The Violence of Chuka Umunna (on squatting)
Last week, Chuka Umunna, MP for Streatham in South London signed a letter to Justice Secretary Chris Grayling asking that the criminalisation of squatting in residential buildings (brought in last year) be extended to commercial premises too. This afternoon Umunna, who has come under public attack for this letter has responded by writing a little article on his blog defending his position. I can’t offer a full critique of what he has said on squatting (it’s late at night, and I have already had too much to drink), but I did want to pick up on a couple of points.
Imagine the scenario of a jail with ten prisoners. The governor of the jail decides one day that he will organise a race that all the prisoners must compete in. At the end of the race the three who come last will be shot. The others will return to their cells. Now imagine that one of the prisoners gets a head start. What are the attitudes of the other prisoners in the race towards him? Of course they hate him, they pour scorn on him. The governor spots the prisoner getting a head start, stops the race, and shoots that prisoner immediately. He then allows the remaining nine prisoners to line up and restart the race, announcing that now only the last two will be shot. The prisoners thank him for that decision.
It’s a strange scenario because here the governor stands for “fairness”. But fairness is double-edged here: he not only guarantees that the prisoners will have an equal chance of surviving, but he guarantees absolutely that three of them will be shot. The prisoners’ hatred for the one who got the headstart is certainly misplaced: instead they should hate the governor who put them in the position of having to race for their lives. The prisoners’ thanks to the governor for being fair is certainly misplaced too. Sure, he was fair to each of them within the scenario. But for having created the scenario, for having overseen it, and carried it through, he is demonic.
Such a notion of “fairness” seems difficult to defend, but this is precisely what Umunna did when he wrote on twitter,
No doubt Umunna would question the analogy with a prison, but what we are talking about is that people who can’t afford housing – and there are hundreds of thousands in Britain who are homeless, that alongside just under 70,000 mortgages more than 6 months in arrears, of which 70% or more than 12 months in arrears. Many of these people will, in the coming years, be made homeless. Some of them will end up living on the street. In the past many of those on the street would have squatted, as it is much safer than sleeping rough. Where squatting is criminalised people who would have otherwise squatted are condemned to needlessly die. This is why the homelessness charities Crisis and Shelter made submissions to the government against the criminalisation of squatting last year.
Umunna tries to avoid mentioning this when he writes, “For those particularly vulnerable squatters, homeless through personal tragedy and deep structural forces, do I think that squats are safe places for them to live or part of a long-term solution to homelessness? No.”
What he doesn’t say is that they are considerably safer than the street. Many people each year are saved from dying by squats. They might not always be ideal – indeed I know very few squatters who wouldn’t rather live somewhere they didn’t have to worry about police raids, violence from property owners, not having heating etc. But they are certainly better than the street.
We ought to remember the scenario of the race here. This is a matter of needless and arbitrary death - mainly of the vulnerable - presided over by a government in the name of fairness. But where this fairness kills, surely it is time to start asking questions. Those who thank the government for their administration of fairness fall in line with the pointless murder of their fellow humans, rather than realising that the administration of a system that arbitrarily kills is what really needs to be removed. These people favour themselves over those who run a little slower, and are willing to take their chances. They often forget that the race will happen again tomorrow, and the day after.
Nettlefold Hall and Patmos Lodge
Among Umunna’s various statements and tweets about squatting over the last couple of days, two cases have come up that he claims have cost the local council very large amounts of money. It might be worth looking at them a little more carefully. (I have done this quick research from Germany so if I have made mistakes please correct me and I will correct the article.)
Umunna claims in his blog post that squatters have done £150,000 of damage to an old closed library called Nettlefold Hall. But this is only part of the story. Nettlefold Library has been closed for two years. It closed because someone stole the copper off the roof. In the process the thieves managed to dislodge asbestos that was in the building, and consequently the library was shut. The council have been extremely slow to move on opening the library again, because they had other plans afoot. Amidst libraries closing across the country, the council decided that it would take advantage of this misfortune of having the roof stolen in order to get a private company to redevelop the site. By the middle of 2012 the deal was done: a company called City Screen Ltd (since June this year Picturehouse Ltd) was to redevelop the site, and would build a cinema there, but would also keep the library running. So essentially, the council decided it was going to give away some publicly owned real estate to a private company in order to get their library done up for cheap. I can’t find figures on the internet for the nature of the deal (more often than not these will not be available to the public because they are “commercially sensitive”) but apparently the plans for the complex will be available at the end of the Summer. To some this may sound like a good idea, but to most the story will be well-known that this type of transfer of land involves local people losing out in the long run. The value of the land to be given away likely exceeds the £150k clean-up operation by several orders of magnitude.
