Legal activism: the spatial politics of squatting in the UK

SQUASH and Alex Vasudevan discuss the Government's plans to criminalize squatting and the legitimacy of engaging with the state over the proposed change in legislation.

By Victoria Blitz and Rueben Taylor, published online October 2011.

Submitted by shifteditor1 on May 14, 2013


The people working with Squash are under no illusions about the Government’s ‘consultation’ procedure for introducing new legislation. It is clear from the Ministry of Justice’s Green Paper 'Options for Dealing with Squatters' and its accompanying questionnaire that the Government has already decided the outcome. Despite this, SQUASH is working to highlight some of the inaccuracies and wider implications of the government’s proposals, and network with affected groups to respond to the consultation and build opposition. This isn’t going to gloriously ‘save squatting’, but the more people that get involved, make their own fuss, and take action alongside and beyond Squash, the greater the possibility that we can begin to change the public discourse around squatting.

This document addresses the following questions. Firstly, why bother at all? Why is it important that squatting isn’t criminalized? And secondly, why bother meeting the government on its own terms? Is engagement not contradictory when we’re aiming to build real alternatives to the current system?

Why stop the criminalisation of squatting?

Would it not be better to force the battle – to allow squatting to be criminalised– so that we might see the lines in the sand between those who own, and those who do not?

Such arguments display a certain insularity, and are not uncommon among the autonomous and anti-authoritarian left. It may sound strange, but many people are not comfortable with breaking the law – they are not in a position to take the risks involved, and would simply end up with fewer rights and fewer options. The existing system excludes, weakens, and denies people access to the resources and communities we need and deserve. Here squatting is an opportunity, and for many one of the few remaining options, for building a life despite the damage caused by our Government.

Of course, as well as being a very direct solution to the problem of housing oneself, squatting presents radical solutions that go further. It enables us to use our time and skills in a manner less defined by the pressures of wage-labour. This allows the development of options for living and working that splinter from the definitions of these terms offered by the state. Squatting can therefore be a process that politicises people, but it is dangerous to assume that a ‘radicalisation’ would happen with criminalisation: we are more likely to simply see people being pushed into further destitution and invisibility.

The defence of legally enforced tenancy rights or of rights against forcible entry may be viewed by some as pro-state, in the same sense as the defence of welfarist provisions. In both cases, the criticism is mistaken, because our schools and our rights are not gifts graciously awarded by a benevolent or manipulative state, but are rather our own collective possessions that those who came before us have wrested from the hands of the owners. We have a responsibility to defend what they fought for, and to gain more ground. Furthermore it is crucial to be drawing the dots between the Government’s agenda to criminalise certain sections of society, and the ideological motivations behind this agenda. We are all, in different ways, fighting the same battles.

Why engage with the state on the level of legislation?

Such are some of the justifications for defending squatting, but what many on the anti-authoritarian left are more likely to object to are the means by which groups such as Squash are choosing to fight the potential legislation. Doesn’t engagement with political process confirm and legitimize the Government’s systems of control and order? Is our complicity further concretizing the systems we are apparently trying to fight, whilst pushing the realisation of real social change further and further away? The contradiction is rooted in fighting to protect the rights we have within the current system, whilst at the same time fighting for change beyond the current system.

This is a dilemma not only for those involved with Squash, but for anyone who seeks change in the present without wanting to stifle further (more radical) change in the future. It is important to start by recognising that none of us are so one-dimensional that we cannot work both within and without structures that we oppose; that we can have a set of short-term aims with a certain hat on, which doesn’t need to dilute the other visions that we hold dearer.

Furthermore, we believe that using the sanctioned channels of communication and working within a legally legitimate framework is crucial if we want to build networks with groups of people who are not comfortable with working outside of those parameters. Part of the challenge (beyond but not completely outside of this campaign) is to encourage people to see that it is possible to ourselves decide what may be legitimate or illegitimate; and that we do not need to rely on the abstract authority of the State to determine whether something is right or wrong. However, terms such as illegality and criminality are loaded, and the ideas they carry are potent. This is a language that power exploits very effectively: we cannot ignore or expect to brush away what ‘legality’ distinguishes, unless we want to exclude a significant proportion of people from our campaign.

We have focused here on the general rather than the particular in terms of the contradictions of engaging with the state at a legislative level, but it is how we proceed within this framework that is perhaps the more challenging task.

Engaging directly with the blunt instruments for dialogue offered by the state can of course be dangerous for squatters. Like many other things that fall outside the officially recognised structures, the Government has practically no evidence or data on squatting, no accurate definition of squatting, no real understanding of the boundaries between homelessness, squatting, and occupation. Providing the Government with information that would contribute to the construction of legal definitions of these terms would work against us all, as it would only assist in their campaign to divide and limit us by legal definition. This is an issue that has framed much of SQUASH’s approach to research. It is these questions – about how we navigate in-between these different realms, ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’, visible and invisible, that are crucial. The implications are very real, and potentially harmful; but also potentially the most exciting, where surprising affinities can form and where new possibilities can take root.

