By Tim Webb
Stoke Newington has always been a magnet for political radicals, oddball groups and those who prefer an alternative lifestyle. It's no surprise that squatters have a significant presence in the area.
The Radical Dairy was a high profile occupation in Kynaston Road in 2002. It was established
in an empty shop and operated as a kind of alternative arts centre. Its activities included discussions on feminist theory, hip-hop and DJ workshops for kids, classic films, anti-war meetings, shiatsu massage and pumpkin carving. Flowers, pot plants, paintings and drawings covered its shelves and walls. The only jarring note was a semi-permanent police presence that hovered nearby, watching, photographing and muttering into two-way radios.
The forces of law and order then launched two raids, but left after local residents and neighbours protested in support of the occupants. Finally, 30 riot police stormed the building
using a hydraulic ram. They said they had a warrant to investigate 'the misuse of drugs and abstraction of electricity.' No drugs were found. The real purpose of the raid was to take away the hard drives of the computers that were being used to provide a free internet service. Stoke Newington's finest probably believed they were playing their part in the war on terror. The sea
cadets' building in Church Street was also squatted recently, after the Council, seeking to maximise commercial opportunities, evicted the sea cadets.
So what is a typical squat? Is it the stuff of nightmares? You've just arrived back from two weeks in Tuscany and your partner is unloading the luggage and the kids from the Espace. Then you realise the key won't turn in the lock on the front door. A pile of black bags is oozing brown liquid into a smelly puddle and strange music - definitely not from your Robbie
Williams collection - hammers out.
Through a gap in the drawn curtains you can see a scruffy lurcher lying
on the new John Lewis sofa. It seems to be licking its testicles. Panicked, thinking that your des res has been turned into a crack den, you ring the doorbell. A pair of eyes peers out through the letterbox. You ask who's there and what are they doing in your house. The eyes are replaced by a mouth that tells you to piss off.
In reality, that is not a common scenario. Most squatted properties have been empty for some time and quite a few belong to the council. A few years ago, some enterprising staff in Hackney housing department ran a profitable scam by selling the keys to unoccupied council flats and pocketing the money. Nowadays, estate safety teams, employed by the council, talk to residents and keep an eye open for any squats that keep legitimate tenants on the housing waiting list.
Although squatting is not illegal, forcing entry is classed as 'trespass' which is against the law. Squatters' organisations advise against the use of crowbars and suggest that it is best to keep a lookout for properties that seem a little run down and have been empty for two or three months. Evictions cannot take place without a court possession order. This has to be applied for within 28 days of the owner becoming aware of the occupation. If the order is granted, the squatters will be required to leave within 24 hours.
The roots of squatting stretch back a long way. In 1649, after the English Civil War, Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers occupied St. George's Hill in Surrey and declared 'England is not a free people, till the poor that have no land have a free allowance to dig and labour the commons.' Needless to say, as punishment for their failure to appreciate the rule of the landowners - many of whom had gained their property by force - the Diggers were beaten up, their houses destroyed and their corn burnt.
After the Second World War, in response to the government's slow progress in rehousing families bombed out of their homes, a national squatting campaign resulted in the mass occupation of vacated barracks. In 1946, over 45,000 people moved into disused army camps. The London squatters' movement targeted empty blocks of luxury flats. Hundreds of homeless people carrying bedding turned up in Kensington High Street at Duchess of Bedford House and were let in through the tradesman's entrance by Tubby Rosen, a councillor from Stepney, who had climbed in through a side window. Four communist councillors were arrested and charged with 'conspiracy to incite and direct trespass.'
The 1970s were a boom time for squatting and its organisations. About 70 members of the All London Squatters Federation met in the unlikely surroundings of Imperial College in November 1973. The minutes reveal confusion as well as determination. Some did not want to be 'organised;' others - spotting an opportunity - wanted to squat a room across the corridor; objections were raised to having a chairman; and, somewhat surprisingly, given that the meeting was being held in the university's electrical engineering department, the lights flickered on and off. Reports were provided from the various squats. Herne Hill said that although they had been evicted, they had made friends with the guard dogs and their handlers and had reoccupied the premises. 'Flying squats' were discussed and the conditional support of the National Front ('housing English people only') was rejected ('tell them to fuck off - housing for all!').
In parts of London, squatting became rather fashionable, but the motives of some of its practitioners were rather different from those of the puritanical Diggers. New Society quoted Chris Welby, a Kentish Town squatter: 'I'm really disappointed with the calibre of people in this squat. There's too much of what I'd call the teacher training college radical, not enough of the university radical. They're not quite up to taking the real opportunities.' In Hampstead, the local paper reported: 'the squatters protested that although they might keep the residents awake at night, the residents woke them at 8 am in the morning when they went to work.'
There is now a widespread culture of squatting in the UK. One of the driving forces is the lack of affordable accommodation. The sale of council properties made a bad situation worse by reducing the public housing stock and rents are often prohibitively expensive. It's a fair bet that the latter-day Diggers - and some of their less reputable companions - will be around for quite a time. In the words of the slogan on a radical website: 'La Squatta Continua.'
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