There has been a housing shortage in Britain since the end of WWII. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the shortage was so acute, that ex-servicemen and their families took to occupying empty buildings. In 1969, the London Street Commune occupied a mansion at 144 Piccadilly to draw attention to the housing shortage. But the idea of squatting has a much older history, that goes back to the Peasants Revolt in 1381. The Diggers, who were a proto-socialists/anarchists active between 1649 and 1650, also occupied and cultivated waste and common land and encouraged others to pull down the enclosures. But they found themselves persecuted by landowners and many were imprisoned. In the aftermath, the enclosure of common land was accelerated by the passage of further Inclosure Acts, which, by the late 18th Century, had effectively wiped out most of the common land in the country, thus forcing people off the land and into the cities.
British property laws are some of the most arcane in the world and tend to favour the landowner and other moneyed interests. In short, they are a relic of feudalism and, to my knowledge, these property laws have never once been modified. Where else in the world would you find the archaic notion of a leasehold property? We now have shared-ownership schemes which seem to be an extension of the leasehold property but with one difference: you continue to pay rent to a landlord, thus meaning that you will never own the property even if you manage to pay off the mortgage.
This government, like those before it, rather than deal with the housing crisis, prefers to take a sledgehammer to crack a nut and in the process they make people suffer. The new law against squatting criminalizes those who do not have a roof over their head. The Tories, particularly, see squatters purely as criminals. Never mind that rents in the private sector have soared, with landlords raking in massive amounts of money while ignoring the condition of the buildings that they’re letting out. Council waiting lists are huge and Housing Associations won’t take you unless you’ve been through a local authority first. In short, housing provision in Britain is limited to those who have large salaries and if you don’t have one of those, you’re stuck.
Housing Minister, Grant Shapps, a man not blessed with a great deal of intellectual talent (like the rest of his party) said on the BBC Website,
For too long, hardworking people have faced long legal battles to get their homes back from squatters, and repair bills reaching into the thousands when they finally leave.
No longer will there be so-called ‘squatters’ rights’. Instead, from next week, we’re tipping the scales of justice back in favour of the homeowner and making the law crystal clear: entering a property with the intention of squatting will be a criminal offence.
Shapps falls back on the well-worn phrase “hardworking people”. It’s as if to suggest that those who squat are not “hardworking”. He uses the word like a magical incantation. In many cases, squatters have actually improved the buildings that they have occupied. But never let the facts get in the way of the narrative, eh Ratboy? Better to fill up our prisons with those whose only crime is to be homeless and then slap them with a £5000 fine, thereby forcing them deeper into penury.
The government continues to lie about the scale of the housing problem. Justice Minister, Crispin Blunt (another rhyming slang) said,
Justice Minister Crispin Blunt said homelessness was at the lowest level for 28 years and the government was spending £400m a year on homelessness and £164m on bringing about 10,000 empty homes back into use.
I’d be interested to know who Blunt arrived at this figure. Furthermore, I have seen no evidence that this government is bringing empty properties “back into use”. I used to know of such a property in Hubert Grove in Clapham North in London. Out of curiosity I decided to track down the landlord, who I discovered was living in Tooting and owned several properties, all of which were in a derelict state. Landlords such as these are the real criminals.
Property in this country has always been subject to civil law. Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act comes into force at midnight, making it an offence to break into a property with the intention of squatting. Nowhere Towers wonders what other civil laws the government wants to convert to criminal laws.
There’s a sympathetic article here by Robert Elms, who was once a squatter. Indeed, I too, have been a squatter and let me tell you, it’s no fun being homeless.