An overview of the history of squatting in the UK and associated struggles, from London Notes #1 1992.
The threat to make squatting illegal has once again reared its ugly head. That the threat is hardly new and that the "discussion" paper put out by the government shows above all an almost total ignorance of their own laws, are hardly reassuring in today's climate where laws are passed in a matter of weeks, with the details decided by decree if necessary.
More immediately, illegal evictions by councils and vicious raids by the cops make the law practically irrelevant. The following notes have been written to try and trace the development of squatting, within the general development of working class appropriation of housing, as well as the forms used to control and break it. The aim is to try to discover tactics to fight current attacks and to renew appropriation on a level suitable to present conditions.
Post - World War One
1920 saw a massive increase in social provision and policy on housing, with the introduction of the National Housing Scheme and Housing Bonds, direct building labour under council control, a new Rent Act and a ban on all commercial building in London to free resources for housing. New towns were built both by councils (e.g. Dagenham) and by private capital (e.g. Welwyn Garden City) and high-rise housing was rejected on health grounds. This intervention was due in part to a general lack of private investment in housing, brought about by the massive rent strikes during the war which had stopped landlord profiteering and turned large areas of working class communities into no-go areas for rent collectors and bailiffs, as well as the overall demands and combed of the class.
Returning from the bloody front or with experience of struggles at home, with the inspiring news from Russia and the promise of a "Land Fit For Heroes", workers' demands and struggles spread rapidly. While strikes raged, with even clergymen planning to set up a union, unemployment rose with thousands marching to the door of Number 10 and the Irish brought the war to England ... according to the Chancellor of the Exchequer no issue was causing more unrest than the lack of housing. Direct struggle over housing seems to have been minimal in 1920, with only an empty refugee camp in County Durham occupied by homeless families and the continued effects of the rent strikes. But the relationship between housing and the combativity of the class were made clear by the developers of Welwyn Garden City, who called for "enlightened" investment for
“this scheme of bringing the workers under healthy conditions near their work as one of the means of dealing with the problem of industrial unrest".
Of course not all workers would be moved out to nice, new suburbs - the point was also to break up the class concentration in the cities.
Post - World War Two
After WWII the scarcity of homes for the working class (caused by bombing, by the direction of labour and materials to the war effort and by homes being kept empty, waiting for rich tenants) led to the first modern squatting movement. All over the country empty barracks and other camps were taken over by homeless families who organised and ran them collectively. The movement spread while the authorities were unclear how to respond and though they were eventually clamped down, some camps remained occupied for some time until the families were rehoused.
The authorities immediately clamped down, however, when families, with the help of the Communist Party, started moving into empty flats in the West End of London. As well as a lack of housing, this movement indicated a development in demands, as many of the young families involved would previously have considered it natural to live with their parents until they could find their own housing. As well as winning rehousing for those involved, the movement won increased provision for social housing, including the right of councils to lake over empty properties.
The Sixties and Seventies
The Sixties and Seventies saw struggles extend the area of social housing, both in terms of the amount of housing outside the market and the groups with access to it. New council housing continued to be built, while the run down of the inner cities pressured some councils into buying up larger and larger stocks of properties left empty by speculators or in conditions below those required by increasing legal standards.
On the other hand, black communities fought against residential qualifications that excluded them from council waiting lists, women fought for the right to rehousing to escape violent husbands and refuges were set up. Lesbians and gay men struggled for the right to council housing as they were discriminated against in the market. The squatting movement re-emerged mainly in response to families being kept waiting on council lists, while council properties remained empty and often while waiting for demolition as part of grandiose development plans that never took place. Many of those involved in the movement, however, were young and single and they soon realised that squatting was a way of meeting their own housing needs, of escaping homelessness, parents and bed-sits, of living together and creating their own environments. The squatting movement also highlighted and fought against excessive rents, speculation and the building of ever more office blocks, as well as helping those still fighting for access to council homes.
Some squatters managed to get licences to stay temporarily until the council could use the property and often set up co-ops to run them. As the number of council properties started to outstrip the resources needed to bring them into use, and as the numbers eligible outgrew the number of properties, councils tried to work out priorities. Both squatting and the buying of keys were used to refuse this exclusion and new resources were always needed to house those with priority. To some extent this worked against those who had the most recent access to housing lists, as the children of council tenants or people with friends on estates were the most likely to get into the more attractive housing.
The growth of the council housing sector ended in 1979 and by 1986 had been reduced by 10% - 700,000 homes. The Tory government has increasingly restricted resources, introduced the "right to buy" campaign to take the better stock out of council control and now has "ring-fenced" council housing to make it work like the market. Councils cannot spend money on housing that does not come from housing (at present many are not allowed to spend money from property sales at all), so all costs must be passed onto rent-payers. Councils are now punished for properties left empty (including squats) and, in order to house those they have legal responsibility for, are forced to weed out squatters and "illegal occupants" (those who bought keys, remained after the legal tenant had died etc.).
Co-operatives are compelled to help out by taking people off their lists and are also made to take on increasing costs. Meanwhile the number of squatters has been swelled by the results of government policies; those evicted for arrears or as illegal occupants, those who bought homes and could not keep up with the mortgage, young people suffering cuts in benefits etc. The screwing of social housing resources was designed to break the increasing unity of the struggle for more resources for more people and instead to impose divisions, by isolating those who could afford to buy out and leaving the rest in competition.
The re-imposition of the market has turned the task of getting housing into work and has reimposed the necessity of work, along with individual "advancement", to keep up with increasing costs. As with other areas, they have imposed their "looking glass world", where we have to run faster and faster to stay in the same place. However, they have failed to get the flexibility they need out of us, as the economy has been unable to create the necessary rewards and those who have played along with the plan are just as likely to end up on the streets.
Working class struggle has taken on the housing market in terms of allocation, cost and quality, and nearly beat it - at least as far as the first two terms are concerned. Capital and central government have responded by leaving local councils with the responsibilities, while moving resources. Now everyone has a right to a piece of pavement at no cost, while quality will cost most of your next 30 years' wages.
Squatting, resisting rent rises, evictions and repossessions are a necessity and obviously the starting point for new struggles to impose our needs. But the battle is now against a state hiding behind the economy, leaving local councils stranded so that their only response to struggle is to run to the government for more powers against the working class.
We have to fight the councils, as landlords, but the state is happy to watch us and the council housing sector sink into the ghetto. Council tenants are still the greatest concentration of the working class, and high interest rates along with the recession have reduced the ability to escape the frying pan into the fire of the market. Their struggles, and ours in general, need to be taken from the council ghettos to the market and the state. Every building is a valid target for our housing needs, as well as the resources necessary to make them fit for human beings. What was it that someone once said about everybody living in their own cathedral?