Saturday, 4 April 2009

Squatdoyouthink, 5 : Normandy

A long friend of squatting, but don't squat yourself? Here is my interview with Normandy, a socialist mother from Gloucestershire who now lives in north London.

I heard you went on an impromptu "tour" of three squats yesterday. How did this come about?

The daughter of a friend of mine has recently 'liberated' a flat so we were going to visit her. Then we dropped by yours and then on to a friend of hers who also lives on this estate.

Had you been to a squat before?

I remember when Islington Council sold off some of the Neighbourhood offices. The one opposite my daughter's school was temporarily squatted by a group of protestors who moved in for a couple of weeks (I think – it was about 10 years ago). They kept the building open and argued convincingly that it should be kept as a public space rather than being sold off to private developers.

They held meetings and welcomed visitors so we went and lent our support. After some arty stunts such as projecting images on the Town Hall opposite, sadly they were evicted. Even worse, the building is now a karaoke bar…

What was your overall impression of what you saw yesterday?

Yesterday was a surprise. Firstly the size of the estate shows how wasteful the local authority is: all those empty homes when there are so many homeless in London. It’s barking mad! It was interesting that the few leasehold residents who remain were friendly to us visitors and children were waving at us. It can’t be much fun for them living in basically a wasteland surrounded by empty flats.

Have you ever squatted before?

No. I've rented from a Housing Trust for 23 years so never needed to squat. I know people who did squat in the 80s but most managed to get social housing legitimately as it were. It’s nice to see that the spirit of the 1970s/80s lives on, I admire the collective spirit of squatters.

You told me a story of how you never paid your water bills and were able to fiddle with the leccy. What was that about?

Well, things were different in the 1980s – there was less surveillance for a start. I remember being very put out when someone gave my name to the Water Board as all the time I was a student I didn't pay any bills that came to my flat marked 'Attention Occupier'. I figured (correctly) as long as they didn't know who I was I couldn’t be charged. Electricity bills were never paid until the Red Bill reminder (Payment Overdue) came and I never heard of anyone being cut off for non-payment.

The only thing I was ever taken to court for was non-payment of the Poll Tax but that was a political objection.

As for fiddling meters… I hear some people are clever at these things and I once lived in a house where the meter was set to run backwards every so often – a real cost-cutter! I don't know how to do it myself but believe it involved magnets.

What is your take on squatting?

I have no problem with people trying to save on the rip-off rents and they are generally bringing life to a dead building. Of course, no one wants anti-social neighbours who don’t have a stake in the local community and use the place as a doss-house but that's just as common in council renters as in the squatting community (probably more so).

Do you think squatting needs a better word to encourage more participants?

I'd never thought of it negatively before but can see the PR value of 'liberating' a flat or house. It's simply the truth, anyhow.