Their Law: The New Energies of UK Squats, Social Centres and Eviction Resistance in the Fight Against Expropriation

For anyone old enough to remember themselves as a teenager during the nineties, with fond memories of piercing their own ears (multiple times) whilst listening to the second album of The Prodigy ‘Music for a Jilted Generation’ [self-​piercing nostalgia optional], they will recognise ‘Their Law’ as the musical response to the criminalisation of rave culture’s collective enjoyment of ‘repetitive beats’ directly legislated in Section 63(1)(b) of the Criminal Justice Act and Public Order Act 1994. The metallic screams and staples pulsate into an abrupt “fuck them and their law” where the Braintree boys quarterise their angry sentiment against enclosing law, the voice of a radical resistance felt in lower frequency bass, vibration, body, the tribe, the people — rave terms.

I think of Their Law when I think of the energy and metabolism of many communities now fighting the heartbreaking effects of unabated private property acquisition in the UK, of the fierce passions contesting the market-​obsessed policies enacted through unapologetic and unconcerned legislative processes that are entirely ignorant of the difficulties people are facing on a day-​to-​day basis just to be. I think of the physical and emotional pain of loss, upheaval, dependency; forms of impoverishment exacerbated as a result of legally sanctioned expropriating forces. State law is addicted to the drama of capital and we see this self-​fulfilling prophetic tragedy of the commons happening across the urban spectra, notably in aptly labelled ‘ghettos’ which ‘benefit’ from the redevelopment and gentrification which merely allows further unfettered privatisation and commodification. This occurs in areas now prime for private acquisition in South and East London, at the expense of the homeless, the already destitute, the already excluded, and the already vulnerable. The eviction resistances originating across London constituencies of both the Left and Right — Newham (‘Focus E-​15’), Barnet (‘Sweets Way Resists’), Camden (‘Camden Resists’), Lambeth (Guinness), Southwark (Aylesbury), combined with the new confidence of squatted social centres (‘Radical Bank’ of Brighton and Hove’ and ‘Elephant and Castle Social Centre’ in South London), despite the criminalisation of protest – proclaim their own rendition of Their Law; and damn, it sounds good.

There is so much going on in terms of the housing crisis, neoliberal regurgitation of social stock as ‘regeneration’, the removal of squatters’ rights, fights against dispossession, that it is difficult to unpick the legal and political events and frameworks. They are many-​fronted whilst at the same time all bi-​products of the very same process and bifurcation of privatisation reaching new levels of extremity in its nihilism. Even as I write this, Manchester’s St Anne’s Square and Castlefield ‘Homeless Rights for Justice’ tent occupations are awaiting notice of an injunction to remove them from a now ten week old encampment in the city, in a similar move to the City of London Corporation’s removal of Occupy St Paul’s in City of London Corp v Samede [2012] EWCA Civ 160.

Samede and these recent occupations remind us of the use of private law to remove occupations, the commodification of not just public space, but social housing stock, at the same time as the street becoming increasingly viable as a home by many as a result of the very same commodifying processes. The Manchester protestors, and those of other resistances spoken of in this piece, are a mixture of both the homeless and activists, a prevalence in protests whereby the actions are not only symbolic resistances where supporters and campaigners are raising awareness around housing issues, but the activists themselves have directly lost or are threatened with removal from their place of residence as a result of a ruthless interweaving of law and venture capital targeting the most basic of all human and animal practices, that of home-​making.

In recent years there have been a number of cases relaying the increased privatisation of space and the equal demise of protest protections. Protestors have been banned from privately owned shopping malls in Appleby 2003 37 E.H.R.R. 38, climate change activists have come up against heavy civil lawsuits by energy giants on whose land demonstrations have taken place (West Burton being a prime example), and private law mechanisms have been extensively used to remove students during university occupations. There are now some interesting questions in relation to anti-​fracking demonstrations. In Manchester Ship Canal Developments Ltd v Persons Unknown [2014] EWHC 645 (Ch), it was shown that Article 8 can be used as a defence in protests on private land and have the potential to trump the Article 1 Protocol 1 right of peaceful possession of property by the landowner in ‘exceptional circumstances’. The horizontal use of the Human Rights Act 1998 became possible following the decision in the Grow Heathrow case, Malik v Fassenfelt [2013] EWCA Civ 798, [2013] 3 E.G.L.R. 99, where the court itself must comply with human rights obligations under section 6 of the act, thus allowing for human rights protections against actions of private bodies.

