The squat and the plot: Is this the end for the biggest squat in Europe? The law says everybody on the street by Christmas, but the residents have a plan. Sandra Barwick reports

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'The question is,' said Gavin Fothergill to those gathered at Tuesday night's meeting, 'have we still got enough spirit to carry on?' There was silence in the room. A young man entered in dark cap and long coat, like a figure from the Russian revolution. He struck a match and the light flared briefly on his unshaven cheeks and characteristically upturned collar. Revolutionaries and bohemians have, down the centuries, suffered from the cold. The most successful of them have also been, characteristically, middle class.

This is famously true of the collective in Rutland Park Mansions, the shambling Victorian flats in north-west London that are said to be Europe's largest squat. Many began their squatting days as students, and are now professionals with good jobs. One flat has been featured in the Daily Telegraph as an example of bourgeois squatter chic.

A single bulb shone over the heads of 20 or so gathered together, a frosted wind blew through the gaps in the windows. A candle guttered on the long table. 'You've only got a few days to get your plan out,' said a voice from the top of the table. 'People out there are sharpening their knives and getting their sledgehammers ready.'

The end seems nigh for the famous squatters of Willesden Green, after nine years of occupation. In the early Eighties, when young people first began to occupy the 42 four-bedroomed flats, they were empty. Brent Council was seeking, and failing, to win funds for their renewal as council homes. In the interval, the gutters and drains were left to block and rust. Now Brent is about to throw out its squatters to exercise a new plan to sell the block to Paddington Churches Housing Association for partial demolition and reworking into 72 two-bedroomed flats for council and housing association tenants. The borough wants the squatters out before 31 December, which probably means before Christmas. Some may spend a truly Dickensian Yuletide out in the snow.

Gavin Fothergill, who works full time on the campaign, has two degrees and was made redundant this year from a computer company. He has a mortgaged house, which he lets, he says, as his only way to avoid repossession and bankruptcy. Not all the squatters are middle-class graduates. There is a single mother and her child, and a few with mental disorders whom the council would probably have to rehouse. About half those living in the high-ceilinged rooms are thought to be single unemployed, and some could end up on the streets.

In a room across the corridor from the meeting, lying on a single mattress which the second-hand shop opposite had given her, was Karen, a Big Issue seller, a gently spoken Canadian woman. She said she had lost her job and spent two nights at Victoria station before she became a magazine seller to cover hostel fees. 'But I got sick and couldn't go selling every day. I was running out of money when someone told me about the squat. Not having to pay rent here has freed my time, and I've been applying for secretarial work.' In between job searching and magazine selling Karen is helping in the campaign's office to publicise the Rutland Park Mansions community plan.

The plan the highly intelligent and articulate commune has produced is to keep the mansion blocks, which are the highlight of a conservation area, entirely intact. They want to use the skills of the squatters - some of whom are qualified tradesmen - to renovate them. Empty flats would be filled mainly by the single homeless now sleeping rough, as referred by agencies. Under this scheme, leases would be given in return for a mixture of working time and rent - an idea based on a proposal for better use of council property made last June by Hartley Booth, Conservative MP for Finchley, in a booklet called Into The Voids. Among many delightful ironies on view at Rutland Park Mansions is the sight of Ken Livingstone giving his enthusiastic support to a plan originating with the right-wing Adam Smith Institute.

'Our plan,' says Gavin Fothergill, 'would mean just as many rooms going to the homeless as the council's plan. But with us the whole building would be saved. And it would be cheaper.' Conservative-run Brent Council disagrees. Its estimate of how much it would cost to restore the mansions is pounds 2.9m. Architects and structural engineers called in by the collective have estimated the cost at pounds 1m less.

The council's view is that the squatters are occupying space which could go to the homeless. They say those who live there now who are eligible for public housing will be rehoused. Other critics of the squatters have said Rutland Park Mansions is an unofficial free hotel for young antipodeans on their world tours. There is some truth in this latter point. The door in one of the lower flats is opened by a young woman called Helen, who says she is from New Zealand. 'I bumped into a Kiwi guy at Athens airport,' she says, 'and he said, come and stay at the mansions for a couple of days] It's great, because I was running out of cash.'

In another room a bearded South African was eating noodles from a saucepan, an old patchwork quilt pinned to the window behind him. His name, he said, was Seamus. 'I'm a self-supporting leather-worker,' he said. It was true. In his bedroom he had set up a bench, and a beautifully worked bag lay nearby. 'I want to stay,' he said. 'I find this my ideal community environment.' On the wall above the gas fire some words from a song were scrawled in an educated hand. 'Why must I feel like that? Why must I chase the cat?'

He and Duncan Smith, a New Zealand science graduate, had just been doing some plastering in the hall. Asked if he didn't feel he was keeping accommodation from the more needy, he replied: 'Why don't they give empty houses in London to the poor? If anyone needs a roof over their heads I'm happy to share my room.'

'The council says we're keeping homes from the homeless,' said Gavin Fothergill. 'But if they'd wanted to put council tenants in our flats they could have got any of us out at any time. And though we've lived rent free, we wanted to pay rent. They wouldn't let us.'

Inside the meeting room the talk had turned back to the campaign. 'Pete from the Rainbow People is coming tomorrow,' said Richard Carlyon, writer and activist, who had called by to give advice. The door opened and Gavin's mother, Raga Woods, Twyford Downs campaiger and founder of Gingerbread, the support network for single parents, entered the room, wearing a black hat and long black coat. She warmed her fingers by the gas fire. The meeting went on in its highly organised fashion. 'Is the stairwell rep here for Block C?' demanded Morag, the chairperson. The squatters' meetings are arguably better run, more coherently argued and vastly saner than many of those of Brent Council under either Labour or Conservative control. Three sheets were unrolled, stitched together for another campaign by Raga Woods. The banner stretched for at least 20 feet. On it the group decided to spray the slogan 'Brent's Plan Wastes Homes, Wastes Money, Wastes People.'

The dimly lit meeting room, which seemed, a trifle worryingly, to have been created by knocking through a load-bearing wall, emptied. Through the frosty air the moon shone down upon the half-boarded windows and decaying stonework, and on Rutland Park Mansions' last stand.

(Photographs omitted)

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