In June this year the Communities and Local Government Department reported that 44,160 households were accepted as homeless last year — a rise of 10% on the previous year. In the meantime the Empty Homes Agency estimates that between 500,000 and 725,000 buildings are empty in the UK, enough to house around 1.8 million people.
Rather creating secure, good quality and affordable housing, the government is criminalising squatting. A government consultation has outlined plans that “could make squatting a criminal offence for the first time and abolish so-called ‘squatters’ rights’ which currently prevent rightful commercial property owners from using force to break back in.”
Squatters for Secure Housing (SQUASH) was set up in the 1990s in opposition to Tory attempts to criminalise squatting and has been formed again in response to these proposals. Reuben Taylor from SQUASH told me that the campaign’s “objective is to prevent the criminalisation of squatting [which is a] criminalisation of homeless people... Over the coming months, with cuts to housing benefits and job losses, we’ll see more and more people without secure housing... To criminalise the victims of the housing crisis is inappropriate.”
The campaign also seeks to address some of the myths around squatting. Reports, notably in the Evening Standard, that push for the criminalisation of squatting, point to examples of people who have been shut out of their homes by squatters. Reuben informed me that “[t]he current fear is that you go out for a pint of milk and squatters move in. The law fully protects home owners. It’s a criminal offence to squat the house that someone lives in. These stories are misrepresentations.”
As an article on the SQUASH website points out the change in law “is about the squatting of... unoccupied [property] or without an intended occupier. The proposal isn’t even about ‘squatting’ per se. The proposal is nothing less than to criminalise trespass.”
Reuben and SQUASH argue that the changes could also impact badly on vulnerable tenants. “Some forms of [the government] proposals will impact on tenancy rights...[I]f a landlord wants to get rid of a ‘problematic’ tenant and they go to the police and say this tenant is a squatter; the police have to make a decision on the doorstep about whether the person in the building is a squatter or a tenant.” The police force, an organisation which first and foremost protects private property, is unlikely to take the side of so-called “problematic” tenants.
The criminalisation of trespass will affect workplace and university occupations, an invaluable tactic for organised protest and opposition to the right of owners, managers and bosses to do whatever they want. Occupiers could be evicted forcibly by the police immediately after they refuse to leave an occupation.
The Tories have paid lip service to the idea that the right to protest should be maintained, suggesting that there could be a clause in any new law to provide for protests but this falls down on two counts. As Reuben says “lots of squatters consider what they do to be a form of protest, so what do we do? Only the political squatters can squat and people who squat because they’re homeless are criminal? It’ll be hard to see how they frame these proposals in a way that doesn’t impact on occupations.”
We have already seen the government defending the police force’s right to charge school children with horses and batons and making veiled threats to strengthen the anti-union laws. This is not a government which is concerned with defending our right to protest.
An article on the SQUASH website accepts that “the scale of [the housing crisis] is enormous and we do not suggest that squatting can somehow resolve these problems”, further arguing that “the idea of criminalising the people trying to cope with these top-down changes in access to housing, is grossly unfair and will undoubtedly further exacerbate problems of homelessness.”
However, another article contradictorily argues that “squatting is more than just a critique of inadequate housing; indeed, if the aims of the movement were simply in better housing provision it would be much more susceptible to state tactics of integration and co-option. The problem for the government is that squatting is more radical than this: inherent in its actual practice is the contesting of private property rights.”
True, squatting, just like any other occupation, calls in to immediate question the rights of an individual capitalist to do what they want with their property. However, on its own squatting cannot be an effective political challenge on the issue of housing.
The rationale is that by posing an alternative housing strategy squatting can set an example for others to follow. However, when squatting people are often forced into sub-standard housing, variously without water (heated or otherwise), electricity or gas and without long-term stability. This cannot be the level of housing that we stand for.
The only solution is good quality affordable housing for all, and the construction of new and renovated publicly-owned housing.
When I asked Reuben about demands for good quality housing for all she argued that “of course part of our campaign is that there is a complete lack of affordable housing... At the same time we don’t believe this government or any government will be able to provide this social housing.” This refusal to place demands on the state for more social housing doesn’t sit logically alongside the demand placed on the state not to criminalise squatting.
We need a labour movement campaign for adequate social housing. The trade union leaders must be forced to use their votes and their strength in the Labour Party to push forward a whole raft of proposals including on housing. Such a campaign and such a Labour Party is not likely to spring up any time soon, but if the only way to deal with the housing crisis is to build more social housing then this is a demand that cannot be avoided.
Reservations aside, socialists and trade unionists should SQUASH’s campaign. Eviction resistances and squats should be supported in our communities.
We must make the case for defending tenants in rent arrears, fighting for affordable housing as a basic right and ultimately for the abolition of the whole rent and property system.
• More: www.squashcampaign.org and @squash_campaign on Twitter