Human rights arguments were used in a Magistrates Court hearing on 16 June 2015 by representatives of the collective at the now evicted Radical Bank of Brighton and Hove, in defence of impending possession order proceedings. ‘RadBank’ as it is better known was an occupation of an empty Barclays bank building in the London Road area of Brighton, by activists, locals, students and undoubtedly the homeless, creating Brighton’s first squatted social centre for many years. As the building was of a commercial nature, it fell under the old regime of squatting law, particularly under sections 6, 7, and 12 of the Criminal Law Act 1977. These regulations allow for squatters to remain in occupation until a Court order removes them, as opposed to the forcible removal permitted by section 144 of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012 in properties deemed to be ‘residential’.

RadBank were given only two days’ notice to find legal representation and prepare themselves for the court hearing, and as a result, had to stand in court as litigants-​in-​person. The cuts to legal aid specifically put squatting cases outside of the scope of civil legal aid under Schedule 1 Part 1 of LASPO. It is interesting that despite the collective arguing the infringement of their Article 8, the closest legal protection we have to a right to housing, the judge dismissed their arguments declaring ‘rights cut both ways’ inferring the predominance the rights of Barclay’s Bank from Article 1 Protocol 1. If RadBank would have had the legal representation and notice to prepare that would have allowed a fair hearing, a lawyer would have quickly corrected the judge with a reminder that despite its apparent unhinderance in possession claims, Article 1 Protocol 1 remains a qualified right. Not surprisingly, a possession order was granted by the High Court and the squatters were evicted two days later, but what has happened as a result is a resurgence of political motivation in the Brighton area, to work collectively and to seek alternatives to the mode of property we are subjected to. RadBank’s philosophy was specifically to use space and time for alternative value than that of capital accumulation, to show that time can be slowed down, frozen, either through understanding the institutional legal frameworks, as they did, or to attempt to institute and enact their very own dimension, their very own form of organisation and legality, which for just two weeks they managed to achieve. They stated, “This building has been left empty and will continue to do so. We are doing a lot of good here, but according to law it is better to leave it empty, to rot. Nobody should let this happen.” Interestingly, Barclays have now co-​opted the social centre idea in a gentrified version of community involvement with a new less radical and threatening use of their empty, private property.

Fascinating and encouraging was the decision on 23 June 2015 of the High Court in London to grant residents of the Runnymede eco-​village, site of the signing of Magna Carta 800 years previously, a stay of execution from eviction proceedings brought by Orchid Rynneymede Limited, based on the exceptional historical circumstances of the location as well as another ground-​breaking consideration. Most exciting for squatting collectives and eviction resistances of the future, was the acknowledgement of common rights arguments of sustenance and sustainable land use enshrined (but forgotten) under the twin Charter of Magna Carta, the Charter of the Forest. The possibility of communal rights arguments coming up against individual property arguments, even at a relatively low court level, is something to hold onto amidst the apparent totalitarian enclosing of the commons elsewhere in law. Only last week, the energy and commitment of locals and anti-​fracking activists making their voices heard and listened to in planning decisions, brought about Cuadrilla’s failed application to explore fracking possibilities in Plumpton, Lancashire — another victory for community and collectivism over the avarice and destruction of private interests in land.

