Brief history of squatting and land struggle in England (Part II)

In the 20th century, common lands were almost non-existent and agriculture was sunk in a depression. Enclosed land was sold as it was seen as a liability rather than an asset. People living on these lands were called, disdainfully, squatters because of the conditions of their houses, although they were legally occupying that land.

The squatting symbol (courtesy of Wolfgang Sterneck)

A famous squatting case, after the Second World War, was the occupation of abandoned military camps by soldiers coming back from the war. Squatting was necessary because no new houses were built in England in the previous six years and the demobilized members of the armed forces found themselves coming back to crowded households without the possibility of buying a house for their families and themselves.

The ex-servicemen created an organization, the Squatters’ Protection Society, to provide people in their situation a place to live in one of the camps. The campaign was not welcomed by the authorities who tried, first to turn the public against them and then turning off the basic services (i.e. water, electricity and gas). After some time, the government accepted the squatters and directed homeless people to these camps, creating a division between the original squatters and the new squatters accommodated by the government with better structures and commodities. After years squatting most of the squatters were on the government housing queue, waiting to move to a new house and, after about 10 years, the remaining squatters were moved to the newly created town at the same place.

In the 60s and 70s there was an increase in squatters’ activity. Starting in 1968, a group of people led by Ron Bailey and Jim Radford started squatting houses for homeless families. Most of these activists were not squatters themselves but, moved by the inefficiency of the government housing queues, they decided to take action to help families in risk situations. As with the military camps, the actions were not well received by authorities and after some struggles, sometimes involving thugs and investigators, a compromise was found. Many of these squatting groups became housing co-ops, managing properties bought by the local authorities for this purpose.

Maybe the most emblematic struggle against property speculation in the 20th century was the battle for Tolmers Square. Starting in 1957, over a period of 19 years, neighbours of the square fought against urban development in that area. As with Bailey and Radford in the 60s, there were an increasing number of homeless people in temporary accommodation, waiting for a house on the government lists, or sleeping rough, while there were many empty buildings and many of them publicly owned. In Tolmers Square there were many empty houses but the plans for the area was to transform it into a commercial area.

During those 19 years many activists joined the cause to stop speculation. In its last stage, starting in 1973, many squatters moved to Tolmers Square. This occupation raised some concerns among neighbours and activists, the squatters had very bad reputation in the press which could hinder their campaign to save the square. Also, the neighbours and activists supported the idea of private property and “paying your way”.

But their presence helped the cause after all. The population in the area was decreasing and an abandoned area would become a slum. The developers were going to use this to force the council to take action on the area. After an anti-eviction campaign and some other campaigns by other people involved in the struggle, the Camden Council, responsible for the area, bought Tolmers Square back from the developers. It was though to be a victory, but the council’s plans for the area were similar to those of the developers. Some residential buildings were saved but many others were demolished to finally build office buildings.

References:

Bailey, R. (1973). The Squatters. Penguin Books.

Ward, Colin (2002) “Cotters and Squtters: Housing’s Hidden History,” Five Leaves Publications

Ward, Colin (2004) “The Hidden History of Housing,” History and Policy

Wates, N. (1976). The Battle for Tolmers Square. Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.

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