Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006

Hackney Electric Scheme(ing)

hack’ney; n., & v.t. make common or trite through repetition.

Squall 6, Spring 1994, pg. 31.

Hackney are continuing their malicious campaign against squatters, carting out all the old myths and creating some new ones of their own. The borough now has its own specialist teams known as the ‘Voids Task Force’ and ‘The Tenancy Audit Team’ who “Prevent people jumping the housing queue through squatting”.

“New procedures were developed and tested” for the preparation of letting empty homes to tenants. Hackney’s new procedures for getting rid of squatters involves illegal evictions and dodgy dealings with London Electricity, who also have a new policy for dealing with squatters (see ‘Re-Fused’ in this issue).

Aside from Hackney's usual ploy of intimidating squatters into moving out and breaking into squats when the occupants are out, the Council have been liaising with London Electricity who are informed of squatters’ addresses, and told that electricity is being stolen. London Electricity representatives, accompanied by bailiffs and Hackney Council, then forcibly remove the squatters. Hackney’s ‘specialist teams’ (read hired heavies) then move in, change the lock and board the property up.

“The main means by which the council intends to improve the use of its housing stock is through a reduction in empty properties,” explains a report from the Housing Department. Hackney currently have a third of its empty homes up for sale or demolition: “The groundwork has been done to ensure substantially less homes stand empty in the future.” It seems as though the groundwork has already been done to ensure there are substantially more homeless people in the borough as well. No new council homes are being built and Hackney still has one of the highest numbers of priority need homeless awaiting housing, how will Hackney meet their statutory duties? Perhaps they will just hang on in there and wait for the Government legislation that promises to remove the statutory duties to house people in priority need, (see 'We Lose' in this issue).

Hackney Council are just as rabid in describing squatters as certain sectors of the Tory press are: “For the most part, squatting in Hackney is not a casual activity. Entry to properties is often gained by relatively sophisticated methods including the use of oxyacetylene welding equipment.”(!) This preposterous suggestion is put in context as one reads further: “They also indicate the extent to which the phenomenon (squatting) is well beyond the experience of most local authorities, and thus not susceptible to being rapidly brought under control through the use of traditional methods.” Ah.... It’s not Hackney being incompetent it’s a new breed of super-sophisticated squatter - call the police, call the army, call Michael Howard!

However, Hackney’s recently ex-Chair of Housing, Linda Hibberd, has said (See 'Nailing It Down' in Squall 4) that present laws are sufficient to deal with squatters. It is as though Hackney’s policy of dealing with squatters and homeless people is just as two-faced and outrageous as the Government’s.

In mid-January SQUALL received reports of the ‘Voids Task Force’ in action. Sixteen squats on the Clapton Park Estate were evicted early one morning. The Task Force came down with London Electricity on the premise of suspicion that squatters were illegally obtaining electricity. Tactics included smashing down front doors and intimidating residents and squatters alike. John Seddons, fieldworker with the Task Force was allegedly found rifling through one squatter’s personal belongings - we hear that a prosecution against Mr Seddons may be forthcoming.

One of the squatters evicted that morning has a history of mental illness and had resorted to squatting as a result of Hackney’s refusal to acknowledge his existence. This squatter was awoken by the sound of his front door being smashed down and London Electricity removing his meter. Apparently, this particular squatter was paying for his electricity but was treated like a criminal anyway.

One tenant on the estate was mistaken for a squatter. The front door of his property had a painted piece of board in place of a piece of glass. The Task Force, presuming it to be a squat, tried to evict the occupant in the same way as the other squatters. Intimidatory tactics were used against the tenant who attempted to convince the Team that he was, in fact, a tenant. Apparently he kept his home by the skin of his teeth and some very fast talking. We hear that there may be prosecutions pending alleging illegal evictions, intimidation and harassment.

Hackney’s ‘selling off’ policy, introduced over the last two years, has reduced the number of properties vacant and available for offer by half to around 250. Meanwhile, Hackney still has thousands of ‘priority’ needs homeless people on its books, housed in depressing B&B or in completely inadequate temporary accommodation. Yet Hackney consider their efforts to be “a major achievement”. In light of the Government’s new proposals to eliminate the rights of priority needs homeless people to permanent homes, Hackney could be well on the way to completely discharging itself of its housing obligations. The problem will become invisible, more people will be forced to sleep rough or stay in intolerable housing conditions but, on paper, Hackney will cease to have a homelessness problem having no statutory duties and no property empty and available for offer.

Finally, Hackney have recently resorted to “disguising” their empty properties: “Curtains are bought from outgoing tenants or installed. An experimental project to fit light timer switches …. has proved successful and is being extended across the borough at present. Discussion with the utilities (in particular Thames Water) are also currently being held to explore the scope for making vacant flats temporarily less inhabitable.”

This is good news for Hackney as it will mean they will no longer have to resort to time-honoured ‘traditional’ methods of pouring cement down toilets and hacksawing through gas and water pipes to render them uninhabitable. Now they can get the water companies to do it for them.