Home | SchNEWS Round 1996 | Squatters Estate Agency

Justice? Brighton's Campaign in Defiance of the Criminal Injustice Act



It's February 26th (1996) and Shelter have just announced "National Homelessness Week" - where you can wear a badge or send a postcard - all to aid the homeless. Realising that throw-away campaigns like this don't help, and fed up with the fact that despite a huge homelessness problem squatters in Brighton are being seriously harassed, Justice? reveal plans to open a Squatters Estate Agency. A place to drop in, have a cup of tea and find a home. A place where you can go for squatting advice and subversive literature. With pictures of empty properties in the window complete with handy hints: "Three bedrooms, nice garden, window open at rear."

Justice? weren't new to Squatting. Most people in Brighton could remember "The Courthouse", our most famous and long-lived home (still boarded up and derelict). But we'd also had short spells in an old jeans shop, the Council's old housing advice centre, and a bingo hall. In all these places lists of empty properties were available (the SchLETS), along with practical advice for would be D.I.Y. Homeowners.

And so it came to pass... The Estate Agency was planned, plotted and schemed - a few faxes sent off to local TV, newspapers and radio. BOOM! All hell breaks loose, and suddenly the whole idea becomes a media monster. Radio 1, 2, 3, 4. The Mail, Independent, Telegraph, Newsnight, Meridian, Central - all jockey for a position on the story. It goes international as media from Canada, Australia, Russia, Germany, Belgium and the USA cover the story.

Local politicians weren't so keen, as Tories and New Labour queued up to slag off the idea that people were actually getting off their knees and doing something practical about homelessness. Tory MP Sir Derek Spencer said "We need this in Brighton like a hole in the head." This was swiftly dealt with by a Justice? spokesperson countering with "Brighton needs Sir Derek Spencer like a hole in the head."

New Labour's Brighton Council leader Steve Bassam (himself an ex-squatter) showed his true colours by stating that there was no need for such action, and that there was "adequate legislation" to deal with homelessness!



Originally there were plans to have the agency at an established squat that was facing eviction the same week. A couple of phone calls were made to the County Council and it looked like the building was secured for a time by trying to apply through the housing co-op mechanism. This got trashed however when the BBC found out the location and filmed through the windows, broadcasting the same day. After an interview with the Big Breakfast, bailiffs turned up and the verbal agreement with the Council was suddenly null and void. Eight people were made homeless. Cheers. Enter Operation Argus: a meeting was held and a hand-picked team of crack Direct Action commandos swung into action. A building cracked and secured under the very noses of a CCTV camera.

The press were still relentless, as what most thought of as a prank had become real. The opening day was incredible. There was more media than punters. The interviews didn't seem to stop all day, and all but the most hardened media gateaux got a bit sick of mikes and cameras. A mock ceremony in front of the Agency was staged, a couple of custard pies were stuck into a certain face and the ribbon was cut. We were open.


It came as no surprise when we got our court date to be evicted. An Eviction Notice was served on the Estate Agents within hours of opening. Christine Simpson, the chair of the Housing Committee said that we were causing harm by offering people temporary, unstable accommodation (so they would have been better off sleeping rough waiting to be housed by the Council then?) She had promised in a public meeting a few months earlier not to evict anyone unless they were causing a nuisance or the building was needed for something. Strange how quickly things can change.

Brighton Council had managed to fly the eviction through the courts in less than 24 hours. Amazing what they can do when they try. But really it didn't matter, we were cramming a hell of a lot into that short time. The Advisory Service for Squatters came down and did a talk on the new squatting laws, a SchLIVE was performed, and the regular Justice? meeting was held there.

A BBC film crew doing a documentary on the DiY culture in Brighton decided to do a little experiment and invite some people with differing opinions than us for a civilised debate on the issues. They didn't tell us that the people they invited were some of the most bigoted individuals we had ever met, who refused to even sit down and chat with us, but instead wandered around aggressively demanding where we were from and why didn't we go back there. Apparently we had no right to complain about homelessness if we weren't born and bred in Brighton, and we were encouraging homeless people to move down here!

