Last November, a group of people occupied the empty Conservative Club on Church Street, Lenton, in the hope of turning the abandoned space into ‘The Bigger Society Social Club’, where workshops, films and discussions would take place in support of movements for radical social change. The choice of location was a blatant critique of the current governing party and their ‘Big Society’, which promises a transfer of ‘power’ back to the community and a bottom-up solution to the nation’s economically self-inflicted problems.
The building was renovated in preparation for a series of events run by volunteers, taking place over a week, predominantly in response to Justice Secretary Ken Clarke’s attempt to criminalise squatting. However, at 4 pm on 28th of November the door of the building was kicked in and the occupiers were allegedly violently and illegally removed.
In spite of this the occupants, in their determination, moved the protest to the Sumac Centre in Forest Fields. What the ‘Bigger Society’ has attempted to illustrate is that the steps necessary for real social change involve the ability to claim back autonomous or free space in the city and to use this space to perform protest and establish a truly egalitarian ‘bigger society’. The government’s attempts to pass clause 136 of the Legal Aid and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which further criminalises squatting, will not only serve to further marginalise those members of society most in need, but will also remove the right to use space as an essential instrument of protest.
The issue of squatting is undoubtedly contentious. To some the word may conjure up images of dystopian crack dens filled with undesirable human remnants and a general repulsiveness towards the culprits themselves at displacing an innocent family, their 2.4 children and their golden Labrador – or at least that’s how squatters have been (mis)represented in the press. Alarmist accounts have successfully helped to cement a negative attitude towards squatters therefore making plans to criminalise the act of squatting a popular policy in the public eye. The sad fact is that squatting is a necessity for many of these people and in reality, most incidences of squatting are victimless.
Buildings which have been abandoned for years are occupied and in some instances the squatters, in an attempt to make these buildings more habitable, repair and revitalise abandoned spaces. Moreover, the 1977 Criminal Law Act sufficiently protects displaced residential occupiers by making it a criminal offence to squat in someone’s home. The new law intends to make it an offence to squat in vacant residential buildings without tenants. If it became illegal to occupy these spaces, squatters would end up on the streets and the problem of homelessness would become strikingly more visible; either that or they will end up in our already teeming prisons.
Crisis UK has recently indicated that more than 40% of homeless people have resorted to squatting at some point whilst Squatters Action for Secure Homes (Squash) has revealed that homelessness increased nationally by 15% last year and rough sleeping in London is up by 8%. The shortage of social housing combined with ruthless cuts is leading the UK into a deepening housing crisis and those who are most in need of assistance are continually being forced to bear the brunt of governmental and economic failings. Further criminalisation would only serve to exacerbate the current housing crisis and thus the motivations for such legislation seem unnecessary and cruel. The apparent ‘victims’ of squatting sit on their portfolio of empty properties in the hope that continued speculation around the extent of the problem will work to their advantage, whilst the truly vulnerable continue to struggle with a multitude of problems inconceivable to the ignorant privileged and unreported by the scaremongering press.
The legislation would not only serve to further victimise the homeless, but could also potentially limit the right to use occupation as a legitimate form of protest. ‘The Bigger Society Social Club’ and the ‘Occupy Nottingham’ movement (which has coincidentally, at the time of writing, just been served with an eviction notice) have illustrated the vital importance of our ability to use space in the city as a means of protest, in the hope that reclaiming such space could lead to a more equal and just society. The criminalisation of squatting would repeal this right, and with it we would sacrifice the right to change our cities and thus also sacrifice the ability to change our lives.