History of Squatting in the UK

Jim is a resident of London, England, and a long-time organizer with the Advisory Service for Squatters, A.S.S. Here he speaks about the history of squatting in the UK, going as far back as the 1300's. This interview looks at squatting's relationship to the anarchist movement in the UK, the changing legal framework around squatting, and squatting within a framework of other social movements in the country.

The Advisory Service For Squatters is a collective of unpaid workers who have beenrunning a daily advice service for squatters and homeless people since 1975. It grewout of the former Family Squatters Advisory Service, which was founded in the late 1960's. ASS publishes The squatters Handbook, the twelfth edition of which is the current one, and has sold in excess of 150,000 copies since 1976. ASS offers advice on how to squat, legal help to squatters and helps fight evictions and challenge police abuse of the homeless.

====For an audio version of this interview, visit=====

Interview by Aaron Lakoff

Aaron: Why don't we start at 1381!

Jim: Squatting was one of the big issues in the peasants’ revolt. It was the original form of land tenure. The new idea, the very recent development is this notion that people can own land. That's what's new. That only comes with settlement and agriculture - in other words 5 minutes ago in our history. The whole thing is a right mess, I think! Because then people start having boundaries, saying this is my land and this is your land, and you've got inheritance in the male line and all that.

Anyways, squatting has a long history on this island. What everyone knows about are the Diggers in the 17th century. We had a big commemoration in 1999 for the Diggers 350 anniversary. What does the first of April mean to you?

A: April fool's day...

J: No, it's diggers day! Because that's when the diggers kicked off! And there was so much work done on the Diggers. Christopher Hill got us all going. He's still alive, as I've heard. That book "The world turned upside down" wasn't just about the diggers. It was about all the radical movements of the 17th century. That book and Leon Rosselson's song ("The world turned upside down") really has turned thousand of people on to the diggers.

What's often forgotten about the middle of the 17th century is that there weren't only civil wars, these were years of famine as well. A lot of them were actually the people who kicked up most of the shit during the English revolution. A few of the diggers, those that we know about, had been quite comfortably off and had been made poor by the wars.

A: I've often heard of the Diggers in the context of a history of anarchism. Would you say there is any continuity between the Diggers
movement and what we know as anarchism?

J: What you hear more often is that the Ranters were proto-anarchists. And I think that's wrong. I don't think the diggers were anarchists at all. They wanted a just state. One of the Diggers’ radical ideas was that they were IN FAVOUR of promoting young people and their ideas, and this was very much against prevailing views. It’s a criticism of the Diggers, however, that they didn’t really seem to have much to say about the position of women in society. Winstanley defines “mankind” as meaning “everie man, both male and female” (inclusive language being unheard of at the time) he had worked for a female boss before the wars (very unusual) and after the Diggers’ settlements were suppressed, several of the best known Diggers went off to work for one of the women “prophets” of the time.

A: What about urban squatting? Has there been a long tradition of that?

J: Well yes, I mean there’s a long tradition of squatting. Squatting has never gone away in this country. There was a lot of squatting in the 19th century, mostly quite individualistic. We tend to hear about squatting after it becomes organized and when it becomes not so much individualistic but at least when some people doing it have a political perspective on what they're doing.

There was a squatting movement after the First World War, but the big one was 1946. There was a squatting movement in 1945, which was quite viciously repressed by the Churchill government. They called themselves the Vigilante movement. I think the idea was they were vigilantly scouring the streets for empty houses and making sure they were occupied by homeless people. The 1945 Vigilante movement started in Brighton and the people involved were anarchists, which probably made them more of an immediate target compared with the 1946 Camp Squatters. Then the huge one kicked off in 1946 and was still going in the 50's. There was all sorts of places squatted. It was all the army camps and RAF stations that were now empty after the war. People moved in and took them over, as well as many other places.

The trouble with 1946, what you always hear about is the Communist Party (CP) stunt. In May 1946, the CP, which was very strong then, not like now, was slagging off squatting. In fact lots of the CP members were involved in squatting, but leadership was slagging off squatting, saying that “socialism is the language of priorities” and all that sort of stuff. By September it had got so big that they thought, “Oh fuck, we had better jump on this bandwagon!”