According to Serpis, RadBank was also inspired by a feeling of solidarity and common connection with thousands partaking in anti-​austerity actions across the UK, as well as by other social centres, such as the Elephant and Castle Social Centre in the now intensely re-​configured and re-​formatted built and social constructions of Lambeth. The Elephant and Castle pub in its current form on the corner of New Kent Road and Newington Causeway was built in the sixties, but according to reports there has been a pub on that spot since 1765. As a result of losing its liquor licence, the site has become vulnerable to developer acquisition, with plans to use the space as a new branch of ‘Foxtons’ estate agents – oh, the irony. According to Squat​.net, the local community group Walworth Society is turning the Localism rhetoric on its head and using the law for grassroots causes through seeking to register the pub as an ‘asset of community value’ under the Localism Act 2011 and the Assets of Community Value Regulations 2012, which if successful could save the building from becoming another glass fronted faux-​space of the London-​wide property tycoons.

Squatting for use, the tactic of social centres, is a politics of procrastination where a biding for time and stalling a possession order allows for a Hakim Beyian ‘TAZ’, a ‘temporary autonomous zone’ of property for use or even a ‘temporary autonomous home’. To claim an outrage in protest demands the apportionment of time, a moment in which to be heard; it also demands the space in which this detraction resides, which is to stake a claim that ultimately relies on our association with the earth and the resources around us. This association is always the land, our placement at a given time within a sovereignty, where arguably all protest seeks to assert the protection of each of our conceptions of home. This connection with land and home rings so true again as rights to protest and rights to housing are coming together in direct action, both symbolically contesting the enclosure of private property whilst at the same time halting the extraction from one’s place of existence as can be seen happening in the resistances against the neoliberalisation of housing stock. The police holding and questioning of Jasmin from the Focus E-​15 resistance specifically highlighted the draconian measures brought against individuals contesting dispossession of their homes, and the criminalisation of protesting for housing specifically, bringing together this convergence of resistance and habitat once again.

Social centres, whether squatted or otherwise, are not new tactics of protest; there is a long tradition of ‘direct housing’ actions going back to the post-​World War II era, countering the shortage of housing in the aftermath of destroyed stock. This was followed by a second wave of squatting for homes from the late sixties, where families were re-​housed in empty homes by the likes of ‘London Squatters Campaign’ and the ‘Family Squatters Advisory Service’. A third wave of squatting has been seen in recent years, since the seventies, which has been shaped by the legal fiction of ‘squatters’rights’and the influence of punks and artists, as well as alternative, autonomist, anarchist and anti-​capitalist politics of all shapes and sizes. There is arguably a fourth wave of squatting happening through eviction resistance, which by its nature suggests the recalcitrance of the extant neoliberal logic of individual property being enforced today. Squatting and occupation protests have returned to contesting space for shelter itself, and it is these contemporary resistances we turn to next.

TAAThe eviction resistances in London express the contestation of private re-​appropriation of homes through powerful displays of collective strength. They are an emergent movement that demonstrates an ever co-​dependant dance between law and protest. Private accumulation interjects in the business of making homes which ironically but unsurprisingly fails miserably because it actively seeks to remove people from where they live. But the huge property behemoths like ‘Lend Lease’ and ‘CapCo’ care not, because they want the ‘right people’ in their new builds, and to demolish and erase the lives already there. Sound familiar? Colonialism is colonising itself it seems. But these lives are vibrant, verdant, vital, and redolent, will not be wiped away and are time and time again coming back with their own version of collective law and resistance.

Focus E-​15 has become somewhat of an institution now, but it began back in September 2013 with twenty-​nine young mothers from a homeless hostel who, according to their blog, were served eviction notices from East Newham Housing Association. It was selling off the property as a result of local authority cuts to social housing subsidies. They were offered to be re-​housed in Manchester, Birmingham – hundreds of miles away from where they had lived all their lives, not to mention their families, their heritage, and their sense of belonging. The young mothers started having a stall each Saturday in Stratford High Street, raising awareness of their plight and the eviction notices they were served. Their slogan ‘social housing not social cleansing’ becoming the by-​word for a developing movement. The campaign caught the hearts and minds of many and since then there have been marches, celebrity endorsements, appearances of the collective this year at Glastonbury and Brighton Fringe. The campaign is an integral part of a wider mobilisation against expropriation across London. In a similar move to the Aylesbury occupation in Southwark, the young mothers highlighted the abandonment and laying to waste of empty social housing stock by occupying huge swathes of abandoned council housing ready to be demolished. Similar resistances to housing association and council sell-​off prompted evictions are happening throughout London with extant actions against Annington Homes and Barnet Homes happening in Sweets Way Estate, as well as Camden Resists and Islington Park Street halting their evictions from One Housing Group properties.

