Space war in Russel Square
THE University of London is sending in the bailiffs to evict the group who have been squatting a four-storey mansion in Russel Square since the School of Slavonic and East European Studies moved out.
Once the home of 18th century law reformer Samuel Romilly, the premises have been used for the past six months by the London Occupied Social Centre, providing a venue for meetings, films and concerts, and for people to have a coffee and socialise. It also served as offices for No Borders, which campaigns against immigration controls and detention of asylum seekers.
That's kind of appropriate, because Samuel Romilly was the grandson of Huguenot refugees, and sought to reduce the barbarity of 18th century English Crimninal Law, with its use of capital punishment for property offences.
Squatting in England today is not the mass movement it was sixty years ago, when returning soldiers and families made homelss by the Blitz took over empty army camps, luxury blocks and hotels, rather than wait patiently for Attlee's Labour government to deliver decent homes.
There was a renewed movement in the late 1960s and 1970s, when young people faced with soaring rents and house prices saw empty properties, often whole streets affected by planning blight (when local authoriities postponed or cancelled redevelopment), and decided to put them to use. The Tory tabloids tried to whip up anti-squatter hysteria, with stories about people coming home to find their house had been invaded, but if such cases happened they were rare. More typical were the streets in Camden Town where some friends of mine moved, rewiring and decorating homes that were standing derelict.
A young family I knew moved into an empty house in Lancaster, on a side of the street that had been due to be demolished for a bypass scheme, which was postponed indefinitely. The council wanted to get them out, even sending men to brick up the front window, but neighbours, mostly elderly, rallied around, saying they felt safer knowing that the house across the street was occupied by a family, rather than standing dark and derelict, attracting tramps or rats. The couple were able to negotiate to pay their rates, and have services laid on, and the council changed its tune to the extent of helping with furnishings.
Things change, and some long-term squats that survived quietly in parts of south London have faced eviction, not because the local council needs their homes for people in the housing queue, as once might have been the excuse, but because they are standing in the way of yuppification, councils working with the property men.
The Russel Square squat is rather special in taking empty commercial or institutional property for social use. The London Occupied people say their aim is to "make space available that is not limited by the usual commercial constraints". They previously ran a social and cultural centre in a former bank in Tuffnell Park. A nearby school was concerned about pupils going there in their lunch break, till local parents pointed out that they had much rather have their youngsters use the centre than hang around street corners. Nevertheless the socially constructive occupiers were evicted late one night. Last time I passed the former bank it was standing derelict again.
The Russel Square squat has also provided accomodation for students, and the University may have delayed seeking eviction, not wanting to be seen putting students on the street just before exams. The other day I hear the bailiffs did turn up, but seeing too many people around, decided to drive off rather than risk a clash. It looks like another late night job then, doubtless with the aid of the police.
I don't know what the University plans to do with the property, but I would not be surprised to see it go on the market rather than providing for any deserving need. The London Occupied people are not a mass movement, but their initiatives have highlighted an issue for us all. Maybe Samuel Romilly would have understood, perhaps even approved..