News Of The Sqews
A Review Of Recent Media Coverage
Squall 4, April/May 1993, pp. 6-7.
“I think you’ll be able to tell when the government are planning to introduce any legislation on squatting because there will be articles in the Evening Standard about how some squatters have raped a landlord’s wife and then lain around taking drugs,” said a sarcastic Austin Mitchell (Labour MP, Grimsby) to SQUALL recently.
As far as SQUALL is aware there has only been one large article on squatting since the last issue of the mag. The Independent (13/1/93) reported that evictions from inner London council properties rose by 78 per cent as local authorities engaged in an unprecedented efficiency drive. In the last issue of SQUALL we reported that John Major had sent a Citizens’ Charter questionnaire to local councils defining a criteria of council efficiency by asking how many squatted properties they had in their borough. SQUALL predicted the casual and unjust link between effeciency and squatter 'scalps' would lead to a hysterical crusade for browny points. Lo and behold: “We are evicting as furiously as we can,” says a rabid Irwin Van Colie, Chair of Housing for Conservative-controlled Brent Council.
Apparently, Lambeth evicted 649 squatters in a four month period of 1992 while Southwark managed 926 last year. “Evictions mean councils have more properties free for homeless families and can save money for areas such as education,” claims the article, oblivious to the fact that most squatters occupy properties that are in an unlettable condition because they are liable to last longer as homes. If the councils have the money to repair these properties then fair enough but it is still the case that many of these properties are boarded up and left empty because the money is unavailable for their repair.
If the newspapers have been quiet on the squatting issue of late, then it may only be because the manipuspeak brigade have had to concentrate their news management efforts on their defence against accusations of Government 'non-policy' on homelessness and unemployment.
For instance, in an attempt to shift the burden of guilt onto the unemployed themselves, The Daily Telegraph (25/1/93) ran an article on the scrounging underclasses at the same time as John Major was introducing the possibility of workfares. However, The Guardian (30/12/93) highlighted the fact that attention would be better spent on making the housing benefit system work fairer. “It is becoming increasingly apparent that bureaucratic delays of up to two years in the payment of housing benefit are making the lives of possibly thousands of people on low incomes a misery,” the article observed.
Sheila McKechnie from Shelter agreed: “We have had many reports from Shelter centres of people being made homeless as a result of the delays in the
payment of housing benefit. It has become a major cause of homelessness.” The article further points out that the homeless are often forced to remain homeless because few landlords will take on a new tenant and then wait an indefinite period before receiving rent (see SQUALL letters page).
Goyas Ahmed from the Southwark Citizen’s Advice Bureau revealed further farce: “We have several cases of one council department actually taking legal action against its own tenants, who haven’t paid rent because they had to wait up to a year for benefit from another department.”
Last autumn, the Government proudly trumpeted its new major initiative for tackling homelessness, in the form of an apparently impressive £750 million to be given to housing associations. The ensuing months have shown up the feeble music behind the trumpet blasts.
“The £750 million set aside for this purpose quickly fell by 20% to £577 million and more importantly it emerged that it was not new money" (The Observer 13/12/92). Apparently the amount promised only looked impressive because it was expenditure that had been brought forward from the next three years. This means that housing associations can expect some lean years to come. The Government claimed at the time that this would allow housing associations to buy 20,000 idle properties in order to house as many families. This number has since gone down to 17,000.
The Housing Corporation reported that more than half the properties to be bought with the money are brand new, rather than already idle, and therefore the money was aimed more at the housebuilding industry than the homeless (Housing Report The Observer 13/12/93). Sheila McKechnie from Shelter told a BBC Question time audience (25/2/93) that 17,000 new homes was all well and good but had to be seen in the context of the 150,000 families made homeless every year.
Whilst the Government tries to discipline local authorities to reduce their empty housing stock, the Evening Standard (22/2/93), in an unusual burst of social concern, ran an article pointing out that the Government has 27,000 vacant properties of its own. “This is the theatre of the absurd,” said Bob Lawrence of the Empty Homes Agency. “The Government’s record is grotesque. Here are thousands of houses built with taxpayers’ money being kept empty while people rough it on the streets.”
Even the money from council house sales promised to local councils in the Autumn statement has become the subject of new stipulations (The Independent 18/12/92). The Government has reduced the ability of councils to qualify for loans and so is effectively ‘clawing back’ £150 million of the money councils were promised they would be free to spend.
All words and no substance makes Jack a bag of hot air and the only people history never forgives are hypocrites. More pin pricks to the hyperbolic balloons in the next issue.
Final mention goes to all the folk that have sent in press cuttings to SQUALL - a big thank U to all vigilant verbal vigilantes.
Two laughs in the mailbag were: “Boss Backs Squatters” (Daily Mirror 7/8/92) with Bruce Springsteen appearing on American TV to highli
ght an outlaw squatter group who occupy empty properties for use by the homeless. And: “Squatter Denning Fights For Old School” (Mail on Sunday 24/5/92) about Lord Denning, former Master of the Rolls, changing the locks on an empty school in Hampshire. Apparently he wants the building to be used as a community centre instead of being sold off and, in order to effect his protest, he is claiming squatters' rights. According to the article, Lord Denning referred to his position as ‘constructive trustee' of the property and here at SQUALL, we like this expression.
News Of The Sqews - A Travel through skew-whiffs as presented by the British press - Squall 5 - Oct/Nov 1993