But, I can imagine, some readers might have a soft-spot for the picturehouse chain. The are some of the few cinemas that show a wide range of films, and only a medium sized business (turnover of about £25m a year). Well maybe you like these small business, but last year City Screen Ltd was bought out by Cineworld Ltd (current market cap.: £623m, annual turnover 2012: £359m) in a deal that has been reported to the competition commision, with the result that the new conglomerate will probably have to sell some of its cinemas as it was creating monopolies in some cities. That’s knocked 10% off the share price in the last couple of weeks alone, so perhaps this is why the story has ended up in the media. Anyhow, that doesn’t sound to me like the sort of company anyone – regardless of your political affiliations – ought to be supporting giving public land away to, in order to save money clearing up some asbestos.
It is worth being clear here that if the building is full of asbestos and is having significant building work done on it, then there will be expensive clearing work that needs to be done. The squatters in the building just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – the council had kept the library closed for well over a year just to save a bit of money by making a deal with an enormous cinema company, much to the disdain of the local community who like the runners in our race are now backing the council against the squatters.
Patmos Lodge, another property mentioned by Umunna (this time in his Letter to Grayling), which he again claims is costing the council £150,000, is a slightly more straightforward case. Patmos Lodge is a victim of the current cuts. The page on the Lambeth website reads,
“Patmos Lodge is a vacant site in Myatts Field North, Brixton, which once provided sheltered and residential care to the general public. However, following the Sheltered Housing Review in 2008, it was decided by Cabinet that the building was not fit for this purpose and should be redeveloped. The Cabinet decision was based on a thorough options appraisal. The Council does not have the financial resources to redevelop the site, so it was agreed that redevelopment of this site could only be achieved by transferring ownership to a registered provider, other Provider or by an outright sale. The sheltered and residential care residents were decanted in June 2010, and this project supports the Cabinet objective of demolishing the site, as it is believed a cleared piece of land is deemed more attractive with regards to expressions of interest. The Patmos Lodge site consists of a void sheltered scheme, a vacant residential care home and an empty three bedroom warden’s house”
That’s right, this is an old unused council building that used to be used to care for infirm people in a community, which is not only closed down, but is due to be demolished so that Lambeth can sell the land to a private developer.
It’s interesting to me that what Mr Umunna really seems to care about are those squats that jeopardise the possibility of the transfer of large capital assets from public hands into the hands of large private companies.
Is squatting about homelessness?
Umunna uses a popular notion of “posh squatters”, or as he puts it, people who are “avoiding paying for housing when they could do so”. Without meaning to sound trite, I am yet to come across any squatters who happen to have £500 a month going spare (the current going rate for a room in London.) Indeed, the best research shows that squatting is most definitely about homelessness. As the homelessness charity Crisis summarise, “Squatting, then, typically reflects a lack of other options, a scarcity of provision, and inadequate support and assistance to single homeless people.”
But not content with ignoring good research, Umunna wants to draw a distinction between squatters and the homeless. He writes,
“Homeless people who squat tend to do so for very short periods of time, rather than the years that other squats operate.”
I genuinely don’t know what he’s on about – because people who are forced to squat for years really are among the most vulnerable of all. Maybe some squats exist for a long time, and maybe some have a changing population. And maybe some people can just about survive squatting for that long. But Umunna’s words here are intended to evoke a popular hatred for those who in many cases most need society’s support.
Even if there are a few squatters who do decide to live in squats as a true lifestyle choice - even if one believes Umunna’s attack on these few to be justified - one must wonder if when Umunna attacks them with a weapon that also hits all of the most vulnerable in society, whether it’s really worth it.
For more info on squatting, and campaigns against criminalisation
Website of last week’s Squatting Exhibition in London: http://www.madepossiblebysquatting.co.uk/
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