Tuesday, 15 January 2013

We can all learn from the Friern Barnet Library Occupation

Last year I produced a film called "Barnet - The Billion Pound Gamble". When we were working out the narrative, back in July, Charles Honderick (The Director) and myself decided to feature the closure of Friern Barnet library. We went and shot footage of the closed building and interviewed people associated with the campaign to reopen it. Shortly before the filming was finished, the Occupy movement reopened the library. At first it was unclear what this meant. On hearing of the occupation, Charles and myself immediately drove to the library to interview the new occupants. The person we spoke to (who I've not seen to since) didn't really say anything other than that there were a few quatters from Camden Town in the library. My first reaction was horror. I wanted the building as a library, not a squat . I must emphasise that this wasn't because I think squatters should be on the street, but I thought this meant it would be even harder for the campaign to reclaim the library (I volunteer for a  homeless shelter so I know all about the issue). A helpful security guard told me that they had broken in and disabled the alarm.

I thiought Barnet would use this as an excuse to flog off the building or even worse, knock it down. Within a matter of hours, I realised I could not be more wrong. Whatever happens to the library (and it looks very likely that it will remain a library), the story has been one of the most positive and uplifting episodes of my life. The library has been transformed into a vibrant hub of the community, far more loved than even the old regime. I have always been an advocate of direct action. That was why we opened the original pop up library on the lawn outside. I am proud that in some small way, this poured fuel into the tank of the campaign, and the idea started on this blog.

What I have realised is that Occupy have a lot to teach us. They use direct, non violent action and they facilitate community action against bad governance. During the St Pauls occupation, I was doing some IT consultancy for an American Merchant bank. It is fair to say not many of my friends at the organisation were open to the message of the occupy movement. I would often nip up at lunchtime and have a look around. I was intrigued, but I didn't "get it" I had no doubt that the protest would not spell the end of capitalism. I wasn't sure what the camp achieved. What I have learned since, has been a revealation. The camp acted as a focal point for people who cared that society was going down a dead end. It is all very well to worship cash, but there has to be a human element in all this. If we elevate cash above our community, society will fail  and we'll all end up living in bunkers behind security systems. Whatever the Library campaign could have achieved has been magnified a million times by the occupation. Do I now agree with all of the stated aims and goals of Occupy? Nope. I do however respect them and believe that anyone who dismisses them without intellectual debate and consideration is a fool. I have had many interesting conversations with members of Occupy. I have learned a hell of a lot in the process. On some issues, I've modified my viewpoint. As I've never been anything other than left leaning in my politics and a firm believer in the values of a caring society, I have not had a Damascan conversion, I have just thought more deeply about issues I'd previously not considered.

Perhaps the biggest issue is the issue of squatting. If you had asked me eighteen months ago, I would have said the law needed changing to make it easier for home owners to get possession of squatted homes. This would have been an opinion born of ignorance. Of course no one should come home to find someone else has taken over their house. The thing was the law already stopped this. What Mike Freers anti squatting law has done is turn thousands of people onto the street, allowing homes to lie empty whilst people freeze. That cannot be right. If Mike Freer cared, he'd have changed the law so that Landlords who were just sitting on empty property would be compelled to sell the land. How long should a property be allowed to sit empty? I have a confession to make here. When my mother died, her home sat empty for 2 1/2 years (bar a couple of short periods where family members stayed). In this case, it was because her will left her estate to charity and there were legal considerations and complications regarding the sale. Clearly when such a  process occurs, the law needs to take this into account. The problem in this particular case was that no one knew when the issues would be resolved and any tenant would have complicated the sale. The other side of the coin is that people were sleeping rough in Barnet whilst her flat sat empty. This is also wrong. I would like to see  local authorities be able to take such properties on a temporary possession until issues are resolved. They would undertake to return the property to it's original condition on vacation. The minimum term would be one month, with one months notice. I would suggest that the council should be able to serve an order after six months. They would pay a commercial rent to the owner. If the property needs work to make it habitable, this should be charged to the owner. This could be paid on sale of the property.

Obviously if a property is undergoing renovation, the rules could be waived. I believe that this would focus the minds of landlords and owners and help may people find a roof over their head. Of course such a change would need much serious consideration. It may be charities are a better tenant than a local authority. Whilst I am sure many of my Tory friends will point to a million flaws in my scheme, ultimately we have a rich country with homes sitting empty. If you want to post a criticism, don't bother unless you can post a solution to the issue of homelessness. I believe that the rights of the homeless take precidence over the rights of wealthy individuals to do what the hell they like.

1 comment:

button55 said...

Yeah,stop being so frightfully British and do some action,!!