Laurie Penny: This spiteful new law against squatting must be stopped

When thousands of people squatted in London after the Second World War, they were lauded as heroes

Monday 27 June 2011 00:00 BST

They are vandals. They are hooligans. They are destroying local communities and turfing decent people out of their homes. But enough about the Conservatives – let's talk about squatters, who are set to be criminalised under proposals announced last week by David Cameron.

To say that squatting has a bad reputation in Britain these days is rather like saying that Prince Philip is occasionally racially insensitive – it's true, but it doesn't do justice to the enormity of incomprehension involved. Most people who live legally in abandoned or unused buildings are not hoodie-wearing trustafarian thugs, but ordinary citizens, parents and children, who happen, like hundreds of thousands of others, to be too young or too poor to afford safe homes of their own.

In the language of the right-wing press, however, the individuals and families who do this are a "scourge", a species of vermin infecting the dead investment spaces of speculators and the landed elite. The very word "squatting" suggests crouching in a corner to do something unspeakable.

In fact, the real profanity is that almost a million properties are standing empty in England and Wales, while millions of impoverished people have nowhere safe to live. Britain has a housing crisis, and the scale of that crisis makes squatting a practical, sensible option for many desperate people. There are currently half a million homeless people in this country, and another 500,000 who are "precariously housed" – sleeping on friends' sofas, living in temporary accommodation. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of properties are standing entirely empty in London alone, patrolled by security guards, waiting for their value to increase when the market picks up again.

In these circumstances, squatting is starting to look like a principled response to the moral bankruptcy of contemporary housing inequality, as well as the smart option for homeless people with nowhere else to go. There are currently 15,000 squatters in England and Wales – the law is different in Scotland – and as the cuts come in, that number is likely to rise.

The prospect of a wave of squats and occupations poses two problems for this Government. When thousands of people squatted in London after the Second World War, they were lauded as heroes, bravely responding to the housing shortages created by the Blitz. But when housing shortages are the direct result of bungled forward planning and ideological austerity measures, the presence of squatters is an embarrassment. More importantly, Britain has a long tradition of occupation and squatting as a form of political resistance, dating back to the Diggers and Levellers of the 1640s, and continuing through contemporary university and workplace occupations.

If it comes into force, the new law will make criminals of students who occupy their universities, of outraged citizens who occupy their council buildings, of striking employees who occupy their places of work. Taking over an empty building and using it to set up a family home or a community garden is itself a political statement, but it is the more overtly political occupations which the Government is keen to do away with. Occupations like the Deptford anti-cuts space, where activists took over a disused Job Centre and used it to train locals to fight the cuts.

The occupation of private property by the poor and outraged is a matter of principle, as well as a practical response to hardship. If we believe that it is unfair for the wealthy to buy up empty buildings while millions of people squeeze through their lives in narrow, crumbling council blocks, in hostels or on the streets; if we believe that ordinary people should not be criminalised for protesting peacefully against Government-imposed austerity, then it is up to all of us to stop this spiteful new law in its tracks.

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