As residents of Southwark and Lambeth, we were disappointed (if not wholly surprised) to learn that the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, received a jointly signed letter earlier this week from the Head of Lambeth Council, Lib Peck; MP for Streatham, Chuka Umunna; and MP for Dulwich & West Norwood, Tessa Jowell, calling for the criminalisation of squatting to be extended to commercial properties.
The further demonisation of squatting, in a climate of increasing desperation and homelessness, couldn’t come at a more unwelcome time. Many residents across Southwark and Lambeth are increasingly struggling to keep up with the rising costs of living and, in far too many cases, to keep a roof over their heads. The squatting community has traditionally been a key component in providing a lifeline to those with nowhere else to turn.
There are thousands of empty buildings across London, many of which have been deliberately left for long periods of time. It would be far more preferable for these to be put to use by people who have nowhere else to live, rather than creating an entirely new criminal class of Londoners who are guilty of nothing more than being forced into poverty. If politicians are serious about reducing levels of squatting and trying to solve the root causes of something they present as a problem, they would be demanding and implementing the construction of truly affordable social housing and regulating the amount of rent private landlords can charge instead of pushing tenants out of particular boroughs, without much in the way of support, in the hope of attracting more affluent residents.
We only need to look at developments across our two boroughs in recent times for evidence of the ongoing process which this letter was attempting to strengthen: Entire communities are being broken apart; we have seen Lambeth Council aggresively pursuing residents who have fallen into rent arrears due to the imposition of the Bedroom Tax; we have witnessed the total destruction of the community at the Heygate Estate, against the wishes of its residents (some of whom were rehoused miles away from the area); residents of Rushcroft Road, Brixton, were violently evicted from their homes so that Lambeth Council could make a quick buck on the sale of the land; and house prices and rents rise ever higher and higher.
What this letter really emphasised was the immense gulf between the people who live in Southwark and Lambeth, and those politicans who claim to represent them. It is clear that if our ‘respresentatives’ had any real understanding of the lives and struggles of the people who live in their constitutencies, and if they had any pretence of representing their wishes, the last thing on their minds would be attempting to drive yet more people from their homes.
Housing Action Southwark & Lambeth is a relatively new group made up of residents of two boroughs who are working together to combat some of the problems that residents face; many of whom have been completely abandoned by the institutions which have a duty of care over them. We live the experience of Southwark and Lambeth residents. When we meet, we listen to each other’s concerns. We attempt to offer support, both moral and legal, to those who are finding themselves on the vicious end of an austerity climate that we did nothing to cause. We share in stories of the latest way in which housing offices have lied to us, misled us and threatened us. Everyone we meet is worried about where they will live when they can no longer afford to live in their current home. We are all struggling to make the next rent payment. The criminalisation of squatting does absolutely nothing to help with any of these conditions which rather begs the question: if our elected representative are seeking legislation against their constituents’ interests, exactly whose interests are they working for?