The politics of the crowbar: Squatting in London, 1968-1977.

Author:Milligan, Rowan Tallis


This paper examines the London squatting movement and argues that it was a key radical social movement which redefined the ownership of space and politicised housing. (1) I challenge the dominant framework through which both squatters and scholars currently view squatting. Squatting is predominantly framed as a binary between political squatters who take buildings in order to engage in political activism and deprivation squatters who live in empty homes out of necessity due to their homelessness. I propose that all squatting is inherently political as it challenges ownership of property and the authority of the state in allocating housing, and forces confrontation with the state. Thus, whether out of need or choice, all squatters are political agents.

Keywords: London anarchism, squatting, radical democracy


A squatter is someone who occupies an uninhabited building unlawfully. Once it has been occupied this building becomes a squat. Squats are usually occupied with the intent of relatively long-term use. The modern squatters' movement developed as a response to the housing crisis across the UK, particularly in London, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (2) Beginning in 1968 as a family rehousing scheme, the squatting movement involved moving people into abandoned buildings as a direct action solution to the British government and local councils' inadequate response to this crisis. The 1971 census showed that there were over 675,000 empty dwellings in England and Wales. In the Greater London area alone in April 1973 there were 51,365 privately owned residential dwellings that had been empty for over three months. In Greater London over 99,700 dwellings across the public and private sector were vacant. At the same time 189,900 people were listed on the Greater London Council (GLC) housing waiting lists, another 15,805 were housed in Part III accommodation and bed and breakfast hotels, 15,000 were in insecure hostel accommodation and at least 2000 people sleeping rough. (3) Given these conditions the squatting movement quickly diversified not only beyond the initial aim of rehousing families, but also in demographic makeup as many different sorts of people such as students, the unemployed, punks, and others took to squatting.

People squatted for many reasons, including the inability to find affordable housing and as a base for political groups and projects. Both participatory accounts and sociological studies suggest a false dichotomy between deprivation squatters and political squatters. I critique this binary, and argue instead that squatting is always a political act. In section one I explore the binary that squatters and scholars have constructed to explain the differences between those who squat out of necessity (non-political) and those who squat from choice (political). This binary ought to be discarded both because it is false, and because its propagation has negative ramifications for squatters as it tends towards the legitimation of some squatting actions and squatters, and the condemnation of others. In section two I outline how squatting is inherently political. Using a radical democratic approach to politics, I argue that politics is defined by a conflict among and between various actors over what is considered just.

Applied to the context of squatting, I argue that squatters enter into a political conflict with the state and landowners who enforce the rights of the propertied above the property-less. I then situate the challenge to property in the broader historical and geographic context of the fight for the commons, looking at how there has historically been resistance to the expropriation of public space and privatisation of common land, and how similar conflicts over squatting and public vs. private space were taking place in other European countries at the same time. I then offer examples of how this conflict manifests in various forms of state aggression towards squatters: through legal procedures, evictions, and the withdrawal of resources. Finally, I conclude by suggesting that the reconception of all squatting as political can help establish a new historiography of squatting and return agency to those previously dismissed as 'non-political' as well as recognising the significance of the reclamation of space as a political act. For no matter whether you are squatting for a roof over your head or to produce insurrectionary literature in your basement, squatting ought to be seen as a political engagement, the diversity of its aims and make-up only reinforcing the fundamentally radical nature of occupation in itself.


The squatting movement that grew throughout the 1970s and 1980s originated as a movement primarily oriented towards housing those in need: the homeless or badly housed. The London Squatters Campaign (LSC) was set up by Ron Bailey in 1968 as a direct solution to the poor standard of temporary housing and rentals and the vast numbers of homeless people across London. (4) The movement gained a significant amount of support in the media for providing a much needed response to the crisis that the councils appeared to be ignoring. (5) In addition, negotiations between the councils and the LSC led to a number of licensed squats, which were squats that the council granted a formalised temporary occupation. The creation of licenced squats resulted from Bailey and Jim Radford's campaign at Redbridge, a campaign I will look at in more detail later, in which the logic of squatting was put to councils as a sensible response to the housing shortage and the re-housing of families. (6) The first licences were granted to squats in Lewisham in December 1969. By May 1973 the Family Squatting Advisory Service (FSAS) estimated there were 2500 licenced squats across London. (7)

With the involvement of more overtly political squatters the 'good' were distinguished from the 'bad' squatters, which led to tensions within the movement. The initial sympathy for the movement was based on the understanding that squatting offered a solution to homelessness and council incompetence; the media and squatting movement alike did not consider it political'. As one critic suggested with reference to the squat at 144 Piccadilly, a short lived occupation of a prominent building in Hyde Park in September 1969 by a group of young people calling themselves the London Street Commune:

There is a world of difference between the young layabouts who occupied 144 Piccadilly and those homeless families who have squatted in empty properties elsewhere... Neither type of squatting is to be supported, but it would be mistaken to cast an equally disapproving eye on both. (8) The media took advantage of this tension within the squatting movement, setting the squatters against each other, blaming the openly political or riotous squatters for crackdowns against the whole movement, rather than the repressive actions of councils and property owners. (9) Many of those involved in the LSC resented the 'dosser' squatters, those who inhabited places like 144 Piccadilly (1969), and spoke out against them. Participants in the LSC complained that that their hedonistic lifestyle and apparent lack of interest in squatting for housing need gave the movement a bad name, After 144 Piccadilly was violently evicted, the same more aggressive 'anti-hippy' methods for evicting squatters were legitimised and then used against the 'official' London Squatters of the LSC. Subsequently, Jim Radford of the LSC said of the Piccadilly squatters, 'they tend to be badly organised. The sites they choose are far too provocative. And they don't take squatting seriously enough' and suggested that the London Squatters should be distinguished from the 'dilly dossers'. (10) This critique was unfair as the Commune openly proclaimed their concern for homelessness, (11) but it is indicative of the way in which tactical differences precipitated and presupposed ideological conflicts. In contrast to the London Street Commune, the LSC framed their squatting in terms of a moral duty towards re-housing during a severe crisis. (12)

Likewise, there were tensions between licenced and unlicensed squats. Unlicensed squatters warned those in licenced squats that they were jeopardising the interests of unlicensed squatters. Councils would use the presence of a licenced squat in an area to try to force the eviction of an unlicensed squat on the grounds that the houses the unlicensed squatters occupied had been allocated to a licenced group. (13) The very existence of licenced squats emphasised a division between 'responsible' family groups and other squatters. As a result, divisions formed between those that were able to get concessions out of councils and those who could not. (14) Licenced squats were put in the compromising position of being somewhat under the sway of the council but also largely unwilling to reject the needs of the wider squatting movement. This tension was heightened in Islington in 1972 where there were three houses squatted in an area earmarked for redevelopment, occupied by nineteen squatters. When facing eviction, Radford, as a representative of the LSC, attempted to negotiate with the council for licences on behalf of the unofficial squatters without first consulting them. (15) Instead, they chose to resist, erecting barricades at either end of their street to prevent the bailiffs and police from evicting them. This action was supported by a sympathetic lorry driver and local social workers and gained much media attention at a time when the limitations of licences were becoming apparent to squatters. Thus, Radford's intervention was seen as an unwelcome interference, especially since the squatters subsequently won the struggle, achieving council housing for the families and undisturbed habitation in the squatted properties until demolition for the rest of the squatters. (16) The tension between the...

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