On 1st December 1968 a small group of homeless people and libertarian anarchists calling themselves the “London Squatters Campaign” occupied the rooftop of a luxury block of flats in East London to protest against the inherent contradiction between empty property and homelessness. Throughout the 1970s and nearly everywhere in the UK, squatting communities sprung up in empty streets or blocks of flats which had been decanted of residents pending redevelopment or roads programmes which had not yet commenced, having been postponed or abandoned. The squatters’ movement was a social and a political movement, born of a sense of injustice and a desire to improve the housing conditions of people in need, seeking to effect change in living conditions and standards by confronting policy makers and state institutions.
On 1st December 1968 a small group of homeless people and libertarian anarchists calling themselves the “London Squatters Campaign” occupied the rooftop of a luxury block of flats in East London to protest against the inherent contradiction between empty property and homelessness. The London Squatters Campaign occupied a total of 17 houses in the London Borough of Redbridge during the first six months of 1969 and at least 13 homeless families were housed during this time. One of these families, a couple and their seven children, had been homeless for 12 years. Following a series of violent evictions, for which the local council was heavily criticised by the media and public, a formal agreement was reached whereby Redbridge Council licensed empty properties on a short-term basis to homeless families. The London Squatters’ Campaign moved on to other London boroughs where similar agreements were reached. This event is generally acknowledged to have marked the beginning of the UK squatters’ movement which until the 1980s transcended local protest activity to become a national social movement, with tens of thousands of people housing themselves in empty property across the UK. The squatters’ movement was a social and a political movement, born of a sense of injustice and a desire to improve the housing conditions of people in need, seeking to effect change in living conditions and standards by confronting policy makers and state institutions.
Britain’s housing crisis
In the months following the first protest occupations by the London Squatters Campaign, it was primarily homeless families who squatted but increasing numbers of single people soon followed suit. Initially, this was seen in a wave of what at the time were termed ‘hippie squats’ involving groups of young people, occupying large properties for use as communes. The most well-known of these began on September 15th 1969 when a group of more than 100 young people calling themselves the London Street Commune occupied a 50 room empty mansion building in London’s Hyde Park. This marked the beginning of a distinction in press reporting and public sentiment between “deserving and undeserving” squatters, between genuine homeless people and the “hippies” very often viewed as “parasite squatters”. Nonetheless, the squatting movement was set in motion. Over the 1970s and nearly everywhere in the UK, squatting communities sprung up in empty streets or blocks of flats which had been decanted of residents pending redevelopment or roads programmes which had not yet commenced, having postponed or abandoned. Predominantly, squatters targeted empty property owned by local authorities, rather than housing in private ownership. Pragmatically, these squats tended to last longer: Local Authorities had to observe due law and process. In UK law at the time property owners had to apply to the court for ‘possession’ in order to legally evict squatters. If the application was successful, a Possession Order would be granted by the court specifying the date by which the property had to be vacated. Speedy illegal eviction was less likely and lengthy court proceedings bought squatters time.
Clearly, the availability of empty properties was a precondition for squatting but the geographical concentration of empty properties (most particularly in London) contributed to sustain the movement in terms of both organisation and mobilisation: evicting one household is more difficult than evicting twenty households living side by side. It also facilitated the development of thriving communities. When squatters weren’t defending themselves against eviction or campaigning against local and national housing policy and practice, they were busy setting up local businesses (wholefood shops and cafés were commonplace, always in squatted buildings and usually run as cooperatives), repairing and maintaining squats, organising cultural and leisure events, and experimenting with alternative forms of living:
“A year ago, 27 Fonthill Road was an old shop that had been gutted three times by the council. Some people decided to reclaim it. They had lots of fun clearing rubble, fixing roofs, plumbing and painting. Then, one day in March, they took down the corrugated iron and let the sun shine in. There was a jumble sale and a puppet show. […] We’ve got used to calling it “The Caf”, but it isn’t that; it’s a space for anyone to use and experiment with … come along on Thursday with tools, paint, curtains, ideas, musical instruments, cakes, information, tea, lino, carpets and things to heat the place with”
Freed from the constraints of conventional modes of property consumption and the power relations therein, squatters redefined dominant notions of household, family, work, relationships, house and space. Communality and co-operation were prominent themes expressed by the movement and innovation was prevalent. Households were typically large and non-nuclear comprising groups of single people, couples and children sometimes defining themselves as one family and usually identifying as one household unit. Properties were adapted and redesigned to accommodate cultural needs (large communal spaces for instance), allowing households to move freely from one house to another, abandoning notions of private space and creating dedicated spaces for non-domestic activities such as music, meditation and motorbike repair workshops.
Over the 1970s, a proliferation of squatters’ organisations or groups emerged, often geographically based and locally organised, typically taking the name of the street, neighbourhood or borough (Villa Road Squatters, Finsbury Park Squatters and such like). These local groups were used for strategizing, organising protest activity but also for social and community purposes. Many also produced local squatters’ newsletters containing information, campaign updates, polemics and in some cases creative material such as poetry. Several communities opened an office (always a squat) which could act as the headquarters of the local group. Attempts were also made to bring squatters together at a city level, to share news and information, keep communication between groups flowing, to offer and garner support, and to devise campaigns of city or national interest. This network of groups were prolific in their publication of leaflets, newsletters, campaign material and such like and were the key source of communication and mobilisation. The verbal and written information exchange facilitated through these networks allowed squatters from across a city to mobilise quickly in order to help a house or street of squatters defend their homes against eviction. It was also instrumental in sustaining and promoting the spread of squatting: lists of empty properties were kept by many squatters’ groups who would readily distribute these out to people needing a place to live or facing eviction from their current squat. Squatters’ group offices also acted as a port of call for people looking for somewhere to live.
