2013 has seen continuous attacks on both environmental protest and squatting. We’ve seen an unprecedented crackdown on environmental protest culminating in the arrest of Green MP for Brighton and Hove, Caroline Lucas at an anti-fracking demo in Balcombe. Meanwhile a sustained hate campaign led by the Evening Standard, Daily Mail and Conservative MPs has led to the criminalisation of squatting in residential properties.
Squatters have been painted as the national bogeymen coming to steal your home. But just as the wolves were at the (barricaded) door, communities began to show support for their friendly neighbourhood squatters – and one such example is Grow Heathrow.
Located on the former site of an illegal car breaking yard, Grow Heathrow began not only as a physical barrier to the controversial third runway, but also as an example of how communities can thrive without depending on fossil fuel. Despite widespread support from local residents, police and council members, they have recently lost their appeal against a possession order and face eviction at any time.
I arrived in Sipton on a frosty November morning and made my way to a brightly painted gate just off the main road. A DIY doorbell consisting of an old gas canister and a wooded baton hung to the left with a sign inviting me to ring. A few minutes later the gate opened and I was greeted by the project’s unofficial media officer, Sam Sorrel. He gave me the site tour; from the large vegetable patches, past the DIY cabins and dormitories, through the large greenhouse, where all kinds of fruits and herbs were growing, into the communal kitchen and living area. Everywhere we went, people were busy chopping wood, cleaning, cooking and building.
After meeting some of the residents over a cup of tea, I was invited to sit in on a tutorial of the site’s latest off-grid appliance: a wood-chip water heater. No more than a large plastic container, it had been rigged with piping and stuffed with wood chip and compost so the heat given off from biodegradation was enough to heat the water running through: just enough to wash clothes and dishes. This was just one of Grow Heathrow’s ingenious solutions to an off-grid life, complete with solar-powered shower and bicycle-powered generator, both of which feel almost foreign to modern life; like something from Robinson Crusoe or a Wile E Coyote cartoon.
“Heathrow's sustained 10-year land grab has turned Sipton and its neighbouring villages into ghost towns with few permanent residents"
“It’s pretty amazing to live and be around people that are dedicating their lives to the resistance of the third runway and the criminalisation of squatting,” Sorrel says. “I remember being in GCSE geography and learning about the greenhouse effect, thinking it was a bit rich that we were being taught in a building that ran on fossil fuels and would send us to University to prepare us for careers that rely on fossil fuels.”
In preparation for the construction of the runway, Heathrow has bought up a lot of properties in the area and is leaving them vacant or on short-term leases in anticipation of demolition. This sustained 10-year land grab has turned Sipton and its neighbouring villages into ghost towns with few permanent residents.
“There are only about 80 long-term residents left,” Sorrel explains, "so a lot of the project here is about supporting those residents that have put massive amounts of energy into resisting the construction of a climate-change factory on top of their homes for the last 15 years.”
After a few hours on site, it’s easy to see what attracts people to stay. There’s a real sense of everyone working together to achieve the shared goal of a sustainable life. It’s this sense of community that is most at threat from the third runway.
Christine Taylor has lived in the Sipton area for 60 years; she’s active both in the community and in the fight against the runway. She told me how important Grow Heathrow is to local residents: “It sounds weird because they’re squatters, but the most important thing they’ve brought to the community is a sense of stability. Even now when they could be evicted at any time, they’re saying they’ll support us and that stability is very important.”
“We’re in limbo at the minute. Theoretically bailiffs could show up any day now" – Sam Haardblaster, squatter
Taylor still remembers when the Grow Heathrow site was used as an illegal car breaking yard and red diesel filling station. The site was notorious for anti-social behaviour and a high rate of car crime. After Grow Heathrow took control of the land, crime in the area dramatically reduced and police began to openly support the project. “I don’t know how many squatters can say they’ve got the backing of the local authority and the police,” Taylor laughs.
For local residents, Grow Heathrow has injected some much needed energy into the fight against the planned third runway; “when you’re fighting something for 12 years, sometimes you need to put it on the back-burner," Taylor explains. "You invest a lot of your time and energy into one thing and it takes over everything else. They’ve brought a much-needed physical energy along with their spirit to keep fighting. So when we’re lagging they’re an important motivation for us to keep going. We think if they can keep fighting, even under threat of eviction, then that inspires us to keep going.”
Grow Heathrow are fighting to stay on the land – most recently, the Court of Appeals rejected an appeal against a possession order. Sam Haardblaster, an architect-turned-squatter who is heavily involved in the legal tussle, explains: “It was quite a damning judgement for us because they basically said that we could be evicted at any time. We’re in limbo at the minute. Theoretically bailiffs could show up any day now.”
Haardblaster doesn’t seem as concerned as you might expect, though: “Our lawyers feel that the landowner will be nice enough to tell us once they’ve got a warrant to evict us. At this point it seems they haven’t even applied for one… We’ll continue trying to negotiate with the landowner to buy the land.”
The next step for Grow Heathrow is to take their appeal to the Supreme Court. This will be their last opportunity to turn the tide and retain possession of the land. Until then, its future looks uncertain.
As I took one last look around the site, it occurred to me how sad it would be to lose such a great example of how to live modern life off the grid – a revelation made even more painful from the knowledge that it could be replaced with a runway that will pump millions of tonnes of C02 into our already polluted atmosphere. In the year when the Government reduced green taxes for the big six energy companies and fracking wells are popping up all over the country, it feels like we need projects like Grow Heathrow now, more than ever.