Squatting—the occupation of land and buildings by people who have no legal title to them—has a long history in Britain. Participants in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 squatted on uncultivated acreage. In 1946 thousands of homeless British occupied abandoned homes in London as well as empty military bases. A squatters’ advisory service publishes a guide to the practice of finding and living in unoccupied property. In London, Bristol, and Brighton, three of Britain’s big squatting centers, it’s never too hard to find a place. The government estimates 20,000 squatters live in Britain.
Now the British followers of the Occupy Wall Street movement are fusing old-fashioned squatting with the sophistication of 21st century protest. For more than two months before their peaceful eviction on Jan. 25, members of Occupy London lived and worked in a vacant building across from UBS’s (UBS) London headquarters in the City. The squatters suspended banners from the windows proclaiming such slogans as “UBS You Owe Us” and “You Can’t Evict An Idea.”
The building belongs to UBS itself, which had been planning to renovate it. Until, that is, about 30 members of the London group entered the premises on Nov. 18, according to Pete Phoenix, a coordinator for what he calls the “Occupy UBS movement” and basically the house boss of the squat. The number of squatters subsequently rose to as many as 60. They participated in discussion groups and gave lessons in financial literacy: A Jan. 7 meeting advised on how to investigate financial crime. Positive press clippings and slogans like “Homes Not Jails” were plastered on white walls. A pair of Eastern Europeans guarded the entrance. Occupy London members also offered tours of Canary Wharf, the metropolitan area’s most cosseted office complex, which the guide pointed out is situated in one of London’s most blighted boroughs.
British law considers squatting largely a matter for civil courts rather than criminal. That distinction makes it hard to evict squatters quickly. The Swiss bank’s extended efforts to expel the Occupy London squatters highlight the difficulties. Eventually, after much wrangling, a court issued an eviction notice and the protesters left. “The Bank of Ideas goes on,” says Sean Boyle, one of the squatters.
There’s still Occupy London’s Finsbury Square camp opposite Bloomberg London headquarters, an Occupy London camp outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, and a squat at Old Street Magistrates’ Court. About a 15-minute walk north of the UBS building, the court has become another temporary home of members of the Occupy London group. They are mixing there with Lithuanians: Since the expansion of the EU’s borders to the east, some Eastern Europeans have won the right to live in any member state. A 22-year-old Lithuanian man named Siggy gives a tour of the building. It’s been vacant for 16 years, he says, while showing a wood-paneled courtroom, the only one that isn’t in disrepair.
The courthouse is being used by Occupy London for a series of mock trials of Britain’s 1 percent. These began on Jan. 19, with “the case for and against the prosecution of Tony Blair,” in connection with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The trial was streamed on the Internet: Blair was found guilty. A trial on Jan. 21 seeking to assert the rights of shareholders against the management of Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) was postponed in favor of a tour of West London’s hedge funds. The courthouse still sports its jail cells, and the squatters have reserved them for Blair, former Royal Bank of Scotland Group Chief Executive Fred Goodwin, and Bank of England Governor Mervyn King. Under pressure from the authorities, these squatters, too, may be leaving any day now. “There are a million empty buildings in the U.K.,” says Phoenix. “Why can’t some of them be used for homes, communities, or spaces for self-employed people?”
After the Occupy London movement loses momentum, the more traditional class of squatters will remain. Peter Myton, the operations manager for London-based Ambika Security, which protects vacant properties from squatters, says the company’s business has risen in the past year. Should the government tighten housing subsidy laws, even more people could be pushed into the streets. At the same time, members of Parliament have discussed making squatting an act of criminal trespass. “If people are desperate, and they’re desperate enough to squat, I don’t think criminalizing it is going to change anything,” says Myton.