We are used to the poor being absent, invisible from debates, taught by long years of austerity measures and the steady drip of hate from sections of the media to be embarrassed about their poverty and to be silent. We have all been trained, over recent decades, to accept neoliberalism and globalisation not simply as the dominant paradigm, but as the only paradigm. Accompanying this has been the steady erosion of thinking of the welfare state as a means of levelling inequalities and promoting egalitarianism, instead we have become used to contemporary debates being framed via mid-Victorian understandings of poverty. Political discourse, then as now, places the emphasis on an individual’s own failings and behaviour, and away from any acknowledgement of the broader structural factors which form the backdrop to our decisions, actions and choices. And yet we need to remember that it has not always been like this, and nor is it always like this now.
It would be wrong to argue that squatting has become marginalised and vilified in recent years – it has always been marginalised and vilified by some sections of society – but the recent change in the law criminalising squatting residential property has made squatting more difficult than ever. This has occurred within a context of nearly four decades of attacks on various forms of direct action and domestic disobedience. The combined effect of the collapse of the labour movement since the 1980s and the increasing criminalisation of civil resistance from the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act onwards has corroded and removed the structures of established forms of opposition. When taken together with the ever-expanding surveillance of everyday life by the state and private companies the message is clear: opposition to government policy and the actions of corporations is acceptable, but resisting and engaging in more direct action if and when your voice is not heard, is criminal. Dissent has been delegitimised. Squatting is often singled out for particular ire: moving into empty houses sees squatters blamed for ‘queue jumping’ and taking homes away from ‘hard working families’; and occupying luxury flats in Mayfair is dismissed as trouble-making by ideologues.
Consequently, the recent rash of positive publicity received by the Focus E15 Mothers who have squatted a succession of properties in the east London borough of Newham is on the face of it surprising. These women, from one of the groups long-categorised as the ‘undeserving poor’ – unmarried, homeless, with children – have had the temerity to stand up to the state and tell it that the way they have been treated, and the way others are treated, is simply not acceptable.
So how can we explain this vocal support – not just from Russell Brand, and expected quarters such as the Fire Brigades Union and Big Issue, but also from mainstream, and even right-leaning media like The Telegraph? In short, their predicament has come to epitomise what has finally been acknowledged as London’s severe housing crisis. The women’s personal road to opening squats on the Carpenters Estate began when they were served eviction notices from the purpose-built hostel for young people in Stratford – Focus E15 – where they and their children were temporarily housed. This hostel has been turned into luxury flats, and left them with the option of being ‘decanted’ to cheaper areas around the country, hundreds of miles away from their family, friends, support networks and each other. Rather than accepting this option, they began to protest, first through weekly street stalls and petitions, and then through more visible means, including demonstrations and occupying empty buildings. Although Newham agreed to keep them in the borough, this was not through secure social housing, but rather short-term, poor quality private accommodation. Refusing to accept that insecure housing provided by private landlords was an acceptable solution, Focus E15 broadened their campaign to demand decent, secure, genuinely affordable housing for all people who needed it in the borough and beyond. Their occupation of houses on the Carpenter Estate has highlighted the irrationality of a council housing policy driven by profit alone. The 800-house estate is in the shadow of the 2012 Olympic stadium and village, surrounded by blocks of luxury flats which the council had in effect subsidised for private developers. The estate had been gradually emptied so that the land could be sold off – while protests from local residents have ensured that so far all deals have collapsed, the result had been to render the estate largely empty. Focus E15 has shown that although a lack of housing supply plays a key role in Britain’s current housing crisis, it is also the product of the hugely unequal distribution of property.
None of this is without precedent: current banners from the Focus E15 occupation read, ‘These Homes Need People’, while those from the squatting movement of forty years ago declared, ‘London belongs to the Millions, not to the Millionaires’. Nick Wates wrote in 1980, reflecting on the wave of squatting that occurred in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, a ‘lack of adequate housing, combined with the existence of empty property, is the essential condition for squatting’. This simple analysis underscores a basic truth, that while there may be some people who squat for ideological reasons, the on-going driving force for the thousands of people who have squatted has been the lack of any other viable choice of a place to live. One squatter from the early 1970s put it clearly: ”I’m not squatting to publicise the problems of the homeless people – I am homeless. I’m not squatting because I think that if enough people do it capitalism would collapse – it won’t. I’m squatting because I can’t afford, on my wages, to pay rent without living pretty close to poverty. In short, there’s nothing revolutionary about my squatting’’.
