'It's ironic that the party of enterprise wants to punish us'

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The Independent Online
'THERE used to be a joke, that you had to have at least two degrees to live in this block.' Gavin Fothergill, 31, who fulfils that criterion, is talking about Rutland Park Mansions, a crumbling Victorian apartment building in Willesden Green, north-west London, where he and 150 other squatters live in 41 flats in varying states of disrepair, writes Simon Midgley.

Mr Fothergill, who has a BSc in pharmacology and psychology and an MSc in computers and applied electronics, has lived in apartment 27, a comfortable, well- decorated flat, for three years. Having lost the job he briefly held, he now campaigns full-time for the squatters to be allowed to continue to live in what has become one of Britain's largest squats. Brent council, which owns the block, is trying to evict the squatters, who began taking over the apartments 10 years ago.

'It's ironic that the party of enterprise is attempting to punish those enterprising individuals who are providing homes for themselves and renovating buildings which would otherwise fall into disrepair,' Mr Fothergill says. 'There are probably around 100,000 empty properties in London and about 55,000 squatters. Squatters are not keeping people out of homes, that is a misconception.'

The block, with many windows boarded up or broken, is home to men and women in their 20s and 30s, up to half of whom are unemployed or on income support. Others include students, secretaries, artists and musicians. The address has become a virtual pied-a-terre for visitors from New Zealand and Ireland.

Madeleine McKeon, 26, is from Dublin, unemployed, and has lived for four years in apartment 14, which she shares with three Australians, a New Zealander and another woman from Dublin. She says: 'As long as it is not privately-owned property, it is not harming anybody by occupying empty property which would have otherwise been left to fall down.'

She says of Mr Howard's plans: 'I think it's a bit ridiculous. A lot of people otherwise will be sleeping on the streets. It's costing the Government less by us living here because we are not claiming housing benefit.'

Andrew Lahman, 24, from New Zealand, has squatted in apartment 17 for five months. Of the plan to fine squatters pounds 5,000, Mr Lahman said: 'A lot of squatters don't have any money and will not be able to pay a pounds 5,000 fine. Therefore, you will have a lot of people jailed for six months which means an awful lot of cells and taxpayers' money.'

Mr Fothergill said the Home Secretary was simply offering 'another scapegoat, another whipping boy to blame for the fact that there are not enough houses for people to live in'.

(Photograph omitted)