Squats For All: Olympia, UK 1979 Ideal Homes Exhibition lessons

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Mon, 15 Mar 1999 19:18:39 -0800 (PST)

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UK: Article on squat 121 What's the latest? 
Author: Plattsteve <Plattsteve@aol.com>
Date: 1999/03/14
Forum: misc.activism.progressive


Twenty years ago next week, or thereabouts, I organised the first and
so far only "ideal squat" at the Daily Mail's Ideal Homes Exhibition at
Olympia.  There were about 60 of us there altogether, doing our best to
blend in with the suburban middle classes who populate these events,
looking out for the latest handy kitchen gadgets and admiring the
bricks-and-mortar idylls that are erected for the week in the Earls
Court exhibition centre. I don't quite recall how we managed to smuggle
in the 30-foot banner proclaiming "Ideal Homes For All" that we strung
from the rooftop, nor the climbing gear we needed to get it up there.
But we brought the place to a halt for a while until the police carried
out what we insisted was an illegal eviction; and even the exhibition
organisers managed a few wry words on our "impromptu performance" for
the television news that evening.

The target for our squat was a couple of terraced houses, one derelict
and one "improved", built specially for the occasion by the then
Tory-controlled Greater London Council. Horace Cutler, the GLC's
flamboyant leader, had decided upon a presence at the exhibition to
promote his pet "homesteading" scheme. A pathbreaker for Margaret
Thatcher's "right to buy" legislation, Cutler's housing strategy
consisted of selling off GLC properties to would-be owner-occupiers at
substantial discounts. The homesteading scheme involved the sale (at
knockdown prices) of "difficult to let" properties to people who then
took on responsibility for carrying out any necessary repairs and

There were two principal ways in which these bargain buys were
allocated.  Sometimes people would queue up all night in response to
short-notice announcements that a new lot of homes were to be dished
out the next day at such-and-such a housing office. On other occasions,
Cutler dressed up in his best suit and dickie-bow to draw hopeful
applicants' names out of a hat.  Always the showman, he billed such
events as the Great GLC Homesteading Lottery, advertising them with the
aid of props such as a giant roulette wheel.

Faced with this sort of attention to housing need, it wasn't difficult
to argue that squatting comprised no less fair an allocation system. So
when we occupied Horace's show houses at Olympia, it was with the
intention of kickstarting a wider campaign of direct action to
"reclaim" the thousands of GLC homes that were then standing empty
awaiting sale on the open market.

In April 1979, counting among our number several people who were to go
on to be senior Labour councillors and MPs (and who would probably not
now appreciate being reminded of their squatting pasts), we even
occupied an entire estate, at Ferry Lane, Tottenham. Newly-completed,
its several hundred homes had been put up for sale rather than being
used for families off the housing waiting list. We set up our own
"instant lettings" service and for a couple of months basked in the
warm glow of allocating spanking new ideal squats to the homeless and
badly housed of north London.

It all fizzled out after Margaret Thatcher's election victory that year
made a campaign against the sale of council houses about as likely to
succeed as one in favour of windfall taxes on profits from Notting Hill
property sales today.  But many of the people involved in these (and
other) direct action protests went on to become stalwarts of a range of
other housing initiatives later. A variety of short-life housing
groups, cooperatives and associations, hostels, self-build schemes,
council projects to bring empty property back into use and sundry
self-help projects involving homeless people all owe their existence to
the involvement of people who cut their activist teeth through their
involvement in squatting campaigns. What all these helped to
demonstrate was that, firstly, local councils are not the font of all
wisdom (and certainly not of good practice) on housing matters; and,
secondly, that the provision of "ideal homes for all" is not so much
about bricks and mortar as it is about giving people the power -- as
individuals and as communities -- to control their own housing.

Of course, this debt to the squatting movement has never been readily
acknowledged (by the municipal monopolists of the left no more than by
the property-owning non-democrats of the right). So it came as no
surprise to discover that Lambeth Council -- which has had more to
learn than most from squatters' challenges to its inability to manage
its housing stock properly -- is about to evict one of the
longest-standing squats in the borough.

The 121 Centre in Railton Road was never likely to attract much
sympathy from New Labour Lambeth. It's probably not the best campaign
tactic these days to respond to an article in the local paper headlined
"Queers, Saboteurs, Fare- dodgers and Anarchist Groups Set For
Eviction" by asking why they'd omitted to mention "all the squatters,
anti-fascists, feminists, folkies, autonomists, socialists, bike
enthusiasts, punks, earth firsters, anti-racists, disabled
liberationists, animal liberationists, prison activists and others who
[also use] the centre".

But since the occupants of 121 have run it more or less successfully
for so long, saving the property from dereliction and decay during a
period when the local council showed not the slightest interest in
having anything to do with it, it would be a truly pluralist and
democratic gesture if Lambeth was now to come to some arrangement by
which the squatters could remain there. Even "queers, saboteurs,
fare-dodgers and anarchists" have got to go somewhere -- and even
Lambeth Council might find that it has something to gain by letting
them stay.

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