Protecting and enhancing commons: 1,000,000 Empty Houses in the UK - Authoritarian or Co-operative Housing?
There are between 750,000 to 1,000,000 empty properties in UK and yet the country also experienced a dramatic rise in homelessness (a 14% rise last year). The homeless have traditionally been allowed to legally occupy long-term empty property. These rights were critical at key moments in history (such as after the WW2 when Britain experienced a housing crisis and squatting was rife).
Squatters’ rights came to an end on March 27th when the government criminalised squatting in residential properties (the new law will come into effect in a matter of months). The law was part of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. It passed despite opposition by 96% of the supposed consultation and scores of professional statements: The Law Society, The Metropolitan Police, The Criminal Bar Association, The Magistrates Association, Crisis, Shelter, 160 legal experts and prominent academics.
Research conducted by the Squash Campaign indicates that the criminalising squatting will cost £790 million over five years (even if newly criminalized squatters are not sent to jail). The government did no research of their own to justify this new law. The law was designed around the ideological commitments of the current government and the dramatic stories in the right winged press that often entirely misrepresented the current state of squatting law.
This new law sets the stage for the rise of authoritarian housing companies such as Camelot Security. Camelot presents itself as a security firm, which allows it to get around giving tenants standard tenancy rights in decent accommodation. Instead, tenants (now called ‘guardians’ by Camelot) rent out flats that are the same derelict property that was once squatted.
Camelot’s code of conduct for its ‘guardians’ contains serious infringements on the rights of tenants.* The code of conduct is an extraordinary authoritarian document. In exchange for the derelict flat at 80% rent, Camelot reserves the right to visit to inspect the entire property at any time to make sure guardians/tenants have no pets, parties or children, no smoking, no decorations and no candles on Camelot property. They can carry out these inspections without notice. Guardians/tenants must ‘behave politely to Camelot staff’. Camelot can give guardians/tenants as little as 2 weeks notice to terminate contract. If a guardian/tenants wants to move out they need to give 4 weeks notice. In case of contract breach, the guardians/tenants can be evicted immediately.
Is this the bleak future for the 1,000,000 empty properties in this country? Co-operative housing is a positive alternative to private security firms that force the homeless into tenancies with virtually no rights. Cooperative housing emerged in thousands of squatted properties in the 1980s and 1990s and offers a viable alternative to rising spectre of authoritarian security companies such as Camelot.
* Camelot Security refers to the tenants in the flats as 'guardians' – using that convenient neo-liberal linguistic trick that dehumanises groups of people as a prelude to depriving them of basic rights, and establishing commodity relations in new spheres of existence (as when citizens are redefined as consumers).