Squatting gets new lease of life

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 February, 2009, 12:00am


As Britain grapples with plunging property prices, home repossessions and a virtual standstill on mortgage finance, at least one group of individuals has become more innovative with its housing needs.

The group of 30 last month decided to make two Georgian listed properties worth GBP2.5 million (HK$250 million) on London's swanky Park Lane their temporary home, courtesy of an unlocked basement door and familiarity with Britain's squatting laws.

Calling themselves the 'Temporary School of Thought', the 20-somethings from as far afield as South Africa and Australia enjoyed an address most Britons could only dream of as they sprawled around the seven-storey mansions flanked by super-rich neighbours.

The 'residents' changed the locks, cut new keys for the premises and had the electricity switched on.

Morning walks in Hyde Park were followed by an array of activities; the squat's website lists a weekly timetable of events, from creative portrait photography, Sivananda yoga and puppet workshops to poetry discussions, acrylic painting and Hungarian folk singing.

Raising awareness about housing disparities was more a by-product of the media coverage they received than a conscious effort on the group's behalf. The purpose of the squat was rather to provide 'a space where people come together to share knowledge'.

It was, however, to be short-lived. The owners secured a court order for immediate possession late last month, and the whereabouts of the Temporary School remains unclear as the group looks to secure a new space.

The group's history suggests it will not be long before its members are again in the headlines: previous premises included an equally prestigious address in nearby Grosvenor Square.

It is not only London that is seeing an influx of squatters with residential aspirations. In December, a group of 12 squatters moved into a 179-year-old Brighton mansion that was the previous seaside home of King Edward VII.

The squatters were a savvy bunch: on their entry they immediately pinned a notice on the porch of the ?.4 million mansion affirming their legal rights to occupy the premises.

Squatting in Britain is not illegal as long as entry to the premises is not forced. Under the Land Registration Act 2002, squatters cannot be evicted from premises without a court possession order filed by the landlord. They can even become the legal owners if they enjoy uninterrupted residence for 12 years.

In 1997, for example, Harry Hallowes became the proud owner of a ? million plot of London's upmarket Hampstead Heath after an 18-year squat. Mr Hallowes lived in a shack in a corner of the heath and received the title deeds after he was able to show uninterrupted residence. He even gained the right to develop the plot.

The average squatter in Britain is well versed in his or her legal rights. Support groups give advice and act as a forum for organising squats. Websites run by groups such as the Advisory Service for Squatters (ASS) give the phone numbers of helpful lawyers.

ASS also publishes the Squatters' Handbook, which has sold more than 150,000 copies since it was first published in 1976.

Yet while the practice of squatting seems to be in fashion again, it is bereft of the radical politics associated with most squats that took place during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Squatting in Britain has a colourful history: in the immediate post-war period, squats started to emerge as political statements against severe housing shortages.

During the 1960s and 1970s, many squats began as protests against the unavailability and expense of council housing.

At the same time, a youth culture of alternative politics was also emerging, as Matt Cook of the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at the University of London explains.

'There was quite a vibrant squatting movement centred around radical politics ... there was also more organisation between squatting groups,' he says.

London became home to myriad squats, from women's collectives to black groups, anarchists and gay groups.

The squats endured until the late 1970s, when local councils addressed the issues of housing shortages and shortcomings. Suddenly, squats were becoming semi-formalised, taking on the status of housing collectives.

'They formed into small housing co-operatives, then applied for money from local governments - so a very informal housing solution was being organised into more formal housing structures,' Dr Cook says.

By and large, the squats thus had a political overtone, as well as being pragmatic solutions for Britain's housing deficiencies.

Since the 1970s, squatting has declined dramatically. Council housing has improved and Britain has, until recently, benefited from 10 years of economic growth.

Many of the modern-day Mayfair squatters admit their decision to take up residence in the lap of luxury is based more on convenience and steep London rents than a specific political goal.

Some do, however, believe it is a way to bring attention to certain issues. As Dr Cook points out, some squats remain politicised, 'but they are more associated with the politics of globalisation or consumer culture'.

A squat in a former public library in London's Lambeth district has, for example, become a base for a group of anti-capitalist campaigners particularly concerned with climate control.

According to the squatters' website, the location is ideal for those looking to 'create, conspire, communicate and offer a collective challenge against capitalism'.

Other squats have provided a chance to highlight some of the issues Britain faces on the housing front as the credit crunch bites.

The number of homes lying empty is set to increase as the recession takes hold, with repossessions, unsold flats and a squeeze on credit equating to an even greater number of vacant properties.

During the recession of 1992, a surge in vacant homes triggered the establishment of the Empty Homes Agency, a charity that brings attention to the waste of empty homes throughout England.

Its chief executive, David Ireland, is anticipating an increase in its work as the recession gathers pace.

'There has been a general rise across the board ... in particular, we have found the number of small developers buying and fixing up homes has stopped,' he says.

While the number of vacant homes fell persistently over the previous 14 years as Britain enjoyed economic growth, in the past year it saw a distinct spike.

The charity estimates 783,368 homes in England are currently empty. 'The other problem that is beginning to emerge is about regeneration,' Mr Ireland notes. 'We have had a lot of projects where properties such as council estates were emptied out ... but developers are not interested in building houses.'

He says he expects the number of empty homes to hit 1 million this year as developers' appetites for housing projects drop off and regeneration projects are shelved.

Posh squat

Britain has seen a spike in the number of vacant homes in the past year, including prestigious London addresses

The number of empty homes is estimated at: 783,368