Mike Weatherley, squatter hating Tory MP for Hove and Portslade. Or is he? (Photo via)
One thing you don't expect to find upon arriving at work is a letter in your inbox in which Mike Weatherley, a Tory MP who's led the charge on banning squatting, sings the praises of a squatting group. However, about a year after the ban was introduced, that is what I appear to have – a letter suggesting that one of the key architects of the ban on squatting hasn’t always hated squatters nearly as much as he lets on. In fact, in the case of those he refers to in his letter, he's pretty gung ho in his praise of them.
It was Mike, the Tory MP for Hove and Portslade, who first tabled an Early Day Motion in Parliament calling for squatting to be outlawed. With the backing of the tabloid press, his campaign took off and, on the 1st of September last year, squatting in residential property was made a criminal offence. Since then, 69 squatters have been charged, with many going on to be imprisoned for living in unused buildings.
Mike has worn the law as a badge of honour, claiming that squatters refer to it as, “Weatherley’s Law”. Unsurprisingly, squatters are pretty anti-him, too – so much so that a bunch of them chased him off Sussex University campus in a barrage of rocks and rotten tomatoes late last year when he turned up to speak in a debate. They have also accused him of being responsible for the death of a homeless man, Daniel Gauntlett, who froze to death on the doorstep of an empty bungalow police had previously prevented him from seeking shelter in. In response to Gauntlett's death, a group of squatters set up the Is Mike Weatherley Dead Yet? website, an honour previously bestowed only to Margaret Thatcher.
But earning the hatred of his foes hasn’t satisfied Mike. Since the ban, he has been busily trying to banish squatting not only from empty houses, but also from disused offices and warehouses, tabling an Early Day Motion to ban squatting in commercial spaces.
In March, he made a statement, saying, “A typical squatter is middle-class, web-savvy, legally-minded, university-educated and, most importantly, society-hating. They are very often extremely intimidating and violent. They are political extremists whose vision for society is a dysfunctional medieval wasteland without property rights, where an Englishman’s home is no longer his castle.”
In case it hasn't quite sunk in, this is a man who seems to really, really hate squatters.
So why then do I have a print out of a letter on my desk signed by Mike, and dated the 24th of April, 2013, that praises a group of people who occupied a building by squatting for making “a positive contribution to the community”?
The letter is addressed to a councillor at Tower Hamlets Council. In it, Mike suggests that the council should allow one of their disused buildings to be used by Suspenses – an art collective that perform, throw parties and live in squatted spaces. “By way of background,” he writes, “I personally visited the 491 Gallery [the name of a former squat] in Leytonstone, East London, to see for myself their work in turning a disused factory into a thriving community hub, where valuable facilities and services were offered to people in need. I have no doubt that the building was a positive contribution to the community and helped to ensure that it did not deteriorate into becoming a local hazard.”
He signs off, “At all times, I found the members of the collective positive and engaging, as did the members of the local community that I was able to talk to during my visit. I hope you find this helpful.”
Are these really the words of the guy who described squatters as “society hating”? Can people be simultaneously “positive and engaging” and “extremely intimidating and violent”?
Mike getting chased from the Sussex University campus late last year.
It's important to note at this point that not every member of Suspenses self-identifies as a "squatter". The group is keen to shake off the negative connotations of the label, and have tried to broker "mutually beneficial" deals with landlords wherever they go. Nevertheless, from a legal standpoint, their method of entering buildings and then approaching landlords afterwards is clearly what you would call squatting. The 491 Gallery was originally occupied in a method that constitutes squatting and members of Suspenses have gone on to squat other properties – including a pub in Plaistow and a commercial property in Stepney Green. Their subsequent eviction from these properties would seem to indicate that they're not welcome in the eyes of landlords. At the very least, they're seeking to exploit – and the founders of the 491 Gallery did exploit – the grey area in property ownership and occupation that Mike Weatherley is trying to eradicate with his anti-squatting legislation.
Bizarrely, the letter I received came about after Mike visited the building as part of the ITV documentary, Madeley Meets the Squatters, in which Richard Madeley – he of Richard and Judy fame – met some squatters. It seems that, in some footage that never made it to air, Mike and Richard visited the 491 Gallery.