The Aylesbury estate in Walworth, Southwark was similarly the coming together of direct housing action through protest and protecting people’s homes through the use of occupation. This huge action rang similar to protests and squatting going back to the sixties and seventies. On January 31st 2015, a 500 strong ‘March for Homes’ took place uniting activists and communities from across London. Part of the march broke away and formed a 150 person occupation of Chartridge House on the Aylesbury Estate as well as one of the main blocks being emptied for demolition and private housing development by Southwark Council. After two weeks of occupation on Monday February 16th, the authorities aquired a possession order to evict the occupiers. The occupiers remained until April whilst fencing (aptly named ‘Aylesbury Alcatraz’) and heavy security closed in the still remaining residents who were yet to be ‘decanted’, and who are still living in the enclosure of Aylesbury. It is set for demolition as a ‘First Development Site’ under the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) on the re-​development of brownfield land.

Squatting and occupation is the response to expropriation, but what is the politico-​juridical nature of the regime of expropriation that is prompting the new fervour of resistances? In an era where we see over a million people on the social housing waiting list and ‘affordable’ homes being built too slowly whilst the ubiquity of huge off-​the-​scale property developments buy up the last bastion of social housing remaining from Thatcher’s right to buy, accelerating across the capital like a spoilt, greedy child whilst its parents sit back in an indulgence of recklessness. Not only does this market-​schizoid state watch on with a co-​dependent infatuation enabling, encouraging and excusing the commodifying encroachments of its demonic relation, but it sanctifies its ideology in a joint enterprise of legal and extra-​legal manoeuvres that unabashedly protect the propertied and annihilate the unpropertied. There appears an ambush of exploitative law and politics protecting the sovereignty of the hyper-​elite, suffuse from all understanding that if they erase the poor, they erase themselves.

Directly prompting the eviction resistances we have seen in London are the cuts to public funding of social housing and big property’s manipulation of planning procedures undermined by right and left party policies that have allowed for local authority social housing quotas to be ignored through a system of legalised blackmail. This has resulted in housing association sell-​offs of hostels, supported homes, shelters for the homeless and vulnerable — the impending and actual eviction of residents, to make way for grotesque new development schemes. Top of FormBottom of FormSection 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 allows for formalised and legitimated ‘planning gain’, whereby in accordance with the sociopathy of the Localism agenda, property developers seeking planning approval for projects from local councils can offer additional benefits to the community in the form of financial support in order to make their planning applications appear more attractive. Thus, given the economically malnourished state councils are in as a result of austerity measures, the bigger the private property project, the more money offset to them from the likes of Lend Lease and its controversial combined demolition and development strategy of the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle, amongst others. In the words of writer Oliver Wainwright: “The impact of a hundred new homes might be mitigated by money for extra school places, or traffic calming measures. In practice, since council budgets have been so viciously slashed, Section 106 has become a primary means of funding essential public services, from social housing to public parks, health centres to highways, schools to play areas.” As Wainwright reminds us, the market seduction of planning is not new, as is quite clearly the case of the clever rhetoric of the NPPF that proclaimed the presumption in favour of sustainable development, but with little or no concern for the ecological effects of construction, but a fixation once again on pleasing the ever obnoxious demands of commerce through encouraging brownfield development in examples such as Aylesbury.

