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Wednesday, 18 February 2015

The art of squatting

Last year I became a vociferous supporter of a certain type of squatting. I don't practice what I preach - at the mere suggestion of it my Mum burst into tears and I figured the arguments just weren't worth it. However, there's a lot to be said for this type of community living.

Squatting isn't all the Daily Mail would have us believe, i.e. urine soaked walls, dirty needles and a faintly hungry air. The squatting I advocate is more at the community-living end of the scale, although admittedly it often starts with an illicit break in. Then follows a period of making a venue habitable - hard and dirty work - before squatters can settle down to the relative discomfort of just living there, usually with the intention to focus on more artistic pursuits. The alternative of working all hours, to scrape together the monthly rent for a central box with peeling paint, certainly leaves a lot to be desired.

My interest in squatters began with a long philosophical chat on the roof of a squat one sunny day in Camden; I was chasing up a story about graffiti and had never been in a squat in my life. One seasoned squatter, Gee, convinced me squatting is less about cheap housing and more of a social movement. There are numerous derelict buildings in London - often the reason they are left empty is shady, money driven and has poor social consequences in the long run. The squatters I met consider themselves more as ethical property guardians. Yes they break in to a place but they are quick to establish a good rapport with the landlord and they even pay bills where necessary. In the meantime it serves as a location for artists of all kinds to engage in their passion without the hugely detrimental stress of paying exorbitant rent.

During a twelve year 'tenancy' at a previous squat, the 419 Gallery in Leytonstone, Gee et al were contacted by MP Mike Weatherley's people - the same MP who vehemently opposed squatting. He wanted to look around the place, and he'd be joined by Richard Madeley (of course) for the purpose of making a documentary about squatting. Gee showed them around the squat, from the recording studios to the art-filled exhibition room; "I told him, 'almost every band you like has played in a squat at some time or other'". The squatters had just been given notice by their 'landlords' and they asked Weatherley for help.

Richard Madeley's journalistic instincts took over; "Hold on hold on, can I get this clear? As an investigative journalist, are you, Mike Weatherley, the MP who banned squatting saying that you'll help this man - a squatter - get a new building?". It was a slightly sheepish yes. Considering that there are an estimated 700,000 empty properties in the UK, it does seem short-sighted at best not to consider the benefits of working with willing communities (i.e. squatters) in an effort to make use of the resources we have available to us.