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‘Grow Heathrow’ could change housing law

United Kingdom
Human Rights

Grow Heathrow grew out of resistance against airport expansion. Photo: Abby Lanes, under a CC License.

A group of squatters who transformed a strip of disused land in the outer reaches of London into a community garden will today find out whether they are to be evicted, in a case that could carry implications for the thousands of people living in precarious housing in Britain.

Standing on the site of a former market garden in Sipson village, West London, Grow Heathrow was set up three years ago when climate activists and local residents opposed to the planned expansion of nearby Heathrow Airport took over the derelict land and removed 30 tonnes of rubbish.

Where once stood mountains of junk and discarded car parts, there are now refurbished greenhouses teeming with organic produce, a bike workshop, free shop and art space that visitors are invited to get involved with. A homemade wind turbine spins above huts and tents, generating electricity for the group of around 15 occupants who hold a programme of regular events and courses on food growing, metal work and sustainability.

With Sipson lying directly in the path of Heathrow’s proposed third runway, there is broad support among the local community, for which the site acts as a base to organize against the threat of bulldozers. Chillies grown in the gardens go to a local curry restaurant and even the local Member of Parliament is on board. ‘We have a real sense of community here thanks to Grow Heathrow. If they had a legal standing they could do a lot more, such as invite schools down for workshops,’ says Tracey, a youth worker and mum of two who lives in the village.

Not so keen, however, is the landowner, who is taking action to have the members of Grow Heathrow, who are technically trespassers, evicted. The squatters say they tried to negotiate to lease or buy the land but were met with no response, even after a lower court instructed the owner to enter discussions.

Now a judge in the Court of Appeal, England and Wales’ second-highest court of law, will decide whether their argument – which focuses on the right to a home and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights – has merit.

‘At question is whether there should be an assessment of whether the landowner’s move to evict was proportionate, or if other actions should have been considered first,’ says May Mackenzie, a member of Growth Heathrow.

They are appealing as to whether an eviction should have been served immediately by the court, and highlight the impact that the removal of Grow Heathrow could have on the people who consider it home and the local community.

This could fundamentally change housing law: if successful, it could mean that all private landlords would be held to account on this requirement, whereas at present it only applies to public authorities, explains Jayesh Kunwardia, Partner in the Housing team at Hodge Jones & Allen, which is representing them.

At a time of rocketing rents and recession, the squatters’ case draws a link between the staggering number of empty buildings and the acute shortage of housing in Britain; in essence a challenge to laws that prioritise a landlord’s right to leave a property vacant. With 710,000 homes lying empty at last count, this is especially pertinent after it was made a criminal offence to squat residential properties – even if left unoccupied for years – in 2011.

No matter how distant the prospect of a legal victory may be, Grow Heathrow is confident it will be celebrating its third birthday this March, assures Mary Mackenzie: ‘There’s a long time before we will be leaving the land and a lot we can do for the community. The implications of the hearing reach way beyond this site.’

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