The government hates them. The police hate them. Landlords hate them. At times, it seems the mainstream media is trying its hardest to make sure everyone else hates them. History teaches us that society doesn't have much time for squatters. So when I went along to Shoreditch County Court a few weeks ago, to watch the occupants of the Ashmount School squat in North London attempt to defend themselves, I didn't hold out much hope that they'd come out on top.
The squat was one of the largest seen in London in recent years. About 100 people – a motley crew of homeless people, dreadlocked Spanish ravers, English punks, Eastern Europeans with low-paying jobs and their trusty dogs – moved in after it had been vacated by security guards in early October. Around 30 of those residents filed into the hearing last month, ready to argue why they should be allowed to stay in the building.
The council’s lawyers laid out their position first: they wanted to turn the site into social housing, but the Secretary of State for Education had insisted that it be turned into a "free school". That was pretty much it from them; they didn’t have to indulge in any courtroom theatrics, because there's no point in melodrama when you have the law on your side and the Department for Education breathing down your neck to re-open a school.
Then came the turn of "persons unknown" – the squatters. "The only agenda we have is shelter," began their spokesperson. He then appealed to "a humanitarian perspective; that the council has the power to help with the social responsibility to house people, and we rely on their positive decisions to provide shelter for the dispossessed members of society".
"So," said the judge, with the knowing smile of someone who's made quite a few ill-prepared squatters homeless before, "you’re not claiming that you have any right whatsoever to be there, other than squatters'... [trailing off] whatever". I don't think the judge was trying to affect the disinterested air of a teenage girl; I took "whatever" to mean "squatters' rights" in this case.
There was an attempt to invoke Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights – the right to a home – but the council’s lawyers batted that one away pretty easily: "Homelessness happens to many members of the community," they said, accurately.
"In my view, there is nothing exceptional," agreed the judge.
It was a lot like watching that court scene in The Castle – you can appeal to what you believe to be fair and just all you want, but that means very little when you're trying to claim the right to stay in a property that doesn't technically belong to you. On the 20th of November, eight days after the hearing, the council kicked the squatters out of the former school.
The defeat over Ashmount is the latest in a number of recent setbacks for squatters in the UK. Back in August, I headed down for a look when squatters moved into a Grade II* listed building at 195 Mare Street in Hackney. Proceedings followed a familiar pattern; the wheels of anti-squatter sentiment started grinding away again. The Evening Standard managed to find some local residents – a filmmaker and a woman who runs a pop-up shop – to complain that it is "unfair and annoying" that people are able to live there for free, given the eye-watering rents in the area. And I guess if you're paying £1,900 a month for a one-bed flat, you at least want everyone else around you to be getting ripped off as well – even if they say they're taking care of an historic building that's fallen into disrepair.
When I arrived, I decided to do as the Standard had done and ask anyone I could find for a completely subjective and wholly unrepresentative opinion. A man who was talking to the occupants was gung-ho in his support for the squatters: "If we lose stuff like this, we lose our heritage, our culture. This is important. So important," he said emphatically, before heading off in the direction of a pub.
Talking to the squatters, it was clear that they thought the owners were the real social menace, accusing them of trying to run the building down so that it lost its listed status and could then be redeveloped on the cheap. More evidence for this arrived, the squatters claim, in the form of a dozen construction workers, who turned up a few weeks into the occupation without planning permission and set about wrecking the place.
"They broke into the premises illegally at 10.05AM," Victoria, one of the residents, told me the day after the builders' destructive visit. "We explained what they were doing was illegal and they started smashing everything up. They smashed the toilets, the doors – they cut off the electricity and the pipes. They stole fuses that were our fuses."
Despite the attention of the wrecking crew and the loss of their fuses, Victoria and her friends have managed to turn the place into a functioning social centre. They have hosted, among other things, language classes, film screenings and art classes – something that seemed close to impossible when I saw the leaky shell of the building shortly after they moved in. "It’s been there for such a long time. It’s a pity – we don’t need more luxury flats," said Victoria. "It would be nice if we had a space where people can do stuff together."
Last September, the squatting of residential buildings became illegal, but the occupations of both the Ashmount School and 195 Mare Street exemplify an unintended consequence of that ban. Commercial properties weren't included in the legislation, and since disused factories and town halls tend to be bigger than abandoned houses, many squatters have upped their game and assembled in larger groups.
Phoenix, a veteran squatter, explained this phenomenon to me in a squatted pub in Finchley, which he'd sought to turn into a community arts space. "Because they criminalised residential squatting, what you’re now seeing more is larger crews taking larger buildings," he said. "There are going to be more social centre-type squats. We are going to see more projects."
