUncut-ers know well, a key tactic of civil disobedience and protest. Whether in a workplace, in a university, or in the foyer of a shop, occupation has a long and proud history of success – as economic disruption, as an appeal to the wider public, and as a way of opening up spaces for alternative modes of organisation. Under the proposals currently outlined in the government’s consultation, it is likely that it would be made a criminal offence to refuse to leave a building when asked to do so. That means the police force would have full powers to come in and arrest everyone taking part in a university occupation. As the government acknowledges itself, it is very difficult to determine where “occupation” ends and “squatting” begins. They propose to distinguish “protestors” from “squatters”, but undoubtedly many squatters would view themselves as engaged in a protest against existing inequalities of land and property distribution. Making occupation illegal will fundamentally undermine our civil liberties and divest us of an essential weapon of dissent.

The consultation will finish on 5th October. If you only have a few minutes, please use the consultation response tool with the most essential questions to register your opinion, which will soon be live on our website. If you have a bit longer you can read SQUASH’s full guidelines here. And if you’d like to find out more about getting involved with the campaign, email us : info [at] squashcampaingn [dot] org. Thanks.