Squatting in Britain 1945-1955: Housing, Politics and Direct Action By Don Watson (Merlin Press, £16.99)
BY THE end of the second world war, many British cities had been badly damaged. Aerial bombardment had destroyed over 200,000 houses and soldiers returned home to be confronted with this acute shortage.
The election of a Labour government in 1945 was a clear sign that working people were not prepared to return to the old pre-war system. Sick of slum-landlordism, sublet racketeering — sounds familiar — exorbitant rents and overcrowding, they wanted change.
Don Watson’s book describes how many young couples wishing to start a family, and those already with children, were not prepared to wait for the slowly grinding wheels of government to build the houses they needed.
They took matters into their own hands and in many parts of the country groups of people, often led by local communists, took over old army buildings, derelict houses and even unoccupied luxury flats to set up home.
The last thing those in power want is to see working people taking the initiative to ameliorate their own living conditions. The rash of squatting movements rattled central and local governments whose first action was to try to stop it.
Only when they realised that they couldn’t, did they try and accommodate it as best they could. Government could have continued to use its wartime requisitioning powers to take over empty and unused buildings — shades of the Grenfell disaster — but they were reluctant to do this, not wishing to offend the property-owning class.
Squatting groups demonstrated amazing levels of organisation, efficient administration and solidarity, which made it even more difficult for the state to crush them.
The movement certainly played a significant role in galvanising Westminster into taking urgent action on housing and raised the whole question of the right to decent housing for working people.
The Labour government wanted to avoid handing over building projects to speculative builders as the Tories desired because they would only build for those with money. Labour wanted to give preference to “families in the greatest need, who want houses at reasonable rents.” By 1950, 79 per cent of new housing was owned by local authorities.
Although the squatting movement represented a vital aspect of post-war people’s history it has rarely been taken seriously or dealt with in a comprehensive way by mainstream historians. No doubt the key role played by communists was not exactly conducive to giving it due attention.
But that’s why Don Watson’s excellent book, probably the first comprehensive examination of the squatting phenomenon to be written and based on meticulous and extensive research, is so valuable.
For the first time, we have a proper history of this unique movement.