This Is The Squatters Estate Agency
Oxford is one of the richest towns in Britain yet homelessness is high and empty property plentiful. Paul from the Squatters Estate Agency tells of the attempts to put that property to good use.
Squall 6, Spring 1994, pg. 25.
The Housing Problem
Forget Inspector Morse - Oxford has the highest homelessness rate in the UK outside of London. As the biggest local land owner, the University controls planning but all it builds are halls of residence. The Labour council are broke, so even if they had the land to build on they couldn’t afford the necessary new homes. As a result even the statutory homeless end up in B&B for years. With ludicrous land prices and so many after so little accommodation, the private sector can set the highest rents outside of London and demand up-front (and usually non-returnable) deposits well beyond the means of most of those on the dole.
In the early ’70s, the council backed Lady Whorley’s scheme for regulation of student squatters through widespread licensing. When this policy of toleration was reversed, squatting continued sporadically, not least because from the mid ’80s, Oxford became ‘the cross roads of the south’ for travellers from the festie circuit. Most squatting was seasonal, with people in brick over winter, getting the dosh together to go on the road come summer.
The Squatters Estate Agency
The SEA was formed in May 1990 to co-ordinate Oxford squatters. It got together a register of empty property, legal briefings, tools and people who could use them. The squatting scene in Oxford was small enough for SEA to offer comprehensive (and free) service - but only to squatters who agreed to abide by its code of practice not to trash places and to aid other SEA squatters. This was sadly necessary to get the Oxford squatting scene back on the rails.
SEA’ s campaign started with the occupation of six council houses scheduled for demolition on Donnington Bridge Estate. After six months of futile evictions and TV coverage of us waving from within the ‘squat-proof sitexed properties, they were re-designated emergency accommodation. This victory was not without cost - our most active member was injunctioned out of town by the council.
After Donnie Bridge we linked up with the experienced Botley (‘Squatley’) Road Crew who were fighting to save a further eight empties. The council bent the law to win this one and sold off the site to private developers. Following on, we occupied two empties that Hartwells wanted to turn into a forecourt - even the council refused planning permission. However, neither we nor they could stop the bulldozer.
The usual behaviour of Thames Valley Police was to nick squatters on a pretext and hold them, without charge, long enough for the owner to board up the property. Harassment was documented by SEA and the Chief Constable threatened with legal action in September ’91. As a result, community liaison cops got together with the council’s tenancy liaison officer and issued a joint briefing on squatters rights in ’92.
This cop-council combination also proved useful in getting dodgy landlords back in line. When Tony Budhram’s thugs booted squatters out of Cricket Road in August 1991, SEA’s alarm group mobilised in time to photograph those responsible. When the cops refused to act on our evidence, we pressed complaint against them, fly-posted Budhram’s face all over Oxford and threatened to bypass the cops by privately prosecuting him. The squatters dropped charges but the investigation so scared Budhram and his cronies that we haven’t had a boot eviction since.
SEA has also campaigned in conjunction with Oxford Solidarity Action. In July ’91 we had TV coverage and a couple of arrests over un-let flats at the luxury Gloucester Green development. A month later, ‘Baron’ Bill Baker, Labour Councillor for Donnington Bridge, was shamed for evicting people living under tarpaulins. And between January and June ’92, SEA participated in the Anarchist Tearoom, ‘show squat’ opened to protest against Tory plans to criminalise squatting.
The Tearoom wasn’t the only action we took against the Government’s proposals. In February ’92, our Free For All programme, A Home Of Our Own, was broadcast. This won us blanket local publicity and proved massively embarrassing to the council. They had already decided to put the government grant they got after the Blackbird Leys riot into house-building but SEA claims some credit for a quarter of the 400+ homes being designated for the single homeless. SEA acted as Q-squatters during filming: we cracked notorious empties like the Maxwell House or Campsfield Cottages to provoke the cops into illegally evicting us. They didn’t dare as we were backed up by a video, so we blazed the trail for other squatters thereafter.
As a result of the broadcast, we got sporadic radio and newspaper coverage but the collapse of the travelling scene around Oxford meant we could do little else. When the Oxford Mail launched a vicious anti-squatter smear campaign after a house was trashed in October 1993 (see pagel9) we countered it through the rest of the local press and, unsuccessfully, through the Press Complaints Commission. We suspect the latter’s’ judgement was influenced by the Oxford Mail’s bigoted editor, Eddie Duller, being up for an OBE - the Commissioners have been informed that as a result of their blatant bias, SEA will be pursuing “extralegal means of redress” in future.
When the Government proposals followed hard on its heels, we again won blanket coverage in the local media and regional TV and also contributed to BBC2's First Sight programme on squatting. Lacking a strong squatting community, SEA has been forced to lobby the local Labour MP, Andrew Smith, who is well- aware that existing law is adequate to protect residential occupiers despite Eddie Duller's media manipulations.
No doubt, SEA will contribute further to resisting the Criminal Justice Bill, perhaps organising stunts, media briefings and lobbying.
It's in big cities like London where any new laws are going to have the biggest effect and it’s there that people have to show that the law can't be implemented. If a law can't be implemented, the legislators will listen to the good arguments being put forward for it not wasting their time creating it in the first place - that way they can back down without losing face. What's going on in Leytonstone over the M11 (see page 13) is a model we can all learn from - it takes SO cops to break the barricades and no-one’s been busted for
obstructing the Sheriffs men yet. Squatters need to coordinate across the country to defend each other if they're prepared to resist like this.
We should coordinate with other groups due to be hammered by the Act as well as each other - travellers, ravers, ramblers, sabs, eco-activists. The Government's whole ragbag attempt to criminalise trespass has to be confronted - we may lose out for want of solidarity.
Heartbreak, Lies & Misinformation - Media manipulations & misinformation about squatting in Oxford - Squall 6, Spring 1994