Pragmatism is a fundamental necessity in an imperfect world. Preventing the criminalisation of squatting is vital to our defence against neo-liberal economic violence. Engagement with political process and mainstream media are tactical decisions that we have made in the achievement of this immediate goal. We hope that you can see the logic of our position. Now that the ‘open’ part of the consultation has closed we call on you to use occupation as a tactic in whatever struggles you are engaged in – in your libraries, your universities, your workplaces, and the public spaces that are being sold off to private companies – because these things belong to us, and without space we cannot begin to build our alternatives.

Victoria Blitz and Rueben Taylor are both involved with SQUASH. Their views here are written in a personal capacity and do not necessarily represent those of ‘SQUASH’.

Legal activism: the spatial politics of squatting in the UK

by Alex Vasudevan

On the 13 of July 2011, the UK Ministry of Justice published a consultation document entitled “Options for dealing with squatters.” The document set in motion a period of consultation which came to an end on the 5th of October and which was, in turn, aimed at “anyone who has been the victim of squatting; and anyone who has experience (positive or negative) of using the current law or procedures to get squatters evicted.” As Crispin Blunt (MP), the Parliamentary Undersecretary of State, points out in his foreword to the consultation, “the Government has become increasingly concerned about the distress and misery that squatters can cause.” He goes on to argue that “the Government does not accept the claim that is sometimes made that squatting is a reasonable recourse of the homeless resulting from social deprivation. There are avenues open to those who are genuinely destitute and who need shelter which do not involve occupying somebody else’s property without authority. No matter how compelling or difficult the squatter’s own circumstances, it is wrong that legitimate occupants should be deprived of the use of their property.” “The consultation,” Blunt concludes, “seeks evidence on the scale of the problem caused by squatters and invites views on a range of options for tackling it, including strengthening the criminal law or working within existing legislation to improve enforcement.”

If the recent consultation represents an attempt by the UK state to tighten the law on squatting, it should come as no surprise. Squatting has always had a close relationship to the law. Legally defined as an act of trespass, squatting is a criminal offence in Scotland (as set out in the Trespass Act of 1865) while it has largely remained a civil matter in the rest of the UK. Squatting is therefore unlawful in England and Wales but not illegal. 1 For many squatters, access to certain customary ‘rights’ was also seen as a source of protection from forcible eviction. This was supported by the Forcible Entry Acts of 1381 which proscribed against forcible entry onto any land or property.2

Over the past forty years, this legal position has come under increasing attack. A major wave of squatting in the late 1960s and early 1970s initiated a new era of legal ‘revanchism’ which challenged the limited protection afforded to squatters in the civil courts. In 1972, this was extended to criminal law as the Law Commission began to reconsider the statutes on trespass. The Commission published its preliminary findings in June 1974 and recommended the repeal of the Forcible Entry Acts and the criminalization of all forms of trespass. In the wake of intense criticism, a watered-down Final Report was published in March 1976. The report formed the basis for the Criminal Law Act of 1977 which represented, as David Watkinson has argued, an “extension of the criminal law in the area of trespass.“ 3 While new offences came into force and were punishable through prison sentences, neither squatting nor trespass was, as such, made illegal. Further changes in the law were proposed in 1991 as the Government set out a series of additional clauses to the Criminal Law Act as part of a consultation on squatting. These changes were tantamount to further criminalization and were challenged by a host of housing organizations and charities as well as SQUASH (Squatters Action for Secure Homes). In the end, the Government was forced to climb down and settle for less draconian measures (see clauses 72-76 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994).

The launch of a new consultation on squatting in July represents, in this way, just the latest episode in a complex legal genealogy that shows the law to be unstable and exclusionary. As the anthropologist James Holston reminds us, it is imperative that we reject an essentialist and functionalist view of the law and focus instead on law as a “system of power.”4 A close reading of the consultation document should therefore attend to the very interests that are behind it and the wider net of social relations that inform its construction. By doing so, it becomes clear that the planned legislation is, ultimately, ideologically-driven and, as such, dependent on shoring up a commitment to the untouchable rightfulness of private property. By defending the interests of “hard-working homeowners” against squatters, the consultation mobilizes the law as a ‘tool’ or ‘weapon’ which only serves to perpetuate domination and accentuate inequality.

