Criminalising squatting would threaten our rights
Proposals to criminalise squatting would not only exacerbate the housing shortage ? it removes a potent symbol of protest
Alexander Vasudevan from the Guardian
A squatted house in Mayfair, London. Photograph: Graeme Robertson)
The publication of the legal aid, sentencing and punishment bill has been widely reported as another major policy U-turn for the coalition government. Plans for sentencing reform heralded by the justice secretary Ken Clarke in December as a “rehabilitation revolution” have been replaced by a more traditional law and order agenda. “Hug-a-hoody” liberalism has finally morphed fully-formed, so it would seem, into its muscular revanchist doppelganger.
Less remarked in yesterday’s speech by the prime minister outlining the new revised plans was a proposal to criminalise squatting subject to a brief consultation period. The announcement is, in many respects, hardly surprising. The justice secretary had already mooted the idea in March following a series of high-profile squats and the re-emergence of occupation-based practices as a key tactic of a vibrant and growing anti-cuts movement. If this is a move that may plausibly be seen as an attempt to further sanctify the virtues of private property, the impact of the ban on the use of “occupation” as a legitimate tool of protest must also be considered.
As a legal concept, squatting has been traditionally defined as the unauthorised occupation of land or property belonging to someone else. Squatting has a rich and varied history, gaining popular currency in the UK and elsewhere in Europe in the 1960s and 1970s as part of a new urban counterculture. The occupation of empty residential properties in cities was viewed by many as an attempt to create an alternative form of urban living. In more recent years, the legitimacy of squatting in the UK has been challenged. The Land Registration Act of 2002 effectively revised the acquisition of title through adverse possession, while endless stories in the tabloid press served to whip up moral outrage and indignation at perceived “land theft”.
In recent months, it has become increasingly difficult to disentangle such a casual and lazy form of moral indictment with a wider politics of austerity. Sensationalist media hysteria surrounding the practice of squatting has, in other words, simply come to serve as a sanctioning pretext for unnecessary legislation. And yet, the proposal to criminalise squatting would, if anything, exacerbate a growing housing crisis in the UK. Rates of repossession and homelessness are on the rise. There has also been a dramatic increase in rents just as cuts to housing benefits and other frontline services start to bite. While there remains a serious lack of social housing, there are hundreds of thousands of properties that are empty across the country. In this particular context, squatting may be best understood as a necessary coping strategy in the face of an highly uneven and exploitative housing market.
But more than this, as one study has persuasively argued, historical patterns of intensified squatting in the UK can themselves be directly linked to a shortage of affordable housing coupled with a large number of empty properties. The criminalisation of squatting would, in contrast, only magnify what Danny Dorling has already described as a “geography of injustice” and, in so doing, serve to further polarise and fragment our cities forming new and jarring archipelagos of wealth and poverty.
The adverse impact of a criminal ban on squatting cannot be underestimated. It extends far beyond a strict entrenchment of inequality and injustice. The seizure and reclamation of space (temporary or otherwise) has become a key and potent symbol of protest here in the UK, from campus occupations to the playful interventions of groups such as UK Uncut. A criminal ban on squatting could very easily be “retrofitted” in order to police and proscribe the fundamental right to protest. The arrest of 145 activists following the occupation of Fortnum & Mason on 26 March should serve as a portentous warning about the shifting “line in the sand” surrounding criminal trespass.
What is at stake here is the further criminalisation of occupation-based tactics, which could severely limit the ability of vulnerable communities in particular to assert and stake their own geographical “right to the city”. This is a “common” right, as David Harvey reminds us. “The freedom to make and remake our cities,” he argues, remains “one of the most precious, yet most neglected of our human rights”.