So they organized these three big spectacular squats: Duchess of Bdedford Mansions near Regents Park, and 2 hotels in Bloomsbury that had all been accommodations for offices. Well, the Dorchester Bedford Mansions was once again gonna get rented out to the rich. Rich people rented flats in those days for 30 shillings per week (that's 1 pound 50p), which was huge rent which working-class people couldn't afford. And (these squats) had huge publicity at the time. There was a big rally in Trafalgar Square in support of the squatters. The cops surrounded these squatted places. (There are) video clips of people chucking food up to the windows, most of it not getting caught. But it was all over in a few days, because they arrested so-called ringleaders and the CP backed out and left all those people who had been used as cannon fodder. They were left very much in the lurch. So as far as squatting in the 40's went, the CP arrived late and left early.

A: Who were these squatters in 1946? Were they mostly soldiers returning from the war?

J: Yeah.

A: And what was the outcome of that? Was it the first big political squatting movement?

J: Well, how political was it? I think what you have to understand about squatting here, which is very different from squatting everywhere else in Europe, is that most of the time, for most people who are squatting, squatting is about housing. It is about the dire shortage of housing, and it always has been. It is far less overtly political, and there are all sorts of people involved. And that's very different than the squatting you get everywhere else in Western Europe. Squatting here has a very different character than, say, in Germany, where it's very much overtly political. Well, of course it is! Taking over empty buildings that used to belong to private capital or elements of the state IS a political act. But that's not how most squatters here have historically seen it. It's just about doing what you have to do to get a roof over your head, and people being angry that they've got nowhere to live and here are these places standing empty.

A: How did the laws around squatting develop? How has the British state traditionally dealt with it?

J: Well, the basic thing is that squatting was, and still is (although they try to nibble away at it) a civil matter, not a criminal matter. It's a civil dispute; it's got nothing to do with the cops, although we're constantly having to remind the cops of that.
There were attempts in the 1970's to make squatting a crime. It is in Scotland. I'm only talking about England and Wales. And the reason why it's a crime in Scotland is because of the Trespass Scotland Act, which was passed after the clearances, to make sure the clearances worked and that the people didn't come back. And so there's virtually no squatting in Scotland. Mind you, squatting is illegal in the USA, but a surprising amount of it happens. And some of the squatting in the USA, especially in New York, has more the sort of character of squatting here. Not so much people squatting places to live, but poor people squatting space to make gardens and other things they need, and to create community facilities. This is a bit more like the character of squatting in this country than in Western Europe.

A: And so criminal trespassing isn't an issue here?

J: Yes, it's a crime to trespass in certain places. You know, Ministry of Defense places, army bases, foreign embassies, and places like that. Or prisons. You mustn’t trespass in a prison! And railways. So there are certain places where it's a criminal offense to trespass, but basically trespass is not a crime. So whenever you see a notice that says “trespassers will be prosecuted”, it's bollocks. Trespassers CANNOT be prosecuted. It's a civil matter. It's a tort, not a crime. It doesn't involve the state. So trespassers will NOT be prosecuted.

A: So this has meant that the owners of the buildings have had to take the squatters to court?

J: Yes, to a civil court.

A: You mentioned that in the 1970's the government tried to make it a criminal matter...

J: But that didn't work; they had to back down from that. It would be very difficult in England and Wales to make trespass a crime. You couldn't really. It would bugger up the whole basis of land tenure in English law. So what eventually came out in the 1970's was the Campaign Against a Criminal Trespass Law, and in response the government created Protected Intending Occupiers, which is another thing where you can be given a notice without going to court. Fundamentally they weren't able to make trespass a crime. Cops are constantly telling people that the laws have been changed, and that's why we're always telling people that squatting is still legal, necessary, and free. Legal, but not lawful – in other words, it's civil, not criminal.

A: When you were comparing squatting here with the rest of Western Europe, it's interesting because there's been that distinction made in Canada between the more individual squats and political squats...

J: Well, I wouldn't say individual. I mean, you get some sorts of community action type squatting, which isn't overtly political. In fact the people doing it don't see it as such, but I think it is. The people doing it aren't ideologically driven, they're doing it because there are buildings empty and they need a place to live, or there's this derelict fucking site and we can make a community garden and our kids can play there, and things like that. That to me is political, but that's not how it's perceived by the people doing it.

A: Why have people squatted?

J: All sorts of people have squatted. There are the sorts of lifestyle squatters – people who squat because they like it. They don't have to squat, housing-wise, but they want to squat. There might be lots of people who have an alternative way of getting a roof over their head, but they don't have a way of living the way they want to live, with a bunch of other people living collectively and doing stuff together. That's all fair enough too. Squatting to live the way you want to live is often a minority of squatters, and this isn't often realized. You do realize it if you sit in the A.S.S (Advisory Service for Squatters) office.

A: In terms of social housing or affordable housing in London, has there always been a lack of that?

