Friday, January 08, 2010

Did squatting save Victorian London?

In his book 'A Summer in the Park: a Journal of Speakers' Corner' (Freedom Press, 2004), Tony Allen puts forward the view that 'squatting saved Victorian London'. His argument is that 'Government Housing policy of the late 1960s was to knock down the crumbling grandeur of London's inner city Victorian terraces and replace them with tower blocks and housing estates. They placed CPOs - Compulsory Purchase Orders - on the old property and then spent years moving the tenants around and gradually trashing and tinning up the voids'. Many of the empty properties were squatted, and subsequently squatters and remaining residents joined forces and campaigned against Council demolition plans.

'By 1979 the policy was finally changed. "Renovate the Victorian terraces and divide and rule the squatters". The more articulate and organised of the squatters did a range of deals with the various councils and ended up living as co-ops or council tenants on controlled rents in the renovated Victorian terraces. It may not have been a deliberate anarchist policy, but nevertheless the squatters of the seventies saved Victorian London'.

The example he gives is North Paddington/North Kensington, but does the theory hold true for South East London? There are certainly housing co-ops in Victorian terraces to this day in New Cross with origins in the squatting movement (e.g. Nettleton Road), and indeed many houses in Telegraph Hill area were squatted in the 1970s and 1980s - when I stripped the wallpaper in my house I found some great old squat punk graffiti including a picture of a punk with a mohican and 'The Exploited' . This was a period when middle class taste was for new-built housing away from the inner city. I am one of many ex-squatters living inVictorian housing round here - some in co-ops and housing association properties, some who got cheap mortgages when not many people wanted to buy Victorian terraced houses, and/or when Housing Associations were buying people out of their tenancies by paying for them to put down deposits on houses.

So if Tony Allen is right there are a number of levels of irony here - the good burghers of the conservation areas partially owe the survival of the Victorian fabric of the city to a bunch of punks and anarchists. And conversely the latter inadvertently paved the way for the (re)gentrification of the inner city.

What do people think?


Anonymous said...

certainly the squatters movement after WW2 was vital, and while led by the Communist Party took over huge numbers of buildings and even ex RAF bases

Thousands of bombed out Londoners and returning men from the forces faced homelessness

Only the squatting movement saved them and put pressure on the Government to build houses

The leaders of the Squats in West london even ended up in the old Bailey

Trespass said...

Yeah sure the squatters saved loads of buildings, even in some cases they are still living in them now (Tony Allen for one). I saw your post on twitter about this post, very interesting. I wonder why this is completely forgotten history in London whereas in other places eg Amsterdam, Berlin, the impact of the squatters movement is not erased, sometimes even celebrated!