Friday, 31 August 2012

Ratepayers Against Bloggers Inciting Democracy (or R.A.B.I.D)

As of midnight tonight squatting will be a criminal offence.

And hurrah to that I say.  At last an end to all those times I’ve been out to get some milk and come back to find an anarchist collective has moved into the flat.

Because that’s the odd thing about this.  It’s an issue that a lot of people are very scared of, but which rarely if ever seems to actually happen.  I mean, how many times has a family returned from holiday to find strangers living in their homes?  I venture to suggest hardly ever.  As it happens the only incident I ever came across was in my legal days when we had a landlord client who took the opportunity of his tenants being on holiday to move another family into the property.  The first family came back from wherever to find their possessions piled up in the hallway.  And you have to admit, that's not quite the same thing.

It is a sure sign of a bad law that it sounds like it’s been drafted in response to a slightly drunk middle aged middle class man in a pub.  You know the ones.  They prop up the bar complaining about things that don’t actually happen. ‘So there was this Muslim bus driver who refused to let a old woman on board because she was wearing a cross’ or ‘some council has banned Christmas because it’ll offend the Hindus’ or ‘And of course all you need to do is walk into the dole office with a slight limp and you’re on disability benefits for life’ and so on and so on.

The last law I can remember being formulated in response to golfclubman (as I like to call him) was the poll tax which was introduced to Parliament in response to a lot of dreary moaning about the rates and so the incompetently unfair poll tax was brought in and, in the fullness of time, destroyed Margaret Thatcher as a political force.

For those of you too young to remember the rates, they were a local tax which was set according to the value of the property.  They had a weird fascination for a certain type of small-minded person who used their status as a payer to somehow suggest that their opinions carried more weight than others.  A local group where I live, the Jesmond Residents Association (whose sole raison d’être as far as I can make out is to ensure that we never again have a chippy in the area) was originally the Jesmond Ratepayers Association.  And the main opposition to the Greenham Common Peace Camp was a group calling itself Ratepayers Against the Greenham Encampment (or R.A.G.E., see what they did there?) thus announcing that their status as payers of a local land tax gave their views greater weight than those of equally effected residents who did not (eg dependents, students, children, the unemployed etc) and while there were issues around Greenham Common* it seems strange that greater weight to the debate should have been given to those who paid the rates.  It’s as if they were still smarting from the removal of the householder qualification from those eligible to vote.

*the most bigoted people it has been my misfortune to meet have been a couple of BNP skinheads I once advised in the police cells and a Greenham Common veteran

Personally, rather than criminalise the squatters, I would increase council powers to claim properties abandoned or forgotten by their owners and put to use as social housing.  But then that would be a step towards the alleviation of poverty and, as the last two governments have made abundantly clear, being poor is a lifestyle choice that should not be encouraged.

And I suppose that putting squatters in prison is one way of solving homelessness.

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