Squatters are back, and upwardly mobile

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The Independent Online

They're teachers, builders, IT experts and artists. They clean up after themselves, hold down successful full-time jobs and get on well with their neighbours. Welcome to the new generation of spruced-up squatters.

They're teachers, builders, IT experts and artists. They clean up after themselves, hold down successful full-time jobs and get on well with their neighbours. Welcome to the new generation of spruced-up squatters.

After two decades of decline, new figures show the number of people living in squats in England and Wales has risen by 60 per cent since 1995. The Advisory Service for Squatters, a voluntary group, estimates that there are now 15,000 people living in squats, compared with 9,500 eight years ago.

But there is a marked difference between these illegal occupants and their celebrated 1970s forbears. A generation ago, squatting was more about political comment and social credibility than financial necessity or the concerns of the local community. At its height in the 1970s, the total number of squatters in this country was estimated at over 50,000.

A 200-man policeraid on 144 Piccadilly in central London in 1969 brought the movement to the attention of the world - and celebrities such as Richard Branson, Bob Geldof and Sting.

The new generation of squatters seem less politicised than its predecessors, with the recent increase in numbers driven more by exorbitant house prices than social concerns. The growth has been particularly pronounced in large commercial properties such as disused factories, offices and cinemas.

Jim Paton, a spokesman for the Advisory Service, said the growth in squatting showed no sign of relenting. "In the last 18 months we have been busier than ever. People appear to be getting evicted from their homes much more frequently and turning to squatting."

Squatting was dealt a heavy blow by the Criminal Justice Act of 1994, with the introduction of anti-squatting laws, by the then Home Secretary, Michael Howard, who said: "There can be no excuse for seizing someone else's property for however short a time."

But from the nadir of 1995, squatters are returning in droves, undeterred by the legislation and spurred by romantic notions of communal living on the cheap.

Today's squatters, 80 per cent of whom live in the capital, bear little resemblance to the public conception of their lifestyle. "Today's squatters are highly organised and efficient," said Mr Paton. "Many have full-time work, and drug problems are rare."

The illegal occupants of the 21st century are not only more cultured and community minded, they also appear more ambitious in terms of location. Last December a woman won the right to live in a £1m mews flat in South Kensington because she had squatted there for so long.

At a large squat in Leytonstone, east London, last week the mood was upbeat and cheerful. The 16 occupants who moved in just over a year ago have transformed an old warehouse near the M11 into a clean, attractive home. Many of those who live here are artists, and the newly whitewashed rooms now display lively paintings and sculptures. The garden, once piled high with rubbish, is now a carefully cultivated oasis of greenery, and there is a small recording studio and cinema.

Doug King-Smith a 26-year-old anthropologist and "art activist" explained the lifestyle. "We're socially conscious squatters. We aim to transform empty derelict spaces into vibrant community resources, offering workshops and studio space as well as living areas."

Another resident, artist Gregory Scott-Gurner, 28, said: "Our aim is not just to squat temporarily in other people's properties and then move on. We live instead as an organised and democratic group who have a clear vision. We are a bridge between the old underworld type of squatting and the authorities.

"We are not striving to always work against the system," he said. "We are a fundamental part of this community."

Mr Scott-Gurner and his friends claim they have been a force for good in the area - even bringing down crime levels. "Before, all you could see were rats and rubbish," he said. "Now, when the children walk by, they see art."

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