Cheap food and tea were constantly on the go and the writing of the SchNEWS transferred to the Agency with a wicked attack on the local rag. The Evening Argus ran a whole series of articles attempting to blame the Agency for any break-ins in the whole country. Or so it seemed. It was therefore decided that it was time for our love-hate relationship with the Argus to end. All Argus journalists were banned from the Estate Agents, and Justice? refused to talk to them. Oh what joy to escort one of the journalists off the premises as they pleaded to be let in, saying that we needed them to cover our story, or we would get no publicity Yeah, right. With 3 journalists from national papers, and 2 film crews inside that argument didn't hold much water.

And so a new sign above the front door was erected - "No police, bailiffs or Argus reporters".


The syndrome known as activist burn-out had hit everyone by then. Fuelled by the media, the Agency had much longer opening hours than we had planned for, and the threat of the bailiffs meant that many of us were up each day at 6am waiting in case they arrived (lazy dole scroungers, eh?) Early Friday they came. About 6 or 7 bored looking bailiffs, a policeman acting as an observer and a very worried looking council official turned up at ridiculous o' clock. Inside both doors had been sealed and barricaded. About 20 of us were there when the bailiffs piled in. They concentrated mostly on the main entrance door, wedging in chocks to prise it open. But fast as the chocks were put in they were knocked out again. A couple of buckets of water from the upstairs window gave them much pause for thought (local Tories later said that it was full of urine and excrement - well okay we may drink a lot of cider, but even we couldn't fill that much.)

The cameras rolled. The journalists scribbled. They tried a new approach. The plan was to actually remove the door itself, and this nearly worked. For a time it was a battle for the door as it swung inside and out. Everyone started shouting "give us our door hack!" and for some reason, they did! Perhaps they were knackered, or more likely the build-up of shoppers had increased - and the Council don't usually like to be seen doing such things in public. Whatever, they disappeared. Once again it proved that defiance works. We knew they'd be coming back but the fact that we'd antagonised Brighton bailiffs to the extent that they'd had to earn their money for a change, and they went off with their tails between their legs was a top feeling.


The Squatters Estate Agency remained active until Tuesday morning, ten days after it had opened. The previous night it was decided to leave whilst we were ahead. We tidied up, recycled the empties and left via the upstairs window. Downstairs a formidable barricade was left at the front door. The bailiffs turned up at 8 in the evening, and smashed their way in to be confronted with an empty shop devoid of people.


One of the more touching moments happened when a man walked in saying his friend had just died and did we want to let his house, as it was empty. At the same time a young couple walked in with a child saying they were homeless. We introduced them to each other, and off they went to sort it out. A lot of people found homes or at the very least somewhere to crash.

To be truthful, we did make a couple of honest mistakes, as two properties were advertised that were inhabited. This gives some indication of the state of some of the properties in the town - one was awful; an old couple living in squalor upstairs in a boarded-up shop. As soon as we found out our mistakes the properties were immediately removed from the list, and we took the owners a hunch of flowers.

What had started out as a small Brighton protest had stretched around the country and across the seas.

Rather than being manipulated by the media, we had set our agenda, and got the message across that homelessness was a major problem, and that despite the Criminal Justice Act, squatting was still legal in England and Wales, and a practical solution to sleeping rough.

The fact that so many supported and helped us dispelled the tidal wave of misinformation and myths about squatters ten-fold.

Most importantly we showed that homeless people no longer have to see themselves as passive victims waiting for patronising handouts from the state, but can get out there, and find themselves somewhere to live, instead of rotting on some Council waiting list.


For more details on squatting, contact the Advisory Service for Squatters at 2 St. Paul's Rd. London N1 Tel. 0171 359 8814



SchNEWS, PO Box 2600, Brighton, BN2 0EF, England
Phone/Fax: +44 (0)1273 685913
email: schnews@brighton.co.uk

@nti copyright - information for action - copy and distribute!