[This article was written for the December edition of the Zahir, the University of York’s culture magazine]
Hypothetical situation: you’re the leader of a country with 700,000 empty homes and an increasing number of people sleeping on the streets. You’re cutting housing benefit, threatening thousands with eviction. Do you make it a) easier for people to occupy these empty homes, or b) make it illegal and slap a one year prison sentence and a £5,000 fine on anyone caught doing it?
Choices, choices, choices. Needless to say, you’re not the leader. David Cameron is. And he’s going for option B.
About 40,000 people currently ‘squat’ in unoccupied homes around the UK. At the moment, it’s not technically illegal for them to do so, as it would be more expensive for them to live on the streets when dealing when the long-term health costs of homelessness are taken into account (most long-term rough sleepers die in the 40s). Sleeping in an empty building is an obvious alternative to an alley for an evicted family, especially with the construction of social housing now at its lowest for decades.
The changes would be a little more understandable had the government’s consultation shown that most people support the move. But out of over 2,000 responses, 95% opposed the criminalisation of squatting. 120 academics and lawyers also signed a letter in The Guardian in September questioning Ken Clarke’s proposals. This is clearly then, a controversial move.
Some manifestations of that anger could be seen on the 31st of October when about 500 squatters marched to Parliament for a planned ‘sleep-in’, demanding the Legal Aid and Sentencing Bill which contains the provisions be dropped. The protest was broken up as by police (it was ‘unauthorised’) and seven people were arrested. A day later, the bill passed overwhelmingly in the Commons.
Scotland, well ahead of us here, has already made squatting a criminal offence. However, there are existing ways of getting rid of squatters in England and Wales, with evictions done through the civil courts. Many squatters are charged with Criminal Damage, an offence which is easy to prove and regularly sees people thrown out. The means are already there, then. But the Conservatives, who, on an unrelated note, have received £3.3m from property developers over the past three years, are set on taking a tough stance on the issue.
Who exactly are these squatters? 37% of them suffer from mental health problems. 78% had attempted to get help from councils, and failed. A fifth have alcohol problems. This is clearly a deep social problem. A parliamentary motion against the bill puts it right – the government should ‘not penalise vulnerable homeless people [but] focus on tackling the root cause of the problem’, namely that the housing market is failing Britain. The motion, by the way, garnered a mere 40 signatures.
Outside of Parliament though, the government’s decision has sparked outrage from a broad range of charities and campaigning groups – Crisis, the Advisory Service for Squatters, and surprisingly, the NUS. Why the NUS have spoken out doesn’t seem immediately apparent – until you realise that the legislation being introduce to criminalise squatting could also criminalise university occupations. Is this the end of the campus occupation? And if it isn’t, could it be the start of an era of lawsuits by universities against their own students? It’s a dangerous time to be radical.
Michael Chessum, on the NUS executive committee, said the NUS would make it ‘politically impossible’ for the coalition to enforce the moves. What that could involve is as yet unclear, but two universities – Birmingham and St Andrews – have just gone into occupation. As the slogan goes from last year’s demonstrations, this might be ‘just the beginning’, but with swinging cuts to the education budget, it seems unlikely that squatting reforms are going to be the main topic in student protests over the next few months. Michael Chessum could be disappointed.
The real opposition has to come from the charities concerned and individuals willing to take a stand. Ministers listened when the National Trust spoke out against planning reforms. The plans for woodland privatisation were dropped when campaign group 38 degrees spoke out. The vulnerable people who’ll be evicted because of governmental short-sightedness need someone to speak out for them, too.