Squatting: The need for shelter versus property rights

Eileen Milton, former squatter in Bristol Eileen was glad to have a roof over her head when she squatted in bombed-out post-war Bristol

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As the government plans to make squatting illegal in residential premises in England and Wales, former squatter Robert Elms considers the practice's long history, and the issues it raises about the need for shelter versus the rights of property owners.

The term "squatting" first emerged during the bloody maelstrom of the English civil war, when radicals on the parliamentarian side, the proto-communists of the Diggers and the Levellers, led a movement for the landless folk of England to take over - or "squat" - the commons and fields.

In more modern times it was World War II which provoked a major spate of squatting, now all but forgotten.

After the war hundreds of thousands of properties had been destroyed resulting in a chronic housing shortage. Many returning soldiers had nowhere to live.

So in battered cities across Britain, thousands of families took matters into their own hands by occupying empty buildings, often barracks or prisoner-of-war camps, putting up net curtains to claim their spot.

War-time 'desperation'

Eileen Milton, now a sprightly 90-year-old, squatted in a former Italian prisoner-of-war camp in the Bristol area. She says the idea that squatting was wrong "never entered my head, it was desperation after six years of war".

Historical photo of Frestonia squat area The formerly "independent" Frestonia squat area is now prime real estate

And it was not exactly luxurious. They lived in what were essentially huts, though Eileen managed to make hers a home: "I put the bedroom furniture at one end and made a living area at the other. We made it quite cosy."

In London the Communist Party led a campaign to occupy the mansion blocks of the rich in the Kensington area, many of whom had fled the city to avoid the blitz, and filled them with the displaced poor of the East End.

This post-war squatting highlighted different societal attitudes which have persisted to this day.

On the one hand, the squatting of municipal buildings has often been treated leniently.

On the other, the squatting of private property has been met with fierce moral outrage and, in the 1940s, with the full force of the law when several ring-leaders were jailed.

Fast forward to the early 1970s, it was amid the dying embers of the hippy era that squatting really had its heyday.

Alternative notions of communalism and anti-materialism coincided with a glut of empty and abandoned buildings, to create a series of vast, often infamous, squats, especially in the capital.

'Wasteland'

The population of inner London declined dramatically as town planners condemned swathes of old housing stock for slum clearance. Between 1941 and 1981 it was almost cut in half as people moved out to new suburbs.

In their place, the hippies and the artists, the drop-outs and the activists moved in, often taking over whole streets in what were then the "undesirable" neighbourhoods of Notting Hill and Camden Town.

Start Quote

George James, former squatter

We had a common ideal which was sustainable well-being, and that's the basis on which we occupied St Agnes Place ”

End Quote George James

The most famous of these was based around Freston Road, in west London. Squatters there fought a long battle against the threat of eviction by the then Greater London Council.

In an entertaining publicity stunt, the squatters declared independence from the United Kingdom and set up their own state called "The People's Republic of Frestonia".

They issued their own passports and stamps, which actually worked, and asked the United Nations to send in a peace-keeping force. Needless to say, the UN did not oblige.

But it was not all fun and political games. Tony Sleep, who lived in Frestonia for eight years, says it was an uncomfortable way to live.

"It was a wasteland, the houses on Freston Road had been empty for more than ten years. Many had no windows, some had no doors, no electricity, no water, holes in the roofs.

"It didn't feel like you were depriving anyone of anything."

It also did not feel safe.

It was an era of violence and Mr Sleep used to keep a row of bricks by his bed to ward off any unwanted intruders. He says squatting felt "disobedient and wrong in some ways, but you get over that if you need to".

Find out more

From Frestonia to Belgravia: the History of Squatting is on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 22 November at 20:00 GMT and Sunday 27 November at 17:00 GMT

Eventually they won their battle against eviction, after the council agreed to replace the squats with a housing co-operative, which exists to this day.

Another legendary squat became home to a largely Rastafarian community.

George James lived at St Agnes Place in south London for more than 30 years although he refused to call himself a squatter.

"We had a common ideal which was sustainable well-being, and that's the basis on which we occupied St Agnes Place."

Reggae singer Bob Marley was a regular visitor, but for George there would be no happy ending when riot police eventually evicted him and the other residents in 2005.

'Not easy'

My own days of squatting came in the early 1980s when my girlfriend and I occupied a long-disused fire station in Tottenham.

We told the council what we had done, paid rates and electricity, made the place habitable, and eventually got it registered as short-life housing, which it remains to this day.

The former fire station that Robert Elms used to squat in Robert Elms turned this squat into official "short-life" housing, which it remains to this day

The bath was in the kitchen, the toilet on the balcony and winters were almost unbearably cold, especially when the outside toilet froze over and we literally did not have a pot to pee in.

Nobody should think that living in a squat, with the constant threat of eviction hanging over you, is an easy option.

But back then it was feasible because property was not valued and traded as it is now.

In the current climate it is almost unimaginable to think that so much valuable real estate was just left unwanted.

Now there are far fewer forgotten and abandoned buildings in our cities, so some squatters have resorted to taking over private homes, temporarily left vacant while the owners are away. This rightly enrages our sense of fair play and provoked the government into action to outlaw squatting in residential buildings.

What will become of the estimated 20,000 squatters if and when the new law takes effect is unknown.

What I do know is we need to make sure people have a roof over their heads.

When I returned to my old squat I was rather proud that a building which had once sat empty for years is still providing just that.

From Frestonia to Belgravia: the History of Squatting is on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 22 November at 20:00 GMT and again on Sunday 27 November at 17:00 GMT. Or listen again via the Radio 4 website.

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