CHAPTER 7 NEWS – ISSUE 22 – WINTER 2018
BAILIFFS IN BALACLAVAS
Paramilitary eviction squads, High Court injunctions, deportations, torched dwellings – these are the legacy of the 2012 anti-squatting laws, writes TONY GOSLING, reporting from Bristol.
Before dawn on 23 November 2016 around 25 men dressed in black with masked faces, turned up equipped with sledgehammers, crowbars and dogs at a squat in a commercial building in Barton Hill, Bristol. They broke in through a window and two doors and once inside ordered the six petrified Spanish residents to “get on the floor”. Eventually, the squatters were ordered to leave the premises with their hands up in the air. When the police turned up in response to the squatters’ 999 call they spoke to the bailiffs only, before driving off.
This was the first strike by the firm Graham Rose Consultants (GRC) who see themselves as “entrepreneurs” opening up a new market in illegal evictions. They claim to help landowners use so called “Common Law” to evict gypsies and travellers trespassing on open land, and will remove squatters “without the need to go through a lengthy court process.”
Since then GRC have carried out several other evictions by force and without court orders. On 14 February 2017, about ten of their bailiffs arrived with power cutters at 6am at the empty Greencore warehouse in Bristol’s St Philip’s district occupied by two squatters. On 18 May, eight bailiffs broke into the abandoned Bristol Tile Factory warehouse in Fishponds Road to evict half a dozen squatters from a retail unit where local groups have campaigned against a planned McDonalds.
GRC’s business model is to break in to lawfully occupied buildings before the police arrive, hoping that residents will be intimidated out, vigilante style. This is illegal so the raids are organised with military precision since they have to commit the criminal damage and gain entry to the property under cover of darkness and before police arrive. The fact that such a confrontation will, on occasions, turn violent seems to be part of the adrenalin draw for those they employ, who are always dressed in black and wear balaclavas – in the Greencore operation, one wore a skull mask. In the Tile Factory attack, they carried CS spray canisters, side batons and body armour along with the usual sledgehammers.
Squatters have described the GRC masked bailiffs as behaving like riot-trained police officers, down to the barked orders and mannerisms. Many of them have Welsh accents and one has a Welsh red dragon flag sewn onto his black jacket. Squat- ters have not forgotten that it was mostly Welsh police who were brought over to Bristol to kick off Stokes Croft’s so-called “Tesco riots” in April 2011.
The clauses criminalising squatting in residential properties and removing legal aid for the homeless in the 2102 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act are ideal for unscrupulous bailiffs like GRC. This law tends to force squatters into industrial estates away from eyewitnesses, and encourage landlords and bailiffs to carry out criminal evictions in the knowledge that without legal aid, squatters are less likely be able to challenge them through the courts. News of these violent evictions has spread around the Bristol homeless community, discouraging people from squatting commercial properties.
As squatting buildings becomes more difficult, homeless people are resorting to living in tents. There are several encampments tucked away in parks and scraps of wood- land within a mile of Bristol’s city centre. Until now the bailiffs have left them alone, but the tent dwellers face other hazards.
First of these is Bristol Council, which in 2016, under the Labour mayor Marvin Rees, engaged personnel to wait until tent dwellers left their site empty in order to confiscate their tents. Since this was theft, the council was forced to abandon this policy. Instead it applied for an injunction against a “Tent City” of ten residents in Peel Street Park in the Easton area of Bristol, forbidding them to camp on any council-owned parks and derelict spaces. Bristol Housing Action Movement (BHAM) initiated a fundraising campaign and engaged Derek McConnell from South West Law, who managed to get the ban reduced to just that park for only six months. Tent City moved to another site.
Another hazard is the charity St Mungo’s whose outreach team roam the streets engaging and identifying the city’s rough sleepers, ostensibly with a view to getting them one of the rare available beds in a hostel. Identity checks by these “helpers of the homeless” are being handed on to the Home Office eager to deport any migrant with no visible means of support. In May two Polish men living at Tent City were jailed for several months in the former Navy prison at Portland, and one was sent back to Poland. St Mungo’s, some readers may recall, was a partner in Ealing Council’s award-winning “beds in sheds” enforcement campaign, which was specifically designed to “tackle illegal immigrants and illegal employment practices.” (See The Land 19 p 59).
Then one evening in September 2017 the occupants of Tent City left the site to visit a soup kitchen. They returned to find that arsonists had torched many of their tents with all their belongings inside. BHAM again came to the rescue: it found alternative squatted accommodation and organised an appeal for money to replace the burnt possessions. One of the activists told the Bristol Post: “With winter a few months away it is very important that we provide the duty of care that Bristol City Council will not”.
Thanks to Isabel Burnett – who helped research GRC and submitted an article to The Bristol Cable in early summer 2017, which wasn’t published.