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Squatting? It's a choice between homelessness and a criminal record, says Laurie Penny

Moves to outlaw squatting in empty houses should be an outrage on the left.

The police called some of them "scum". Many of them who are not already among Britain's tens of thousands of homeless people will shortly become so, following today's ratification of Clause 26 of the Legal Aid bill, which criminalises squatting in empty houses.

And yet, as officers moved in against the impromptu demonstration outside Parliament on Monday night -- dragging and forcibly removing many -- the demonstrators sat down, linked arms and sang "Happy Birthday". "It's one way to defuse a situation like that," said a 26-year old squatter, who did not want to give his name.

The passing of this amendment, tabled in the face of overwhelming public pressure, means that most of the 20,000 citizens who currently live in empty or abandoned housing stock in Britain will be forced to choose between homelessness and a criminal record -- maximum sentence is a year's jailtime and a £5,000 fine.

I have written before about the misrepresentation of squatting in the press, but given that there are over half a million empty properties in Britain, half a million "hidden homeless", five million people currently on the housing list and tens of thousands more facing homelessness as a result of government cuts to housing benefit, according to leading homelessness charities, it should be a point of outrage on the left that the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties have thrown their support behind the anti-squatting amendment.

This, however, is a campaign that has, from the start, been about turning the property-owning middle classes against the poor.

The tabloid narrative, pushed most heavily by the Evening Standard, has been that decent, hardworking homeowners come home from holiday and find their houses invaded by filthy reprobates who are somehow protected by law from being evicted. In fact, in the few incidents where occupied buildings are squatted, there is already legislation in place to criminalise those who threaten homeowners in this way, under the terms of the Criminal Law Act 1977.

This new amendment would make it an offence to squat any empty residential building -- even if it has been abandoned for years. With rents going up, wages going down and homelessness a very real possibility for tens of thousands of people, one can understand why a government determined not to actually fund infrastructure investments like housing projects would want to stop desperate people getting any ideas.

Actual cases of hostile home takeovers are incredibly few and far between. A government consultation on the proposed changes to the law found that out of thousands of respondents, over 90 per cent agreed that no changes were necessary, whilst just ten wrote in to say that they had been "victims" of squatting.

Most squatters do not pose a threat to ordinary homeowners, but they are a potential embarrassment to a government whose best response to the housing crisis is to make homelessness illegal, which is rather like solving a food shortage by making hunger illegal.

Squatting an empty property is an act of defiance, a reclamation of psychic space, and it is no accident that police have focused on raiding squats and other "alternative" communities while searching for dissidents and student protesters this year. Many, although by no means all, squats have become centres for alternative thought, in which people attempt to live outside of the restrictions of capital and consumerism, building new kinds of community. Most have no more illicit aims than running free mother-and-toddler yoga sessions for local residents, but that's exactly the kind of Big Society organisation that's punishable by a night in the cells in David Cameron's Britain.

Squatting is an ancient right, enshrined in the British tradition of the Commons -- or it was, until today. In Cameron's Britain, there is no room for diggers and dreamers, no space for the destitute and homeless who make lives for themselves in the cracks between capitalism. The confiscation of that right will make thousands homeless, for no better reason than spite.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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