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The community face of squatting

The real big society faces a threat from criminalising commercial squatting, reports Ruth Halkon.

In Southwark a white Victorian building stands boarded up and awaiting the bulldozer. Yet a peek through a side door reveals a hive of activity. Some people are preparing food, others sweeping floors, or wiping down picnic benches. The walls are decorated with bright murals, there is a small library, a board advertises events from film screenings to language classes.

This is a squat. Not a squalid hole occupied by layabouts but one of a new breed of community squats that have emerged from the Occupy movement and, ironically, the law criminalising residential squatting passed last September.

"The anti-squatting law has made squatting stronger," says Tom, who prefers not to give his surname. "People are gathering in larger groups to occupy empty commercial buildings, such as this Library Street squat in the former Colorama building, and are opening them up to the community."

Tom, 21, became homeless after losing his job. He moved into Library Street four months ago. "We're open to the public six days a week, we provide meals made from donated food, we interact with local residents who welcome us, we provide a place for kids to come."

In North London is Friern Barnet library, a model the Library Street squatters hope to emulate. In April the library was closed by Conservative Barnet Council, despite public protest. In September, squatters entered the building through an open window and set about reopening it to the public.

With the help of volunteers, local Labour councillors and donated books, the library has been saved from being sold and demolished and is now open full time. After a protracted battle with the council, the volunteers and occupiers are close to saving the building and gaining a lease.

Yet similar projects could be put at risk thanks to an early day motion tabled by Mike Weatherly MP to ban squatting in commercial properties. He claims the new law would discourage those for whom squatting is a lifestyle choice. But for the vast majority of squatters, it is the only thing keeping them off the streets.

According to Shelter, 78,000 households were found to be homeless during 2011/12 while 15% of the UK's commercial property stands empty.

"If the early day motion goes through, you'll have a situation where you have to have money to pay rent and if you don't you'll be arrested," says community campaigner Pete Phoenix. "Instead we should be paying the homeless to renovate empty buildings and use them as homes or community centres."

David Cameron has discussed the need to reinvigorate civil society and solve the housing crisis. It would seem, despite the threats they face, the squatters at Friern Barnet library and Library Street are helping do just that.