J: Oh yes! This term “affordable housing” now, it's very English. It's like how “public schools” are actually private schools. Well “affordable housing” means UNaffordable housing!

A: Can you tell me about some of the squats that have made a big impact in London over the years?

J: Well Huntley Street did. That was huge news. We had solidarity actions all around the world the night of the eviction. That was in 1978. There were lots of big squats in those days. There was Freston road in West London that declared UDI – Unilateral Declaration of Independence. They wrote to the United Nations demanding recognition as a sovereign state! And the people who went to negotiate with the GLC (Greater London Council) were called ambassadors, and everybody was a minister for something! There were lots of ministers for alcohol, I seem to remember. Freston road did the best squatters paper – the Corrugated Times.

A: Are any of these squats that existed in the 60's and 70's still in operation now?

J: No. But there are a few, especially in South London, very long-term squats, which, if people had their act together, they could have had them now. But they haven't got the evidence together and places have been thrown away. People have got 12 years adverse occupation.

A: Does that mean that if you stay in a place for 12 years it's yours?

J: Yes, effectively. It's a bit more complicated than that, and they changed the law 3 years ago so that if it's registered land it's much more difficult. But if it’s not registered, or it is registered and you completed your 12 years before October, 2003, then you can make the place effectively yours... but you've got to have your evidence together. Loads of people lose places that could be won by not having stuff together.

A: How long has the Advisory Service for Squatters (A.S.S.) been around for?

J: Since 1975. It started with a breakaway. There were loads of groups in 1968 that started opening empty buildings for homeless families. And there was this big division between “oh no, only families with children should be squatting”, and “everyone who needs a home should squat. Single people are homeless, too.” The latter perspective was a breakaway from the Family Squatters' Advisory Service. The A.S.S moved its current office two and a half years ago.

A: I'm interested to know about squatted social centers too. Is that something that has had a long history in London?

J: Yes and no. It has more of a history outside of London. The whole concept of social centers has only come around in recent years. I don't think anyone would have thought of it going further back, because back then we had local squatting groups. If you look then, you'll see this history of totally squatted streets and totally squatted blocks. And of course when you get a completely squatted street and a completely squatted block, after a while people set up communal spaces.
They did this with the whole resistance to the M-11, which was very much political squatting. That was bringing into London the campaigning tactics against road developments. That was a very special kind of squatting, and that's when social centers really started. And most social centers aren't squatted. But there's this big argument of squatted vs. non-squatted. But the vast majority of squatters have never even heard the word social center, and if they have, they'd probably think it's far too scuzzy for them.
For every lifestyle anarchist sort of squatter, there must be at least 10 of the current “jobs-and-babies” wave of squatters. For fuck’s sake, the lifestyle anarchists squatters are not THE squatters! Squatting is a much bigger world and a much wider range of people than they even dream about! I want to say to these people 'you are living in a little fucking anarchist ghetto'.
And some people are on about the terrible damage done to the social center movement by these alleged bastards from the rented or mortgaged social centers, but in fact that’s what most social centres are. It’s all needlessly divisive, though I think we’re beginning to get beyond these silly arguments now. Squatted, rented or mortgaged social centres each have their drawbacks and problems, as well as their advantages. In squatted social centres we can get on with doing what inspires us, without having to worry about selling ourselves loads of beer to pay the bills. On the other hand, what we don’t have is a long-term presence, so that we can become a resource for many other campaigns and movements and a radical part of the life of a particular community.

A: Is that a completely separate movement, the people working for the squatted social centers and the people working for squatted housing?

J: Not in London, but outside London a lot of people have been involved in squatted social centres who haven’t needed to squat for their housing. Leeds and Manchester are examples. But things changing. The big cities in England which have traditionally had less of a crude housing shortage than London are now facing a real housing crisis and there is an increasing amount of residential squatting in those cities. Bristol and Brighton have always had a fair bit of residential squatting.

A: When I think of squatting, I sometimes picture something that is unique to the anarchist movement...

J: Oh no! Not at all. That's the problem! People just aren't aware of the breadth of different people who are squatting. Please don't think I'm putting down any squatted social centers – I'm not. But it's just such a narrow vision. There's a lot more to squatting and there's a lot more going on than that. Most of the squatting in England and Wales has been in London, with two notable other places that were big; Brighton and Bristol. If you look at the 1940's, it was the same. But there's been a lot more going on in the last few years in other parts, especially in Leeds and Manchester, because more and more people haven't got a place to live.

[Aaron Lakoff is an independent journalist and social justice organizer based in Montreal. He can be reached at aaron@resist.ca]