So, ironically, attempting to ban squatters from living in vacant buildings created a surge in PR-friendly, socially conscious squatting. As Simon McAndrew, another squatter, told me, "It’s made it tighter and more focused. It’s made people fight for their right to party."
But already this positive PR drive seems to be on the wane. While the occupants at Mare Street are still in situ, the Ashmount project failed and Phoenix has already been slung out of his Finchley pub. Politicians have been quick to stick the boot in, with Mike Weatherley – the Tory MP responsible for last year's anti-squatting law – tabling an Early Day Motion to extend the ban to commercial properties. And the flak hasn’t just come from Weatherley – the squatters' public enemy #1 – or the usual Tory suspects. Labour politicians Chuka Umunna and Dame Tessa Jowell, as well as the leader of Lambeth Council, Lib Peck, released a statement that read: "Extending the law to protect businesses would be a welcome move."
For their part, squatters took the fight to the politicians the best way they know how: by setting up a gazebo and some chairs in the forecourt of Conservative MP Mike Freer's constituency office. But they were evicted from that last Thursday.
In response, squatters have attempted to redouble their efforts on the positive PR front. One squatting collective sought to reverse the negative connotations of the word by running the "Made Possible by Squatting" exhibition, portraying squatters as the kind of cultural innovators worthy of a Prince’s Trust grant, rather than people who allegedly cause £150,000 worth of damage to former libraries or sit on roofs playing bongos all night. (Which might sound like lazy right-wing satire, but are in fact two genuine recent news stories about squatters.) Then, when Southwark Council tried to auction off the most expensive council homes ever, the properties on Park Street in Borough were occupied by people looking to draw attention to the problem of social housing being sold off to developers.
However, on a wider scale, these attempts simply haven't worked. The occupiers of Park Street were swiftly evicted, the council arguing that the sale of the buildings would pay for 20 council houses. The difficulty of trying to reconfigure public perceptions of the word "squatter" became obvious in July, when Lambeth Council used it – and all its associations with vagrancy and lawlessness – as leverage to evict the residents of a "shortlife" community in Brixton. Only the residents weren't the sort of people you'd usually think of when you thought of squatters – they'd actually been living in this so-called "shortlife" community for 30 years. Until, that is, they were booted out in a flurry of heavy-handed bailiffs and burning barricades.
Outside the squat at 195 Mare Street (photo by Tom Johnson)
When I visited Ashmount School before its eviction, the residents were – understandably – cagey about speaking to journalists. A Spanish guy I spoke to mumbled a few words about cooperating with whatever the council wanted and not having an "agenda", before slamming the door on me.
After a couple more visits, I made it inside the hallway, where a woman who didn't want to be named read me a pre-prepared statement: "If the government evict 100-plus people before Christmas, they will be declaring to the world that they do not care about the people, many of whom find themselves homeless due to housing benefit cuts, redundancy, unemployment and the gentrification of areas, forcing out ordinary people who are unable to afford yuppie living costs."
Before she read it, she eased up on the spiel long enough to tell me a tale that I'm now used to hearing within the squatting community – that she works freelance and took to squatting after defaulting on rent when one of her employers was late coughing up her pay.
While Britain's squatters have been spending the past few months getting kicked out of places, they did manage to score a jumbled but possibly significant win. In a Hove courtroom, the judge decided that there was no conclusive proof that a man named Dirk Duputell had actually been living in the house he was accused of squatting, despite the police having video evidence of bedding and fresh food in the property, and the fact that Dirk had been found physically super-glued around a post in the attic.
The verdict seemed to suggest that a thorough surveillance operation would be needed to prove that someone was actually squatting a building, which obviously takes funding and resources – two things that no police force is exactly flush with at the moment. As Joseph Blake from SQUASH (Squatters for Secure Homes) told me, "The conclusion from that case and a few other cases… [is that] the new law is unworkable, actually."
Ashmount School wasn’t a crumbling, disused listed building ripe for reclamation; it was an ugly glass box that will be renovated into a new school. The thing is, such considerations tend to go out of the window when you don't have somewhere to stay. After squatting's drive to present itself as a noble, media-friendly, community conscious activity, the argument still comes back to the fundamental need to have somewhere sheltered and warm to sleep at night. Although its temporary residents did put on a couple of bike workshops, they seemed more concerned with having a roof over their heads than using the building to host finger-painting classes for local kids.
With homelessness rife in the capital, and tens of thousands of people looking forward to spending Christmas in temporary accommodation, people will likely keep on squatting regardless of what the neighbours think. The necessity for a roof will transcend any PR wars about whether or not the building is a "legitimate" target, at least as far as the people who crack it are concerned. When you don't have a roof, anything must seem like fair game.
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