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SQUATTERS ARE BACK

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After two decades of decline, the number of people living in squats in England and Wales has risen by 60% to 15,000...
After two decades of decline, the number of people living in squats in England and Wales has risen by 60% to 15,000 since 1995, according to the voluntary Advisory Service for Squatters, reported The Independent on Sunday (p8).

But there is a marked difference between these squatters and their 1970s forbears. A generation ago, squatting was more about political comment and social credibilty than financial necessity or the concerns of the local community. At its height in the 1970s, the total number of squatters was estimated at over 50,000.

Today's generation of squatters seem less politicised, with the recent increase in numbers driven more by exorbitant house prices than social concerns. The growth has been particularly pronounced in large commercial properties, such as disused factories, offices and cinemas.

Jim Paton, a spokesman for the advisory service, said the growth in squatting showed no sign of relenting. 'In the last 18 months we have been busier than ever. People appear to be getting evicted from their homes much more frequently and turning to squatting'.

Squatting was dealt a heavy blow by the Criminal Justice Act 1994, with the introduction of anti-squatting laws by the then home secretary, Michael Howard, who said:'There can be no excuse for seizing someone else's property for however short a time'. But squatters are now returning in droves, undeterred by the legislation and spurred by romantic notions of communal living on the cheap.

Eighty percent of squatters live in London and they bear little resemblance to the public conception of their lifestyle. 'Today's average squatters are highly organised and efficient', said Mr Paton. 'Many have full-time work, and drug problems are rare'.

At a large squat in Leytonstone, east London, last week the mood was upbeat and cheerful. The 16 occupants who moved in just over a year ago have transformed an old warehouse near the M1 into a clean, attractive home. The newly whitewashed rooms now display lively paintings and sculptures , the garden is now a carefully cultivate oasis of greenery and there is a recording studio and cinema.

Doug King-Smith, a 26-year-old anthropologist and 'art activist', explained the lifestyle. 'We're socially conscious squatters. We aim to transform empty derelict spaces into vibrant community resources, offering workshops and studio space as well as living areas'.

Another resident, Gregory Scott-Gurner, 28, said: 'We are not striving to always work against the system. We are a fundamental part of this community'.

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