As Gee, a member of the Suspenses collective who lived in the 491 Gallery and helped set up the shoot, told me, when Mike came round, “We had gardening going on, events in the main room, other things going on – we gave him the tour. We had had a long conversation and he had gone for all angles, but he could only argue so much. He agreed that we did good work and he said that we had provided good evidence of that. So I said, ‘If we were under threat, you would think that we should be saved, wouldn’t you?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ So I said, ‘We are under threat. Our landlords are coming. Will you help us?’ And he said he would.
"Richard Madeley was like, ‘Hold on, hold on!’”
It seems that, in the coercively pleasant atmosphere of the squat, Mike found his squatter hate untenable. (Madeley, for his part, remained even-handed throughout the documentary and though the footage never made the final cut of Madely Meets the Squatters, there's no suggestion that this is because there was any desire on his or ITV's part to paint squatters in a negative light.)
A few months on, with the gallery closed, the Suspenses collective asked Mike to make good on his promise, and he delivered in the form of the letter.
A heartening tale, right? An anti-squatting politician is confronted with a more complex reality of squatting than the one he previously thought existed, and – seeing the error of his ways – he pledges to help a group of squatters to continue doing a good thing. And then, in defiance of regular MP etiquette, he doesn’t renege on his promise as soon as he's back in Westminster.
However, if Mike could see that not all squatters were the monsters he assumed them to be, why did he continue hating on them – securing the residential squatting ban not long after visiting the 491 Gallery and then campaigning for a ban on commercial squatting?
I phoned him up to ask and was put through to a spokesperson, who confirmed that a copy of the letter I have in my possession was sent to Tower Hamlets council from Mike Weatherley's office. They also said, “The crucial aspect is that they were there with the permission of the landlord. They [the people Mike endorsed] were definitely different people who were there from the people originally squatting there. The original squatters were consuming drugs and stuff like that on the site, and were kicked out by the landlords. And then, with permission, the new group were there and that’s why Mike endorsed it. They were paying a consideration of, I think, a pound a year. It was definitely a different group. They weren’t squatters. It was more of a community centre.”
The problem with that is the group definitely are squatters, in my view. In fact, since the 491 Gallery closed down members of Suspenses have been evicted from several squatted buildings and thrown a massive squat party – "A Kinky, Arty, Dancey Party!" – that, bizarrely, Mike chose not to turn up to.
I spoke to Rob Voodoo, the founder of the 491 Gallery, about the origins of the Leytonstone squat.
“There were your classic Euro-dreadlock guys in a small part of the property taking hard drugs, who were evicted by the landlord,” he confirms, but adds that – separately – the crew that built the 491 gallery didn’t announce their presence to the landlord for about two years. Which sounds a lot like squatting to me.
Following that, there was a sort of vague, tacit acknowledgement of their presence by the main landlord of the property. Then, in 2005, the occupiers were offered a lease, which they declined. After that, the place lasted another seven years. The one pound a year rent was paid for just one part of the building and to only one of the four landlords who owned different properties in the sprawling complex.
Basically, it was the kind of legally ambiguous situation that often arises from squatting a load of derelict buildings – exactly the kind of grey area that Mike is trying to banish forever.
Rob reckons that the place would have never got off the ground if squatting in commercial buildings was illegal. “We were operating inside the law, in terms of squatting,” he says, referring to a time before "Weatherley's Law" was in place. “So we had the opportunity to start something, which turned out to be this long project. We wouldn’t have done it in the first place if it was criminal, so it would cut down on things like that ever happening again, which would be bad, really. I don’t really understand how he imagines stuff like that could still happen if he criminalises it. There’s a definite contradiction there.”
For Gee, the law is key. “I felt like I’d won the argument and proved the point," he told me. "So it had to mean more than saving that one place. There needs to be more of these places opening up. It can’t just be one man’s promise to a bunch of people – [being able to squat in commercial properties] needs to become law.”
Which brings us back to Mike’s spokesperson’s comment: “They weren’t squatters. It was more of a community centre.”
That statement gets directly to the heart of the issue. The implication that all squatters are destructive vandals who are incapable of contributing to society is exactly the kind of stereotyping that Mike has used to push his bans through Parliament. The reality is far more messy. To many, it will be clear that the group at 491 were squatters and this was a community centre, run by the exact same people who Mike would usually describe as, “bone idle layabouts”.
Follow Simon on Twitter: @simonchilds13
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