'Get up! Wake up! We share a common plight / Kick back against the system, fight for squatters' rights!' Inner Terrestrials – Squatters' Rights (1996).
It’s cold, bright Friday lunchtime and Kerrang! is waiting outside a three-storey office building just off a busy high street in London. We're meeting Distras – a South African-born punk who has squatted here for the last two years. A double-door swings open and a bloke in a bandana, Cyness band tee and backwards cap shouts us over.
Squatting is a slang term for living in a property without permission from a landlord, tenant or licensee. Many squat out of necessity and homelessness, others for ideological reasons, some for both. The phrase “squatters' rights” is often in reference to Section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, which made it an offence for police to force unauthorised entry into an occupied building, including squats. This was overturned in 2012 and since then it’s been illegal to squat in residential buildings. However, squatting in non-residential buildings – like the one we're visiting today – is currently legal. You can even become the registered owner of property or land if you (or your mates) have squatted consistently for 10 or more years. It is worth noting, though, that police can take action if you damage the property, refuse to leave after being told to by a court, or use electricity or gas without permission
The squat neighbours a nursery and resembles an old council office, the interior is full of graffiti, art, bikes and the random belongings of the 20 people that live there. “This place has been a squat for three or four years. When I first moved in, I was staying in the disabled toilet downstairs”, Distras explains as we wander up the stairwell.
“Someone moved out and offered me this big room. I thought, I have to do something with this space. It’s not like we’re paying a lot of rent or anything!” he laughs, referring to Panic Attack Studios, his bedroom-cum-music studio on the first floor. It’s a punk hideaway complete with instruments, amps and a mattress. “A lot of stuff in here has been skipped [recovered from skips in the area] and then repaired,” he continues, proudly showing off a recycled sound system and high-end video camera.
Vakaris, guitarist in Distras’ hardcore band The Chain Of Panic, is the backbone of the not-for-profit studio. Originally set up to just record their own band, the studio has since hosted other artists including local busker Steve Broe, who had never recorded any of his music despite performing on the streets of London for decades.