Who wins in squatland?

I squatted in London for nine months and can honestly say the shelter it provided saved my life
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The Independent Culture
HOW MANY hard-working British people can count themselves the outright owners of pounds 200,000 houses by the time they are 38? Figures are not available, but it must surely be a tiny proportion of the population. That this tiny proportion includes Timothy Ellis, unemployed, who has already lived rent-free in a covetable double-fronted Victorian house for 16 years, must seem pretty galling to most citizens.

The fact that he was given pounds 10,000 in legal aid to mount his ownership bid adds insult to injury.

Lambeth Council is equally reprehensible in refusing to shoulder the blame for this inexcusable debacle. The council, led by the high-profile chief executive, Heather Rabbatts, claims that this is all the fault of the previous council, led by the notorious Ted Knight - which for some time provided a council seat for that scourge of old Labour, Peter Mandelson.

While this is true, what Lambeth Council is now saying doesn't entirely add up. Although it claims that records of the council's ownership of the house in question had "disappeared" during the changeover to computerised records, the fact is that the new administration made a half-hearted attempt to remove Ellis in 1993, a year before Rabbatts took over, and two years prior to achievement of the magical 12-year occupancy period that gave Ellis the right to claim ownership. Another unsuccessful attempt to reclaim the property was then made in 1997.

The truth is that Lambeth is still tremendously inefficient, and must take responsibility for its own mistakes, instead of forever blaming the legacy of the past.

Two years ago, for example, I moved to another home in Lambeth, wrote to the council explaining my new situation, and requested that I start paying council tax from my new address.

Though I started paying immediately, I was disgusted to discover more than a year later that the council had also been sending demands to me at my old address, while the new owner of the flat had been paying no council tax at all. What has Ted Knight got to do with this piece of gross inefficiency?

Nothing whatever.

Not that this excuses Mr Ellis. Most squatters - such as the ones on Ellingfort Street and London Lane in Hackney, who have been tainted by association in recent news stories connecting the two cases - simply wish to be treated fairly, to be recognised as tenants and to pay rent. Ellis, though, has exploited a loophole in the law for his own unfair advantage, and now this house, unless Lambeth manages to win its appeal, will pass into private ownership. Meanwhile this law, section 15 of the 1980 Limitation Act, which exists to protect people in quite different circumstances to Ellis's, is likely to be closed, and other people will suffer for his selfish act.

The Hackney residents, on the other hand, are behaving with social responsibility and working with various authorities to reclaim run-down properties, which will continue to provide much-needed and affordable homes.

While the occupants of two of the 22 houses are going down Ellis's route, and attempting to claim ownership, the rest will join the Network Housing Association, which has a long history of positive political action of the type that many squatters have undertaken in the past.

Hackney Council is to be congratulated for its pro-active approach. I still find it a great pity that such a deal could not have been made with Southwark Council - which has as poor a record on housing as Lambeth - over the running of the Bethal Estate, which was demolished 13 years ago.

I squatted there for about nine months during the mid-Eighties when I first moved to London, and can honestly say that the shelter it provided saved my life. I had arrived in London at the behest of Norman Tebbit, who had advised me to get on my bike and look for a job, to find that the room that I had arranged to stay in until I found work had "fallen through".

Because I'd been on the Enterprise Allowance Scheme in Scotland - an early scam by the Tories to reduce the unemployment figures artificially by giving people an income of pounds 2,000 a year so that they could call themselves self-employed - I was unable to sign on for any state benefits and, therefore, found myself homeless and close to destitution. After being told about the estate, three Thirties blocks arranged round a courtyard next to the HMS Belfast, I'd turned up there and found a room.

It's worth mentioning at this point how precarious and frightening my life was then, living under threat of eviction at any time, and trying hard to find a job while eking out my savings and living on a tenner a week. That's why I always find it so darkly amusing when new Labour politicians blast out their "getting tough" rhetoric while discussing their brave recasting of the welfare state. They talk as though the 20 years when Labour was out of power were a time when the country was run by a bunch of anarchists, whose idea of a good time was to raid the Bank of England and stuff banknotes through the letterboxes of the undeserving poor.

Back to the flats, though, which has not been repaired by the council for many years, and had been classified as "hard to let". The council had decided to sell them to developers, and had rehoused most of the tenants.

One of the flats had been rented by nurses at St Thomas' Hospital, though, and they had organised themselves so that as tenants moved out they handed their keys over to other nurses, who squatted in the homes. So there was the Bethal Estate, thronging with squatting health workers enjoying a brief taste of a kind of good life.

We had high hopes that there would be a reprieve for these buildings, which were still sound and could have been renovated to become more than desirable. Instead, we were all called to court for a mass eviction.

One by one, about 50 people - by no means all of the occupants - took the witness stand and declared themselves to be public service workers who had repaired the flats, and only wished to become official tenants. Everyone was evicted, though, to find private accommodation in an area that has seen house prices double since that already-difficult time.

Yesterday morning I returned to the site. It remains empty and has been unused through more than a decade of mounting homelessness in London. Meanwhile, a recent report has confirmed what must be obvious to anyone.

Public sector workers, with nurses at the top of the list, have been priced out of central London, and can no longer find affordable accommodation near to their place of work. While commuting is hardly a fate worse than death, it is obvious that in the event of a major hospital emergency the prospect of nursing staff being called in from the suburbs could be a matter of life or death to the injured.

Meanwhile, the pricing out of low-paid workers in London continues, even though many schemes that could help people with housing problems have been suggested. One of the most sensible comes from the Institute of Housing, which advocates that a mechanism should be set up to help mortgagees threatened with repossession. The institute reckons that they should be allowed to team up with housing associations, to become tenants or part-owners. However, this idea remains ignored; instead, building societies retain the right to sell off these houses at the first opportunity.

The attitude of these corporations is no different to that of Timothy Ellis. To that extent, squatters of his type, who often consider themselves to be living some kind of alternative lifestyle, are no different from the most ruthless of the capitalists they style themselves as despising.

The Hackney squatters, on the other hand, can count themselves as the latest in a long line of people whose direct action, illegal as it may be, is much more fair than the justice Ellis has secured for himself.

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