The rise of squatting in Norwich was directly related to the city's policy of slum clearance and regeneration. For more on that see here.
Much of the information on early squatting in Norwich comes from a magazine called "Doris."
Doris was a small paperback magazine which was created in 1974. It took it's name from Doris Road in Norwich. The first magazine which has the Willendorf Woman (or Venus) on its cover has a list of contributors some of which feature elsewhere on the Norch site: the Rev Willis Feast, Robert Short, Tim Sillence, Vic Sage and Ken Rice.
The first article of the first issue of Doris went straight to the subject of squatting in Norwich.
It asks “why squat? Surely rent free inducements don’t compensate for the rather insecure existence the squatter participates in. Well I suppose it might. But part of squatting is protest, a protest against landlords and councils who leave habitable property blatantly empty, nay, even destroy the insides ripping out meters, smashing gas pipes, pouring cement down cisternless loos, breaking up sink units and pulling up the boards which form the floor. This is a society whose every asset should be used to the full, not left to waste. A society of waste, a careless society. Never mind pollution we’re talking of that essential roof over one’s head. We’re talking of families living apart for lack of suitable accommodation of mother and child in soulless mission houses, of people desperate for accommodation who search the press ads and post office hoardings, day in day out, hoping against hope that they’ll get a break. And then the massive Council waiting lists….Houses are left empty for periods of three years or even longer; so the squatter wants to use them.”
“Obviously they’re not all fit houses, but a lot are. And a lot could be maintained up to the point of demolition. The squatter recognises that the Council is concerned to redevelop areas and is quite willing to give up accomodation when the time comes for that redevelopment. But often so many houses are closed down years in advance of a proposal date, and sometimes even the whole plan is scrapped or put back a year or two.”
The article goes on to say why Council properties are favoured with private landlords being more ruthless: “Bailiffs loom on the mental horizon, blood, clubs, broken noses, aggro - the neurosis of the squatter.” Private landlords had no social obligation and there was little publicity or sympathy for evicted squatters.
Some dos and don’ts are discussed - common sense behaviour that will not alienate the neighbours - and then some advice to “take a walk around areas of Norwich (eg the north side of Dereham Rd / Northumberland St area) and look at the number of houses closed down. Go inside and see the beautifully ravaged interiors. These houses are going to be wasted maybe for years. Quite seriously go and look at them. They are mostly perfectly habitable. This is what squatters object to. Wasted good accommodation. So, occupy it, show it to be habitable, move families in, move friends in. Use it.”
Robert Hamblett wrote the following in Doris#2 in April 1974:
"These photos are silent testimony of Council policy. Prior to structural demolition, the innards of a house are ripped out and destroyed, thus incapacitating the building. Prime targets are the wiring and plumbing. In this way, a home can be made uninhabitable in a matter of minutes. It often lies derelict for years. There is a disturbing paradox in the council action. They are supposed to manage the resources under their control to the benefit of the good citizens of this town. But they appear to have decided to destroy desirable property as a managerial expedient to make certain that nobody else will use the resources that they are not subtle enough to utilise themselves. This dog-in-a-manger hostility is exemplified by their habit of descending like the plague whenever they get wind of an imminent SQUAT; ripping out and boarding-up likely dwellings. What makes a supposedly rational corporate body behave in such a self-destructive manner? The answer is not to be found in the prejudices and peculiarities of individual councillors (for Norwich is by no means unique) but lies in the very nature of the corporate organism, which like a dinosaur in pebble glasses can't move quick enough to adapt to the changing times."
"HUFAH (help us find a home) could I suppose be called Norwich Squatters' Association, though we aim wider than the immediate usage of short-term housing, hoping amongst other things to help organise waste land clearance (in demolition areas building sites tend to become the only play area due to the rubbish, glass etc. thrown onto wasteground), an employment agency (in conjunction with Doris), a cheap food shop, and participate in as many community action projects as we can. But our main area of concern is clearly the wastage of so much housing in norwich.
We began with a small meeting - 8 of us attended. Now there are 17 people squatting in Norwich, all of us in the same area at the town end of the Dereham Road. We are squatting in houses, which for one reason or another, are up for demolition. Most, not all, are owned by the council. The others are empty awaiting a council "decision" on their fate. Some have been empty two years or more. Each house is perfectly habitable; the usual connotation of a "squat" with plaster peeling off the walls, line cracked and damp, a paraffin heater and a mattress simply does not apply. These places are homes in the best sense of the word and a blessing to those people with children who would otherwise have faced either a loss of the child to "care" or living with relatives in horribly cramped conditions, or simply pay extortionate rent, even assuming a suitable place can be found.
