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Making Space: Squatting & Trespass

The history of squatting and trespass is a history of contesting property. But despite its reputation, the aim has never been to take over people’s homes while they are down the shops or on holiday. The purpose has always been to push back against historic enclosures, unequal property distributions and wasteful financial speculation by repurposing unused resources.

When over 40,000 people spontaneously squatted empty military camps across the UK in 1946, this was a direct reaction to the post-war housing crisis, exacerbated by the blitz and the baby boom. By repairing the abandoned Nissen huts, they did what squatters have always done: met their housing needs and established new communities. At the time, this was met with widespread support, as demonstrated by a failed attempt to evict squatters from the Manor Lane gunsite in Sheffield, when the demolition crew refused to work until the squatters were found alternative housing.

Today, squatting continues to be used to meet housing needs, although since 2012 this has been criminalised in residential buildings, leading many to shelter in unsuitable commercial buildings, turn to informal arrangements with property owners, or risk rough sleeping. During the Beast from the East snow storm in early 2018, the group Streets Kitchen squatted a long-vacant office building in London and sheltered over 100 homeless people, setting up a kitchen and clothes bank, as well as access to healthcare and veterinarians. Despite undoubtedly saving lives, they were evicted within a fortnight and that building remains empty today.

Reclaiming empty buildings has also been central for raising oppressed and marginalised voices. A single street in Brixton, Railton Road, saw both the Black Panthers and gay liberation groups establish squats throughout the 70s and 80s, allowing them to secure housing otherwise denied by landlord discrimination, and form communities around bookshops, social centres and communal living. In contrast to the ‘hostile environment’ faced by both migrants and citizens from the Windrush generation today, squatting allowed these groups to establish comfortable environments for political organisation and alternative living arrangements.

Squatting has made possible much of the culture we enjoy today. After seeking independence from the UK in 1977 and requesting UN peacekeeping forces to prevent ‘invasion’ (i.e. eviction), the Free Republic of Frestonia in Notting Hill quickly became a cultural hub. It was here that The Clash recorded Combat Rock and the upcycling collective Mutoid Waste Company was founded, later spawning the group that designed Arcadia at Glastonbury Festival. The origins of contemporary dance music can also be found in the free festival and rave scenes of the late 80s and early 90s, before being criminalised and commercialised. While many sound systems still exist, it’s much harder to find spaces for non-profitable culture.

Trespass has also been used to secure access to the countryside. In 1932, workers from Manchester and Sheffield took on the gamekeepers at Kinder Scout, forcing their way to the summit and setting a precedent for ‘the right to roam’, later brought into law. They faced imprisonment for ‘public nuisance’ the last time this offence was used against activists – until the recent experience of the Frack Free Four. Yet today, thanks to the mass trespass, we can enjoy the national parks and open countryside of the UK. And who among us doesn’t enjoy a ramble in the Peak District?

Ultimately, what squatting and trespass demonstrate is that the way we think about property is not fixed. Historically and today, these actions directly contest anti-social and inefficient uses of property in order to make space for those otherwise denied access to housing and the countryside, for political organisation and alternative living, or to provide opportunities for unprofitable artistic experimentation. To paraphrase anarchist geographer Colin Ward, we might do well to remember that “we are all descended from squatters”.

Next article in issue 62

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