In June of this year I posted a piece on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site which explored the coalition government’s plans to criminalize squatting in the lead up to the launch of the consultation. The main thrust of my argument then was twofold:

1) That plans to criminalize squatting would simply serve to exacerbate a growing housing crisis in the UK and that, if anything, squatting should be seen as a necessary coping strategy in the face of an highly uneven and exploitative housing market.5

2) That any new law on squatting betrays, in turn, a more sinister logic that seeks to legislate against various struggles for social justice in our cities and that the impact of a ban on the use of ‘occupation’ as a legitimate tactic of protest must be considered.

The decision by SQUASH – reformed in May 2011 - to participate in the consultation must be seen in this context. It would admittedly be easy to question their decision to engage with a state whose very use of the law is constitutively coercive and violent. This is, of course, hardly a new problem for an autonomous anti-authoritarian left. And yet, it is important to question whether it is in fact possible to campaign within such a legal framework. Does this simply legitimize the role and status of the state? Do such legal mobilizations perpetuate the misrule of law and the inviolability of property ownership? And is it really possible to work with this contradiction?

It would be easy to critique the inconsistencies and injustices of the law and to document the different ways in which it has been used to defend the parlous state of housing in the UK. In the Global South, residential illegality and squatting has often generated an “insurgence of political and civil rights among the urban poor, who learn to use law to legitimate their land claims and who thereby compete in legal arenas from which they have been excluded.” 6 For such residents, participation and inclusion within the law has become a central means by which new forms of citizenship are enacted and consolidated. Conflicts over the law are thus transformed into political practices that secure social and legal legitimacy. To the extent that these struggles speak to the rights-based arguments of recent urban social movements, they also provide resources for contesting the increasingly iniquitous geographies of contemporary urbanization. In the words of the Holston, “[this] is an insurgence that begins with the struggle for rights to have a daily life in the city worthy of a citizen’s dignity.”7

The recent campaign by SQUASH should, in contrast, be set against a different set of logics. It would be misleading, it seems to me, to situate the campaign within a strict discourse of political recognition, participation, and inclusion. I do not mean to diminish the central role that the experience of precarity and marginality has come to play for many squatters whose conditions of living have been reduced to the bare minimum. Indeed as Judith Butler has recently argued, “[any] different social ontology would have to start from the presumption that there is a shared condition of precarity that situates our political lives.”8 But I also believe that the campaign is perhaps best understood as both a form of resistance and as an act of reclamation. At stake here, following Henri Lefebvre, is a right to the city that reconciles material access to urban space and infrastructure with a “renewed right to urban life.” 9

The radical politics of housing articulated by SQUASH should not, in this way, be seen as an end in itself. As occupations spring up across the UK, it is becoming increasingly clear that a new countergeography of protest is emerging that seeks to reclaim and recast public space for a different politics. This may result, in the first instance, in an uneasy if tactical trade-off with the state, but it also offers a real opportunity for the constitution of a radical urban commons. It would therefore be a mistake to concede full legal agency to a state whose interests are sutured to a politics of dispossession and displacement, order and security. That there may, in the end, be no direct line of flight to the promised land of autonomous politics should not detract from the struggle for more just and equal spaces in our cities. The kind of activism undertaken by the SQUASH campaign is just one reminder of what can be accomplished and what still needs to be done.

Alex Vasudevan is a Lecturer in Cultural and Historical Geography at the University of Nottingham. His research focuses on radical politics in Germany and the wider geographies of neo-liberal globalisation. Alex is currently working on a book project that explores the historical and political geographies of the squatter movement in Berlin.

1. David Watkinson, “The Erosion of Squatters Rights,” in Nick Wates and Christian Wolmar (eds.), Squatting: The Real Story (London: Bay Leaf Books, 1980), pp. 158-163, p. 158.
2. Watkinson, “The Erosion of Squatters Rights,” p. 159; see also Colin Ward, Cotters and Squatters: Housing’s Hidden History (Nottingham: Five Leaves, 202), p. 161.
3. Watkinson, “The Erosion of Squatters Rights,” p. 161.
4. James Holston, Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), p. 206.
5. See Stuart Hodkinson, “Revenge of the Repossessed,” (last accessed October 20, 2011). For a recent exploration of the relationship between squatting and homelessness see Kesia Reeves, “Squatting: A Homelessness Issue,” An Evidence Review for the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, Sheffield Hallam University, (last accessed October 20, 2011).
6. Holston, Insurgent Citizenship, p. 204. See also Arjun Appadurai, “Deep Democracy: Urban Governmentality and the Horizon of Politics,” Public Culture 14, 1 (2002), pp. 21-47; Richard Neuwirth, Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World (London and New York: Routledge, 2005).
7. Holston, Insurgent Citizenship, p. 313.
8. Judith Butler, “Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street,” (last accessed October 24, 2011).
9. Henri Lefebvre, “Right to the City,” in Writing on Cities, ed. and trans. by Elenore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), pp. 61-181, p. 158.