Squatting, time and again, has revealed how the combination of inadequate housing and empty properties have been ever-present in contemporary Britain. The immediate aftermath of World War II saw an estimated shortfall of 2.1 million homes, the demobilisation of troops and continuing austerity measures, which meant that the hopes of the new Labour government would not be translated into bricks and mortar for many years. Faced with waiting years on the council list, and often living in over-crowded slum accommodation, some people took matters into their own hands. In part inspired by the actions of the Brighton anarchist Vigilantes, but also using their own initiative at the sight of so many military bases now standing empty, people started occupying them, singly and in groups. On 8 May 1946 a cinema projectionist, his wife and four children, moving to Scunthorpe for his new job and unable to find accommodation, took over the officers’ mess of an abandoned anti-aircraft gunsite. Two months later, twenty families joined them in the camp, while over the summer ex-military camps across the country were taken over in a similar manner. Despite criticisms of queue-jumping and anarchy, there were also sympathy for their actions, leading the Daily Mail to comment on the squatters’ ‘robust common sense…[in taking] matters quietly but firmly into their own hands’. After this wave of success and support, the movement quickly fizzled out: in some cases legitimised by councils, provided with services and a form of tenancy, the squatters were able to stay; in other cases they were hounded out by police, vicious tactics, or simply by the fierce winter of 1946-7.
While the building programme of the 1950s went some way to cutting into the housing shortage, waiting lists remained long, and London in particular continued to experience severe shortages. The screening of Cathy Come Home (1966) and the subsequent formation of Shelter made it clear that the welfare state had neither eradicated poverty, nor homelessness. A new wave of squatting began in November 1968 with the symbolic occupation of a block of half-empty luxury flats, but driving the thousands of occupations over the following years was the very real needs of individuals and families unable to find secure accommodation. The success of groups such as the Family Squatting Association wrung concessions from local authorities, including having short life properties turned over to them to manage on the council’s behalf. Squatting also fed into the renewed enthusiasm for housing co-ops, as signalled by the 1974 Labour Government’s Housing Act, with at least 50 squatter groups registering themselves under it as permanent housing co-operatives.
The successes and divisions of all these squatting movements often hinged and hinges around that long-standing concept of the ‘deserving poor’, or those in ‘genuine need’. Gypsy Travellers moving on to the squatted camps in 1946 were seen as distinct from ‘genuine squatters’. Post-1968 squatters squatters were divided into ‘families’ (deserving) and ‘communards’ (those squatting for ‘lifestyle’ reasons). Many of the concessions wrung from councils in the 1970s were on the basis of the need to house families and the vulnerable: the passing of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 placed legal obligations on councils to house certain (deserving) groups, such as families and the elderly. The E15 mothers, often described as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘victims’, are seen as deserving – would their actions be as sympathetically reported if they were single, childless men? Strategically, of course, it is a sensible way to play a battle – making the case for housing the vulnerable, particularly when set against the prospect of yet more luxury flats, is easy, but it potentially loses the wider war that needs to be waged against the systemic causes of homelessness and the grossly unequal distribution of property in Britain. This is, of course, why those in authority seek to create such arbitrary categories.
Squatting across the decades has sent a powerful message from the powerless, that ordinary people are no longer willing to have their needs put behind the rights of property owners. To understand the full power of their argument – that squatting reveals the on-going and engrained inequalities of Britain’s system of property ownership and access to housing – we need to also accept their fundamental premise, that everyone – the old, the young, men and women, Gypsy Travellers, recent migrants, established residents – has a right to a home. In the present political climate, where suspicion of others is peddled in place of analysis, such calls for solidarity are radical indeed.
Becky Taylor is a social historian, based at Birkbeck College, where she researches and writes on different aspects of the relationship between minorities and wider society. Her interest is not only on the groups which are the focus of her research – Gypsies and Travellers, refugees, ‘problem families’, ‘the poor’, and migrants – but on how society’s responses to them sheds as much, if not more, light on mainstream society as it does about the groups concerned.