With the imminent criminalisation of squatters comes another imperceptible shift towards a society fundamentally based on the rights of property owners, not on custom or locality.
In some sense the persistence of squatting as a legitimate act was an anachronism. Squatting was possible because it was a civil offence and a matter for the owner and the squatters; the police were not involved because it was not an act which concerned the state. This could reasonably be seen as counter-intuitive; theft of simple possessions is a criminal offence so why not the most expensive possession that people own, the one item that many spend an entire working lifetime paying off: a house? In a society where people routinely refer to houses as ‘properties’, having adopted the language of estate agents wholesale, this argument carries much weight and with many people.
Softened up by an acute and chronic housing shortage, the erosion of the idea of social housing and a sustained boom leading to over-inflation of house prices, this attitude is hardly a surprise. The housing booms led people to see their houses as possessions more than dwellings. The reason the squatters’ rights persisted was because of the unique nature of houses and homes and their vital importance to any society.
Houses cannot be moved around quickly, cannot be taken into the back room of a pub and sold. Squatters could never sell on a house they were squatting, and squatters were usually temporary residents. Unlike other moveable goods houses are important because an occupied house, combined with other occupied houses make localities and communities. People need homes as much as they need company and sustenance. Squatting only ever affected, indeed could only ever affect, unoccupied property. The absentee owner, whether an individual or a business was, by definition, holding the property surplus to their actual requirements. What right do people or companies have to occupy multiple dwellings when there is a desperate shortage of housing; a shortage which is driving up prices and benefitting those self-same property-owners?
So now it is the role of the police to enforce the paper rights of property owners, loosening the social fabric a little further.