Additionally, the ‘right to acquire’ legislation currently going through Parliament, which would allow housing association residents to buy their homes, will further reduce social housing stock. Yet according to blogger Amy Ling, it is questionable in terms of its legality as it forces housing associations to sell their property, and thus may undermine Article 1 Protocol 1 protections under the European Convention of Human Rights. She explains that the right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions is an unqualified right which following landmark Pye v UK (2008) 46 E.H.R.R. 45 concerning adverse possession and state limitations on the extent to which property rights can be qualified, such interference with individual’s rights must be deemed proportionate. Aside from possibly contravening charity covenants and duties, legislating compulsory sale of housing association property without rightful compensation from the state would support the argument the Tory party’s proposals compelling housing associations to sell off their stock to their occupants would be a disproportionate measure in the eyes of Pye. The ‘Right to Buy and Right to Acquire Schemes (Research) Bill 2014 – 15’ had its first reading in the House Of Commons on February 4th, 2015.

Helen Carr and David Cowan refer to the neoliberalisation of social housing as its ‘residualisation’. The violent effects of residualisation mean that not just homes disappear but so too do people. If it is not enough to remove all housing safety nets, implement wholesale cuts to housing legal aid and housing-​related benefits, impose the notorious bedroom tax, and remove the security of tenure, then the bullying will continue through the criminalisation of a person with a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) once they are finally on the street, helpless, distraught. Full spectrum abandonment.

The question is, where does a law of capital, the capital of law, suggest we go, once we have been sold off, evicted, dispossessed, forcibly removed, criminalised, traumatised? The encroachment of private property into previously charitable and subsidised spaces such as housing associations indicates that private property has run out of commons and what we thought were public spaces to exploit and now seeks to enclose the already enclosed. This is a new era of governance that cares not for the benevolence of charity, non-​profit, or giving, even in a ‘proper’ form to the extent that housing associations, for instance, should assert an equal right to exclude as any other.

Equally, the closing in of private interests on the right to protest, and the preponderance of private and quasi-​public spaces has now reached the point that people are indeed protesting in their own homes or the threatened homes of others. This qualifies the insatiable appetite of capital as it eats the remaining spaces in which we can exist, be, converse, sleep, kiss, and cry in to nothingness — whilst moronically cannibalising itself.

Pulling together the various perspectives on housing and its resistances, it is not easy to decipher a clear distinction between government acquisition and commercial acquisition. In Aylesbury and Heygate, state compulsory purchase can be confused with state-​sanctioned commercial development acquisitions allowed through malleable planning procedures. This lack of distinction between state and commerce is of course what we understand as neoliberalism, but it feels as though that term is tired and no longer does justice to the violent biopolitics exemplified in this piece. After coming into contact with the inspiring work of ‘ecosopher’ Aetzel Griffioen as a result of an engagement with the squatting scene in the Netherlands through the recent art, law and resistance project of artist Adelita Husni-​Bey, I can see Griffioen’s Guattarian-​infused assertion from ‘The Three Ecologies’ (1989) that we are living in an age of ‘integrated world capitalism’ (IWC) as made so clear by the planning, policy and policing behaviours of the UK government. IWC is, as explained by Griffieon as he introduces his ‘speculative’ suggestions to counter IWC, is an integration of market and state where the government and market have become as one through the ‘pincer and scissor’ of IWC as it ‘valorizises’ human activity, ostensibly the reduction of the characteristically separate values of life and what it is to be human, into interchangeable economic value. Griffioen relates this to Naomi Klein’s understanding of ‘extractivism’ from her This Changes Everything: Capitalism v Climate (2014), being, “…the wider mentality of making profit without caring much for the consequences.”1

