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A rewarding occupation - Times Online

02/08/2009 10:38

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August 2, 2009

A rewarding occupation Eco groups say they’re ‘recycling’ empty buildings to save the planet, but is it a ruse to avoid rent?

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Eco Village squat next to Kew Bridge on a piece of land which has been unoccupied for about 20 years Lucie Greene RECOMMEND?

It is a scorching sunny afternoon in a disused field on the corner of Kew Bridge, in west London. Butterflies flit from plant to plant while the warm breeze caresses the trees. A young woman in a pretty floral-print top and baggy trousers sits meditating; another, in vest and baggy combat trousers, digs through raised flower and vegetable beds. Men work on wooden yurts, while welldressed, well-meaning members of the local community pop in to donate seeds, topsoil and firewood. Throw wind chimes and frothy lattes into the picture and it is not a million miles from a home counties garden centre. Except that it is, in fact, a squat. Welcome to a new wave of recycling — squatting with a purpose. Examples are springing up around the country, as squatters rescue vacant buildings and wasteland with a view to creating ecologically sustainable communities. Take the Spike, in Peckham, once owned by Transport for London. The building was transformed by ecowarriors and artists from a crack den into a community centre, with a wellbeing clinic and yoga classes. (They were evicted in February after seven years’ residence.) These squatters are sophisticated: a mix of dreadlocked stereotypes, young professionals and graduate activists. Sites are researched via tip-offs and Google Earth. The residents know their rights (in part thanks to organisations such as, and the fanzine Squatters Handbook) and are skilled in self-promotion. They use Twitter, Facebook and Gumtree to raise funds, recruit and advertise their cause. The number of eco-squats, or ecovillages, in Britain is rising. In April, squatters took over a disused farm near Guildford, Surrey, intending to create a sustainable community farm. Earlier in the year, the same group, part of the Circle Community, took over Raven’s Ait, a small island on the Thames, near Surbiton. They have since been evicted from both sites. Since 80 squatters took over the Kew Bridge site in June this year — there are now 15 full-time residents — they have built a compost loo and entertainment spaces, and created raised vegetable patches. Members live on home-grown produce or food found on “skip runs” (visits to supermarkets at night, to



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A rewarding occupation - Times Online

food found on “skip runs” (visits to supermarkets at night, to collect food past its sell-by date that has been thrown out). They cook with a rocket stove designed to use less fuel than ordinary ovens. “We banned sound systems, drink and drugs — they alienate people,” says Gareth Newnham, On the case of absentee 30, a graduate and tent resident landlords at the Kew Bridge site. “We’re Government's green homes trying to create a showcase for pledge in peril sustainable living. Anyone can squat. You just put a Section 6 notice [Criminal Law Act 1977, protecting the rights of property occupiers] on the door. We’re trying to get away from the usual image and work with the community.” The eco-village is open to the public. The group hosts regular Thursday meetings, open to all, and plans a series of summer workshops for local children.

02/08/2009 10:39 continues with Southfields



Unsurprisingly, St George, the housebuilder that owns the site, takes a rather dim view of the mushrooming of tents on its land, but it has received little sympathy from local people, who weren’t overly enamoured about the developer’s proposed blocks of flats. “We’re not trying to stop them building,” Newnham says. “We just want to use it while it’s vacant.” Squatting is set to grow during the economic crisis, as more businesses go bust and more homes are repossessed. The Empty Homes Agency estimates that there are more than 940,000 empty homes in the UK. As a housing crisis takes hold, pressure is mounting for local governments to seek better uses for such properties. Are eco-squats the answer? “I think the Kew Bridge one is a great use of the land while it is vacant,” says Andrew Dakers, Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Brentford and Isleworth, the constituency where the site is located. “It’s an interactive demonstration of low-impact living.” Parts of the Kew Bridge site have been disused for 20 years, while the front section has been left for six. St George bought the site in 2003 and has yet to build there. “The housing crisis is a real problem,” Dakers says. “In Hounslow alone there are 10,000 people on the housing list, with only 700 properties coming up. There should certainly be a discussion. ” Other eco-squats have been more controversial. At Raven’s Ait, where squatters were forcibly removed in May, local newspapers reported that the community used more than 30,000kW of electricity while in control of the island — the same power as 45 average homes would use in the same time. The squatters deny this, blaming the former occupiers, who, they claim, left appliances switched on when they left. The group took over the island, formerly a centre for conferences and weddings, in March, planting gardens and inviting locals across for picnics and children’s workshops, with long-term plans to build an eco-conference facility. As at Kew Bridge, they had drink and drugs bans on the site. The group is now campaigning to reclaim the island, arguing that it is common land, so not Kingston borough council’s to lease or sell.

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“You only have to look at the state of the island after they left. It was a shambles,” says Derek Osbourne, leader of the council. “They said they were drink-and drug-free, but we found bottles and cans everywhere. They’ve put a lot of false historical information about the island on their websites. In my view, their eco-conscious claims are a cover. That’s not to say they’re not interested in the environment, but to say that this was the primary purpose of them being there is simply not true. They want to live for free.” Squatting is under the spotlight at the moment. Last January, squatters took over two £20m Mayfair properties, while the MPs Ann and Alan Keen last month launched legal action against squatters in their constituency home in Brentford. Many of these squats have been engineered by the Circle Community, a group of self-styled “positive squatters” who say they work with owners and landlords. “We offer security,” says Peter Phoenix, a representative of the group. “We keep the buildings clean.” Again, others are unconvinced. “Professional squatters scare landlords with the costs of eviction and security to make them seem like a good option,” Osbourne says.

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A rewarding occupation - Times Online

02/08/2009 10:39

He also casts doubt over whether these eco-squats can have any genuine ecological impact: “These groups aren’t radical any more. The environmental movement has moved from being marginal to mainstream. It’s great to encourage people to change their lifestyles, but it’s not about new-age travelling and it’s not about squatting.”

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Phoenix disagrees, defending the group’s tactics. “We see it as recycling empty buildings. You do it with glass and plastic, so why shouldn’t we do it with property? Direct action is a long and honorable tradition. They may disagree with our methods, but when they look back, they will see we were right. Its like Ghandi and civil rights.”

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A Rewarding Occupation  

Eco groups say they're 'recycling' empty buildings to save the planet, but is it a ruse to avoid rent?

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