Grass roots community
Most squatters groups operated loose participatory structures, driven by a grass roots communitarian ideology which emphasised community control and decentralisation. These groups tended to be located and rooted in the local area – both operating locally and directing their action locally. Meetings tended to observe very few formalities and sought to encourage active participation from all. Often expressed as a ‘taking back’ of control from a bureaucratic state which does not have people and their needs as a focus and driven by a perceived failure, or criticism of existing democratic processes, mass, direct involvement and grass roots control was posited as the solution:
“Action evolves from the grass roots upwards […] no leaders, therefore no delegates, no coercion of others therefore no voting, people making their own decisions, decentralization not centralization. Organization constantly changing, evolving, discuss problems until consensus emerges […] centralism is oppressive because it takes control away from the base and it’s at the base that the most important actions lie” (excerpt from an anonymous paper entitled London organization, some thoughts, circa 1970)
Although at some point there has been some Marxist-oriented attempts to bring centralisation to the movement and a certain sense of structures, they never really gained a foothold in a movement that was largely anti-authoritarian and libertarian. Avoiding hierarchy was a common pattern across the movement, event sometimes at the expense of practical and strategic advantage. The general anti-authoritarian tone of the movement explains the differing (although not incongruent) priorities and objectives of participants, and of the local squatting groups to which they affiliated. For some, the priority was to save houses from demolition and neighbourhoods from the wholesale redevelopment. Others sought to lobby the local authority to make better use of its empty property, utilising it effectively for housing homeless families. And for others the main attraction of squatting was precisely the autonomy it afforded and the possibility to explore new ways of life:
“For me personally it was the community side of it first and foremost so if the council had offered me a room on the 19th floor of a tower block I wouldn’t have been interested at all! Coz’ it was the idea of living there in a different situation and having an organic community” (interview with a squatter)
From the beginning of the movement and until the late 1980s, the position squatters’ occupied shifted from one where they confronted welfare and policy institutions and where people met their own housing needs autonomously from these institutions, to one within the system of welfare and state provision. A squatters’ movement, by definition, ceases to exist once the participants are no longer squatting and dispersal renders local organisation more difficult, fragmenting the critical mass which was so vital to the continued strength and success of the movement. As the documentation and fanzines produced by the movement tend to show, squatters were well aware of that dilemma: campaigning for “decent housing for all” was at some point campaigning for the demise of the movement itself. By the early 1980s, then, there had been a perceptible demise of a visible and active squatters’ movement. Many of the communities which had sprung up during the 1970s were no longer visible and “normality” was restored to many of the streets and blocks of flats which had, at one time, been home to hundreds of squatters.
Social welfare and lifestyle
In many ways, the UK squatters’ movement was the embodiment of all that the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Participants explicitly conceived of squatting as a means through which to challenge cultural norms and develop alternatives: by challenging traditional housing allocation systems, redefining housing from a purely functional to a cultural space, redefining traditional concepts of the legitimate ‘household unit’; by living communally, and working co-operatively; and by the self-provision of housing. The movement was unmistakably a housing movement. It emerged from a housing crisis, it accommodated people in often dire housing need and the very prolific campaigning demanded action to relieve housing need. This was a movement sparked by and concerned with problems of unequal distribution of a basic material resource, housing:
“Squatting is the occupation of EMPTY houses by homeless people to solve their immediate housing needs”
It would be of questionable value to separate those who were primarily concerned with housing needs, and therefore more inclined to co-operate with local authorities, from those who were primarily concerned with exploring new way of life and consumption. From the 1960s onwards, the UK squatters’ movement transformed itself, through numerous discussions, projects and other more or less conflicting circumstances. Those who were concerned with social welfare and politics co-existed with those who were more concerned with a particular lifestyle, seeking for communal living and a more autonomist understanding of squatting. One could even say that, in the case of the UK, they were at some point co-constitutive to each other.
Legacy of the squatters’ movement
The squatters’ movement in the UK is of immense social and political importance. Many participants are in positions of power and influence today (in journalism, architecture, environment, charitable bodies, lobbying organisations, local and national politics) and have taken the ideas and ideologies of the squatters’ movement with them into these professions. Houses (indeed streets and communities) once earmarked for demolition to make way for roads or blocks of flats are still standing today because squatters occupied them in the 1960s and 1970s, influencing the shape of the local urban environment and of housing supply. And housing co-operatives and associations which have accommodated hundreds of people over the past 30 years would not have existed were it not for squatters in that era.
 Nick Wates and Christian Wolmer (eds.), Squatting: The Real Story, London, Bay Leaf Books, 1980.
 Nick Wates, The Battle for Tolmers Square, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976.
 There has been some modification to the law over the years, and possession is now easier to obtain under certain circumstances. But this procedure for evicting squatters still remains.
 From a newsletter simply entitled ‘Squatters’ Newsheet’, produced by squatters living in an area called Finsbury Park in the London Borough of Islington, undated, but probably 1976 and not before 1975.
 Squatters Action Council Newsheet No. 8, March 30th 1976, produced by the Squatters’ Action Council, capitals in original.