I have found Griffioen’s combination of Guattari’s IWC with Klein’s extractivism as poignantly and painfully descriptive of the manifestation of capital and governance that we experience today, epitomised by the expropriations that have been mentioned here. I do not have the conceptual or philosophical formulation to describe our situation any better than Griffioen, Guattari and Klein but I do see a resonance with Griffioen’s assertion of the Guattarian claim that to counter IWC is “to revive forms of solidarity it is therefore necessary to work directly on the subjectivities of people inside and outside of the market-​state.” And that this bifurcatory, paradigmatic shift in thinking and practice is produced in the performances of resistances that we are seeing in RadBank, Sweets Way Resists, Focus E-​15 and so on. An emergent network of alternative organisation that exists on the actuality and potentiality of creating new commons out of commodified others; an explosive and revolutionary metabolism that demands our attention in the face of a grey and deceptive monotony, the all-​out commercial acquisition of life and vitality itself.

Even more interesting to these resistances and burgeoning alternatives is that I met Aetzel Griffioen, a former squatter himself, at the aforementioned Adelita’s art project entitled ‘White Paper: The Law’ in collaboration with Casco, Office for Art, Design and Theory based in Utrecht, Netherlands. Another important example of a convergent call of zeitgeist, a call of protest and squatting movements seeking to assert a new way of property, and even a new way of art, ‘White Paper’ was a powerful coming together of art, occupation, property, radical law, housing, home and protest expressed within squatting practices and communities. Groups of scholars and activists were involved in the writing of a convention to reflect the wishes of the squatting community when fighting evictions and the prevalence of criminalisation within the Netherlands. This was the writing of a ‘use-​value’ understanding of property and the drafting of a convention expressing the wishes of the squatting community in the Netherlands. This Convention has been termed CUS ‘Convention on the Use of Space’ and is hoped to be used as a viable document by and for squatters in defence against a number of threats to their existence and way of life in light of the criminalisation of all squatting in the country since 2010. The art exhibition of the event opened in Utrecht in May, with the various documents and media taken from the drafting meetings as pieces exhibited as works of art simultaneously. Legally, the most immediate use for the convention would be in court where the judiciary could consider the text in their ruling. This public drafting of the law was a modern day reminder of the people as legislators and the unremitting role of law within protest, particularly around the right to housing, the right to a home, and the right to use and not to own per se. This was an innovation of an agonist law, a project specifically countering IWC, a re-​conceptualisation of property in terms of a nonlinear, transient and practice/​occupation-​basis in terms of use.

Squatted social centres and eviction resistances demonstrate a resurgence of energy, vitalism, and activism – doing not just talking. The explosion of eviction resistances and a triumphant and exciting return of squatted social centres notably in London and Brighton in the past few weeks, demonstrates communities have been simultaneously marginalised and radicalised to take direct action by a specifically calculated market-​infused state regime that shapes its policies through laws that remove, exclude, evict, extinguish homes and ways of life of those already existing on the edges of law and agency. Countless times you hear of the failure of representative politics in serving those that are invisibilised by law, as Andreas Philippopoulos-​Mihalopoulos would say – and the reality is, that this is true, and worse. Representative politics today is a mess. It is a whitewash of expropriating and exclusionary policies of capital dressed up as democracy, experienced as a dangerously boring and manipulative mediocrity, insisting on its monopoly of the political sphere whilst disappearing those arguments that contest its status quo.

The fact is, is that the resistances I have talked about need no agent or soapbox either from academics or from celebrities, they are creating their own literature, as they always have done — zines, alternative printing and publications, talking, conspiring, singing, crying, kicking, blocking, laughing; through blogging, social media, alternative practices — they are archiving every second, every minute of their struggle with solid legal, technical, philosophical and political prowess to which we all should take heed.

I dare you and I dare me, as academics, to find our own definition of impact just like the contemporary squats and occupations and artists are doing, in the spirit of the Prodigal jilted generation we began with where we can upturn Their Law with another, counter IWC’s enclosing of housing, and recreate the institution by instituting true activism in the coming together of uncommodified thought and practice in the fight against expropriation.

Published by Lucy Finchett-Maddock on Critical Legal Thinking – Law & the Political – 7 July 2015 (Part 1) and 13 July 2015 (Part 2)