Discussion is essential, but at the moment those responsible for housing refrain from entering into any. Meanwhile parents and kids live with grandparents and other relatives, single mothers and children exist screaming with once sympathetic parents, nightmare households in Norwich all because there is no housing alternative. We want to offer one, and the houses lie ready. It doesn't take much; and we hope to be able to report soon that we are able to meet the Housing Committee. Norwich has one of the best housing records in the country; let's hope that we maintain that by using this potentially excellent alleviating accommodation, and not destroying it". (HUFAH, 1974)
"We occupied 84 West End Street on the 20th of March, after it had lain vacant for several months. It was in near perfect structural condition, and apart from a few acts of minor vandalism, immediately habitable. Shortly after we had informed the council, we were told that the property was earmarked for rehousing. Casting aside our suspicions that the council were perpetrating an elaborate fraud just to get us out and then board up the outside and wreck the inside (*1). We decided to leave (*2), and expect the Housing Department to act swiftly. We hope it isn't another six months before the facilities at 84 West End Street are back in use. Norwich's housing shortage would be dramatically eased if the authorities were flexible enough to utilise the numerous short term (*3) houses now empty. It is a sad comment on the state of bureaucracy when a Housing Authority with an official record as lauditory as Norwich should baulk at the very immediate solution which HUFAH offers. (HUFAH move groups of families into vacant houses whilst pledging to leave a week before the bulldozers arrive (*4). But the council fears that if it recognises squatting it will have entered an unprecedented and insecure realm. Meanwhile, we leave this beautiful house with its new wiring and spacious rooms, its blossoming pear tree and rhubarb patch in the hands of the council.
Which way will it jump? To do nothing for months would be a damnable dereliction of duty. (We'll keep you informed in our pages.)
*2....There was no obligation to do so.
*3....Short term can mean YEARS. 78 West End St. has been empty or 3 years.
Members of the Housing Committee went on a walk-about "itinerant" survey of redevelopment areas off the Dereham Road to see what houses were worth saving. One would have been impressed if they had actually gone inside and got to know the intimate value of their otherwise merely statistical property. One would have expected a rather more favourable "shopping list" but for the feverish activity of the gutting gangs in the days just before the survey. The left hand of the elected representatives appears to be out of touch with what their right handed minions are up to.
When they do get around to the patch-and-repair job (and the wheels of bureaucracy move stiffly if at all) there are bound to be border-line cases: i.e. houses non-council action could save.
One wouldn't expect the council to condone squatting in its coveted derelict shells but at least it hasn't moved to evict and one applauds their tacit undertaking to rehouse those deserving families now squatting when the bulldozers move in. Meanwhile a loose community of seventy squatters exists off Dereham Road and it looks like a fine summer.
When Pat Hollis from Norwich City Council was asked in Doris #6, published in January 1975, whether she thought squatters intervening in the planning process was a nuisance or a contribution she replied:
"I certainly think it's a nuisance; but a salutary one in many ways. It dramatised the plight of the homeless in a certain theatrical sense, and I think this has pushed us into looking more closely at these properties we had condemned; and as you know we have opened up about 20 of those properties after spending some money on them. Most importantly we now look at every house that falls vacant with a view to spending £50 - £100 to make it habitable on a short-term basis.
Beyond this I must say that there are squatters with whom we have sympathy and whom we feel have a moral authenticity - usually families; and there are other squatters who have attached themselves to the moral vocabulary of squatting (for example single people from outside of Norwich) and, at the expense of local people who now have to wait longer on a housing list, or who see squatters being rehoused from conditions no worse than those they have been experiencing for years. Another objection I have to squatting is that, by definition, squatters tend to descend on communities that are physically and socially vulnerable - and least able to cope with a fairly alien lifestyle.
At Mancroft Street this did not seem to happen, but it certainly did at Belvoir Street. At one time we had half the people in that street to whom we had given improvement grants coming to us and saying: "Please knock my house down and rehouse me; I want to get out". The prospect of making another slum clearance area because of the atmosphere created by squatting was a very real, and not a very nice, possibility. Ironically what happened in the end was that the Belvoir Street Community became that much stronger and healthier, but that could not have been predicted in the beginning. And it also meant that we had to take action against the squatters which we didn't like doing."