Squatting in the Alpha Territory
Urban researchers have long warned us that London is being transformed into an ‘alpha territory’. An influx of international capital encouraged by compliant political actors has steadily changed London into a location for the rich. A growth of property speculation and investment in empty (useless) properties is having far-reaching consequences for the city, including a sharp rise in rent and house prices, a loss of affordable housing, evictions, and the demolition of social housing.
The escalating housing crisis which has resulted finds itself at the centre of ideological battles and debates over what ‘counts’ as legitimate use of scarce urban space. At present, contemporary London is a vision of the wealthy: a claustrophobic aesthetic of creative destruction, cranes, glass and steel, which attempts to hide embarrassing and
unsightly social housing projects of the past behind cladding.
But London is also host to grassroots opposition groups who are resisting gentrification, eviction, and demolition. In particular, politicised squatting is on the increase, through
community mobilisation and activist networks undeterred by the outlawing of residential squatting in 2012. But what is the significance of this upswing in squatting activity? And what can it tell us about contemporary conflicts over what constitutes a legitimate use of London’s scarce space and resources?
I argue that squatting – the semi-permanent occupation of property without permission – demands our attention as a democratic intervention into the alpha territory. There are connections which need to be better understood between the actions of the rich and the
situation of the poor, as well as between different networks and groups, including: activists motivated by social and environmental justice; residents motivated by necessity
(under threat from dangerous, scarce, and insecure social housing); and a rising population of homeless and houseless people (including newly arrived migrants and refugees) driven to squatting by desperation and a steep decline in social support and empathy.
The boundaries between these different groups are becoming blurred as protagonists recognise both a common cause in opposing the alpha territory, as well as the political
potential of squatting for asserting their right to the city. London’s activists, residents, and homeless – intersecting with structures of class, gender, sexuality, disability, race,
and international migration – currently find themselves at the sharp end of a democratic deficit, unable to make themselves heard and seen against discourses that dismiss any move towards a better society as ‘impossible’ or ‘nonsense’. As the unforgivable tragedy of Grenfell Tower illustrated all too well, these groups and their grievances are being dismissed as background urban ‘noise’, yet perhaps squatting can offer a platform from
which such ‘illegitimate’ sounds and appearances might become recognised.
Dr Samuel Burgum
Department of Urban Studies and Planning
University of Sheffield, UK