Death of homeless man blamed on anti-squatting laws

Daniel Gauntlett froze to death last weekend on the doorstep of an empty bungalow.

A homeless man in Aylesford, Kent, froze to death last weekend on the doorstep of an empty bungalow, according to Kent Online. Thirty-five-year-old Daniel Gauntlett had previously had trouble with the police when he tried to break into the abandoned building for shelter, and apparently took the decision to stay outside for the night, risking his safety to stay on the right side of the law.

Chris Hunter reports:

Derek Bailey, 80, who lives next door, said Mr Gauntlett had not appeared to be in ill health.

"They took him up to the hospital about a fortnight before when they'd found him and social workers got involved," said Mr Bailey.

"It was just the bitter weather. I know a lot about cold weather because I was in the Canadian army. I've known it drop to minus 70 but the trouble with this country is the dampness."

The news has been widely linked to recent anti-squatting legislation, after a bill signed into law last year made squatting on residential property a criminal act. The Morning Star's Rory MacKinnon reports about the site "Is Mike Weatherley Dead Yet?" which places direct blame for Gauntlett's death on Tory MP Mike Weatherley, who proposed the legislation to the commons. MacKinnon writes:

The Bill, which was proposed by Mr Weatherley and signed into law last year, made it a criminal offence to squat in a residential property - meaning police could immediately evict and arrest Mr Gauntlett. The MP could not be reached for comment today, but the creator of anonymous website Is Mike Weatherley Dead Yet? pulled no punches.

"[The] situation of homeless people is already desperate. Mike Weatherley is personally responsible for making it worse," they told the Morning Star. "I hope he remembers that every time he tries to go to sleep."

Weatherley's legislation sparked widespread protest, with much of the objection focusing on the fact that squatting was often the least-worst outcome for someone on the verge of homelessness. While a working housing system wouldn't need to allow squatting, we clearly do not have a working housing system. Charities warned that criminalising squatting would lead to an increase in homelessness, and the government proceeded anyway, with Grant Shapps, then the housing minister, saying:

We're tipping the scales of justice back in favour of the homeowner and making the law crystal clear: entering a property with the intention of squatting will be a criminal offence.

That crystal clarity may have been responsible for Daniel Gauntlett taking the risk that ultimately cost him his life.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty
Show Hide image

The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.